Blog #3: fOCUS
Blurry images are the bane of a photographer's life. There is absolutely nothing worse than happily snapping away during a shoot, thinking we've captured some stunning images, only to find afterwards that our settings were not quite right, and the subjects aren't sharp! Focus is therefore a key element of photography and there are a few things we can do to help us achieve pin-sharp images, even with a camera phone. Once we've mastered this basic understanding, the next thing to learn is how creative focussing and deliberate use of blur can elevate images into beautiful works of art. This is perhaps the most technical aspect of capturing good natural light images, but mastering it will certainly see your photographs go from good, to excellent, so it's worth taking the time to understand, learn and practice through doing.
1. Achieving Good Focus
In trying to understand how to achieve the best focus in a shot, it's important to first understand the factors that make focussing really difficult! The two main culprits for out-of-focus (or blurry) shots are; low light environments and fast movement. Whilst it would be really easy for me to say "just avoid these two pitfalls", unfortunately, photographing active children in the dark nooks and crannies of nature means that we are often faced with exactly these two issues! It's also confounded further if we have more than one child, as quite often one will be in focus and not the other(s). To address these focussing challenges, we should try to do the following:
A. FIND GOOD LIGHT
Whether you're using a DSLR or a mobile phone camera, the autofocus systems on each rely on light being present to be able to detect subjects. In low light and low contrast situations, autofocus can often struggle, taking much longer to detect and latch onto subjects effectively, which results in blurry, out of focus shots. If you're shooting in the woods or forest, it is best to shoot in clearings and on forest edges as these areas will have better quality pockets of light. If you're a forager, too, then these areas tend to have lots of wild goodies as well, so it's a win-win situation! If it's really dark, then you can always turn on your flash, although I tend to not advise this as the light it provides is often too harsh and "head-on", and doesn't make for nice photographs. For more tips on finding the best light for photos, take a gander at the first blog post in this photography tips series: Light!.
The type of lens used can also impact how much light hits the sensor in your camera. Generally speaking, wide-angle lenses (e.g. 16mm, 24mm or 35mm) let in more light as standard, making focussing easier and quicker; whereas longer lenses (including those commonly used for portraiture, such as 50mm, 85mm and 135mm), let in less light as standard, meaning autofocus is more likely to be a bit slower. Whilst this may seem geared towards DSLR users (who can swap out lenses whenever they like), on the contrary, many modern mobile phone cameras have multiple lenses on the back - both longer and shorter - so switching lenses is possible for mobile phone users, and may make a big difference to focussing ability.
b. Dealing With MOVEMENT
Capturing basic movement, such as walking, or more dynamic forms, such as running or jumping, requires good quality light and a fast shutter speed which freezes the action. If you use a DSLR, then you can adjust these manually to get a better shot, but a comprehensive manual mode isn't always available on camera phones, so the only option you may have is to find good light, which will allow your phone's camera to adjust it's settings automatically for the scene and capture the action without blur. You can also get better results by directing the children to make focussing a bit easier. Asking them, for example, to slowly walk towards or away from you whilst holding hands is a good way of setting things up slightly so you can achieve the shot you want.
Capturing sharp images of running children is always difficult, as they can move very quickly when they want to! The biggest problem with fast moving kids, particularly if they are moving towards or away from you, is by the time the camera has locked focus on them, they have already moved somewhere else, so will be blurred when the picture is taken. This is because focussing takes place on a level plane that is perpendicular (i.e. at a 90 degree angle) to the camera. These planes can be wide (fatter) or shallow (thinner), depending on the settings of your camera (see Understanding Aperture, below) and the distance you are from the subject you are trying to focus on. At close distances, the plane of focus is more shallow, and at further distances, the plane of focus is a lot wider. When children are moving towards or away from you, there is only a very small window of opportunity for capturing them inside a plane of focus. If you miss this opportunity, they will pass through the plane of focus before the shot is taken, making them blurry and out of focus.
