Focus, Focus, Where's the Focus?

December 09, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

When photographing for a story in a major magazine, I use many approaches in my compositions and camera settings. Here I'll show one technique to draw attention to particular elements while also showing bigger parts of the story. Take this first image, for example.

I purposely left the near object (a covered exhaust of an F-16) out of focus, and put that P&W F100 engine on its transporter in focus. The low detail in the nearby engine cover does not detract from our understanding of what it is, and it's much more interesting to look at the crisp, technical, detailed engine than some wrinkled black vinyl. Including the latter, though, gives context to the former.

A Pratt & Whitney F100 engine rests on its transporter, awaiting installation in an F-16 at AMARG. Here's another example where the focus is on the more distant subject. The farther mechanic's eyes are in focus to draw us through the image, but the wider, mostly out-of-focus composition tells a fuller story. If everything had been in focus then we would be a bit overburdened with figuring out where we're supposed to look. Most of the details, as details, are not particularly interesting or important to the story, so I focused on the mechanic.

Mechanics at AMARG reinstall the landing gear on an F-16.

In this image I focused on the ammunition drum for the cannon. It's an interesting device with a bold shape and gears 'n' stuff. Still, the story isn't about the drum but about returning these F-16s to flight, so it's the rest of the picture that fills in that story while giving the viewer some eye candy to enjoy.

A mechanic works to regenerate an F-16 at AMARG. In the foreground is the ammunition drum, and part of the feed mechanism, for the aircraft's 20 mm cannon.

Another composition focusing on a nearer object (an engine inlet cover) while letting the background go out of focus but not ignored. (The green work gloves and other objects in the background were an unexpected, but welcome, visual "tie" to the snake eyes.)

A mechanic is reinstalling the landing gear on an F-16 at AMARG. I'll end with a final near-in-focus example. The American flag reads perfectly well though it is technically a bit blurry. The same would not be true of the stenciling on the exhaust — it would have been annoying to not be able to clearly read the text.

An F-16 nears completion of its return to flight at AMARG.

If you'll scroll back through the images, notice how your attention is not only drawn to the in-focus area, but it is then drawn to the out-of-focus area. And then back. When you purposely choose to put some things in focus and others out, you are directing not just where to look, but where to look first, then second, then third. It is an active form of seeing that better engages the viewer. And an engaged viewer is more likely to spend time with the image — and with your intended message.

So, think ahead when composing your shot and adjust your focus accordingly.


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Photography is a massive field. Aerospace photography less so. In these writings I share stories and tips.
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