The Six Steps to Creative Mastery – 2: Find your Focus

Focus and Sharpness

I’ve created The Call of The Muse specifically to deal with the deeper issues of creative and authentic photography and won’t really be revisiting the technical stuff anytime soon, however if we ever hope to work on the deeper, more inspired and connected levels we simply must put the time in to master the tools. It’s fundamental to the process as it is with any artistic calling.

So, here’s our second installment in this series. Again it’s dealing with a physical aspect of photography. Focus and sharpness.

Getting to grips with exposure goes hand in hand with this important area of our photography and once we’ve got these refined we can consider ourselves technically competent. Focus and sharpness can be a downfall for some, yet it’s quite easy to resolve the issues and is as much a matter of technique as it is knowledge.

Steady your Stance

First of all, we need to hold our camera correctly, steady our stance and gently squeeze the shutter release rather than press it. This rock solid technique will greatly help overcome camera shake and give us a much higher success rate with our shots. Our growing mastery of the exposure triangle, and practice within it will inform us what are the slowest shutter speeds we can get away with for any given situation. (This will be determined by the focal length of our lens, the amount of subject movement, the distance from the subject and our own degree of instability among other things). Believe me it eventually becomes second nature!

Also, our practice with the aperture setting will help us discover the optimum depth of field for our chosen subject giving us the ability to finely control just how much of the frame is in focus. As you may realise shutter speed and aperture are as intricately woven into sharpness and focus as they are with exposure control. Decisions we take in one of these fields directly affects the other.

A Hornet’s Nest of Options

More mundane considerations include our decision to shoot on manual or auto focus, whether to activate the image stabiliser if our kit has that option and whether to use a tripod (which must be paired with a cable or remote release). Most cameras have a hornet’s nest of options when it comes to focusing, in fact I use only one setting for the vast majority of my work.

Perhaps 99.5% of my images are shot with the camera switched to continuous autofocus using only the centre focus spot out of the 60 or so available. Because I have the ‘back button focus’ option enabled on my cameras I can choose whether to manually focus or not as I’m working and never need to worry about the menu options. That’s one of the many benefits of having the focus activation separate from the shutter release button… I have full control at all times rather than the camera.

I’ll be covering much more about this important aspect in my Creativity Beyond the Camera course as I can’t possible do it justice in this article.

Choose Your Sharpness

We’ve touched on sharpness, however I’d like to return to this aspect of our photography now. Sharpness is not the holy grail of photography. Our shots do not have to be sharp, as in having no movement blur. Once we realise this the floodgates of possibilities open and we can explore movement blur in both the subject and the camera. What is important is to have precisely as much sharpness as you choose. Make a conscious decision about this and use your technique to get the result you are chasing.

Currently I’m playing with in-camera multiple long exposures with extreme intentional camera movement and really enjoying the outcome. Initially it appears as if the results are totally unpredictable but once you begin to really practice particular patterns begin to manifest and we can take control of how the layers of the different elements interact within the frame.

As we master our technique we soon come to understand that there’s a bottomless lake of options as we push our equipment way beyond it’s intended boundaries. We can make something new out of the ordinary. Authentically unique images are all around us if we simply unleash our minds and step out of ingrained patterns, rules and presumptions.