Out-of-Focus

Last week, I broke down the different ways color can be used to compose a photograph. Another key tool that photographers can use is oof, the out-of-focus parts of a picture. I love oof, but unfortunately my point-and-shoot camera doesn’t allow me to easily produce it. (My camera’s max aperture is small. Small aperture means that depth of field is greater.) It’s the main reason I’m excited to get a DSLR (someday). Before I break down oof in this article, I want to bring up a quick technical aside. Bokeh is the quality of blur in a photograph, i.e. is the blur octagonal or donut-like? I will not talk about bokeh here.

Again, the question that I ask is: what are the ways that oof can be used to compose a great picture?

All OOF

These photos blur the entire scene. They are most effective with animals — you can identify the animal, but the animal’s expression is not important (we emotionally connect more with human’s faces).

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Horse on a riverbank. [Guilin, China]

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Ancient sheepherder…herds his sheep. [Mt. Old Grandfather, Fenyang, China]


 

The next three categories address the three places where a photographer can place oof: the background, the foreground, and both (where the midground is in focus).

Boring In-Focus Foreground, Colored Blurry Background

Background oof is at its best when the objects in focus are boring and the background oof has a spot of color to make it pop.

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Farmer in a quickly urbanizing suburb. [Chongqing, China]

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Brightly colored houses are the norm in Harbin, where they are used as a diversion from the long, cold winters. I love how the only in-focus part of this picture is the dark quarter-circle in the bottom left. [Harbin, China]

Dark Blurry Foreground, Bright In-Focus Background

Shots with foreground oof require the in-focus background to be worth looking at. The simplest way to create a compelling background is to light it up while making the foreground dark.

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A bench. It’s the bright background more than the dark foreground that creates emphasis here. [Yangshuo, China]

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Western-style buildings from the 20’s at a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This picture messes with my sense of scale. [Kaiping, China]

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Tour guide at the top of an old emperor’s tower. The “mane” of her hood is emphasized here. [Guilin, China]

Midground Focus

Midground focus is the most difficult kind of oof to utilize, essentially because there are three variables: blurred foreground, in-focus midground, and blurred background. I’ll show three ways to use it below. First, use the midground clarity to emphasize texture of a continuous object.

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A rusty water pipe at my school. The pipe is the continuous object. It goes from blurred, to in-focus texture, and back to blurred. [Fenyang, China]

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An abandoned yurt on the outskirts of an Inner Mongolian horse outpost. The painted concrete is the continuous object. [Xilamuren Grassland, Inner Mongolia, China]

Second, use focus to emphasize a picture broken into thirds, i.e. 1st third oof, 2nd third in-focus, 3rd third oof (an oof sandwich!).

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An orange drink can, in this position for god knows how long. This picture uses the same “boring foreground, spot of color background” pattern outlined earlier. Horizontal cuts into thirds are emphasized by the blur, focus, blur pattern. [Harbin, China]

Third, use boring foreground and background oof to make the midground subject pop. It’s best when the foreground and background are of a similar hue.

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A skull (presumably goat) and an empty liquor bottle at the top of a pile of stones used to mark location in the grasslands. [Xilamuren, Inner Mongolia, China]

OOF As Tool To Emphasize Connection

This final category uses oof to emphasize a shared trait between the foreground and the background. Although the following two pictures both use background oof, in theory the location of the oof shouldn’t matter. The connection is all that matters.

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Exposed rock at the top of a mountain. The connection here is that the close-up rocks have a damn similar shape to the mountains behind them, as if each mountain was a repeating series of fractals. [Guilin, China]

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Leaves and red dirt near a man-made tree enclosure (the blurred bumpy texture). The shared connection here is primarily color — that earthy red. I would count “interesting texture” as another shared property that this photograph brings out. [Kaiping, China]


 

Until Next Time

I think oof is the photographic concept in which I have the most room for growth. Pictures like the ones above are difficult to capture with my point-and-shoot. Once I get a DSLR, I’ll put most of my photographic mind energy into exploring its design space. Still happy with the way these turned out. Let me know (here or on social media) if you have any pro oof techniques!

RL