How to use differential focus to make your composition pop

Differential Focus and Selective Focus are the same thing

Differential focus is a photography composition technique involving, believe it or not, focus. It’s also referred to as selective focus.

The photographer deliberately chooses to have part of the image in sharp focus while allowing other aspects of the image to be out of focus.

Why use differential focus?

Our eyes naturally seek sharp focus, so when we view an image we glance over the out of focus areas, seeking the sharply focused areas.

Photography composition using differential focus

By using differential focus (or selective focus) we’re directing a viewer’s eyes to the area we want to emphasize. The out of focus area, however, still forms an important part of the story or atmosphere of the image.

To understand why a blurry background is so desirable in photography composition, read about the Gestalt principle of figure to ground in our tutorial on Gestalt theory.

Further reading: Harness the power Gestalt theory in photography


Choosing where to focus

Because the sharpest part of the image is where your viewers’ eyes will ultimately rest, you need to decide on the most important part of the image. What are you saying with the image?

An ideal example of this is a bride and groom next to their wedding car, with the focus on the ribbon and bow details.

Obviously it’s a wedding and the most important aspect of any wedding is the bride and groom. However, choosing to focus on details, with the bride and groom out of focus in the background, tells the story of their day and highlights the details that they specifically chose to celebrate their wedding day.

Use differential focus to highlight details of a wedding

By focusing on the Rolls Royce mascot with the couple in the background, the differential focus highlights a carefully chosen detail of their wedding. I used the same camera settings for the photo on the left, but instead focused on the couple and allowed the mascot to be out of focus in the foreground.

Using out of focus foreground to frame subject

Here two composition techniques are being used: framing and differential focus to direct the viewer to the photo’s focal point, the puppy. Settings: focal length – 62mm, aperture – f5.6.

Differential focus decisions

When deciding to use differential focus, you also need to consider how blurred your out of focus areas need to be.

If the background is too blurred, it’s not contributing to the story, but simply acting as a way to make the subject stand out.

So, how little focus is too little?

Deciding on how out of focus to make your subject is another example of the choices open to you when creating a photo. There’s a broadly acceptable range of blur and it depends entirely on the photographer as to how far to push the limits before going too far.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t instantly figure out the objects in the out of focus areas, you’ve gone too far. Your viewers’ eyes won’t take it in at all and your message will be lost.

Photography composition ebook

Out of focus people

When you have blurred people in the background of your photos, they should not be looking at the camera. This is simply because our eyes are naturally drawn to another person’s eyes. Well, all eyes actually – our eyes are also drawn to animal eyes.

If somebody in the blurred background is looking straight at the camera, their gaze will tug a little too hard on your viewers’ attention and take them away from the focal point of the image.

Further reading: Secrets of great focal point composition

Differential focus with group photographs

Camera settings: focal length – 70mm, aperture – f8.

How to achieve differential focus

There are a few ways to create differential focus in your photographs using a narrow depth of field:

  • A wide aperture setting
  • Using a lens with a long focal length
  • Distance between subjects within an image
  • Camera sensor size

Further reading:

To understand the role of each of these factors in depth of field – Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

Using aperture – The Exposure Triangle – what role does Aperture play?

How to actually focus

Of course, the most important aspect of differential focus, is the actual focus. So, let’s look at auto focus modes and auto focus area settings on your camera.

To successfully and consistently apply differential focus to the part of the image you want sharply focused, you need to know how to use the auto focus settings on your camera.

Auto focus modes

Choose between 2 auto focus modes:

Continuous Servo AF (Nikon), also called AI Servo AF (Canon) – your camera will continuously focus (like the name suggests) while you partly hold down the shutter button, or fully depress the back button focus.

Single Servo AF (Nikon), also called One-Shot AF (Canon) – again, as the name suggests, when you depress the shutter button to focus, your camera will focus and lock on that focus until you fully depress the shutter button to take the photo, or release the button. This is true also when using back button focusing.

Further reading: Why back button focus is your BFF, and how to use it

Choose your auto focus area:

The only auto focus area you should be using when photographing with differential focus is single point auto focus. With this method you decide on where the focus will be and place your focal point on that area.

You can’t leave it to the camera to decide on what you want in focus. It may be a super awesome, top of the range camera, but they haven’t yet included mind reading technology with digital cameras.

Who knows, maybe in the future you’ll just have to think of an image you want to create and the camera will magically do everything. For now, learn to use single point focusing.

Further reading on focus:

Nail your autofocus, get the shot

How to focus on fast moving subjects

Secrets of great focal point composition


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Focus is one of the two main aspects of photography that new photographers ask about.

If you’re struggling to get to grips with selective focus, you can be sure that many others are struggling too. Share your questions and/or struggles below in the comments and I’ll give you some help.

If this article has helped you to understand differential focus, share that too – I love good news!

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