Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to keep foreground focus sharp in the seventh article of his sixteen-part series on composition.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
When foreground elements are soft, they become visually annoying. In nature, we want to see and appreciate all of the beautiful detail and texture in the subject. When the part of the composition that is closest to the camera, and therefore very prominent, is out of focus, our eye keeps going there in the hope of seeing sharp detail. However, it can’t bring that part of the image into focus. The blurred portion of the image keeps tugging at our attention instead of allowing us to enjoy the rest of the frame. It is best in these circumstances to use more depth of field. Soft backgrounds are ideal in many cases, but soft foregrounds should usually be avoided. If you want to include out-of-focus foreground elements, they need to be so out of focus that they are no longer recognizable. Make them just a blur of color.
A good example is image 7.1. This is a tegu from Argentina, and I like everything about it except that the front portion of the mouth is blurred. The soft background looks great, because it is unobtrusive and complementary. However, I find the small blurred area of the mouth to be very annoying. Similarly, the lower-right middle portion of 7.2 is soft. Here, too, I didn’t have enough depth of field to hold that important area of the lion cub in focus. In this particular case, I don’t consider the softness a fatal flaw. In other words, it doesn’t ruin the picture, but it’s not ideal.
The solution, of course, is to use a small lens aperture. In some cases, though, you may stop down to f/32 without being able to get very sharp. This may happen because you are extremely close to the subject (as with the flower in 7.3) or because you’re using a telephoto lens that doesn’t provide enough depth of field. You then have two options:
- You can move further away from the subject. This increases depth of field (even 3 or 4 inches can be significant when doing macro work).
- You can use Helicon Focus software to get complete depth of field at virtually any lens aperture. Helicon Focus is a brilliant software program. The way it works is that you take several pictures of a subject—anything not moving—from a tripod. Each time you take a picture, you re-focus the lens in very small increments from the furthest point in the composition to the closest point near the camera. It doesn't matter how many shots you take. I've done as many as 22, but usually you can get away with less. My average number of exposures is about 10 to 12. The software then assembles all the pictures and uses only the sharpest plane of focus from each photo. The resulting composite is perfectly focused throughout. Since f/8 is usually the sharpest lens aperture in any lens, you can shoot at f/8 and still have complete depth of field from the immediate foreground to the background. This process can be used for macro photography as well as when using a telephoto lens. What’s amazing is that if you use a long lens, you still get the telephoto compression, but everything is tack-sharp from front to back.
Compare images 7.4 and 7.5. The former was taken at f/8 and is a single exposure. Image 7.4 is a compilation of 14 images that Helicon Focus put together, and you can see how impressive this landscape shot turned out to be, especially at f/8. I purposely allowed the background to remain soft, although I could have shown it to be sharp as well. Notice how distracting the out-of-focus foreground is in 7.4, while in the comparison shot the photo is much more pleasing.
It helps to be aware depth of field all the time, but it’s especially important when you are filling the frame with a subject and using a telephoto lens. For example, in taking photo 7.6, I was so excited to photograph such a wonderful costume during carnival in Venice that I didn’t notice the model’s arm was soft. It was held away from her body several inches, and that was the problem. As soon as I saw that, I asked her to bring her elbow against her body. That enabled me to get it in focus, and in 7.7 you can see that it makes a difference.
I often see macro shots of flowers in which one petal is out of focus because it extends toward the lens. Image 7.8 is an example. I feel this degrades the photograph and makes it less than successful. To solve this problem, use the smallest lens aperture possible, or use Helicon Focus. Similarly, photographers often frame a distant scene with an out-of-focus element at the top of the frame. Photo 7.9 was taken along the Rhine River in Germany, and it shows out-of-focus branches that frame the castle. I feel this foreground is visually annoying. Compare this to 7.10, in which I used f/32 to make those branches sharp. It’s much better.
A situation in which an out-of-focus foreground can work is when shooting a predator, like a lion, hiding in tall grass. In 7.11, the soft foreground gives the impression that we are getting a glimpse into the private life of the cat.
Go to the next article in this series: Moving into the Frame
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules