Finding Your Focus

Of all the questions I get about the basic how-tos of photography, the one that’s asked the most is how to get that creamy, dreamy background. It’s by far the most sought-after effect in my circles. The answer, of course, always begins with the often boring, sometimes confusing explanation of aperture and shooting "wide open." This sometimes leads to the lecture about how some lenses let you open the aperture wider than others. I do hate that part of the conversation. There’s nothing more disheartening than telling someone to ditch the kit lens that came with their new camera body.

But regardless of how wide you can set your aperture, when you’re working with a shallow depth of field, the point of focus is equally—if not more—important than the background or foreground. The more of your image that’s out of focus (creamy and/or dreamy), the more important the part that’s in focus will be to the overall success of the image itself.

A lot less cut-and-dry than the nuts and bolts of aperture (or ISO or shutter speed, for that matter), teaching concepts like how to achieve a compelling image through use of a focal point isn’t nearly as easy. Although much of photography is like math and science (numbers and measurements), some of it’s more about intuition, vision and intention, and the latter is much harder to teach. Understanding that, there are simple things to keep in mind as you’re creating your images using a shallow depth of field to help you achieve photographic greatness.

1. Choose your point of focus well. Working with a shallow depth of field means you have to make a choice as to what part or what subject within your image will be the focal point. Keeping in mind what compelled you to shoot this specific image in the first place will help you to identify the one thing that matters most to you. When you decide on the one element you really want to bring attention to, focus on that. When you’re using an extremely shallow depth of field or even a macro lens, this can be tricky because your focal point may be just a small portion of the subject in your frame. Remember that even the tiny edge of a curling flower petal can be enough to make a strong visual statement. Sometimes bringing into focus something that normally may be overlooked or something a little unexpected is a refreshing approach to creating an evocative image.

2. Deliberately place your focal point within the frame. If the first step is the decision of what to focus on, then the second step has to be where you decide to place that focal point in your composition. This placement can help define the whole shot. Although there’s no true right or wrong way to place your focal point—the possibilities are endless—it’s important that whatever you decide, be deliberate. If you’re going to center your focal point, then center it. If you want it to one side or the other in the frame, then do that. Just make it intentional.

3. Be mindful of the entire frame. Just because we’re dealing with a single focal point doesn’t mean we can forget about the rest of the frame. Every single part of your viewfinder is important. It all matters so pay attention to the big picture. What surrounds your focal point can add or detract from the point itself. It’s easier when you’re working with a shallow depth of field because all you’re dealing with beyond your focal point is out of focus. This can allow you to pay attention to simple shapes, color and light. All of these things can help to better highlight your point of focus.

4. Use the background to your advantage. Since the possibilities are endless as to where in the frame you can position your point of focus, take cues from the background as to where to place it. Paying attention to the whole frame means you’re seeing all that’s offered beyond your focal point. Perhaps it’s lovely soft light or even the bold bokeh (the small circles of light that can show up when shooting wide open). Use it to effectively fill the frame, create overall balance and stimulate visual interest. This can help enhance the main focus of the shot. And keep in mind that a soft foreground can be just as effective as a soft background in bringing attention to the focal point.

When making decisions about your point of focus, let your instincts and intuition guide you. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate the reason for the creative choices you make, but chances are, when you shoot something you really like, you’ve done it right. Keep in mind when experimenting with focal points and shooting wide open, play with the size of your aperture. It’s not always easy to use an extreme depth of field well. Try stopping it down a little (using a higher number) and shoot the same subject to compare the different aperture settings. Play with that setting and with your focus, and eventually you’ll find the shot’s sweet spot.

SHUTTER SISTERS is a collaborative photo blog ( and a thriving community of women, passionate about photography. Photographer, author, teacher Tracey Clark ( is the founder of Shutter Sisters and the author of Elevate the Everyday: A Photographic Guide to Picturing Motherhood (Focal Press).

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