Creative Focus in Your Photography

First version of the two-rose composition. I really wanted the rose on the right to be in focus, not going out of focus on the right side of the image. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

First version of the two-rose composition. I really wanted the rose on the right to be in focus, not going out of focus on the right side of the image. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

We’re having our usual riot of Spring-time blossoms here in south Lousisiana. The antique rose in the side yard stopped me in my tracks the other morning and I  pulled out a camera.

This little bush grows next to the shed and receives almost no attention. But this year it has burst forth with blossoms like never before. We don’t get them picked often enough and there on the bush one can find the entire life cycle of a rose blossom, from first bud to withered corpse. Makes for some interesting image possibilities…

Here's my 'raw material': an antique rose bush out next to the shed. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Here's my 'raw material': an antique rose bush out next to the shed. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Which got me thinking, as I was composing, about how critical your focus decisions are to the results you ultimately achieve. I was using my favorite lens—my Canon 50mm macro—and looking for ways to isolate and combine blossoms in the frame. Starting at f2.8 @1/200th sec, I was trying different compositions, searching for what was pleasing and what worked. Although this usually does a great job for me, today it was too shallow a focus range for this composition.

What’s in focus is a combination of a few things:  what you focus upon; how much depth of field you achieve by your aperture selection; and finally, your focus plane as well. In the case of this rose photograph, I needed help in all areas.

I’ve written extensively elsewhere on the site about aperture and depth of field. The factor that was important in this case was really the focus plane of my camera. What is focus plane? It’s a simple concept but a bit difficult to explain.

Your DSLR's CCD light sensor is the 'film plane' and your lens the 'lens plane' for our discussion here. (Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia)

Your DSLR's CCD light sensor is the 'film plane' and your lens the 'lens plane' for our discussion here. (Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia)

Imagine your DSLR from overhead, looking down, or from one side. Unlike old view cameras with flexible movements, your DSLR has a fixed, built-in and parallel relationship between the lens and the flat,  CCD light sensor inside the camera  (what used to be the film plane in film cameras). With these things parallel to each other, things should be in focus at even your minimum, wide-open aperture in a consistent sharpness from one side of your image to the other and from corner to corner of your shot.

Now as you rack your lens through its focusing range, whether you can see it or not, the focus plane is the extension of this parallel relationship out into space. It’s most noticeable, and most important, when working up close, like I was doing with the roses.

In this case, my first photo of this two-rose grouping (above)  had only one side of the right-hand rose in focus, with the focus dropping off to the right edge. I could have gotten out a tripod and stopped the lens way down, to maybe f22, and solved the problem—but I would have ended up with other stuff in focus that I didn’t want—like the other rose. This would have diluted the impact and created a different photograph. The solution had to do with the focus plane: I needed to move myself around a bit, getting the front edges of the right rose parallel to the back of my camera( a good way to think about the CCD and where it’s located). Then, with just a bit of aperture increase (down to f6.3, or just over 2 f-stops), I was able to get what I was after: petals of right rose in focus, with the left rose dropping out of focus.

Here is the same basic composition, shifting the plane of focus to be parallel to the front of the right rose, and with the lens stopped down to f6.3 and a shutter speed of 1/50th. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Here is the same basic composition, shifting the plane of focus to be parallel to the front of the right rose, and with the lens stopped down to f6.3 and a shutter speed of 1/50th. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

So think about focus plane the next time you’re shooting up close and you’ll find it can enhance your results. Good luck!

Quick Tip:  While we’re on the subject of up close, hand-held shooting, here’s a great tip: compose your shot, focus on what’s important, then move your entire body ever-so-slightly in and out of focus as you shoot versions of the shot. You’ll find this is far more effective than trying to constantly autofocus on your subject.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

4 Comments on "Creative Focus in Your Photography"

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  1. Hi Andrew,
    very helpful hints to apply focus. Thank you!
    Even that tai sounds very obvious, I constantly struggle improving images by setting a specific focus. I guess it is much more important in macro photography. It might not be very important in landscape – especially mountaineering – photography, but still can be useful here and there. Just a couple of days ago I experimented a little bit with setting the aperture to achieve a slightly blurred background with climbers on it. It worked reasonably well.
    So, spot on for your blog entry! 😉
    Cheers, Bernd

  2. Thanks Bernd! Is it mountaineering season yet for you?

  3. Hi Andrew, well, of course the winter season is over, but for summer season it is still bait too early. I will see mountains in June (hopefully), but for sure in July. I hope I will be able to take some nice and interesting shots in the European Alps. Time will tell.

  4. Michael says:

    Winter might be over for Bernd but the papers here say it will last another month in the UK – feels a bit like on Groundhog Day when Phil says there’s going to be another month of winter. Still there is plenty of blossoms to try this technique out on. If only it would stop raining I could get a lot more practice in.

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