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From the very first time we pick up our cameras, we discover the importance of focusing on the main subject. It’s one of those intuitive bedrock foundations of Photo 101 and it becomes ingrained in our brains as an essential rule that we live by for the rest of our lives. Specifically, we learn that when shooting people or animals, we generally want to land the point of sharp focus right on the eyes.
However, like any creative rule or guideline, this one is mean to be broken too.
The mechanics of a camera lens allows you to focus on anything in the frame, front to back. You can focus directly on your subject, or you can focus somewhere in front of, or behind the subject and vary the depth of field that your subject rests in inside the image.
Essentially, the lens operates just like your eye, but the difference is that the camera lens isn’t attached to a human brain that interprets the visual content of the scene.
When you look at something with your eye, you don’t necessarily pay attention to the relative depth of field that’s being produced by your visual system. Depending on what you’re looking at and how close you are to your subject, your eye does indeed produce a depth of field effect, it just doesn’t register with your brain, because depth of field is not really a crucial element when it comes to how the brain evaluates what you see.
However, our eyes and brains are very sensitive to the depth of field effects that are produced by the camera lens. In fact, depth of field is one of the most effective and often used techniques when it comes to exploring photographic creativity.
I like to play around with depth of field and selective focus with my subjects, especially when shooting people. Sometimes I’ll focus on the eyes, just like I was taught back in Photo 101, but other times I like to vary it up and focus on elements that are not the main subject, or which are not the closest elements to the camera, such as in these two images.
By focusing on other aspects of the scene or on certain environmental elements, you can produce photographs that have a strong sense of location, story or mood. You can make images that have depth, and which draw your eye through the frame towards your main subjects as they explore all the elements in the picture.
I use this technique quite a bit in my own photography, and I use a variety of lenses to achieve this effect. The climber was shot with a 14mm super wide angle lens, while the skier was shot with an 85mm telephoto lens.
Try this method for yourself and see what kinds of creative possibilities you come up with.
Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, location and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. He just published his latest eBook, Making the Image- A Conceptual Guide For Creating Stronger Photographs, in which he explores the visual concepts of light, color, form, balance and other compositional techniques. Read his blog for more photography insight, become a fan of his Facebook Page to see daily articles and new imagery, and follow him on Twitter @Danbaileyphoto.