“The less descriptive the photo, the more stimulating it is for the imagination. The less information, the more suggestion: the less prose, the more poetry.” ~ Ernst Haas
When I first learned about controlling depth of field, I was blown away that I could decide just how much would be in focus in a photograph! I thought that shallow depth of field was the coolest thing, and it remains my favorite way to photograph. Thereʼs nothing wrong with shooting at f/22 (and I do that when necessary), but I’m far more comfortable shooting with larger apertures between f/2 to f/4 to create selective focus photographs. Itʼs a style of photography that makes my heart sing and I love the challenge of seeing just how little in focus I can get away with. For me, a simple photograph is a stronger photograph.
Top: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 50 optic, f/2 @ 1/2000 sec
Bottom: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 50 optic, f/4 @ 1/125 sec
Selective focus works because we are drawn to areas of contrast in photographs (light vs. dark, sharp vs. blurry). The elements you choose to be in focus are those with the clearest contrast between themselves and the out-of-focus areas around them, and that is what draws the viewer’s eye.
Top left: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/4 @ 1/500 sec
Top right: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/3.5 @ 1/200 sec
Bottom: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/3.5 @ 1/800 sec
There are two decisions to make every time you shoot this way: (1) where to place your focus, and (2) how much to have in focus. These are equally important factors! Using selective focus should make you slow down and really look at your subject. You’ll need to decide what is the most important or interesting part and how you can best highlight it. Deciding what to highlight is the first step. With selective focus, you can draw attention to just a small part of a subject and blur everything else in the frame.
Precise placement of your focus is essential to draw the eye exactly where you want it to go in the image, so be sure to take your time and get that right. If you are shooting close to your subject, you may find that you need to stop down a bit more to get a decent amount in focus. Experiment with your apertures to see which choice works for your vision.
Left: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/7.1 @ 1/200 sec
Right: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/9 @ 1/100 sec
Pay close attention to the angle of your camera; the focal plane is so slim when using selective focus that a slight change in angle can really affect how much and what comes into focus. Be sure unwanted elements are not also coming into focus, and to run “border patrol” before you click the shutter by taking a close look all around the edges of the frame looking for anything distracting that can draw attention away from your subject.
Top: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/9 @ 1/640 sec
Bottom: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/3.5 @ 1/640 sec
I often photograph flowers using selective focus. I begin by studying the flower, examining it from every angle, looking for what is special about it. Is it the lines, a shape, an irregular petal, a small detail? Once I decide what draws me to the flower, I use selective focus to highlight that area to make it the star of my photograph. My goal is for you to see what it was that drew me to my subject. If you’ve never photographed this way, try it. Study your subjects. Decide what you want to highlight and how much needs to be in focus, and what you want to hide with blur.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lensbaby Velvet 56, f/2 @ 1/160 sec
Though you can shoot selective focus with any lens, my very favorite lenses for this technique are from Lensbaby. Lensbaby's Optic Swap System of interchangeable optics provides the selective focus I love. If you're not familiar with these lenses and you like shooting selective focus, I strongly suggest that you check these out. My favorite go-to set is the Composer Pro II lens with the Sweet 50 optic.
Left: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 50 optic, f/5.6 @ 1/2000 sec
Top right: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 50 optic, f/2.8 @ 1/1250 sec
Bottom right: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 35, f/2.8 @ 1/1250 sec
Something else to try while you are photographing at large apertures is a technique called “shooting through.” Shooting through plant foliage or flower petals can create a soft, lovely image with color veiling, as shown in the photos below.
Top: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/5 @ 1250 sec
Bottom: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/5 @ 1/320 sec
To do this, compose your image so that there are leaves or flower petals very close to your camera—right up next to the lens hood is ideal. Select a large aperture to limit the depth of field to your subject (wide open works best) and focus on something further away from the camera. This throws that foreground subject out of focus so that just a lovely veil of color remains as the foreground. This is a wonderful way to simplify a subject and hide unwanted elements. I often make my photographs this way.
Top: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, f/2.8 @ 1/320 sec
Bottom: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM, f/3.5 @ 1/800 sec
If you usually shoot at very small apertures for deep depth of field, selective focus can be a little tricky in the beginning but begin by looking closely at your subject. Decide how much you want in focus and which aperture will provide it, choose the best placement for the focus and the angle of your camera, and most of all, play and have fun!
Kathleen Clemons is an award-winning photographer, instructor, speaker, and workshop leader from the Coast of Maine. Primarily a nature photographer, Kathleen is known for her creative use of natural light and unique compositions. Named by Lensbaby as the "Georgia O'Keeffe of Flower Photography,” her work is represented worldwide by Getty Images and other agencies. With a background in education and a passion for both photography and instruction, Kathleen teaches others how to improve their photography skills and to see beyond the obvious. See more of her work and learn more about Kathleen on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.