Focussing on how it feels best…

A few days ago I read a very interesting article on James McArdle’s blog about the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. The article got me thinking about two things
– how I use focus which I will write about in this blog post and
– how much I feel I have in common with a photographer who lived about 100 years ago…but that will be for another blog post.

What resonated most with me was this quote of hers “…when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon…”

This is exactly what I do when I look through the viewfinder of my Hasselblad or at the ground-glass of my 4×5 cameras. I use the focus to create an image that looks beautiful to my eyes and has the atmosphere of mystery or melancholy or whatever else I want to evoke.

In some cases that means that the focus point isn’t even in the picture but slightly in front or I use tilt in addition to angle the focus area.

Here and example where I focussed slightly in front of the water drop as I wanted the picture to get a feeling of looking through crying eyes filled with tears.






Like Julia Margaret Cameron I shoot most of my work with fast lenses and wide-open which gives me a very shallow depth of field. This way I have absolute control over the areas of my picture that are “in focus” but it also requires even more that I find the right focus point which I do by experimenting. I play with the focussing ring or bellows extension until I find the position where everything seems to come together, subject, feeling and vision.

You can see the extreme shallow depth of field in this picture where the focus area is slightly in front of the tips of the anthers to give them a certain softness but still make them stand out as much as possible against the softness of the petals. The overall feel was meant to be that of a gentle “probing” curiosity.





Another possibility I use is to not focus on the main subject of my picture but instead have it as a dominant part of the out of focus area, like a distant dream. Here an example from a photo-trip to the beautiful Peak District in the UK earlier this year showing a more “standard” approach where the focus is on the tree versus a version where the focus is on the grass in front giving the tree – which still takes up most of the frame – a very dreamy feel…you can even imagine that it is not just a tree… 😉










Focussing is the part of my photography that takes longest together with composition and sometimes it does not work at all the way I envision it.

Once I have the picture as I want it there often comes a final challenge ;-).
It seems we live in a world where the quality of your photography is often measured by “sharpness” and “focus” rather than “vision” and “feel” so making pictures like mine also means to live with comments like “oh, but that or that is not in focus” or “but nothing is really sharp in your photo” to both of which my answer usually is “yes, that is right, but it is exactly how I want it” ;-). I use focus the same way I use aperture, shutter speed or movements to create an atmosphere or a feeling and not to achieve maximum sharpness.

I am curious to know how important focus and sharpness are for you – how do you use them in your pictures? I will be happy if you leave a comment with your thoughts.


  1. John on June 13, 2017 at 20:45

    I love this article on focus…because it explains your vision…how you use your photography to express how you feel…perfectly.
    How photography for you is not just a technical exercise…but an art and way of expressing.
    It reminds me of a documentary that I saw a few years ago about a lecturer teaching piano…who was trying to explain to her students about taking the musical expression to the next level…showing the difference between a student who was technically perfect…compared to someone who was too…but who also added something more…expressed something that came from deep inside of themselves fully through their playing…the difference was amazing and very emotional…that is how I feel when I look at your beautiful art.

    • Isabel on June 13, 2017 at 20:57

      Thank you so much, John :-). I like the story about the piano teacher as it also highlights that you need to have the vision/feeling as well as the “technical” knowledge which I very much agree with. One without the other can never be complete…

  2. Ian Barber on June 14, 2017 at 13:07

    Very interesting article and a great insight into your creative world.

    Really like the soft focus tree picture in the Peak District especially the tone. I am still trying to reproduce this tone but have almost given up.

    • Isabel on June 14, 2017 at 18:51

      Thank you very much, Ian. 🙂 I haven’t forgotten and will send you the details of the tone as soon as I have a little more time, hopefully this weekend.

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