There are times when an item gradually going out of focus is desirable in photography. It’s long been customary in portraiture for the eyes to be as sharp as possible due to their importance, but allowing sharpness to diminish towards the ears, hair and beyond. Often, the tip of the nose will also be less sharp. This is usually by design, at least by skilled photographers.
Today, the prevalence of television and film’s use of shallow depth of field has increased the appeal of this technique among today’s clients. It’s also closer to how our eyes focus sharply on only one thing at a time, although we are not usually aware of this in day to day viewing. But it feels “natural” when we see it in an image that has only one genuine subject, like a person we care about in a landscape. If the landscape is unimportant to us, our brains don’t take as much notice of that as they do the in focus person. For example:
Selective focus like that can also be applied to product photographs in order direct attention the features the advertiser wants to accentuate, in the photos, below, the restaurant’s offering of wines, or the bracelet’s fine details while simultaneously implying there are more options available.
One of my specialties has long been jewelry photography. Because jewelry is often small, it demands that we photograph it using a macro lens, specially designed to work very close to small subjects. However, working this close to small objects changes the equation when it comes to depth of field/focus. Camera settings that used to guarantee sharpness measurable in feet now yield 1/4 to 1 inch, more or less. This too, can be highly desirable, as above, but not always. In the ring below, the gems and the setting are of prime importance, thus, allowing the band to slip into a light blur is our goal here. However, this is pushing the limits of traditional macro photography. As you can see, the critical focus here is less than an inch.
As I said before, extreme front to back focus has its place, too; especially in products, architecture and landscapes we want to investigate in some detail (look at Ansel Adams’ landscape work for example). In my earlier career, I used 4×5 view cameras with their specialized movements to accomplish this extreme depth of field. Now, in the digital age, while there are still view cameras and digital backs for them, I haven’t been asked to provide images in the so-called Large Format for a dozen years or more. That doesn’t mean the need for depth of field has gone away, it only means we are using different ways to achieve it. The necklace below is a superb example of the techniques we use when the “usual” won’t do. There are about 8-10 inches of front to back sharp focus, here.
Compare the two images below, and you’ll see the difference in results between two of the techniques we utilize to achieve your desired goal. In the first below, its getting “soft” about 1/4 of the way back, getting softer as your eye travels to the back of the bracelet.
On the other hand, using the same techniques we did on the necklace, you can see this photo is sharp, front to back. It all depends upon what your photographic goals are.