Through the Gadling Lens: try not to focus

There can be no doubt that a really lovely, crisp image with a sharp focus can make a shot — and in truth, focus can be one of the easiest technical aspects of a photograph that can be learned and controlled. But just this past week, I was instant-messaging a photographer friend of mine:

Me: Hey, have you ever taken a photograph, and you can’t tell whether the result is really crappy or really cool?

Josh: All the damned time.

Me: I just took one. I can’t tell. There’s no part of this image that is in sharp focus. But I think I like it anyway.

Josh: Meh. Focus is overrated.

I’ve thought about this conversation a lot since then, and I have to say, I agree with him: sometimes, focus is overrated. So this week, I thought I’d share some of the photographs in the Gadling Flickr pool which are great illustrations of how sometimes ignoring focus (or manipulating it, at least) can result in a great shot.

1. Shallow depths of field. One of the most fun ways to play with focus is to manipulate the “depth of field” — the amount of photograph which is actually in focus, as compared to the rest of the photograph. When you look at a photograph with a large depth of field, almost every portion of the photograph will be in focus. Conversely, if you look at a photograph with a shallow or small depth of field, only one portion of the photograph will be in focus, while the rest of it will be in “bokeh,” or fade smoothly out of focus.

Subjects in photographs with very shallow depths of field don’t look like the subject does in real life; however, it does add a lot of interest to the photograph, in that they help direct the viewer to a single point on the image. The easiest way of manipulating the depth of field is to play with a lens’ aperture — the smaller the aperature number, the shallower the depth of field (more on aperture can be found here). Simply set your camera to “aperture priority” (or just put the camera in full-on manual mode, if you wish), and set the aperature to a low number.

Some beautiful examples of shallow depth of field:

This great shot shared by (flicts) in the Gadling Flickr pool is a classic example of shallow depth of field. Notice how just the small barb of the fence is in focus, where the rest of the shot isn’t. You can still tell exactly what the image is — a verdent green field in the country — but the shallow depth of field directs your attention exactly where (flicts) wants it to go, on the tiny detail of the fence. Taking this photograph with a large depth of field would have resulted in a rather ordinary shot; instead, the depth of field makes the shot. Really spectacular.

Flowers are wonderful subjects for playing with depth of field, primarily because they generally have so much detail going on, the number of areas you can choose to have in focus are general endless. In this great shot shared by dog blue in the flickr pool, the very tips of the petals are in focus, while the rest of the flower (and its neighbours) rapidly fall into bokeh. Again, this would’ve been an ordinary shot if there was a large depth of field; but it makes for a great image when the depth of field is restricted. Lovely work.

2. Capture movement through blur. Oftentimes, when taking a photograph of a rapidly moving object — a car driving quickly, perhaps, or a child on a swing, for example — the natural tendency is to move the camera along with the moving object, in order to minimize blur. Instead, consider trying to capture the blur itself — forget about trying to get the moving object in focus, and instead, go with the flow: let the object whiz by, and capture the speed of the object

A few tips as you try to capture blur: consider placing an inanimate object (or an immobile person) in the foreground, and focus on that, instead. The stationery object/person will provide great contrast with the moving object, and give some context and contrast in the image.

Some amazing examples of blurry movement:

This shot of a New York City subway shared by ultraclay!
is a classic demonstration of capturing blur by juxtaposing a moving object against an immobile one. In this shot, by focusing on the stationary couple in front, the speed of the passing train is beautifully captured — you can almost imagine standing on the platform with them, with the sudden train rushing by taking your breath away.

Nobody nearby for you to use as your stationary focal point? Look up: in this shot, Cazimiro used the interesting ceiling pattern as his stationary object — by focusing on that, the rushing train in this Washington DC subway is just a beautiful blur of light, and the entire shot is from an interesting perspective, rather than just looking straight on at the train. Outstanding job.

Finally, lest you think the “blur” technique only works for public transportation, check out the amazing shot above by Willy Volk, taken on a Florida beach. In this shot, Willy focused on the stationary sand, and let the ocean do its thing. An awesome shot – it makes you totally imagine the rushing waves over your feet, as your toes sink into the grainy sand. Of course, the warped perspective given by using the fisheye lens helps make this shot, as well.

3. For night shots, purposely make the lights out of focus. Lights at nighttime are magical — and sometimes purposely “unfocusing” the lights can make your images even more magical, as they flare against a darker sky. This technique is particularly effective when shooting holiday lights, strings of street lights, or any multitude of city lights against a darkening sky.

Something to keep in mind — this effect tends to work best at dusk, when you can still make out silhouettes against a dark blue sky, rather than at pitch black-darkness. Also, this can be a lovely effect when taking images in intimate restaurants or bars: place an object with a recognizable silhouette in the foregrounds, with the twinkling lights in the background.

Some really stellar examples of blurry lights:

This shot by ultraclay! is a perfect example of capturing an intimate feel in a bar or restaurant. Shot at a sake bar in New York City, by focusing on the candle in the foreground and keeping the other candles in blur in the back, the result is an image that makes you think of low conversations, the clink of sake glasses, and the occasional outburst of laughter. The photograph doesn’t just record an image, but it captures some of the mood around the image as well.

Additionally, this great shot by StrudelMonkey of holiday lights in Florida captures the magic of the season. The light tree in focus in the foreground provides the perspective and the setting; however, the blurred lights in the background let you know that the light tree isn’t just a one-off — the magic of the season goes on into the scene. Lovely piece of work.

4. Finally, just give up on focus altogether.

I’ve shared this photo with you before, but I can’t help it: I love this shot, mostly because it was a complete and total accident — I squeezed the shutter before the camera had time to find focus anywhere. But still — even without the focus, I’ve never had anyone fail to recognize the image above as one of the Houses of Parliament in London — and in fact, it’s the lack of focus that provides the interest.

The reason the shot above works is because (a) it’s an iconic image — one of an internationally-famous landmark; (b) there’s lots of colour and (c) there’s lots of lights. In other words, there’s more than just the shape of the subject, but light and colour keep the eye’s interest.

What (accidentally) taking this image taught me is that perhaps when taking pictures of iconic subjects — say, like the Statue of Liberty in an upcoming trip to New York, or the Great Wall of China (one of my future photography goals) — perhaps it make sense to grab a few shots with the subject out of focus — instead, let the colours and the contrast and the light of the surrounding area tell the story.

Hopefully all of these examples will inspire you to play with your focus a little bit — because, as my friend Josh says, sometimes focus is overrated. Keep taking your amazing shots, and keep sharing them in the Gadling Flickr pool. And as always, if you have any photography-related questions, don’t hesitate to send them to me at karen.walrondATweblogsincDOTcom – I’m happy to tackle them here on Through the Gadling Lens.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.