I have an image of a blueberry shot on the end of a spoon with my macro lens. It has a very narrow depth of field (DOF). Only the front of the blueberry is in focus. The rest has a lovely soft blur.
The first comment when I posted it on Facebook was ‘it would look better if it were all in focus.’
There is a perception amongst some photographers who are very invested in the technicalities of shooting, that absolutely every image has to be 100% sharp. While it is an entirely valid choice – and I fully support the decision to shoot their images that way – it is not the ‘only’ choice.
For those of us who want to explore different creative styles, have fun with different lenses and push the boundaries of what photography can allow us to do in creating art, there are plenty of alternatives.
NOTE: To clarify, sometimes an image ‘just is’ out of focus for whatever reason. This article addresses the photographers deliberate creative choice to use softness or blur in a picture. It may be a subtle difference for some, but it is a difference.
It amuses me that many photographers believe all images ‘must be tack sharp.’ Still, they are out there taking photos of birds, portraits or wedding shots with very soft blurred bokeh backgrounds. However, the reasons they do so are perfectly valid.
Some photographers do so to:
- soften a distracting background
- bring the subject into prominence
- make it aesthetically pleasing
- give depth and 3D feel to the image
But for bokeh to work well, you need to have some specific elements present and happening. Such as decent quality lenses, a lot of distance behind the subject to the background, and good soft light. Not every shoot offers those situations, nor can everyone afford the best lens.
What if we want even more softness in our image, including the subject? Maybe we want the background sharp, and the subject blurred – a technique often used in some street photography styles.
What about ICM – Intentional Camera Movement? Or Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese/Zen aesthetic of the beauty of imperfection.
There are so many other ways to see the world and present our images with our unique creative viewpoint. If that means smearing stuff on a filter in front of your lens, then smear-away :).
Learn To Love the Blur
Bring your hand as close to your face as you can, so you can still focus on it. What happens to the background? If you shift focus to the background instead, your hand blurs.
Distant mountains are blurred as we physically cannot focus clearly that far away.
So its natural for blur to be present in our images. Therefore if we choose to use it more creatively to give our pictures a different feel or mood, we are enhancing a natural element in our world.
Painters can represent a tree in different ways depending on their technique and style. It may be rendered beautifully with every leaf painted as an individual element. It may have stark lines representing a trunk and branches, or colorful blobs in the background.
Photography can be playful, creative, stylistic and artistic as well. We can allow ourselves to love blur.
Intentional camera movement is popular with stands of trees, soft beach scenes, and fields of flowers. To enhance it, even more, some people stretch plastic film in front of the lens. Or wrap it around the front leaving a small opening to shoot through.
I know flower/macro photographers who wrap gauze fabric around the front of their lens for an alternative soft effect and to add some color as well. Stretching pantyhose across the front of the lens is also cheap and effective.
Smearing petroleum jelly on a filter screwed to the front of the lens is reasonably common for an effective soft blur effect.
Lenses with an F stop of 2.8 to 1.4 give a very narrow depth of field, which highlights the subject and softens the background. Macro lenses are excellent for this effect.
Many portrait and wedding photographers will have an 85mm portrait lens with an F-stop in this range. Often specifically used to blur the background for a nice effect.
Lensbaby are well known for their special effect lenses. Their lenses offer lots of creative blur effects. The ‘Composer’ range allows you to select a specific point in the image to be in focus while softening the remainder. The ‘Twist’ range gives a swirly bokeh effect in the background, and there are other options too.
‘Helios’ and ‘Vivitar’ vintage lenses are experiencing a renaissance in popularity. They have many creative bokeh effects (including the swirl style) and are quite cheap in comparison to Lensbaby. They are vintage manual-focus lenses and may need a specialist mount to attach to your modern camera, but can they can be purchased at very affordable prices.
For some people, it can be scary to let go of the need for sharpness and embrace the softer side. Other people sit happily in that place and rarely shoot a classically sharp shot.
There is room within photography as a creative medium for us to be artistic. To let go of the perceived rules, relax and have some fun doing something different.
Yes, some effects are niche, and you may not want to use them all the time. But you wouldn’t use a Fish-Eye lens every day either.
Having a range of choices gives you much more scope to shoot differently, add your unique take on an image. Using different lenses can help us see the world in new exciting ways and open up opportunities to create memorable images.
Ways to Play
Bokeh relates to the quality and smoothness of your blurred background when you shoot the subject with a shallow depth of field. Different lenses give a varied type of bokeh. Usually, the better quality fast primes or macro lenses have the smoothest, most pleasing bokeh.
Bokeh happens when the subject is closer to the camera than it is to the background. Shooting wide open, i.e., F2.8 to F1.2 will give maximum blur of the background.
So try to shoot your subjects wide open with a narrow depth of field. With the background further away from them, you will achieve the nice soft blur.
2. Selective Focus
When you combine a narrow depth of field, such as F2.8, with selecting a specific part of the subject, it will soften everything else in the image.
Doing so creates a lovely effect with flowers and macro imagery.
3. Shoot Through
Place something in front of the lens to add some level of softness. It can either completely cover the lens or be wrapped around it to only soften the edges.
You can use:
- nylons stretched across the lens
- gauzy fabric wrapped around the lens
- plastic film across or wrapped around the lens
- filters smeared with petroleum jelly
- hold fabric or flowers in front of part of the lens to add softness (common in flower photography)
4. ICM (Intentional Camera Movement)
Intentional Camera Movement is when the camera is deliberately moved during the shutter opening and closing to add blur to the image. A neutral density filter can assist with giving you a slightly longer shutter speed if shooting in daylight.
You may have seen this used in shots of forests with vertical stands of tree trunks.
Try purchasing ‘Helios’ or ‘Vivitar’ Lenses (or other options) and related mounts for your camera. Many of these lenses have unexpected visual effects (sometimes seen as a fault) but can be used effectively for creative shots.
6. Specialty Lenses
Lensbaby offers a range of lens solutions to give you a variety of soft effects.
Soft Focus filters get screwed in front of your lens and are useful in portrait and glamour work. Otherwise, many people mimic this effect in post-processing via Photoshop.
For those who strive to have every image as sharp as possible, continue with your efforts. If you who want more variation, flexibility, and creativity in your work, there is space to play and create that style of an image too.
It doesn’t have to be expensive. The vintage lenses can be bought online for under $100 (depending on freight and exchange rates).
Give yourself permission to relax, experiment and play, and create something unique!
Come over to the soft side. We like it here! 🙂
Share your images with us in the comments below.