What is selective focus and how do you use it?

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by David Em
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Selective focus is a technique where the photographer chooses a subject to focus on while blurring out the rest of the scene.

Selective focus on a person in a field.

Basics of selective focus

Selective focus is a photography technique that chooses a particular subject or object to focus on while ignoring the rest of the image. The subject will be in sharp focus, and the rest of the image is blurry.

Related: Creative composition tips for beginners

Since your subject is isolated in the image, the viewer’s eyes will be naturally drawn towards them. It’s also a great way to blur out a distracting background, which keeps the focus on your subject.

When used well, you’ll capture a sharp image with a soft and blurry background. It’ll be a powerful and compelling image.

Related: Understanding focus in photography

How to use it

To use selective focus, you need to use a shallow depth of field. When you’re using a shallow depth of field, it’s important to focus on one point in the image because it’s easy to get blurry results.

The following are the different things that affect the depth of field:

  • The aperture of your lens.
  • Focal length.
  • Distance between you and your subject.

The first step is to choose your lens. In most cases, it’s better to use a longer lens because it’ll be easier to separate your subject from the background.

However, a wide-angle lens will work if you position yourself closer to your subject. If you shoot from further back, you’ll have a deeper depth of field, even with the large aperture.

After you’ve decided on the focal length, set your aperture. Generally, it’s best to use a wide aperture, such as f/3.5 or wider.

If you use a smaller aperture, which also means a larger f-stop, then a greater portion of the image will be in focus.

Finally, figure out the best distance to shoot from. The best way to separate your subject from the background is to ensure that the distance between you and your subject is less than your subject and the background.

When you’re using the selective focus technique, you have to nail your focus because any blurriness will be noticeable. A great way to ensure that your image is in focus is to zoom into your subject’s eyes and focus there.

You can also use spot metering and autofocus, which tells your camera the exact spot that you want to focus on.

The following is a recap of how to use selective focus:

  1. Use a smaller f-stop number, which means your aperture will be larger, allowing for a more shallow depth of field.
  2. Zoom in or use a longer focal length.
  3. Make the distance between you and your subject less than the distance between your subject and the background.

Check the background

Different backgrounds will give you different results, even with it blurred out. For example, if you’re shooting an urban portrait at night, you’ll have a dark background and the city lights will create bokeh.

On the flip side, let’s say you’re shooting a backlit portrait at the beach during the golden hour. The results will be a bright and warm background.

Aside from the time of day, pay attention to colors and patterns in the background.

Check for anything that can draw a viewer’s eyes away from your subject, and focus on making sure the background complements your subject.

Choosing a background is important because it affects the entire look and feel of the image. Before you finalize your choice, consider the mood of the photo you’re shooting.

Frequently asked questions

How do you choose the focus point?

With portraits, the focus point should be your subject’s eyes. Make sure you get the perfect focus because if you miss it, the blurriness will be noticeable.

Is selective focus portrait mode?

Yes, selective focus and portrait mode refer to the same type of image using a shallow depth of field.

Does selective focus work for other types of photos?

Yes, anytime you want to focus on a particular subject or object, you can use selective focus.

Conclusion

In portrait photography, selective focus is a great way to isolate your subject because it creates a beautifully blurred background. Although it’s a basic photography technique, the results look amazing. To get creative with it, try shooting from different perspectives and angles.

More resources:

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.

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