Focusing on what’s beyond your lens, at a wide aperture, gives you a semi-transparent layer to experiment with
Most people using selective focus simply concentrate on throwing the background out of focus. This is easy to imagine and to control, as you have a clear view of the subject that you want sharp when they’re closest to the camera. More unpredictable, and for that reason more interesting, is focusing behind and choosing your camera position so that the foreground is defocused. It goes against the way most people think about seeing, so it’s counter-intuitive – with all the creative possibilities that suggests.
To me, this is particularly a colour technique. For one, the colour gives extra definition to these images, and separation from the background. In black and white it’s harder to tell the layers apart. There’s also the simple visual pleasure of a colour wash (think of colours running together in watercolour painting), which optical blur provides you with beautifully.
So does it matter whether the foreground is recognisable or not, then? There are two opposing views on this. Firstly, the colour
wash can be lovely in its own right, so this may be sufficient justification for a blurred foreground. A pioneer of foreground blur layering, Saul Leiter, shot New York streets through anything that was handy, from condensation-blurred café windows in winter to falling snow to who-knows-what blurrily-colourful things. Interestingly, this 1940s and 1950s New York photographer has recently been rediscovered (by those who didn’t already know of him), and was exhibited last year at The Photographer’s Gallery in London.
Alternatively, as in the picture below, you can retain readability while still using the blurred foreground in a way that’s visually interesting. At the time of shooting this isn’t so easy to judge, mainly because of the miniaturisation of the scene through the viewfinder. This was a spring ceremony in southwest China for the Bulang ethnic minority, giving thanks for the gift of tea trees, for which the women dressed incredibly colourfully, with flowers in their hair. What I aimed for was a recognisable suggestion of this, while concentrating on the action of the celebrations behind.
When blur becomes transparent
Selective focus has its adherents, and I’m one of them, but it’s a technique that encourages extremes. The entire basis is separation and contrast between the focused parts (usually small) and the strongly out-of-focus areas (usually large), so generally we want a very striking difference. Sharp is sharp, so that’s the baseline, leaving the defocused area as the one to push. One of the things you come to realise if you take defocus to its extreme and use it for the foreground is that its edges eventually turn transparent, so that you see through an area of blur to the scene beyond. The more defocused the foreground, the wider the transparency. This emphasises not just that the defocused foreground is its own layer, but that it’s light and thin, which makes yet another contrast with the more solid background.
One shooting advantage is that you’re usually working wide open, which helps on the shutter speed. For Saul Leiter, shooting in Kodachrome was a technically happy choice. The film was incredibly slow by today’s standards (ISO10 in the 1950s, rising to 25 in 1961). Shooting wide open made handheld shooting possible in less than bright sunlight.
A spring festival in Yunnan, China, shot through and past a woman with flowers in her hair. It was taken at the lens’s maximum aperture of f/2.8
Colour, found here in the flower in the hair, helps to add a further degree of contrast and separation between the two different layers in this image