See-through blur

Fo­cus­ing on what’s be­yond your lens, at a wide aper­ture, gives you a semi-trans­par­ent layer to ex­per­i­ment with

NPhoto - - Niko Pedia -

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

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