Lighting & Composition

Achieving Your Potential As A Photographer – Focus

The idea of focus, and focusing, means a number of different things depending upon the domain of discussion:

  • Speaking informally in a general context, and not specifically in a photographic sense, to focus on something is to pay attention to it, presumably because it matter.
  • Within photography, focus is one of the key technical and creative tools when making a photo. Specifically, to focus a lens is to optically resolve it to specify the range of distances that appear sharp; this optical choice is made in conjunction with aperture, which controls depth-of-field.
  • The mind can also be focused. Perhaps this is most familiar as the experience of being in the “zone.” When I am in the zone photographically, I don’t notice anything except my work. Decisions seem to flow unconsciously and without effort.

In a broad sense, to focus on something means to highlight that thing and to understand that it is important.

In a more narrow technical sense, the act of focusing is one of the creative controls of photographic image making that allows the artist to indicate what matters in an image. Used this way, understanding how to focus and, more importantly, what to focus on, is crucial. Unfortunately, all too often, contemporary photographers have ceded pinpoint control over focus to the computer and auto-focus devices in their digital cameras. Next time you go out there in the field with your camera set to auto-focus, keep in mind that your camera has no idea about what is important in an image and what isn’t.

Unlike what many photographers seem to believe, your camera is not sentient and does not have a consciousness that can validly ascribe importance to portions of an image.

You do.

One fine, rainy afternoon in May, I was walking with my camera through a garden filled with beautiful, blooming flowers. The water made everything appear saturated and more deeply colored. The air smelled of ozone and mossy, green earth. Focusing my attention and my lens on this red tulip petal, I used a moderate telephoto lens (135mm) and a wide open aperture (f/2) to focus on the waterdrop. The use of selective focus creates an attractive background area that is intentionally impressionistic and out of focus.

Even once you have mastered the technical aspects of focus, and have learned the perils of relying on auto-focus, keep in mind that focusing your lens is always in the service of what is important to you about a photographic subject.

When it comes to what you choose to focus on, your choice of subject is the only thing that matters. You must truly care about what you photograph to muster the energy, persistence, and creative juices that are needed to see a photographic task to the end. Don’t believe those who think of photography as something than can always be done casually. It is often (but not always) the case that the more effort you put into your photographic work, the more you will get back.

By understanding how to focus an image, you’ll clarify your compositions. Techniques for discovering and better acknowledging the true subject of your photos will help you be direct in delivering the power of your imagery.

By focusing on what really matters to you and your life, you’ll be able to integrate personal passion with your photography, and start on the life-long journey of discovery that true artists make.

Ranging very roughly from the technical to the narrative, here are a number of different approaches that will help you focus on what really matters:

  • Understand the difference in emphasis between edge-to-edge focus and selective focus;
  • Know when an image is about photographic focus, rather than its apparent subject matter;
  • Consider the difference between the subject matter that you, the creator, have assumed, and the content that is seen by your viewers;
  • Emphasize both the contrast and synergy between in-focus and out-of-focus in your imagery;
  • Learn to pre-visualize how your photos will come out;
  • Understand if your photo is primarily about formal elements—lines, shapes, colors, and composition;
  • Learn to express your passions in your photos;
  • Listen to your unconscious when creating and editing photos;
  • Be prepared to do what it takes to make great photos, and don’t stop with half measures;
  • Tell stories that can move people to tears, despair, transcendence, and hope.

Try this exercise: Create a selectively-focused image where the image is about how it is focused. In other words, your photographer friends should be driven to think about how the image was focused when they look at it. By the way, this is an exercise to get you thinking about, and working with, focus. In “real life”, the more powerful the photo, the less it makes viewers think about photographic technique, and the more viewers tend to think of the subject matter, with technique forgotten.

Wandering the gardens established by the painter Claude Monet at Giverny, France, in the spring, I set a limit by constraining my photographic possibilities and used a moderate telephoto lens (135mm) at its widest open aperture (f/2). The result is an extremely shallow depth-of-field so only a portion of the front-most tulip petal is sharp and in focus while the background of the image is attractively out of focus and presents nice bokeh.

Excerpt from Achieving Your Potential As A Photographer: A Creative Companion and Workbook by Harold Davis © 2016 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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