Break the Focus Rule :: Digital Photo Secrets

Break the Focus Rule

by David Peterson 0 comments

Ah, the focus rule. That's the one that you learned first. You probably learned it the first time you picked up a camera, even if it was just a point and shoot that didn't actually give you the ability to control the focus. You remember, your mom looked at your pictures and said, "Oh, that's so cute, shame it isn't in focus".

It really is the first thing we learn as photographers: focus, shoot.

But like every other so-called "rule" of photography, it isn't completely unbreakable. Sometimes an out-of-focus photograph can be better than an in-focus shot of the same subject. But when?

[This is a continuation of our series on breaking the rules]
[ Top image Round 2 - Speed Dog Alex by Flickr user Andrew Morrell Photography]

You want to create a sense of motion

The most common reason for breaking this rule is to convey a sense of motion. I don't have to tell you (because I've already told you more times than you really needed to hear) that a photograph is a static piece of art. It is a frozen moment in time. So how can you give your viewer a sense of motion in an image that can really only capture a single moment?

Blur. If your subject is moving fast, this is an easy one. In this scenario, you could have a completely unfocused subject with a sharp background, or you could have an unfocused background with a sharp subject. Or you could have a sharp subject with an unfocused motion trail behind him. Here's a quick rundown of how to do all three:

    horse witness by Flickr user Camil Tulcan

    Unfocused subject, sharp background. You can create a sense of movement by slowing down your shutter speed and letting your subject dash in and out of the frame. If your subject is moving fast enough, you may not even need a tripod for this.

    • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
    • 100
    • f/4.5
    • 0.04 sec (1/25)
    • 88 mm

    FULL OF ENERGY! by Flickr user VinothChandar

    Focused subject, unfocused background. This is accomplished by panning, or moving your camera at the same relative speed as your subject. To create a motion blur on the background, you'll need to use a slower shutter speed, while keeping your subject in the same part of the frame as he moves. This takes practice but the results can be really impressive.

    • Nikon D300
    • 200
    • f/4.0
    • 0.04 sec (1/25)
    • 18 mm

    Nikon Speedlight Rear Curtain Sync by Flickr user l.hutton

    Tack sharp subject with motion trail. This is accomplished using a setting on your camera called "rear curtain flash." Typically, you would use rear curtain flash in a low-light situation when your shutter speed is going to be naturally slow. The camera waits to fire the flash at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning--this results in a subject that is blurred for the majority of the exposure, but in sharp focus at the end when the flash fired and "froze" the action.

    You want your image to have a "dreamy" quality

      in motion by Flickr user Camil Tulcan

      An unfocused image can often have a dreamy quality to it, but take care. There is a fine line between a dreamy photo and one that just looks like its photographer made a technical error. A slightly out of focus subject is probably not going to give you the effect you're looking for. But a very out of focus image can make it appear as if your photo was a complete accident. So how do you find that middle ground?

      Most of the time, you'll find it through experimentation. Start by focusing on something in the scene that is not your subject. A streetlight, for example, or maybe part of a brick wall. Let your subject fall out of focus and take the shot. Alternately, just have the whole scene be out of focus. The success or failure of either of these strategies will depend on your subject and what you are trying to accomplish with the image. Technique, on the other hand is simple:

        Swinging the Blues by Flickr user gaspi *yg

        Blurry subject, with some other sharp element. Make sure you are using manual focus points and set your camera to lock focus on the element you want to keep sharp. Use a wide aperture so the rest of your shot will fall out of focus.

        • Canon EOS 7D
        • 6400
        • f/22.0
        • 1.6
        • 50 mm

        Reach for the light by Flickr user Patty Maher

        Blurry scene, no sharp elements. Switch to manual focus. If you use autofocus, your camera is going to try to find something--anything--to focus on and you won't get the shot you want. Switching to manual focus will allow you to keep the entire shot blurry, to whatever degree you choose.

        Keep in mind with both of these techniques that you don't want your subject to be so blurry as to be completely unrecognizable. If your subject is too blurry, your scene will fall out of the realm of dreamy and into the realm of abstract--but that might not be a bad thing. Here's another scenario in which you might want to break the focus rule:

        You want your image to be abstract

        Keeping your subject so out of focus as to be an abstraction can create a wonderful, modern-art style of photograph. You can accomplish this simply by using the technique described above: switch to manual focus, point your camera at your subject, turn the focus ring until your subject becomes a blurry, unidentifiable shape and then take the picture.

        • Nikon D700
        • 200
        • f/13.0
        • 0.167 sec (1/6)
        • 150 mm

        Pagadia udaberrian by Flickr user jonlp

        There are other techniques, too, which involve moving your camera rather than blurring the subject with the focus ring. "Intentional camera shake" can create an image that looks completely abstract or almost impressionistic in nature. Again, you will need to experiment with this in order to achieve satisfying results. To create an image with intentional camera shake, set your shutter speed to 1/30th or slower, then try moving your camera up and down or from side to side. Experiment with random movement too. For the best results, choose scenes that have strong line or a lot of color. You can create some really cool abstractions with just a little bit of experimentation and a whole lot of frames.


        Experimenting with rule-breaking is a great way to improve as a photographer (though not always the wisest choice for other parts of your life). Remember that the digital age gives us a great opportunity for experimentation, so take as many shots as you can and spend some time asking yourself what worked and what didn't. As with all photography rules, the rule of focus was definitely meant to be broken--despite what your mom may have told you.

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        About David Peterson
        David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.