In situations where children are running, it's best to be further away from the kids to provide a wider plane of focus, and to shoot in much brighter environments, such as fields or pastures, to allow your DSLR or phone camera enough light to focus quickly. If your DSLR or phone camera has a "burst" shooting mode (where multiple images are captured when you tap or press the shutter button), then turn that on, too, as this ups your chances of getting a good shot, and with a bit of luck, one or more of your photos will be sharp! You can also ask the children to skip or jog, as opposed to running, as this movement is slower, meaning they will spend a longer time in a plane of focus, giving you a better chance of achieving a sharp image. Capturing them moving from a side-on perspective is generally much easier, as they are then moving along a plane of focus rather than through one (and should therefore always be in focus), but this can sometimes limit your creativity!
One of the best tips I can offer however, is to lock focus on a spot on the ground in front of them and fire-off a few shots as they pass over the spot. This works for both side and head-on images, and is how I capture most of my running shots as the kids are just too fast for a standard way of shooting! You can usually lock focus on a mobile phone by tapping and holding on the area of the screen where you want to lock the focus, until you are met with a notification of some kind, usually saying "AE/AF Lock" or something similar, at which point, you can remove your finger from the screen and your focus will be locked to that spot. Once locked, remember not to move around, as this will move your focus point! To lock focus on a DSLR, half-depress the shutter button with the focus point at the desired place, or use your camera's AE/AF button in a similar fashion to the mobile phone method.
Jumping or Leaping Children
Capturing jumping or leaping children can also be a challenge, as they can move very quickly out of one plane of focus and into another as they travel through the air. Like with running shots, shooting them sideways-on is generally easier than shooting them coming towards or away from you, and there are a few nifty tricks that you can try to capture these sideways-on action shots. Firstly, using an object for them to jump off, like a log or stump, gives you something stationary on the same plane to lock focus onto before they jump. You can also place a marker (or tell them) where you'd like them to land so you have a good grasp of their trajectory and can keep them perpendicular (and therefore on a plane of focus) to you as you shoot.
As also mentioned above, locking your focus onto a spot on the ground that they will be jumping over and firing off a load of shots (either in burst mode, or manually) tends to work for both sideways and head-on shots. You can also lock your focus on them while stationary, then get them to jump straight up "on the spot", as this more or less keeps them on a single plane of focus. These are some of the more difficult shots to get right and may require a few attempts and some trial and error (and some luck!), but they are absolutely worth the effort, so keep trying until you get the knack of it! Bringing in some other environmental elements for them to jump into, like puddles, can also make for some wonderful leaping images.
c. Focus With MULTIPLE CHILDREN
When positioning two or more children for a photograph, always try to position them next to each other on the same level or "plane". This gives a greater chance of getting them all in focus on the DSLR or phone camera. This can be helped along using objects or platforms in the environment, like tree roots, gates, or benches for children to hold onto or sit on, keeping them in line. If one or more children are further back or forward from the one you are focussing on, then they will normally be out of focus and blurry. Many modern phone cameras (and some DSLRs) will automatically detect subjects that are close to each other and adjust the camera's settings to make sure they're all sharp, but this is much easier for the phone or camera to do if the subjects are roughly on the same level (i.e. in a line), rather than in front of, or behind one another. DSE users can also use a smaller aperture to widen the focussing plane to ensure that even subjects that are behind each other are sharp (see Understanding Aperture, below).
2. Where To Focus
Choosing where to lock your focus is quite important. For close-up portraits, an eye is usually the best place to lock focus onto, as you generally want these to be bright, clear and sparkly! For wider, whole body shots or environmental portraits, locking focus on the head (or really any part of a subject's body) usually provides good overall sharpness in an image. If you are photographing multiple children, then locking focus on the closest child's eye or face is usually most effective, but certainly not essential - it depends on the subject and what they are doing. Keep in mind that the closer you are to a subject, the shallower, or thinner, the plane of focus will be, and the further away you are, the deeper, or wider it will be. You can see the effect that distance has on an image in the first two images, below.
3. Understanding Aperture
We've touched on positioning subjects on planes of focus and letting more light into the camera to make focussing quicker and easier, but there is a way to have more control of these if you're using a DSLR, or if your phone camera has adjustable shooting settings, and that is aperture. An aperture is the opening in a lens that lets light in and onto the camera's sensor. It works much like the pupil of your eye, opening wider in low light and becoming smaller when it's bright. Your mobile phone will automatically adjust this when focussing, but if you have manual aperture settings, you can control how much light is let in, and also influence how wide the plane of focus is. The wideness of an aperture is measured in what are known as f-stops, and usually range from around f/1.4 to f/16 or higher. The lower the number, the more "open" or wide the aperture is, and the higher the number, the more "closed" or smaller the aperture becomes.
