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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!