Focus Is Overrated

I admit that I’m a sucker for making photographs with an isolated subject, and shallow depth of field that accentuates the sharp focus of the object even more, and many, probably most, of my photographs fit this profile.

However, I only like sharpness up to a point.

When it starts too look too clinical, too scientific, too digital, the appeal wanes.

Furthermore, as often as not it’s actually the out of focus areas of an image that I find more interesting.

We’ve all made plenty of shots I’m sure that haven’t been in focus, despite our best efforts to nail the sharpness.

Too slow a shutter speed, too much movement in the subject, our manual focus not quite hitting the mark, or the camera’s Auto Focus fumbling and missing.

There are plenty of reasons.

Sometimes, a happy accident results, and we have a lovely hazy image that proves more intriguing that what we’re going for.

And sometimes, we deliberately go for an out of focus image of varying degrees from the outset.

One of my favourite tricks is to find what I think will make an interesting soft background, then focus the camera on my hand, perhaps 30cm away, then move my hand and make the shot.

This post features some of my soft focus efforts, where I feel the out of focus areas are the most appealing part of the photograph.

Focus is overrated anyway.

Sometimes the beauty is in the indistinct, the mysterious, the immeasurable.

What do you think?

Let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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25 thoughts on “Focus Is Overrated”

  1. I agree with your sentiments here, Dan. Sharpness is not everything (not remotely), and indeed it is often the out of focus areas of photos that are the most interesting. This is especially true with film photos shot on stocks that have very distinct and unique grain characteristics. Your pew photo above perfectly illustrates this.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks P! Yeh as you might recall I nearly always used expired film in the five years or so I shot it, just love that grain, that’s typically amplified to some degree with expired film.

    1. Thanks Burt, appreciate you saying. I draw the line personally with some images (and lenses) where the depth of field is just too narrow so that what is in focus kind of jars with the otherwise soft background. I’d rather have the shot entirely soft focus than such a fine area. Yep, gotta love that bokeh!

    1. It amazes me some of the conversations on photo forums and the detail people go into analysing “sharpness” and the importance they give it.

  2. It seems to me that sharpness and focus are two separate but related issues.

    The maximum potential sharpness of a photograph is affected by many things, including the resolving power of the camera lens and the film or sensor, the resolving power of the enlarger, scanner or printer, the surface of the paper (for prints), the pixel count of the display screen (for digital images) and movement of the camera during the exposure. The relative sharpness of elements of the image is affected by the plane of focus and movement of the subject.

    Our environment is so filled with exceptionally sharp images on television, online or in print that I have no interest in pursuing sharpness for its own sake. I shoot mostly ISO 400 film and develop it in Rodinal which does nothing to suppress the film grain. Nobody would ever confuse my photographs with typical hyper-sharp digital images.

    OTOH I take relative sharpness very seriously. I focus carefully on the principle subject, e.g., on the nearest eye for a portrait or the hood ornament or radiator badge for a classic car. Based on the relationship of the principal subject with the background I may keep the background as sharp as possible or let it go all swirly. I do not try to suppress subject movement if it is inherent in the subject. Subject movement of a bicyclist can be very effective. Subject movement of leaves in a closeup is a mistake, pure and simple.

    The one area where I take issue with much contemporary photography is out of focus rendering of foreground elements of the image. I dislike the effect so much that when I see it I seldom look closer to see what the photographer did focus on.


    1. Thanks Doug for your detailed breakdown, very insightful. I’m coming to realise more and more that whatever gear a photographer uses, the device the final image is viewed on can have a huge influence on the perceived colours, contrast, sharpness and more.

      Re the sharp images we’re surrounded with, it always amuses/confuses me when there’s an ad for a TV (usually a Sony) which shows an image on the TV, with the aim of showing us how sharp and otherwise impressive it is. They seem to have completely overlooked the fact the TV each viewer is watching the ad on – which is almost certainly technically “inferior” to Sony’s latest high end TV – is limiting the viewers’ ability to see how good the TV might well be in the flesh! It’s like having a new camera, taking an image, then using an inferior older camera to take a picture of the new camera’s LCD screen with the image on. The image is limited by what the older camera can capture, not the new one!

