How to Use Selective Focus to Create Powerful Imagery (with Examples)

by Tom Shu
Published: Last Updated on

Selective focus in photography is a technique that isolates the subject by blurring out the foreground and background. We focus on the subject selectively so that everything else is out of focus and hence blurred. This causes the viewer’s attention to immediately snap on to the subject and ignore everything else.

At the same time, the blurred environment can create a dreamy effect that cradles the subject in soft shapes and colors that highlight the depth of the scene, such as in the image above.

As a professional photographer, the few years that I have spent in the field have given me ample opportunity to use this technique to great effect. From portraits to still life, it has consistently delivered beautiful shots for me and my clients.

In this article, we will look at the following topics to learn to successfully create the selective focus effect:

  • Aperture control for changing Depth of Field
  • Distances between camera, subject, foreground, and background
  • Macro photography
  • Extension tubes
  • Mobile applications
  • How to successfully compose the shot

Let’s begin!

Aperture and Depth of Field

image of tulip field at sunrise

The aperture is the opening inside your lens that controls the amount of light getting through to the camera sensor. It also controls the Depth of Field (DoF) – the area in 3D space within which everything is in sharp focus. The wider your aperture (F-stop numbers like f/1.4, f/2), the shallower this space is and when you narrow it down to numbers like f/7 or f/9, you get a larger area where everything is in sharp focus.

Imagine DoF like a strip of space where things are in perfect focus. The areas around this strip gradually fade off into blurry, out-of-focus shapes. This gradual fading is called the ‘fall-off’ and it varies from lens to lens and camera to camera. The fall-off is more gradual in larger lenses like in Large and Medium Format camera systems and starts to lessen as the lenses become smaller in Full-frame, crop sensor, and micro four-thirds systems.

In the image above, the tulip in the middle left of the image is the main focus point, but most everything in front of that tulip and all of the tulip field behind it is fading out of focus. This clearly demonstrates how DoF works.

Now, in this image below, the focus is maintained sharp on the eyes. This is an important point to keep in mind when shooting people and animals. The soul of a face is in the eyes and that is where the focus should be.

image of shihtzu running at cannon beach with haystack rock in background

DoF is also affected by the focal length.

With a 16mm lens at f/2.8 and subject at 3 meters (9.8ft), we have a DoF of a staggering 271.3m (889.1ft)! This is great for landscapes.

Now let’s use a 50mm without changing anything else. The DoF is now 0.6m (1.9ft), a mere sliver of the previous one. Perfect for a selective focus shot like the ones above.

The background here like the image above is blurred to almost flat because the lens being used here is a telephoto one. This image clearly illustrates how a longer focal length can create a seriously blurred background.

image of a monkey with blurred out leaves in the background

Here’s a handy online calculator for DoF. Feed it your camera and lens details and try out various combinations to see how the measurements change. You will also see something called ‘hyperfocal’. This is simply a calculation that is meant to create an infinite area that seems to be in focus behind the actual subject that is in focus.

Distance

image of shihtzu at sunset with blurry background

Look at that beautiful, blurry background. The out-of-focus outlines of light, called bokeh, are prized by all portrait shooters. They create a beautiful contrast to the sharp subject in the foreground. This is the most common use of selective focus. To achieve this effect, you need a shallow depth of field and distance between the subject and the background.

Try this out with your camera – stand your subject close to the background and shoot with a wide aperture like f/2.8. Now move your subject well away from the background and shoot the same frame with the same settings. Notice that the first photo has a somewhat soft but well-defined background whereas the second shot has a fairly blurry and less defined background.

The distance between the subject and the camera also matters. To get the blurriest possible background, the camera should be much closer to the subject than the background. If the foreground needs to be blurred, it should be really close to the camera, almost on top of the lens. In shallow DoF, things in front of the lens can almost disappear.

Macro Photography

up close image of camera dial

At the tiniest levels, the same fundamentals of DoF and distance are at play. Only, the scale is reduced. Take a macro lens or just reverse your normal lens with a special adapter and you will see what I mean.

The distances here are not that far, maybe just an inch or two. Since the lens is a macro lens, you’re able to focus from very close distances  and magnify the subject in a way (zoom factor). This in turn creates a selective focus effect blurring out everything before and after the area in focus.

