How to Use Selective Focus in Photos

Selective focus is basically what it sounds like. You select what portion of your image you want to be in focus (while blurring out the rest).

This technique can be used in a variety of ways and helps to bring a sense of depth and interest to your photos. It’s very useful with close-up photos and, when done right, can give your shots a more professional feel.

In the shot below, notice that the area toward the bottom third is in focus, while all the texture toward the top loses detail.

Selective Focus

Shot at: ISO 100 70mm F3.5 1/100 sec

Selective focus is a product of your exposure settings. As you can see in this shot above, there is nothing special about the ISO (100) or the speed at which the shot was taken (1/100 sec).

You can create this effect with point-and-shoot cameras, too.  (More on that below.)

To create selective focus, the camera settings you need to pay attention to are the aperture size (or the opening of the lens which is measured in f-stops) and the telephoto setting of the lens (70mm is the maximum zoom on my lens, but yours may vary).

Now take a look at this next dessert shot (food photography, by the way, is a classic subject for selective focus):

Shot at: ISO 100 55mm F4.0 1/160 sec

Notice the zoom on the lens is not quite as far out (55mm compared to the last shot at 70mm) and the aperture is open just 1/3 of a stop more (F4 from F3.5).

The results are similar (notice how the leaf is slightly out of focus) but not quite as dramatic.

Here are three ways to create selective focus in your photos:

** 1) Try “stopping down.” This means setting your camera to smaller f-stop numbers. Remember, smaller f-stop numbers actually increase the aperture, or opening, in the lens. As in the above examples, use something between F4 and F2.8. You can get more dramatic blur if you open up the lens (use a smaller f-stop number).

If you’re a point-and-shootist, you may not be able to adjust your aperture by dialing in a different f-stop number, but you can try using the “macro” setting on your camera.  (Check your camera manual for instructions.)  And if you don’t have a macro setting, try putting it in “portrait” mode.  Again, check your camera manual.

Note: Be careful that you don’t introduce motion blur when you’re practicing your selective focus.  You ALWAYS want to have at least one point in the picture that’s in “perfect focus.”  To prevent motion blur, try to keep your shutter speed fast enough (typically 1/60 sec or faster) so you don’t get camera shake if you are holding your camera by hand.

** 2) Zoom in. The longer the zoom, the more dramatic the blurred area will be.

** 3) Shoot from a low angle. Notice, in the examples above, the perspective of the subject relative to the camera placement.

In the dessert shot, for example, notice how the side of the leaf and the plate edge closest to the camera are out of focus, as are the cookie and the back side of the plate. This is because they are varying distances from the lens, exaggerated by shooting across the plate, rather then straight down on it.

Now take a look at this last photo of a wood carver in Ecuador:

Shot at: ISO 100 70mm f2.8 1/60 sec

Here the zoom was maxed out as far as it would go (70mm) and the aperture, or f-stop, was at its widest (F2.8). This example lets you see that selective focus can be used in a variety of ways, and combined with Rule of Thirds, it becomes a very effective tool in composition.

The point of focus in this example is the man’s hands as he works his carving. The blurred-out foreground containing the tools of his trade gives us a bigger picture without being too distracting. Had this shot been in focus corner-to-corner, it would have had much less impact, as our eyes would tend to wander to all the various objects.

Practice selective focus this week -- then show us what you shot by uploading your photo to this month’s photo challenge.

Sometimes, all this technical talk about f-stops, shutter speed, ISO, and the rest can be confusing. But if you pick up a set of AWAI’s Photo Tip Cards, you don’t have to worry. It’s all written right there on the card. Say you go to your kid’s or grandkid’s soccer game, for example, and you want to know how to take good, sharp, sport shots. Just pull out the “Sport” card and you’ll find clear instructions.

They’re really handy when you’re figuring out which camera settings are right for your surroundings. Pick up a set here.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can turn your pictures into cash in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Selling Photos for Cash: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]