      Generally, my shots have an object fairly close in the foreground in focus then the background disappearing into softness. But I have made images where I might focus on, say a single post in a long fence that’s 5m away, so both foreground and background either side fall out of focus, which sometimes works, for me. I don’t generally like photos where there’s a great amount of the foreground out of focus so it distracts us from the main subject, and the composition overall.

      1. Thanks Dan. Good point about trying to sell a £1,000 TV to an audience viewing the ad on a £100 TV. I wonder if they deliberately degrade the picture of the rest of the ad so the subject TV looks good by comparison.

      2. I wouldn’t be surprised, a kind of selective sharpening of the screen. I bet there are still many people who see these ads and say “wow that picture’s amazing, much better than our TV!” and go and buy one the next day, ha ha!

  3. My first cameras were digital point and shoots, I always liked all the frame in focus, and always thought that the search for bokeh was depriving people from focusing in the photo. But after a brief time with a fujifilm 35mm f1.4 lens in a Fujifilm X E1 I cannot have enough of beautiful bokeh surrounding a sharp detail 😻!!! xP I got a Canon 135mm f2.8 lens SF (sadly a jupiter 37A wouldn’t work in my canon film camera) and with a Marumi +5 macro filter I can get intimate to details. Said that I only do this when I feel it expresses something I want to express in my way to see, in other times I shoot with all in focus because everything is telling a story to what I see.
    About digital sharpness I relate it to sensor size. The smaller the sensor the more digital sharpness it is applied to it by increasing so many megapixels. In tablets or cellphones I feel 4 megapixels would be balanced, 8 megapixels is more sharpness but not more detail, although photos can look beautiful with many megapixels when the cellphone or compact camera is set to a contrasty black and white. The more we go upwards in sensor size, even in film sizes, the images are less artificially sharpened and more naturally detailed.

    1. Thanks Francis, yes it does depend on the lens. I had a Pentax-A 35-105mm which aside from being huge and heavy was very capable in terms of sharpness and colour rendition. For a while I tested it with the question in mind – “Could this replace two or three prime lenses – 35, 50 and 105mm?”

      But the slower maximum aperture (than a 50mm prime especially), which limited the depth of field, plus the often unappealing and occasionally ugly bokeh, ruled it out. On the flip side, some lenses give such pretty bokeh, it’s hard to make a photograph where at least 50% of the scene isn’t showcasing this bokeh!

      I have a Jupiter 37A, it’s a treasure, being preset aperture (something I love on a digital camera) and capable of lovely images (and bokeh) even wide open.

      Yes the sensor’s physical size, and the MP, play important factors. Not least of all that generally a smaller sensor at the same focal length gives a deeper depth of field. I can shoot something like my Ricoh GRD at its maximum f/1.9 all day long, where on an APS-C DSLR, the same kind of shot at the same aperture is nearly always far too shallow a depth of field.

      Another related aspect here is of course that it’s more likely the part you want in focus is in focus with a smaller sensor, because that greater depth of field means critical focus is less precise, and the camera more forgiving.

    1. Whatever you are doing, keep doing… I bookmarked your photo blog, and I’m enjoying it more than some so-called “street photography masters” whose style might be a bit too busy or too experimental for my tastes. Your good taste in composition is refreshing.
      And I do like that soft effect on top of the in-focus image, very artistic in a good way.

    2. Very interesting Robert, reminds me of my multiple exposure experiments with film, especially where I’d shoot one layer of close up, in focus subjects, then another layer of more distant, less sharply focused images on the second layer.

  4. I like bokeh that doesn’t really call attention to itself.
    You do 99% bokeh pictures well, and it’s something I’ve played with before, but not my main interest.
    Having said that, I also have a problem with overly sharp, super-corrected lenses (I’m talking optical corrections via special glass, that creates an unnatural look).
    But I do like to nail focus with a good quality lens. Though some totally off-focus pictures might work, I do like the subject to be in focus.

    1. Yes, as Doug talked about, nailing focus is different to the sharpness of a lens, and like you I greatly dislike bitingly sharp lenses that looking kind of hyper-real and not natural.

      This combined with that over the top HDR look with over saturated almost cartoony colours, and an artificial sheen like everything’s shrink wrapped incredibly tightly in thin plastic, and it makes for horrible ugly images, in my book.

    1. Love these Khurt, on my phone maybe 12 or 13 years ago I had an ongoing series called “rain heart window”, semi out of focus shots of rain on glass and through windows…

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