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Throw Your Photos Out Of Focus

Throw Your Photos Out Of Focus - See why not everything needs to be sharp all of the time in your shots.

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Category : Landscape and Travel
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Words and images by Ben Boswell.

Most of the time photographers try, when taking photographs, to get things sharp: it is pretty much the first lesson we need to learn. The sharpness in a picture is what the viewer fixes on and it usually defines the subject of the image. This is not a rule though; it is only what most photographers do. It is sometimes more rewarding to play with sharpness and to exploit another of those things that photography will allow you to do: suggest things by throwing them out of focus. To help to explain this I will call this ‘layered focus’ and refer to the sharp layer and the soft layer (this is all ‘in camera’. I am not referring to Photoshop ‘layers’ though it is possible to fake this kind of picture using that technique, but that’s not my style).

St Pauls Cathedral London
St Pauls Cathedral London.

Control Depth Of Field

The important thing about using focus in this way is that you need to be able to control depth of field. If you can’t, then your options will be very limited: basically getting as close as you can to the thing you want as the sharp layer and just hoping that the soft layer will be sufficiently soft. It is much better if you are able to set the aperture yourself.

'Aperture Priority Automatic' or Manual are the best settings to use. It is also much easier to get the sharp/soft differentiation with fast lenses, typically f/2.8 or wider, and it is also easier with longer lenses. However some of the examples here were shot with a 35mm f/2.8 and one of them was taken with an iPhone! You also need to be able to use the wide apertures, so on a bright day you may need to use a neutral density filter or a polarizer just to reduce the exposure.

The new Olympus E-PM2 and E-PL5 PEN cameras make focusing even easier with the new super fast autofocus and Touch Release.The touchscreen lets you focus and shoot with your fingertips. You simply have to click on the part of the image you want to be in focus. You can see the new feature in action on the Olympus website.

Olympus

When Will This Technique Work?

The first thing to stress here is that you need to be able to recognise when this will work. It is not always possible to get the angles right and there are a number of factors that will need to fit together. You need to be able to get the contrast between layers as this is what will make it work, or not. Typically the foreground will need to be closer than 2 meters and the background at or near infinity, you need to choose which will be the sharp layer and focus on that, but keep your eye on what the out of focus part is doing at the same time.

Nelson’s Column London  Painter painting Trafalgar square London

Stop Down

Try stopping the lens down to see if a little more definition in the out of focus element will look better. My preference is to use the sharp layer to suggest what the soft layer is, but there are times when the soft layer is just an abstract to emphasise the main subject. This iPhone picture works only because I knew that the soft lights would explain the wet windscreen.

Bus window

Landmarks With A Twist

Shoot landmarks completely out of focus with some random detail crisp in the foreground. Or use a completely soft layer in the foreground to hide unwanted clutter. Signs can often provide a good juxtaposition; either telling you what the background is or making some point.

Defiant Pigeon Trafalgar Square London Pricilla’s Shoe London

Taking this kind of picture will set you apart from other photographers in a couple of ways: it requires planning and thought to achieve a good result, but it will also put you in different places looking for just the right angle. While I was taking the picture of the giant white stiletto, there were several photographers (tourists) shooting too, but they all got further away and shot square on. I think my picture will be more striking and say more about "Pricilla – Queen of the Desert" than any of theirs!
 
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Comments


7 Oct 2012 1:58AM
What a load of b?????lox.
Unless you are David Bailey - or have some wealthy friends - out of focus shots just wont get ANY coverage/exposure. (or JUST happen to be in the right pace/right time to get something that is REALLY spectacular)
So who are you trying to kid???
Think of it folks- if you are like me (and try to sell just ONE image that you think is perfect) what hope do you have if it's out of focus unless you can JUST happen to match one of the criteria I have just mentioned?
Garry1956 2 12 1 United Kingdom
7 Oct 2012 6:59PM
Having seen your portfolio gazzaman I see you know what your talking about.
Disee 4 8 United Kingdom
8 Oct 2012 9:04AM
Sorry, I disagree with you gazzaman.
Ben has a very valid point here. We all become fixated on creating 'Sharp Shots' that in 'going in' to take the shot - we lose the plot - we stop thinking 'unusual' and 'creative' and end up with nothing more than a very nice picture.
I've been guilty of this and became disheartened with my mediocre results until I went 'Back To Basics' and started randomly shooting the unusual at different angles with an almost careless abandon. At first the pictures weren't good but I started finding little pockets of a 'masterpieces' within the shot and expanded from there. It's working for me.
And sometimes you can lose on originality when the intent on taking or creating the picture is focused solely towards selling or publishing it. As you said yourself, some of the most famous and long remembered photographs were those taken At The Moment and felt from the heart.

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