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How to Shoot out of Focus on Purpose

How to Shoot out of Focus on Purpose

Blurry photography is the bane of a photographer’s life. But, what if blur could actually elevate your shots? Here’s how to find perfection in imperfection.  

Perhaps you’ve been told that out-of-focus photography is inherently bad, and sharp, detailed images are good. While that advice rings true most of the time, it’s important to point out that shooting out of focus is a wonderfully creative approach that shouldn’t be overlooked. An out-of-focus photo, when executed well, can communicate a feeling that perfection never will.

Let’s rethink our eternal quest for sharpness by breaking some photography rules to create striking, out-of-focus shots depending on the look and feel we want to evoke.

Blurry photography can heighten mood, emotion, and movement in photography. Images via Bushko Oleksandr, Rickett and Sones, and NadyaVetrova.

Selective Focus 

It might sound counterintuitive to make the assumed subject of your photo out of focus, but sometimes the situation calls for it, depending on the look and feel you want to evoke.

Perhaps you’re taking engagement photos and want to add an element of intimacy to your photos. Let’s say you’re capturing a couple walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.

To add intimacy, you could focus on an unimportant element in the frame (such as a plant in the foreground), so the rest of the shot is out of focus. The subject (in this case) is the plant, while the couple appears in a dreamy blur in the background. 

The latter is what we call selective focus—a technique that highlights part of your image by contrasting the subject that appears in sharp focus with blurred elements.

This can be achieved by choosing a wide aperture that will give you a narrow depth of field and allow you to focus on something in front of or behind your main subject. 

Selective focus uses the contrast of focus and out of focus to highlight parts of the image. Images via LightField Studios, sruilk, and Dara Kaliton.

Closeup shot of two young African American Muslim men standing back to back
Image via TONL.

In general, the wider the aperture, the more the blur. ​Smaller f-stop numbers actually increase the size of the aperture, or opening, in the lens. So, using a smaller f-stop will produce a more dramatic blur as you open up the lens.

Choosing an aperture anywhere between f/1.0 and f/4.0 is a good place to start before adjusting the aperture based on your needs. If you want more detail in the out-of-focus parts of your shot, consider shooting a narrower f-stop, such as f/5.0 and above.


Entirely out of Focus 

Another approach is to capture a shot that’s entirely out of focus. This will require some additional experimentation.

When things get too unfocused, you could end up with a subject or focal point that appears completely unrecognizable, and a photo that looks like an out-of-focus mistake.

You must have enough focus so your subject is at least recognizable to the viewer but out of focus enough to achieve the dreamy effect.

Out-of-focus photography requires careful execution so that the viewer can identify and connect with the visual elements in the frame. Images via Ekateryna Zubal and Courtney Lankford.

Always look for distinct shapes and structures that make for beautiful shapes, even when out of focus. It’s always best to avoid filling the frame with too many elements, so you can eliminate any visual clutter and not confuse the viewer.

Also, look out for any distinctive poses or actions that will be familiar and compelling to viewers even when the image lacks focus.

Images via Compositing Studio, Compositing Studio, and Maximillian cabinet.

As for your camera settings, ensure your camera is set to manual focus mode, or it’ll attempt to find something to focus on (which, in this case, you don’t want).

To avoid focusing on any element in the frame, choose a focus point way beyond (or in front of) your main focus. Again, you’ll need a wide aperture to achieve this effect.


Intentional Camera Shake 

Avoiding camera shake at all costs is perhaps one of the oldest photography rules in the book. But, what if we told you that intentional camera shake could actually transform your photo-realistic scene into an image that looks almost like an impressionist painting?

Now, we’re not suggesting that you throw out your tripods, remote lenses, and lenses with image stabilization. Instead, we encourage you to try it for yourself as the technique is really simple, despite producing beautiful abstract results.

Intentional camera shake—or intentional camera movement—has been practiced for years. Quite simply, it means you’re moving your camera throughout the exposure on purpose to achieve an effect.

You can pan your camera up and down or in a side-to-side motion, or twist your camera on the lens hood to produce different results.

