Selective Focus In Photography | A Definition

A pair of King penguins stand out from the rest of the waddle on South Georgia Island. Selective Focus and a shallow depth of field produced this result.

Selective Focus allows you to direct viewer attention to the most important focal point or subject within your photo.

Selective focus may be the ideal option to pull out of your bag of photography techniques when you find yourself photographing scenes with lots of similar looking subject matter.

At such times it’s important to be able to separate your primary subject or subjects from the rest of the scene. The technique of selective focus photography can help you do just that.

Selective Focus Camera Technique

When I made the image of the King penguins at the top of this post I knew I needed to focus my camera on the pair of penguins in the foreground and then employ a very shallow depth of field to blur their surroundings.

By doing so I would be able to provide a sense of visual separation between my two hero King penguins and the rest of the penguins, grouped into a series of waddles, behind them.

As you can see there’s a lot of penguins in this image and, with so much potentially competing subject matter, it would be hard for the viewer to know where to look if the entire image was rendered sharp.

To be able to produce a successful image it’s important to be able to direct viewer attention to the most important focal points within the photographic frame.

Selective Focus is the technique that will allow you to do so.

Penguin Patrol, South Georgia Island

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Selective Focus Photography on South Georgia Island

That’s exactly the situation I found myself in after disembarking, from an inflatable zodiac, on the coast of South Georgia Island in the remote waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Penguins are beautiful birds providing great opportunities for wildlife photography.

Their behavior is so interesting and so humorous that even a quick viewing experience will provide the intrepid traveller with interesting insights into animal biology.

  • The King penguin is the second largest penguin species, second only to the Emperor penguin

  • King penguins can live for 15 to 20 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity

  • The King penguin is one of the few birds that does not build a nest

  • Leopard seals and Orcas are apex predators that devour a lot of penguins

Here’s a post I found online with loads of really interesting facts about King penguins.

An overview, towards the beach, from an elevated vantage point on South Georgia Island. This image is a great example of a large depth of field.

In fact Selective Focus works much the same way the human eye does. Let’s take this black and white photo of an overview towards the beach at South Georgia Island as a case in point.

As I understand it, and speaking in a very non-scientific way, when we look at a scene our eyes scan it and focus upon individual elements that draw our attention.

As those elements are often different distances away it’s only possible to focus on one of them at any particular time.

We then produce an image in our mind that assembles individually focused elements, from a range of visual snapshots, into a single memory where everything in the scene is rendered relatively sharp.

The amazing thing is that this process of constructing a visual impression of the world around us is going on, continuously, as we navigate our way around our home, office and other environments.

So what we perceive as a landscape, with lots of sharply defined detail from foreground to background, is a kind of fiction.

What we believe we see is a quickly assembled combination of a series of individual images, where the eye focuses at a range of distances (and, by the way, compensates for differences in relative brightness) and the brain assembles those images into a single memory of the world around us.

Colorful flowers await visitors touring the canals of Bruges on a beautiful summer's day in West Flanders, Belgium.

Selective Focus Definition

Penguins not doing it for you? Here are a few more examples of where selective focus can be used to direct the viewer’s attention to exactly where you want them to look.

  • Bridesmaid pulling attention away from the bride (though shalt not)

  • Small group of flowers, some in better condition than others, all competing for viewer attention

A more compelling image often results by separating the subject from their surroundings in a way that's usually not possible, at least not to the same degree, with most smaller sensor cameras.

Here's how to do it:

  • Critically focus on the most important subject within the frame

  • Employ a shallow depth of field to further separate the primary subject/focal point from their surroundings

There are three things that can heighten the visual separation between a sharply defined subject and and out of focus background.

  • A physically wide aperture (e.g., f/4)

  • Telephoto focal length

  • Shorter camera to subject distance

Try to remember that you're using a shallow depth of field to separate your point of focus (i.e., subject) from potentially competing subjects and, thereby, directing the viewer's attention to where you want it to be.

It’s perfectly natural for the viewer’s eyes to wander around the photo.

However, while out of focus areas can be soothing and provide a mental release for the mind in our detail rich world, we seem to be programmed to search for sharply defined detail.

That’s why you can be sure that, while the viewer’s attention may wander, momentarily, around the image they’ll always return and linger longer on the actual point of focus in your photo.

And that, of course, is the whole point of the exercise.

Hungry King penguin chicks, awaiting the return of their parents, on the beach near Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island. A shallow depth of field encourages the viewers attention back to the primary subject.

Selective Focus can be one of those simple techniques that can make a big difference in separating a good image from the rest of the pack.

See how easily your eye is drawn to the King penguin chick in the foreground on the beach near Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island.

Selective Focus is a great photography technique that can really add the wow factor to many of your best images.

I recommend you try out Selective Focus the next time your composition includes competing elements within the photographic frame.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru