Musings on Photography

Focus/Depth of field

Posted in Blogroll, process, technique by Paul Butzi on January 20, 2009


For some time now, I’ve been fiddling around with very shallow depth of field, placing the focus in unexpected places, and all the related issues that go hand in hand with those experiments.

Some of those things I think I’ve started to get a handle on, and some of them I haven’t. Despite (or perhaps because of) this partial success, I found this post on Andreas Mannessinger’s blog to be particularly interesting.

Andreas writes (in part):

I’ve made a few images in the morning, some not even bad, I took my time, but none of them even comes close to these two snaps. I shot them through the dirty rear window of the tram, just after it had left the underground passage, shortly before the train station. I still had the camera ready (in fact I almost always have), but it was a very short moment, certainly not the moment to worry about composition.

I have made two exposures, the Image of the Day focused on the outside scene, the other (to see the difference, you really have to click at both and see them bigger) focused on the dirty window.

Compositionally the Image of the Day better suits my taste. The position of the sun is dead center horizontally and on a third vertically, the masts on both sides make for a nice frame, so if I had framed the image consciously and if I had chosen the time to release the shutter in relation to the position of the train, this would have been pretty much it.

Emotionally the other image grips me stronger. The vague nature of the scene behind the tack sharp dirt of the window, that leaves so much open for interpretation, I really would have liked this to be the capture made at the right moment with the right composition. Alas, in a moving train, in face of a scenery that changes by the second, there is no chance to repeat anything, no chance to shoot the same image twice, but differently focused.

You really need to go to Andreas’s blog, and look at the two photos. I agree with him about the composition, about the symmetry and all that. But that second image – focused on the dirt on the window – that image just makes me swoon. Go click on it, and look at it at the maximum size possible. That, my friends, is the photographic equivalent of the sound you get when you sob on your long cool winding saxophone.

The next time someone tries to tell you all about how great photographs have everything in focus, or the focus needs to be on the most important compositional element, or any of the rest of that jazz, just let them go on and prattle until they run out of steam and drift to a stop on their own. Then go and show them that photograph.

I mean, wow. That’s about all I can say about that, is “wow”.

4 Responses

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  1. Andreas Manessinger said, on January 20, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Well, what can I say but thanks 🙂

    But really, I do regret that I didn’t follow my first impulse, to focus on the window instead of what’s behind. Well, I did, but not in the right moment, not at that time when I composed consciously. Then again, there’s no going back, and I’m actually glad about both images and about the lesson learned.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on January 20, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I think our brains like a puzzle. Something left unsaid, or something to at least think about. If you show everything and all the details, we get bored and move on. Selective focus or shallow depth of field is one mechanism to do this, not the only one, not always the best, but one way.

  3. mark a. said, on January 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Interesting that you write of “puzzle”, “left unsaid” Gordon. That seems to be the general idea of your recent post titled “Gestalt principles and composition”. You know, the idea that the brain will fill in the blanks.

    Where there was mystery in the picture by Andreas the brain filled everything in with what it needed and/or wanted.

  4. Anita Jesse said, on January 21, 2009 at 8:54 am

    I, too, had been mesmerized by that post at Andreas’ site. This is one of those discussions that teases at my brain raising far more questions than answers and that’s fine.

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