The Fundamentals of Focusing Techniques
Photo Tip for October 2011
Selective Focusing Example
by Doreen Erhardt©
There are a variety of focusing techniques that professional photographers use to create stunning images. It may be the most important feature in any given photograph, with beautiful lighting being a close second. There are terms which are applied to many of these methods, but unless you truly understand the fundamental guidelines behind each of these skills, you will not achieve successful results and your images may be considered blurry rather than pleasing.
In this article we'll discuss when and how to apply Focusing Effects to create images like the professionals. A blurry photograph does not give a dreamy or soft focus effect. Though it may not be obvious to the amateur eye the difference between an out-of-focus photograph vs. a photograph where a skilled focusing effect has been properly applied; it is very noticeable to the trained eye and most often even to the eye of the average viewer even though they can only describe it as blurry. This is something the amateur really needs to focus on . . . pun intended!
Let's begin with the terms for these techniques with some descriptions and examples of these focusing methods.
The Dreamy Effect
Beautiful example of the Dreamy Effect
Photo courtesy of PhotoshopTutorials.com
The photographs you see with a Dreamy Effect are created using a variety of techniques, none of which are manipulating your focus; intentionally or unintentionally. A dreamy effect is created on-camera using either a soft focus filter or something in front of the lens such as pantyhose or Vaseline, in combination with (usually natural) lighting. More commonly created today using post-processing techniques in some combination to create a dreamy glow that is soft but not blurry.
Lovely example of Soft Focus
Photo courtesy of Wallcoo.net
Soft Focus is not a term used in conjunction with Depth of Field as they are not related. A soft focus image is a sharp image with an ethereal haze effect applied. This is an on-camera filtering technique and/or post-processing technique to soften harsh elements in the photograph, such as; wrinkles and smoothing out skin. This effect is commonly used on portraits of women, for weddings and for romantic images.
An out of focus photograph or a photograph with blurry primary elements is not a successful example of applying creative focusing techniques, it's just a blurry photograph.
Excellent example of proper Bokeh effect in a photograph
Photo courtesy of © Silvia Lorenzo
The Bokeh effect in photography is Japanese in origin and refers to a blur or blurry quality to a PORTION of the photograph. Soft focus and Bokeh have fundamental differences. In a photograph with soft focus there is an intentional blurriness added to the subject while the edges of the subject retain their sharp focus. In Bokeh, it is only an element of an image intentionally blurred for the specific effect of emphasizing certain points of light.
Outstanding Macro Example
Photo courtesy of Photography TK Designs©
A quick side note on Macro photography because it is a world of it's own. First let me explain that Macro Photography is not close-up photography. There is typically a one to one ratio between the size of the subject and the size on the image sensor in Macro Photography, this is not the case with close-up photography which can be achieved with any lens.
Macro lens have a very shallow DOF so they utilize selective focus to keep the subject sharp while letting everything else blur. This is the one exception to the basic focusing rules, HOWEVER, the result still needs to make sense to the viewing audience. The small area of focus range in a Macro shot MUST BE in the right place or the photograph is considered blurry and unappealing.
Selective Focus Example
Photograph © John Baker Photographer
Selective Focus is the process of focusing on one element within the scene to create emphasis on that element. This can not be done with a camera setting of Auto, you accomplish this by running the camera manually to achieve a wide aperture and obtain a shallow depth of field. Today's Digital SLR cameras all have focusing points which can be used in conjunction with Depth of Field control to carefully select the area(s) where sharp focus is needed.
As in ALL good photographic shots, you first need to know the message you are trying to portray to determine which elements in your shot are PRIMARY focal points, which are secondary and which can or should fade completely into the background. Your primary subject needs to have absolute sharp focus in all the right places. Your secondary elements can have soft focus where the DOF starts to drop off, and your non-essential elements can be out of focus.
Below is a great example: There is a chocolate kiss in the front with sharp focus, i.e., the Primary Focal Point. Just behind that other candies begin to drop out of focusing range; the secondary focal points which help tell the story of where the kiss came from, with the remaining elements falling completely out of focus. Now for commercial sales, the background really should be cleaned up in this photograph to remove the distraction of the doorjamb, but otherwise this is a well-focused photograph.
So What's a Primary Focal Point?
In portrait shots of people, it is critical to have the eyes, face and hair that surrounds the face in sharp focus. Depending on the mood of the message, the rest of the person can fall into the secondary focus category allowing DOF to drop away. If the story you are trying to tell in a photograph is of a person holding something, then the primary focus point needs to include head to waist in include what they're holding with focus not dropping off until waist level and/or behind the head.
When photographing animals; in a head to mid-section shot, the eyes, nose and ears must be in focus with the DOF falling off behind the head and/or below the chest. In a full body shot of an animal, the focus needs to be from head to toe if they are engaged with their environment.
You can focus on one petal of a flower and have all others fall out of focus, but the human eye does not accept that as appealing if that single focal point is the petal which seems to be the furthest away from the image foreground. If you shoot a flower at an angle where the center of the flower is of particular interest and that center falls out of focus, this too is usually not considered pleasing. If you photograph a lily or tulip straight on for example, as long as the center of the flower is sharply focused, the petals can fall out of focus and create a pleasing effect.
Are you beginning to see that the elements which require sharp focus are critical to your overall composition? You can have a perfect specimen of a flower (free of bugs, dying petals, etc.), beautiful lighting, stunning composition and if you ignore the vital decision to choose the right focusing technique to support all that perfection; you will have ruined your composition.
Though it is true that selective focus is used to emphasize the subject thus throwing much of the rest of the photograph out of focus, there are some things to consider when trying to pull off the effect.
Do not think that using this focusing technique is a way to 'remove' distracting elements . . . it is not, especially when those distractions are in the foreground.
What DOES work is when the element in the foreground has a direct relationship to the subject and rest of the scene, i.e.; the lockers which create repetition, or grasses in a meadow, or petals on a flower. There must be a blending of the out of focus foreground leading the eye to the primary focal point. Elements like dead branches in a garden or pet bowls in front of the pet cause the eye to reject what they are seeing rather than be drawn in by the color, harmony and blending of the foreground. It will make or break a photograph and this is a far too common mistake for the amateur photographer.
What hasn't been discussed here is WHAT Depth of Field is and HOW to achieve it - that article was already written and you'll find that here: Focus on Depth of Focus.
We also have not touched on the difference between showing Motion Blur and a blurred photograph due to motion. That article you will find here: Motion Capture Photography
Until next time;
May you Stay Focused and Happy Shooting!
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