LATELY, I see a lot of social media-posted images of flowers. Flowers are pretty, and a naturally attractive subject. But there is a frequent component to these images which detracts from their otherwise attractiveness as images: focus.
EVERYBODY HAS a camera these days, mostly in the form of their cell phone. But surprisingly, I see a lot of these out-of-focus images by photographers – often in groups dedicated specifically to photography subjects or gear. Photos that, with recurring frequency, have no part of them in sharp focus. For illustration, I searched the internet for some of the ubiquitously posted flower images. Consider the above image of a yellow rose. The green and yellow pastel colors, and the background bokeh are pleasing enough. But the image just doesn’t really “make it.” There is no part of the plant – flower, petals or greenery that is in sharp focus. And I think that “kills” the image. In most instances, what we are trying to do in a photograph is to draw the viewer’s attention to at least some feature of the image. A common way of doing that is making certain that what we want the viewer’s attention on is in focus. This is particularly true in this type of image. Close focus like this can be difficult, and I think yellow is one of the most difficult colors to get looking good and sharp. But something here needs to be in tack sharp focus, in order for this to be a “good image.” The shooter needs to decide what part of the image is most important and focus on that component; probably (but not necessarily – that will be up to the photographer) the petal edges in the front-center of the flower.
Sharpness is one of the fundamental photographic skills
SIMILARLY, THE Peonies photo below lacks any area of sharp focus, from foreground to background. I find my eye wandering all around the frame, looking for a center of interest. Some portion of the image needs to be in focus. I would probably work to get one of the two or three large foreground flowers sharp. The below image, in my view, suffers from the same issue. Overall, a pretty scene. But nothing in the image is tack sharp, with the same result as above. The eye is looking for a place to land.
THERE IS certainly something inviting about a frame-filling, bokeh-enhanced, colorful flower in its element. But the one fundamental that, in my view, makes or breaks these images – the difference between a nice image and just a so-so picture posted on the internet – is focus. Sharpness is one of the handful of fundamental photographic skills. It is perhaps one of the first things we learn. It can be affected by inaccurate mechanical focus of the lens, by movement of the camera during capture, and movement of the subject during capture. Without something in the image being tack sharp, the result is just a fuzzy picture, albeit maybe a colorful one. I appreciate that sometimes, in the interest of art, a photographer might intentionally let the entire image go out of focus. In my view, that seldom works. Imagery that has some out of focus elements can be very effective – as long as there is some part of the image in focus. Which part? That depends on what the photographer is trying to portray. In the majority of my own such images, I try to have one area – and particularly, a component like the pollen saturated stamen in the opening image. In the image below, I illustrate my thinking that it is o.k. to have out-of-focus parts of an image – even most of the image. Indeed, this is a technique often used to draw a viewer’s attention to the portion of the image we want their eye to go to (in this case, the water-droplet saturated foreground flower). But there must be some part of the image that is in sharp focus.
CLOSELY RELATED is the concept of depth of field. Photographic images are two-dimensional. Like all two-dimensional art, there are graphic principles that will make us see them in three dimensions. One of those is the perception of elements from front to back. In oversimplified terms, depth of field is that portion of the image – front to back – that is in sharp focus. Sometimes we would like everything in the image to be in sharp focus. That can probably best be achieved with a short focal length lens and a small aperture. But more often than not, the closeup flower images I am referring to here are enhanced by some degree of purposeful out-of-focus elements. But not everything. At least some part of the image has to be in focus for the image to draw us and be believable. The out-of-focus portions of an image background (and sometimes foreground) is sometimes referred to as bokeh. In the Purple Coneflower image, each flower, from foreground to background, becomes progressively less in sharp focus. That is a function of depth of field. Understanding this will go a long way toward a nice, deep image. If I had focused on the middle flower, for example, I might have had an out of focus foreground, which would have seemed out of balance to me.
WHAT PART of the image needs to be in focus? That is the artist’s question. But some part of it certainly must. The tulip image below just begs – in my view – for some depth. But it isn’t successful in my opinion, largely because there is no part of the image that is in really sharp focus (or at least no part that is intentional and of interest). I would love to see the center tulip in the foreground in crisp, sharp focus, with a gradation of progressive out-of-focus tulips behind it. It would give the image the depth and drama it lacks here. While certainly not my own best effort, the Shasta Daisy image further down illustrates what I am trying to convey. There is enough sharpness in the image to catch the eye, but I think the out of focus parts of the image make it much more interesting. And again, it progresses from sharp to less in focus from the front to the back of the image.
I DON’T know what cameras and lenses were used on the illustrative images (other than my own, of course) here. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that most (if not each) of them were made with smart phones. The yellow rose image that has nice bokeh – maybe not. But bokeh or at least out-of-focus areas in an image can be created with artificial intelligence, both in post-processing and now, in-camera with the impressive “computational photography” technology built into them. Hard to know, and not really relevant to my point here.
But in spite of the moniker “smart phone,” the camera (in a phone or stand-alone) is not smart
THERE ARE some takeaways here for photographers. The first is understanding of how focusing works. Most modern cameras and all phones today incorporate auto-focus. But in spite of the moniker “smart” phone, the camera (in a phone or stand-alone) is not smart. It is technologically amazing. But it doesn’t think. There are sensors in any camera that detect and focus the camera on points in an image.
