Tips for Shooting Out-of-Focus Photography

Ready for some tips for shooting out of focus?

In every art, there is a tendency to want to follow conventions and traditions, but the most important moments in the history of an artistic medium often come from breaking those conventions. Some of the most beloved paintings to come out of the nineteenth century were the work of impressionists, defying the “rules” of painting; virtually all modern styles of dance are the result of a few dancers’ decision to step outside the strict requirements of ballet; and even in photography, we should not be afraid to do things that are unconventional, so long as they serve a purpose for us.

Blurry or out-of-focus images seem to go against what is valued in modern photography: crisp, clear images created by state-of-the-art equipment and editing programs. And yet, shooting out of focus can open up a realm of photography that we could never access with other techniques. As long as we know when and how to appropriately use out-of-focus photography, it can only benefit us as photographers to have this skill in our toolkit.

When to Shoot Out-of-Focus

There is an appropriate time and place for every photography technique. Making an image blurry for no reason is a needless risk; at best, it will result in a mediocre, somewhat confusing photo, but at worst, it will ruin something that would have been better off as an in-focus photo. Learning how to identify the situations that will benefit from shooting out of focus is the first step in adding the technique to your repertoire.

Emotional Effect

Blur can be used to highlight and evoke powerful emotions in photographs. It can convey excitement or anxiety of the subject, create emotions in the viewer, or turn an everyday moment into an eerie, Halloween-ready scene or a nostalgic memory. Consider the emotional effect that out-of-focus shooting will have on your setup first, so that you can make changes accordingly.

Simple Setup

This probably goes without saying, but when you shoot out-of-focus, there’s less detail in the resulting photos. To avoid lots of visual clutter and confusion (unless, of course, that’s what you’re aiming for), keep things simple. Don’t use a lot of subjects or textures, and instead focus on clean, distinctive shapes and poses that will still come through in the blurry photos. If you do choose to go against the idea of keeping it simple, such as to create a more surreal, chaotic image, just be sure to take extra care in setting things up -- you’ll need a lot more precision to make your vision come through.

How to Shoot Out-of-Focus

It might sound simple, but it’s really easier said than done. There are a number of different ways to get an out-of-focus effect in your photography, and each technique behaves a little differently. You can choose the technique you like best or try to master them all so that you can always pick the best option for a specific situation. Either way, it’s a good idea to have some level of familiarity with all of the different techniques.

Use the Camera

The most obvious way to create out-of-focus photos is to literally shoot out of focus on our camera. Simply use the manual setting on your lens and intentionally prevent it from focusing properly on your subject/s. This type of blurry photography has a particularly noticeable effect on lights, which appear larger, and it can often feel more natural than other blurring techniques. The effect we get from un-focusing the lens on the camera is similar to the effect we get from looking at something with a soft-focus in our eyes, so we automatically feel familiar with this type of image.

Use Motion

You can also take blurry photos by shooting while moving. Taking photos while walking, especially at night, is an easy way to add just enough blur to create an entirely different feeling. The results will be somewhat unpredictable, and you might be surprised by what comes out of shoots like this. It’s hard to set up precise shots while moving around, so to some extent you’re at the mercy of the precise moment you decide to take the picture, but I find that randomness can lead to some of my favorite images.

Use the Environment

Accessories and environmental tools can also help to create blurry, out-of-focus photos. Shoot in an environment that will fog up your lens (without damaging your camera, of course). Use bokeh filters to create unique, playful lighting effects. Protect your camera under plastic, a clear umbrella, or any other translucent material, and take photos in intense weather. Any of these environmental options, and others you might come up with, will give you photos that fall into the “out-of-focus” category, but the fun thing is, the exact effects will be different every time. You get to play around with them to find the different looks they can offer, and your photos will be totally unique.

Camera Settings

When intentionally trying to capture blurred images, there are certain things you can do to try and properly achieve the out-of-focus effect.

Adjust the shutter speed

Keep your shutter speed low. Ideally, 100 or less if the subject you're capturing is creating slight movements. Alternatively, if the subject you're working with is moving a little faster, you can use a shutter speed of 200 or less.

You may need to shoot several test shots to determine the best shutter speed. Using a slower shutter speed will increase blur; while a faster shutter speed will reduce the blur effect.

Both images below were shot with 1/130 Shutterspeed Setting

In Studio Examples

Outdoor Out-of-focus Photography


Shooting out-of-focus photography can look like a mistake when done poorly, but when utilized as a tool, blurry photos can serve to create an entirely different effect than any other shooting or editing techniques.

Still feeling overwhelmed by the idea of communicating the right ideas and emotions through your photography? Check out my new Lightroom course to learn all sorts of secrets and tips to help you step up your game. Blurred images and out-of-focus photography are just the tip of the iceberg of what you can do with your photography.

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