Photography is the art of deciding what you want to emphasize and what you don’t want to emphasize. When it comes to pointing out what’s interesting, there is no better practice than focusing. Whatever is in focus tends to be emphasized more than what is not in focus. To create emphasis, we need only know where to place the focus. Here are a few pointers.
Use your subject matter as a starting point
Where you decide to focus depends entirely on your subject matter. Different subjects demand different kinds of attention. When you’re taking a portrait of someone, you’ll usually want to focus on the eyes. But if you’re taking a closeup picture of a plant, you have a variety of things you can emphasize. Do you want to make the pistil stand out? Maybe there’s a ladybug crawling up one of the leaves. The focus is entirely up to you.
Have a look at the photo above. The photographer decided to place the focus on one of the nearby water droplets. You can see how sharp they are compared to everything else.
In macro photography, getting the right point of focus is critical. I would suggest you shoot in manual focus mode so you can have as much control as possible. Autofocus mode will usually settle on something that lacks visual interest. If you were to try to shoot this image in autofocus, you wouldn’t have been able to get such a crisp focus on the water droplets.
You should also use a tripod when your point of focus matters this much. It’s no fun to manually focus your image, only to find your work erased by the effects of camera shake.
What is the most distinct feature of the subject you’re shooting?
Just asking this question will help you figure out what to focus on. When photographing people, it tends to be the eyes. We’re always looking at each other’s eyes to discern emotions, so this is a natural choice. For other subjects, it will be different. Let’s imagine you’re photographing an old building. Maybe there’s an interesting crack that tells a story about the place. Give it some extra emphasis by focusing on it.
You should also be thinking about the theme of the photo you’re shooting. What are you trying to say? Is there something in the scene that can convey the emotion better than the entire photo? If you’re making a comment on human suffering, is it better to focus on the house in the background or the crying child in the foreground?
What if the image doesn’t have a particular point of interest?
This often happens when you’re shooting landscapes. Sometimes there’s no singular point of interest, and you need to capture everything. In most landscape photography, you should have one goal. Get as much of the image in focus as you can. That generally means increasing the aperture to F22 (or using "Landscape Scene Mode") and focusing the image somewhere close to the bottom third of the frame. Doing this increases sharpness in the foreground. If anything is left out of focus, it will be in the background and barely discernible.
Know when to break the rules
Being unconventional is fun, and it can lead to some interesting results. Sometimes you shouldn’t focus on the “obvious” things. It’s completely okay to focus on someone’s earring instead of her eyes. How about focusing on the background instead of the person right in front of you? It might just lead to a unique photo.
Most of the photos you take will have more than one point of interest anyway. When you’re taking a portrait, all kinds of things stand out. You’ve got lips, eyes, jewelry, tongues, ears, and... you get the idea. That’s why you should experiment with your point of focus as much as you can. Yes, some of it will be avant-garde and a little weird, but many great things have come from weird places.
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