MODERN CAMERA focus area sensors have become very complex compared to the old-school manual focus aids, and then auto-focus sensors in our old analog cameras. The image above shows multiple sensors, linked to an autofocus algorithm that “smartly” chooses the areas to focus. For still photos like those shown here, I never use this feature, preferring to use only one sensor, and to have it movable by me to the area in the image I want to be in focus. Smart phones are not as easy, because the default settings do not show these sensors at all and the camera defaults to its programmed focus strategy (my Samsung Galaxy S21 has a “pro-mode” which lets me see the multiple sensors in multiple mode, but I still cannot see – or move the single AF sensor point around). It is important to know what is happening “under the hood.” Left to its own doing, the camera will do one of two things: (1) focus on whatever point the sensor sees, or (2) find nothing to focus on and get confused, rendering an out-of-focus image. Smartphones are pretty darned good at finding focus, but they do miss sometimes. But obviously the key point here is to understand what the sensor is “seeing” to focus on. The photographer must be aware that the camera will try to focus on something – but it may not be what the photographer thinks it is focusing on.
THE PHOTO below is another failed attempt at depth of field/bokeh. It is a “close, but no cigar” try. The technique of out-of-focus background (bokeh) is obviously at work here. But in order for the photo to be successful, the foreground image (or at least a substantial part of it) – the subject of the photo – has to be sharp. It is not, which is too bad, as it has the makings of a really nice image. A close look at the middle ground of the photo reveals very attractive color. To me, the image looks like it could even have been processed in a computer to create the background. That background may be a bit bright, but some work in post-processing could tone that down nicely. And then you have the makings of a good photograph, in my opinion. But the achilles heel of this one is the failure of the photographer to get the subject in sharp focus. It can’t be fixed (in spite of Google’s misleading commercials about how the new Google Pixel “fixes” blurry photographs. Nope. It doesn’t 🙂 ).
A SECOND takeaway here is that focus is not the only thing that contributes to an unsharp image. Even if your lens is set up to properly focus a subject sharply, there is another thing that can cause blur in an image: movement. It can either be movement of the subject (animation, wind), or movement of the camera. Humans cannot possibly hold perfectly still. Today’s technology, once again, has come lightyears in counteracting this with image stabilization technology (IS). None is better than the IS in smartphones. But they all have their limits. If light conditions are low enough, it may be necessary to use wide open apertures and very slow (long) shutter speeds in order to allow enough light to fall on the sensor to capture a visible image. These conditions mean camera movement will create blurry photos. At the same time, wind may be moving things in the photo that the photographer expects to be in sharp focus. And of course, animation (people and animals) can create blur. So, again, the shooter must understand these issues. It looks possible to me that the above image was made in lower light conditions and that wind or camera movement could have caused the out-of-focus conditions. I think it is worth mentioning here, that the process of digital rendering of an image can also contribute to a lack of sharpness. I see that with my scanned (from film) images – particularly when the scanner/scanner software isn’t the very highest quality. For cameras, but probably not applicable to smart phones, there is also another operator, often at work. Many cameras (particularly in the early days of digital cameras) have filters on them (to prevent a type of color “polution”), called anti-aliasing filters. The technology of color digitization of images involves an array of red, green and blue sensor-filters. The combination of these filters creates the “pixels” we read about in our images. Anti-aliasing filters attempt to remove some unwanted fringes, tints or bleed-overs in images. In the process, it created some softness of the image. This can usually be remedied in post processing by some careful “sharpening.” Some of the soft images we see may be a victim of this, rather than an unsharp original. As time has gone on, this issue has been addressed by much better digital capture technology. If you are shooting jpg images, the phone or the camera already applied sharpening to account for this. But if you are shooting raw images, the anti-aliasing piece may be of concern/interest to you.
The photographer must be aware that the camera will try to focus on something – but it may not be what the photographer thinks it is focusing on
MY MOM always told me that if you have a criticism, you should have a helpful suggestion to go along with it. 🙂 So here goes: Most importantly, understand how your camera (smartphone or stand-alone) achieves focus. For smartphone users, there may be some settings “under the hood,” that you can use to see the focus bracket. There are also “apps” that you can download that will give you more “user-controls.” These apps – in some cases – will allow you to manually control aperture (which effects the depth-of-field/bokeh issues discussed). You can also use the phone’s AI (the iPhone 12 and above have particularly good ones), to create a bokeh effect. But you must remember to have some portion of the photo (usually in the foreground of the image) already in sharp focus. For stand-alone camera users, spend some time in the manual (yeah, even if you are a guy 🙂 ). Modern cameras use a number of different technologies to achieve focus and you have some control over that. For the images being discussed here, using auto-focus (and I mostly do), I like to set the single AF/single shot mode on the camera. You can also often set the size of the focus area. You can experiment with that – but it is important that you understand what it is doing (or trying to do). Think about which part or parts of an image you want to be in sharp focus, and then concentrate on getting the focusing sensor on those parts. Most often, background bokeh will be achieved by either wide apertures or long lenses – or a combination of both. Be aware that in both of these cases, the depth-of-field will be much narrower and what you see in the viewfinder might not be the same as the end result. Hope some of this stuff helps somebody out there.
[NOTE: I am always a little sensitive about writing “critical” blogs like this. I will be the first to admit that my images – by either my own critique, your critique, or just points of view – are imperfect. I think we should all be striving to make all of our images better. I also am very cognizant, particularly as I look at the completed version of this blog post, of what WordPress, Facebook, and other sites do to our images when posted – these are things that are beyond our control. It is very possible that any of the images used here may appear softer than they did on the creator’s individual screen. I have certainly noticed changes in image quality to my own images after posting. The “illustrative images” here are purposely unattributed. The idea is to illustrate a “teaching point” and not to be critical of any image or photographer. As always, I appreciate those of you who follow and who read here. Thank you]