Where and How to Focus
This article is about the use and influence of camera lens focusing as part of creating a good photograph. I have listed six points that I think impact a picture the most.
Note that any of the tips improves your picture, but only all together create a great photograph.
Thanks to Till Scheel from Gorillaphoto who gave valuable input for this article and was kind enough to provide some examples.
It takes time to get all elements of a great picture right. As with many things, experimentation, pondering, and experience will get you there.
To adopt a quote (I could only find “anonymous” as reference) to photography:
Q: What defines an excellent photographer?
A: Exceptional pictures.
Q: How to take exceptional pictures?
Q: How to get experience?
A: Bad pictures.
Draw the viewer’s attention
Or better: don’t distract the viewer’s attention. Use the focus to lead the viewer's gaze.
When taking pictures of models, research has shown: faces looking at the camera create more attention (not surprising), but when a model looks at a product, that product seeks more attention.
Hands can also draw attention as they impend action.
The focus is on the face. The model is looking at some ornaments, which makes curious. The background provides context but is not too distracting.
The focus is on the face. The gaze is again on the ornaments. The impact here is not as big as the one above for two reasons: the eyes cannot be seen, and the background is more distracting.
Use a logical choice
Focus on eyes of a model, not ears or nose. Focus on persons rather than objects and focus on objects rather than the background.
Usually bright elements seek more attention than dark ones. Complex structures before simple ones.
This photo does not have another option for focus. The girl on the bridge looking back at the camera must be in focus, the rest can fade.
This photo sets the focus on the fighter's ankle where the finger is pointing. (Photo: Till Scheel)
As the face is more visible and includes a “teachable moment,” the focus should also be set there. (Photo: Till Scheel)
Then again, feel free to break the rules.
The obvious choice for point of focus is the gate. Drawing the attention to the beautiful cedars creates extra tension. The background is the right amount of blur to still understand the context.
The people in the background draw attention, supported by the shaddows of the tree branches. The branche in focus, contrasted by the bright wall makes this picture that more interesting.
Support the composition
This is especially important when focussing in areas that are quite homogeneous or don’t show clear structures.
Use focus as a counterpoint to your background.
The choice of focus is supported by the rule of thirds, the background gives context and doesn’t distract too much.
Again rule of thirds. Bottom left focus counterbalances the top right lamps.
The branches can give a counterpoint to the tree-stem, but only with the selective focus.
Emphasize: Focus, in the literal sense
What to do with a motive including multiple people, multiple items? What do you want to emphasize and why?
Blur out the unnecessary and carve out the essential.
Make an item essential by carving it out.
Stay in sync with the composition, or deliberately break it.
Usually people in the foreground are obvious choices. This picture is no different.
The Geisha is the main focus. Blurring out the background underlines this, dispite the person in the background facing the camera. (Photo: Till Scheel)
The focus draws the view closer to the Geisha and emphasizes her being seemingly lost in thoughts. (Photo: Till Scheel)
This motive needs a crisp focus because the cluttered table would distract too much. The face-shaped object + composition make this picture.
Breaking the rules, yet again.
The people in the background work well as context and reflect Japan's New Year atmosphere.
The logical choice would have been the couple walking by. By chance, both seem to be looking at the red leaf, also leading the gaze. Focussing on that red leaf creates tension.
This can work in layers of blurred foreground and/or background elements.
You can create dimensionality by starkly contrasting sharp foreground with blurred background.
Here are several elements supporting depth-perception—the blurred foreground/background and the perspective of the bridge.
The perspective and smooth blur, all supported by the composition, result in this picture's depth-perception.
This picture shows nice three layers—foreground, focal point, and background. (Photo: Till Scheel)
Use blurred foreground as frame
Blurred people or objects make a good frame.
I noticed myself focussing on the frame instead of the obvious main element.
This picture again has three layers—foreground, focal point, and background. The tree branches gently lead the viewer's gaze.
I'm shooting through a crowd, deliberately positioning myself to get a frame-like blur in the foreground.
The blurred foreground underlines the concentrated facial expression.
An example of focussing on the frame rather than on the more obvious choice.