Focusing on the Unfocused Photos

A sharp focus with crisp detail is generally one of the most sought after features in a photo. How many times have you thrown out a photo because your auto-focus was off a little? How many of us fret over shutter speeds, “sweet spots”, image stabilization, tripods and tripod heads, and image sharpening techniques in Photoshop?

I’m not arguing that sharp photos are are worth the extra effort — but I think unsharp photos are worth more effort than we typically give them. And by “unsharp photos” I don’t mean those accidental blurry shots resulting from your AF picking up on the wrong subject. Intentionally unfocused photos can be quite amazing for certain scenes and subjects.

I spent a bit of time on my last photo shoot working on de-focused, mis-focused, and soft-focused imagery. One of my key learnings is that it’s much harder to pull off than you would think. But before I get to the tips, here are some observations about the nature of these types of photos. I’m finding that they can usually be placed into one of the following categories.

DE-FOCUSED

De-focused photos are those that are so incredibly out of focus that it can be hard to tell what’s in the photo. This method can add a very abstract and mysterious feel to a photo. Since there’s nothing for your eyes to focus on, your attention goes to the soft shapes and tonal gradients found throughout the image.

MIS-FOCUSED

Mis-focused photos are out of focus for the main subject, but some other part of the image (either in the foreground or background) is tack sharp. This type of photo is a treat to contemplate because you’re constantly torn between the out-of-focus main subject and the in-focus secondary subject. Our eyes love to explore the detail in the focused portion of the image, but our minds are drawn to the main subject.

Bubble Catcher
Photo by Jeff Kubina [CC by-sa]

SOFT-FOCUSED

I guess you could call this the “everything else” category, but this type of photo has a unique mood and feel too. The image is just enough out-of-focus to freak out your eyes, but just enough in-focus that your mind knows what the details should look like. The neat thing about soft-focused photos is that they clearly show the photographer’s intent while allowing for ample interpretation by the viewer.

Soft Focus
Photo by Gabriella Camerotti [CC by-nc]

UNFOCUSED THOUGHTS

I still have a lot to learn about unfocused photography techniques and methods, but I’ve learned a few things through experimentation.

  • Lens Choice
    Your shorter focal lengths will be more difficult to defocus, especially if you want to anchor your shot with an in-focus element. Macro lenses, fast lenses, and telephoto lenses will give you the most flexibility and the widest range of unfocusability.
  • Manual Focus
    Your camera won’t know how much of a soft-focus you’re going for, so your auto-focus is almost useless. AF can come in handy if you’re using it to mis-focus on some other element in the frame, but otherwise manual focus is best.
  • F-Number Setting
    Lower f-numbers will give you lots of anti-focus, higher f-numbers will give you less. If you’re going for abstract, open it up. If you’re going for soft, stop it down.
  • Your LCD is a Liar
    Your images will look much sharper on that little LCD on the back of your camera. The ones you think were soft-focused will be completely de-focused and unrecognizable. And if you’re shooting for a light soft-focus, it will almost look sharp on the LCD.
  • Focus Bracketing
    If you’re unsure about your de-focus abilities, just shoot a few at various amounts of clarity. You could even do this in rapid-fire mode if you’re using the manual focus and if you’re shooting at a fast enough shutter speed.
  • Shoot People
    People make great subjects for out-of-focus photos. We know they’re people, but we’re quite curious about who they are and what they might look like. The human form is easy for us to recognize, so it adds context to the photo quite rapidly even though the image is blurry.
  • Focus, Focus, Focus
    Focus on unfocusing. Try it out — just go out with your camera on manual focus and start shooting unfocused photos. You’ll be surprised at how different the world can appear when you remove all the details.

Anybody else have anything to add to the list? And if you’ve taken any unfocused photos that you’re particularly fond of, leave a link in the comments — I’d love to check them out.