The Brenizer Method Explained With Directions

Wedding photographer extraordinaire Ryan Brenizer invented this really cool technique while on his honeymoon which is dubbed “The Brenizer Method”. For those who may or may not have heard of it and are not sure of what this technique is exactly, it’s essentially using a telephoto lens to create a very shallow depth of field as if shot with a wider angle lens. This technique makes a dSLR image look like it was shot by medium format.

Despite the directions Ryan posted here, followed by a very informative Facebook video and here’s a behind-the-scenes video also, there is still confusion amongst some people of how to do it and what you are achieving. Well, done correctly, you get this (photo copyrighted by Ryan Brenizer):

This is a result that can’t be achieved with a wide angle lens no matter how fast of an aperture. You can see more of the Brenizer Method here and by others on Flickr here.

So what is The Brenizer Method?

Essentially it is the same concept used by landscape photographers known as panorama stitching except instead of stitching a bunch of horizontal shots together to form a wide image, the images are horizontally and vertically stitched to create a wide and tall image not unlike a square. And because you are stitching together many files, you are creating a very high resolution image that can hold up to very large print sizes without loss in quality. By shooting at a very shallow depth-of-field (DOF) and then stitching the shots together, you’re exaggerating the shallow DOF.

In the image above, created from 47 images, Ryan used a Nikon AF 85mm f/1.4D shot at f/1.4. If you were to take the same image with the same 85mm at the distance he was standing, you would probably only get a half body shot of the couple with a background that looks like a wash of colors; which is fine if that is the look you are trying to achieve. If you stood back far enough to get the same framing as the image above, the people would appear very small in relation to their environment thus losing the intimate feel of the image above. That is one of the major drawbacks of a telephoto lens have more of a voyeuristic feel. That is one of the primary reasons photojournalists use a wide angle, to capture a sense of intimacy. If you used a wide angle lens to capture the same framing, you would achieve the intimacy, but lose the focus on the couple as the background would not exhibit the same bokeh as telephoto lens can.

Here is a sample of a shot I did. One shot, taken with the 85mm at f/1.2:

Bui Photography Brenzier Method Sample Photo with Canon EF 85mm  f/1.2L II USM

It’s a nice shot, but a bit distant and detached. But what if we used the Brenzier Method? Here’s another sample picture with the same pose and distance with the same lens at the same aperture, but with 50 images stitched together:

Bui Photography Brenzier Method Sample Photo with Canon EF 85mm  f/1.2L II USm

My Experience and How I Do It

In my experience, the results are best achieved by using a medium-telephoto lens (i.e. 85mm) with a very large aperture (i.e. f/1.4 or larger), of course that doesn’t mean you can’t use a wide angle (i.e. 16-35mm) or a zoom telephoto (i.e. 70-200mm) with an aperture of f/2.8. When I use The Brenizer Method, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is what I reach for. You also have to use the lens at the widest aperture as you are trying to take full advantage of shallow DOF, so I would have my aperture set to f/1.2 or f/1.4. Bare in mind, that your results may vary depending on whether you use a full-frame or a crop factor sensor.

Before getting started, there are some important things to remember that Ryan points out in his Facebook video for the Brenizer Method:

  • You must separate auto-focusing from your shutter button so that when pressed it is only locking exposure. The auto-focusing is then delegated to another button, usually the * button on the back of the camera. With newer bodies, they have a dedicated AF-On button that you can use. Nikon users will find they have a AE-L/AF-L (auto-exposure lock/auto-focus lock) button which you should use.
  • You must set a white balance. If you don’t, you’ll have a lot of pictures with varying white balances which will make the final image not look right. You can either do a custom white balance of the scene (easy, quick, and accurate), shoot in RAW & fix it later (a pain in the ass), or select a preset white balance (easy and quick, but not always accurate).
  • It does not matter if you shoot in RAW or JPEG, just keep in mind that if you shoot in RAW, it just means more processing time and larger files to deal with. I generally shoot in JPEG cause there is no major added advantage to shooting RAW for this technique.
  • If you choose to shoot JPEG, make sure you set the quality of your JPEG to the smallest setting. You’re not taking a single picture, but rather 20 or more and stitching them together so you don’t need to worry about quality on each of the shot as the final output will be a very high quality image. You could shoot at Large, but keep in mind that will exponentially increase processing time.

The steps to doing The Brenizer Method is rather simple once you get the hang of it, but it takes a bit of practice. This is what I commonly do, but YMMV:

  1. I determine the background I want to use and how I want to pose my subject. I make sure that my subject(s) are in a comfortable pose that they can hold for at least 30-seconds without moving; quite important as you do not want motion blur in your shot.
  2. I start by taking a reference shot to get an idea of how the shot roughly looks. This also lets me know if I need to stand back more or not by visualizing how much I want of the background.
  3. Right before I begin getting my shots, I generally take a random shot of something like the ground, my shoe, or anything just so you know where the beginning of your stitching images should take place. You’ll find this is very helpful when you extract your images. After I’m done, I usually take another one of these shots so I know where it stops.
  4. I then set my focus to the eyes (since I want the eyes in focus, you can set your focus to anything else), auto focus and begin snapping pictures of the entire subject(s) first making sure I get a lot of overlap. It is very important that you do not move where you are at or you will shift focus. It is also very important that you do not refocus as the focus is set to be on the eyes. After I’ve taken a number of overlapping pics of the subject(s), I begin getting shots of the background. Why we do the subject first is to ensure that we don’t get any motion blur as it can be difficult for the subject to hold the pose for too long. I’ve included a sample pic so you can get the idea:brenzier-method-overlay-sample-bui-photography

    The arrows are just for directional purposes. You’ll notice that I did not include any indication of when to take a shot because that is a personal preference, but you should overlap a lot and it’s always better to take more images than less. Hopefully the picture will give you a very good idea of how I do it.

  5. After I get back to the office, I extract all my images, except the ones for stitching, into Lightroom2. Rather, I download the images for stitching to my desktop into a folder I create to easy organize all the images.
  6. I then launch Adobe Photoshop CS3, I go to File > Automate > Photomerge…
  7. A new window should open, under Layout: Auto, Source Files Use: Files and make sure Blend images together is checked.
  8. Click Browse and select the first 25% of the images you took, select Open, and click OK. A mew window will open and start the merging process.
    • Note: you can try and select all the images, but unless you have a super powerful computer, Adobe Photoshop will crash. I’ve had this happen multiple times and finally figured out that if I split up the merges, it works quicker and without crashes.
    • You should try not to do anything else on the computer while the merging is taking place or it can crash the merge or you’ll find your computer running extremely slow.
  9. Once the merge completes, you should see a somewhat incomplete shot (that’s normal because you are only merging 25% of the total images at a time), save it as a PSD file and close it.brenzier-method-incomplete-sample-bui-photography
  10. Repeat Step 8 & 9 until all the images are complete and you have four PSD files (you might have more or less depending on how many batch of images you are merging at a time).
  11. Repeat Step 6 & 7, and click on Browse and select only the PSD files and click OK.
  12. Once that finishes, you should have a complete looking image. Crop as necessary and make any exposure corrections as needed.brenzier-method-complete-sample-bui-photography

So the final image size is quite large and capable of being cropped very liberally. Good luck and happy shooting!

2009-11-28 UPDATE: Here’s another really good tutorial by daifuku on how to do the Brenizer Method.

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