Long exposure of a person in a red coat walking through a city
Image via Matthew Wardell.

Start out by putting your camera on shutter speed priority to approximately ½ a second and pan your camera. The shutter will open for ½ a second, which allows light to pass through to the camera’s sensor before the shutter closes again.

As always, you’ll need to experiment with different speeds to achieve the look you want, which will also be impacted by how fast (or slow) you pan your camera.

For example, if you move your camera in a slow pan, ½ a second could produce the visual effect you desire.

If you opt for a fast pan, you might find you need to increase your shutter speed to ¼ of a second. Try it for yourself to find a happy balance between how fast you pan and your shutter speed.

Blurred spiral image of the planet Mars
Image via LesiChkalll27.

When twisting your camera, you can use your lens hood as a pivot by keeping it anchored in one place as you move your camera body around.

This technique allows you to find a focus point at the center of the frame that appears semi-sharp, while the outside of the frame appears in an out-of-focus circular motion.

Again, this technique requires practice as you attempt to find the right balance between how quickly you twist your camera body and how fast you set your shutter speed. 

Intentional camera shake simply means to move your camera with intention throughout the exposure to achieve different effects. Images via Lia Koltyrina and yegorovnick.

Motion Blur

There’s another reason to hold onto that tripod. It’ll especially come in handy when shooting motion blur. This effect works best when you have some elements in the frame that are in sharp focus, and for that, you’ll need a tripod and remote release.

Let’s say you want to capture one person in focus on a busy subway platform during the morning commute rush. Start by setting your shutter speed to one second or more (depending on how you like the initial results) and use a remote release to release the shutter.

Roe deer jumping in front of deer standing still in a meadow
Motion blur requires a longer shutter speed and the stability of a tripod to deliver the best results. Image via WildMedia.

The sharpness of your subject will depend on how still they were when you took the shot. Other still elements in the frame—stairs, signs, columns, buskers, and so on—will appear in focus because your camera was stabilized during the exposure, thanks to your tripod and remote release.


Bokeh

Simply put, bokeh is an aesthetic quality that depicts out-of-focus points of light in the background. The word, which is Japanese in origin, quite simply means blur. But, for many, it denotes a dreamy, mystical effect.

When most refer to this effect in photography, more often than not, they’re referring to the beautiful orbs of blurry light that will appear when you use a large enough aperture to shoot a scene with lots of bright, direct light.

Bokeh can also describe any scene that depicts a soft blur in details, usually to the point that the visual elements are no longer identifiable.

Bokeh is typically depicted in the background details, but it can also be captured in the midground and foreground, depending on the photographer’s point of focus. 

Images via Goodly Pixels, Moo’pai, and NadyaVetrova.

To capture bokeh, you must start by using a shallow depth of field—or wide aperture—so a very small area in your frame is in focus. This could be in the background, midground, or foreground.

A lens with at least an f/2.8 aperture is an ideal starting point. To improve your chances of capturing bokeh, increase the distance between your subject and the background. You can achieve this by decreasing the distance between your camera and the subject.

In other words, the more shallow the depth of field or further the background is, the more out of focus your photo will become.

Light hitting the background tends to pick up bokeh more easily behind the lens, so backlight and side light such as sunrise and sunset tend to be ideal times of day for capturing visible bokeh in your photography.

A young girl eats an early dinner at a roadside night market
Bokeh is perhaps best known as the orbs of light that appear as you use a large enough aperture when shooting a scene with lots of bright light. Image via Aaron Joel Santos.

So, are you ready to break the rules? Shooting out-of-focus photography can be a liberating form of creativity. But, as with other creative techniques, it requires time and patience behind the lens.

Keep playing with this technique to find your own formula. While it might feel like you’re working against the core fundamentals of photography, you’ll end up with shots that redefine this idea of photographic perfection.

Rather than seeking to take photos that are technically perfect, turn your attention to capturing mood and emotion, and find perfection in imperfection. 

Abstract photo of light burst among trees and glitter bokeh
Image via tomertu.

Cover image via NadyaVetrova.

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