Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Art Of Selective Focus

Save the planet. Stop world hunger. Eliminate poverty. These mottos bounced around in my naive brain as I entered journalism school years ago.
Text & Photography By Tom Bol Published in Shooting
Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 1/250 at ƒ/16, ISO 100
Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 1/250 at ƒ/16, ISO 100
Nikon D3, 45mm tilt-shift, 1/800 at ƒ/3.3, ISO 200

Lens Movements

My first introduction to creative focus was using a 4x5 view camera. Unlike standard 35mm cameras, the design of a view camera allows the front standard and lens to be moved in various directions. Moving the lens up and down while staying parallel to the film plane is a rise or fall movement. Parallel left and right movements are called shifts.

These movements change what’s captured in the shot without creating a convergence of parallel lines. Many architectural photographers prefer a view camera for this reason. They have to keep the lines straight on their building edges and interior walls. If you take a 35mm camera with a standard lens attached and aim it up to capture a tall interior room, the room edges will angle inward toward the top. Instead of a nice rectangular room, you’ll have a pyramid!

But what really caught my attention was using nonparallel lens movements with the view camera to create blur. These motions tilted the lens up and down (referred to as a “tilt”) or left and right (called a “swing”). Since I was changing the focus plane, I could put my focus point on the far side of my image to create a unique, dramatic type of blur. This was an effect I always wanted to be able to create in my photography. Did that mean I had to haul around a large view camera on my shoots? Thankfully not!

Nikon D3, 45mm tilt-shift, 1/1000 at ƒ/2.9, ISO 400

Nikon D3, 45mm tilt-shift, 1/640 at ƒ/2.8, ISO 400

Creative Focusing With Digital Cameras

When I first explored options for producing creative focus with my trusty Nikon FM, the simplest option was smearing petroleum jelly on a front filter and leaving one spot clear where the image would be sharp. This sounded great in theory and resulted in some interesting shots. But this technique also resulted in sticky goo everywhere in my camera bag and on my lenses. After one shoot at a rodeo, my lenses looked like sticky buns coated in dust. Luckily, manufacturers heard the plea from photographers asking for creative-focus options with 35mm lenses.

Today, many camera companies make 35mm tilt-shift lenses. These lenses offer parallel lens plane movements like shifts and nonparallel movements like swings. They’re precision pieces of glass that allow pinpoint focus in your frame. If you want your focus point on the far right side of your shot, just swing the lens. I have a Nikon 45mm tilt-shift lens and carry it on all my shoots. This lens allows me to do shifts and rise/fall movements, as well as swings and tilts. In addition to being able to angle the lens plane, the lens barrel rotates, allowing more options in movement.

I was recently in the Galápagos Islands and found myself using my tilt-shift lens constantly. These rugged volcanic islands are loaded with endemic plants and animals. What better way to illustrate this mysterious place than by using creative focus? We photographed land tortoises in a dense green forest on an overcast day. Using swings and tilts for blur created my favorite shots of the day, adding a mysterious feel to the images of these rare animals.

Another style of lens that allows tilt-shift effects are those made by Lensbaby. These lenses allow you to move the front lens plane in different directions, resulting in creative focus. Lensbaby offers several different optics that can be used interchangeably with the lens body, as well as macro and wide-angle adapters, allowing you to produce many interesting effects with the system. Apertures are changed by inserting different-diameter rings in the front of the lens. My favorite style Lensbaby is the Composer. This lens uses a ball-and-socket design for easy movements and allows the use of other optics and adapters. If you want more control and precision, try the Control Freak. This lens allows fine-tuned focusing and lens movements.
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