Wide apertures are generally used in low-light situations as they maximise how much light is allowed to enter the camera, but they also have the effect of shortening the plane of focus. This is very useful for portraits as it blurs out the background and creates separation between the subject and the environment. I quite often shoot "wide open" at the widest aperture my lenses will allow, as this creates sharp subjects, but blurs out the background, and in some instances, the foreground, too.
Smaller apertures are generally used in bright situations, as they limit how much light hits the sensor, preventing over-exposure and blown highlights. They also have the effect of widening the plane of focus, allowing more detail to be captured both in front of, and behind, a subject. Smaller apertures are often used to capture landscapes, as the photographer will normally want a lot of detail to be captured in both the foreground and background of a shot. They are also useful for group photos, as it ensures that all the people in the group from front to back, are in focus and not blurry.
When you combine aperture settings and the physical distance your camera is from your subjects, you can have a great deal of control over how much of a scene is in focus. If your mobile phone doesn't have manual aperture control, you can still affect the plane of focus by moving closer or further away from your subject.
4. Using Blur Creatively
Although blur is often seen as a troublesome issue, it can be used imaginatively to create depth and beauty, or to separate subjects from backgrounds to create a strong visual impact. By using some or all of the techniques described above, you can create wonderful images that work in a broad range of situations.
Deliberately creating a shallow plane of focus can give an amazing sense of depth to an image. Having out-of-focus, blurry backgrounds or foregrounds (or both!) draws a viewer's eye to the sharpness of a subject, and creates three dimensional impact that elevates images to the next level.
Shallow planes of focus also create strong background blur, which helps to create contrast and depth, but also separates the subject from the background, making them "pop". This is a common technique used in portraiture that works exceptionally well.
It may surprise you, but there is a whole school of thought that states that beauty can be found in blur itself! "Bokeh" is the English translation of the Japanese word for "out of focus blur", and it works on the premise that blur can often be a beautiful thing, especially if there is shape or form in the blur, such as circular light spots or soft, creamy swirls in the background or foreground of an image. The "quality" of the bokeh is usually dictated by the number of blades on an aperture, but interesting shapes or pretty light spots can still help to make blur look beautiful and elevate images. You can even purchase hand-held prisms that you hold in front of your lens whilst shooting, which create abstract kaleidoscope blur effects, although I tend to use these occasionally at weddings rather than in the forest with the kids!
Creating Background Blur on Mobile Phone Cameras
Perhaps the biggest drawback when shooting pictures on most mobile phone cameras is the lack of direct control over aperture that one has. On many "standard" mobile phones, the aperture will be pre-set (usually at f/2.8) and cannot be changed, meaning we are forced to use physical distance from the subject as the main point of control over background blur. Fear not, however, as this has been somewhat rectified by the use of "Portrait Mode" (or similar) on many mobile phone cameras. This capture mode allows us to artificially "add in" or "remove" blur in the background of our portraits, with settings that seek to replicate f-stops from f/1.4 to f/16. Although the results are not always perfect, it does certainly help to create photos with the look of either a shallow or deep plane of focus. It can also be applied to portraits after the fact in the phone's "Edit Photo" function, too, so don't fret if you forget to turn it on during a shoot!
Some third party editing apps, like Lightroom Mobile and Lightroom Desktop, will also allow you to select the background of a captured image, allowing you to then go on to add or remove blur from the background as part of the editing process (usually by using the "Texture" and "Clarity" sliders). You can also select the subject, too, and add localised edits to them, such as increased exposure, texture, clarity, or sharpness, to help them pop out a little more.
That's all for now - this was a big blog post, so I do apologise if I've waffled-on a bit too much! If any of you have any queries or comments, feel free to email or DM me on social media @thegrizzlyforager! I'd also love for you to post a few of your pics if you've put these tips into practice!