So if you have something small that you want to highlight using selective focus, using a macro lens is one of the best ways. Not to mention, it gives you a unique perspective you normally would not see.

Macro Extension Tubes

If you want to try out macro photography, but want to save money, macro extension tubes are a great choice. As the name suggests, these tubes ‘extend’ the lens by sitting in-between it and the camera.

It shortens the minimum focus distance, allowing you to move closer to the subject and thus achieve greater magnification. The only downside is that you lose some light, making the same image darker when shot through an extension tube. You can compensate by changing any part of your exposure triangle (aperture, shutter, ISO).

This is a good example of how you can get somewhat closer to the subject without having to buy a macro lens.

There are various lengths available for these tubes and they can be stacked up one after another. This can allow you to go close enough to get full macro-level details. Lenses of shorter focal length benefit more from these tubes than longer ones. So 50mm is a better lens than a 300mm one in this case.

Add too many though and you will not be able to focus at all because your focal point will move inside the lens!

Mobile Apps

Nowadays, all you need to take a photo with selective focus is a smartphone. Most smartphones now have the ability  to create a blurry background type effect, either through its own camera setting or by using a third party app.  

For example, if you have the iPhone XS or newer, you can adjust the f-stop directly in its native portrait mode and easily create selective focus by using a wider aperture. Here are directions on how to do it if you’re an iPhone user.

However, if you’re like me and have an older smartphone, you can still achieve this simulated background blur effect by using an app.

Here are some of my favorite “background blur” apps that I’ve tried out:

Focos on iPhone – https://apps.apple.com/us/app/focos/id1274938524

Focos on Android – https://baixarapk.gratis/en/app/1274938524/focos

EZ Blur, iPhone only – https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ez-blur-focus-photo-effects/id1305053158

AfterFocus, Android Only – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.motionone.afterfocus&hl=en_US&gl=US

Some of these apps will also allow you to choose the type of blur effect (Gaussian, linear, etc.).

This is by far the easiest way to get the selective focus effect, just tap, choose your aperture, and shoot or you can readjust after you have taken the photo too However, using an app is a simulated way to create depth of field and is usually not as good as what you can create with a camera.

Composing the Shot

image of girl in front of a blue lake

Now that you have learned all the common ways in which the Selective Focus look can be achieved, it is time to discuss the most important part of the entire process – how to compose the frame to get the best possible outcome.

One thing to remember is that the camera settings used in this article are merely examples to illustrate or emphasize a point. So when you are using your own camera, it is important to always experiment first and see what works and what doesn’t. Once you get over that little hurdle, good composition is the only step remaining.

Portraits

image of a girl with a flower crown in front of green flowers

Put a lot of distance between the subject and the background, use a wide aperture, focus on the eyes, center the subject, and put the forehead on the upper thirds line, and you are done! It’s a classic frame that you can’t go wrong with.

Now visit our article on the Rule of Thirds. Put the subject at some of the intersection points and see if that makes your frame more interesting.

Foreground Blur

image of hiroshima castle framed by leaves

Using all of the tips from above, add in some foreground elements. You can just take a leaf or a similar object and hold it in front of your lens.

Using all of the tips from above, add in some foreground elements. You can just take a leaf or a similar object and hold it in front of your lens.

This is a common frame that nevertheless looks beautiful because of the lighting and the foreground elements that are creating a bokeh.

This is a good example of how to add interest to a photo using blurred foreground elements.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless here.

Color Contrast

image of girl in flowy dress in front of mountain range

Choose your subject to stand out from its background through contrasting colors.

In the image above, the colorful dress Melissa was wearing stood out from the predominantly green and gray-hued background.

This contrast in combination with the selective focus made her dress pop even more than if the background was a similar color.

Summary

image of girl in front of rainier at sunrise with a lake

Selective focus is a photography technique that uses a combination of aperture setting and relative positioning of the subject to achieve defocused fore and background. This technique is used to highlight the subject, isolate them from their surroundings, and also create dreamy, surreal compositions. It is most used in portraits to create the popular blurred background look.

By practicing good composition, this technique can be used to create stunning imagery out of simple, ordinary scenes.

What Next?

Take out your camera and try out these techniques yourself. Leave us a comment if you have questions or want to share your work with us. You can also check out more articles for tips on how to take better photos.

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