Out of Focus - Deliberately! :: Digital Photo Secrets

Out of Focus - Deliberately!

by David Peterson 4 comments

When you first learned to take pictures, you were given a very useful piece of advice. You were told that blurry photos are bad, and sharp photos are good. And even today you probably look at those words and think to yourself, "Yes, that is a mighty good piece of advice".

It does seem pretty fundamental, but on second thought - pretty much everything you've heard about photography thus far implies that there really aren't any unbreakable rules. You can even bust through the rule of thirds when you have a good reason to. You can underexpose on purpose and you can overexpose on purpose, and you can do all of those things with excellent results. So that "keep your subject in focus" rule might not necessarily be unbreakable, either.

[ Top image african daisy, soft focus by Flickr user brx0]

Before you disregard everything you've ever learned about your autofocus system, know this: I am not advocating that you stop paying attention to your focus. Achieving a tack-sharp photo is a good plan 95 to 99 percent of the time. What I am saying is that there can be great beauty in poor focus, so don’t discount it as a creative tool. But like all creative tools, you should only use it when you have a very good reason.

For the love of bokeh

Now to some degree you are already aware of the benefits of blur. There's even a word for it: “bokeh.” The word "bokeh" is Japanese in origin, and it’s used to describe blur, especially blur that has a great beauty. When you hear someone complement the bokeh in a photograph they are often referring to those lovely orbs of blurry light that will appear whenever you use a large aperture to shoot a scene that has a lot of areas of bright light in the background. But it can also be used to describe any scene where there is soft blur in the details, usually to the point that the blurred objects aren’t identifiable. Bokeh is usually in the background details, but it can also be in the foreground or mid-ground, depending on where the photographer has placed the focus point.

  • Canon EOS 500D
  • 1600
  • f/0.0
  • 1/2500 sec
  • 0 mm

21-06-10 Cause I'd Rather Pretend I'll Still Be There At The End ~ Explored #1 by Flickr user Βethan

Good bokeh is something that you should strive for whenever you are taking photos that have a shallow depth of field. Now if you are a raw beginner, you may only have a basic understanding of what I mean by "depth of field.” So let's go back to the basics for just a moment.

The term “depth of field” refers to the part of an image that remains in focus. An image with broad depth of field is in focus from foreground to background, without any discernable blur anywhere in the scene. By contrast, in an image with shallow depth of field there is only a very small area where objects are in focus—this could be in the foreground, it could be in the mid-ground or it could be in the background.

Isolating your subject

When you use that shallow depth of field in a photograph, one of the biggest benefits is in the isolation of your subject. If you shoot an individual flower in a field of flowers, for example, and you use a very broad depth of field, your viewer may have a difficult time identifying the subject of the photo. A flower in a field of flowers is just one fraction of a whole, especially when all the flowers around it are similarly or equally well-focused.

Out of Focus by Flickr user Sergiu Bacioiu

But if you shoot the same flower in the same field of flowers and you use a very shallow depth of field, you get completely different results. The bokeh around the flower will isolate it from its surroundings, so your viewer knows exactly what the subject of the image is. So besides providing that extra bokeh eye-candy, you also get some practical value out of using that shallow depth of field.

How it’s done

Shallow depth of field is accomplished two ways—through distance and through aperture. When you use a very large aperture (small f-number), you decrease the depth of field you get in your image. Likewise, when you get very close to an object you will also decrease the depth of field. That’s why it’s so difficult to get good depth of field in a macro shot—because even when you use a small aperture you’re going to get limited depth of field just based on how close you are.

So it follows if you aren’t getting the depth of field you want, you simply need to move in a little closer. So to start your out-of-focus experiment, get very close to something really small, such as the stamen of a flower or a pistachio on your chopping board. Now, you will find this easier if you have a macro lens or a point-and-shoot camera with a good macro scene mode, but if you don’t have either of those things don’t be too concerned. Just choose the widest available aperture that your lens has to offer and get as close as you’re physically able to without losing your focus point. If you want a few photos for comparison, try shooting a series at ever decreasing apertures and compare them to see the difference in background bokeh.

  • Canon EOS 40D
  • 100
  • f/2.0
  • 1/6400 sec
  • 85 mm

The Ones That Didn't Make It - II by Flickr user blentley

Intentional camera shake (yes, really)

Now so far we’ve just talked about the traditional, socially acceptable way to use blur creatively—as long as you have at least some small part of your scene in focus, almost no one is going to criticize you for the way you use blur. But there are other ways to use blur creatively, ways that will make those old-time photographers roll over in their graves.

