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. College was my formal photography education; freelancing and world travel was my reality check.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm, 1/2500 at ƒ/2.8, ISO 100, blur applied in Photoshop

One of my assignments in journalism school had a big influence on my photography—an exercise that really made me “think” about what I was photographing. Our professor told us our job was to produce a photo essay that captured mood and emotion. No cliché scenics, hard news or paparazzi portraits. He wanted shots that really connected the viewer and image and struck a nerve.

Up until that point, I thought I knew what creating mood was all about. You went out, found a newsworthy event and captured the moment. But as I thought more about this assignment, I realized my professor wanted us to have a deeper connection with our subject, human or landscape, and spend more time covering the story. He also encouraged us to experiment with different photography techniques to enhance emotion and mystery in our images. And that was when I learned how creative focus could add mood to an image.

Standard selective focus is creating an image using shallow depth of field. Shooting at ƒ/2.8 results in an image with a sharp focus point and soft, blurred edges. But what if you could change the actual focus plane of your lens and stretch out the blurred areas in your shot? This type of selective focus is what I call creative focus and requires special lenses and techniques to achieve. Today, there are many options for creative focus, including tilt-shift lenses, Lensbaby lenses and postprocessing techniques. Whatever method you choose, creative focus will add a new dimension to your photography.

Nikon D3, 45mm tilt-shift, 1/800 at ƒ/3.3, ISO 200

Lens Movements

My first introduction to creative focus was using a 4×5 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.

Nikon D3, 45mm tilt- shift, 1/320 at ƒ/2.8, ISO 200

Computer Options

Sometimes, after a shoot, I wish I had used creative focus techniques. There are many post processing options to create this effect in Photoshop and third-party plug-ins that simplify the process.

One of the easiest ways to add blur to an image is using layer masks and the Brush tool in Photoshop CS4. Begin by opening your image. Next, duplicate the background layer (Command+J for Mac, Control+J for Windows). With the duplicate layer active, choose Filter > Blur > Lens Blur. For high-resolution files, I choose a Radius setting of around 40. Next, add a mask to this layer and fill it with black. This will hide the Lens Blur effect. Choose the Brush tool using a soft-edged brush and lower the brush opacity to 30%. Make sure your foreground color is white, and begin to brush your blur back into the image where you want it. Having the brush opacity set to 30% allows you to feather in the blur. Don’t brush over any areas you want sharp.

I normally use another Photoshop technique, more advanced, but with more realistic selective-focus effects. Start by opening your image and then open the Channels palette (th
e tab right beside the Layers palette). Create a new channel by using the Create New Channel icon at the bottom right side of the Channels palette. With the new channel active, choose the Gradient tool and make sure the gradient is set to “Black, White” (use the gradient picker to choose this, the shaded rectangular bar in the upper-left corner of this window). Put the cursor on the top of the new channel layer and click, hold and drag the cursor to the bottom of this layer, creating a graduated white-to-black channel layer. Go back to the Channels window and click in the RGB layer at the top. This will hide the new channel you just created, showing the original image. Now, go to Filter > Blur > Lens Blur. For Depth Map Source, choose Alpha 1, the name of the new channel you created earlier. You’ll see your image, but with selective focus applied. To choose what area you want sharp, simply put the cursor on that spot and click. This area will become sharp and the rest of the image gradually will blur away from it. You can control the amount of blur by changing the Radius amount; the smaller the Radius, the less blur is applied. The sharpness applied in this example will be a horizontal line. If you want a vertical line of focus, apply the gradient from left to right. This technique results in blurs similar to using a tilt-shift lens.

Some software companies have developed programs that simplify the process of creating selective focus. One of my favorites is Alien Skin Bokeh. Bokeh refers to the quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas in your image. Some lenses produce pleasing bokeh, while others don’t. This program allows you to control the amount and quality of bokeh and apply selective focus/blur wherever you want. Alien Skin Bokeh is a plug-in requiring newer versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements as the host program. onOne Software offers FocalPoint 2, another Photoshop plug-in, which also creates selective-focus effects.

Select the Focus or Target the Blur?

When do you use creative focus? Whenever you want to direct the viewer’s attention. The eye normally goes to in-focus areas before going to out-of-focus areas in an image. This is why portrait shooters often blur the background around their subject. Creative focus also can add mystery and mood to images, especially landscapes.

On the other side of the equation, instead of using the tilt movement to add blur, you also can use it to increase depth of field and sharpness. Imagine photographing a field of purple columbine leading to a distant tranquil mountain lake. In order to get everything sharp from the columbine at your feet to the lake in the distance, you would use ƒ/22 to maximize your depth of field. Then, by tilting the lens plane downward, you make the plane of focus more parallel to the ground, increasing the amount of depth of field you achieve at ƒ/22.

Using creative focus is an artistic decision made by the photographer. Some images look great with blurred areas, while others need everything tack-sharp to be effective. Select the focus or target the blur—you make the call!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at

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