Intentional blur can be accomplished a number of different ways, but one of the most popular is by intentionally shaking your camera. Yes, it’s true! After everything you’ve been told about tripods, remote releases and lenses with image stabilization, it is OK on occasion to not only have some camera shake in your photo but to do it on purpose.

Now that doesn’t mean that you should throw away your tripod—intentional camera shake should be approached systematically and with great intent. That is, decide in advance that you’re going to add some intentional camera shake and try to anticipate how it will look. Intentional camera shake can turn your photo-realistic scene into an image that looks almost like an impressionist painting, but it does take some practice and experimentation.

  • 100
  • f/25.0
  • 0.8
  • 28 mm

Golden Glow by Flickr user ebergcanada

Use shutter priority for this technique, and choose a shutter speed somewhere around a half second to a quarter second. You can start by simply holding your camera as you normally would during the exposure, but you may end up with a photo that looks like an error rather than one that looks intentional. Instead, try deliberately moving the camera one way or another—as a general rule, vertical subjects such as trees look best when you employ a vertical camera movement, while horizontal subjects look good when you employ horizontal camera movement. You can also rotate the camera for round subjects or just go with some swirling or controlled jiggling. Check your LCD after every shot so you can decide early on what’s working and what isn’t—then you can refine your technique for each subject until you end up with something that you really like.

Motion blur

You took my advice and kept the tripod, right? Good. Because our next way of using blur to create great photos is with a little motion blur.

Now, you can take successful images that are a combination of camera shake and motion blur, but for the most part motion blur works best when you have some elements of the image that are in tack sharp focus. To accomplish this, you’ll need to use a tripod and a remote release.

    The ring by Flickr user mouseshadows

    Let’s say you want to isolate a single person in a crowd. You could have that person stand still (or simply find a subject who’s quietly reading a book in a busy train station, or is leaning up against a wall waiting for someone). With your camera mounted on a tripod, frame your subject but make sure to zoom out a little so that you can capture plenty of movement in her surroundings. Set your shutter speed to a second (or more, depending on how much you like your initial results) and then use the remote release to release the shutter.

    Depending on how still your subject was, you’ll get a sharp image of that person and a lot of surrounding blur as people move in and out of the scene. The environment will also be sharp—anything in a fixed position such as chairs, walls windows and signs will all remain sharp because your camera was stabilized during the exposure.

    You can use this technique for just about anything—the wind in the trees, ocean waves, traffic—but do keep in mind that you’ll either need to be shooting in low light (indoors is great for this) or you’ll need a low light outdoor situation such as blue hour or a dark, overcast day. If the conditions aren’t right, you could also add a neutral density filter to your lens to cut back on the amount of light that reaches your sensor, which will give you more flexibility to shoot during the day. Finally, remember that you have to keep your ISO low and your aperture small—the wider your aperture the more light you’ll let into your camera, which means you’ll have to use faster shutter speeds to avoid overexposing.

    Soft focus

    Finally, consider just using a soft focus. Switch to manual focus and shoot your subject with a little natural blur. With this technique, there’s a fine line between creating an image that looks artsty and cool and creating one that looks like an error, so make sure you’re checking your LCD and refining your technique. Remember that you can include some foreground details that are sharp to help acclimate your viewer to the out-of-focus subject—a good example of this is an image where a person is holding an object towards the camera—if the small object is in sharp focus and the person holding it is a blur in the distance, then you’ve got an image that uses that soft focus to creative advantage.

      blur_sheep by Flickr user bre pettis


      These techniques are so much fun that you could resolve to do nothing but creative blur for a whole month and probably never miss the stuff you usually do with your camera. And I recommend it, too, because it’s a great way to stir up your creative juices and take some photos that are a long way away from the stuff you usually shoot. Don’t be afraid to keep trying new things and don’t worry that they don’t all look good. This is unexplored territory, so you’re going to have more muck-ups than successes. Just keep playing around and keep trying new things and pretty soon you’ll have some blurry photos that transcend those old ideas of photographic perfection.

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      1. M N NAZIM says:

        Never knew there was so much beauty in blurring!

      2. andi says:

        Dave youv'e done it again.
        While I have been using this technique for years shooting small details in floral subjects I have never thought of it with people in crowds to introduce the fourth dimension of time.

      3. Marg says:

        Wow!! Love this article. Great explanations & wonderful suggestions on practising putting these technique's to the test..Cheers! Marg

      4. Ajithaa says:

        All are very interesting camera techniques!
        Thank 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+.