Focus Fail

Focus Fail

Teaching yourself to be critical of your work can improve the quality of your work immensely. I often use a failed attempt at an image here to illustrate my workflow and mindset when choosing images for social media or an exhibition. Let’s talk about it..  

I often see photographers using the “machine gun” approach when taking a photo, they squeeze off fifty frames in the hopes that one will be useable. Frequently, this approach yields 48 “meh” shots and a couple good ones, or in many cases no useable images at all. If your lighting is bad, your composition is not interesting or your model is nervous, you are only making work for yourself having to go through all those mediocre images. I prefer the slow and steady approach, and while I do “burst” images or bracket exposures when I shoot, I generally take fewer images than most. This is a double-edge sword because it means I have fewer images to review when I’m done shooting, but it also means I have a higher chance of walking away without a useable image at all. Case in point, is a very recent shoot for my new project:

New work, old problems

I recently started a new body of work based around my guide dog Fauna. The project features Fauna and I in different locations as we travel. The images are intended to promote the use of legitimate service animals in the hospitality and travel industries. I set out to create the images for the collection by myself, because I never do things by taking the easiest route. Imagine trying to compose the image and pose myself and a wiggly dog when I can’t really see more than an inch from my face. I used every tool at my disposal, remote triggers, iPhone remotes and live view focus for this project. Combine all this with the addition of a strobe and the mind boggles at how many times I had to setup the scenes to get useable images for the collection.

To illustrate just how picky I am when it comes to a final image, take a look at the photo at the top of this page, which did not make the cut of the first exhibition of my project. The debut for this series would be in a duo show with the theme “roadside attractions” for the Month of Photography at a gallery in the Santa Fe Art District in Denver Co. Their theme fit perfectly with the travel-oriented images I was working on for this project. My idea for this shot would be getting home from a road trip. I wanted the car to be dirty, and Fauna sitting beside the freshly unloaded gear from the trip. I shot on a tripod from just below the level of Fauna’s head and used a single Profoto B10 in a 36-inch Octabox to light the scene. I dialed in the ambient light for proper exposure, then used the strobe to fill in the light on Fauna and the gear. The light was 45 degrees to the right of camera and above Fauna. I feel like the shot is good technically, after all lighting a black shiny dog is difficult without ending up with a million highlights on the dog. I also liked that the light fell off enough before it hit the ground, because one tell-tale sign of lighting something with a strobe outdoors is a big ring of light on the ground around your subject. I got enough light on the Fauna and the gear without looking artificial. When I first saw the image on the computer, I figured I had it dialed in, but on closer inspection I realized that I had missed focus on the dog’s eyes – the most important part! The image is lit properly, and I like the arrangement of the gear – but the missed focus is a deal-breaker. It is too bad this image was not for a Porsche series, because the car is in focus.

Post it anyway?

In my early days as a photographer, I would have been tempted to post it online because so many other things were right about it. I will drag all the stuff out and set it all up again and revisit this image eventually. I feel like the denizens of social media have become desensitized to poorly focused images because of the wide range of terrible quality cameraphones being used today. We as photographers need to be more vigilant about our subjects being in proper focus. Don’t post that image just because it is good enough, or because you think no one will notice, because they will, and it will reflect on your work as a photographer. When reviewing images next time, zoom in to 1:1 in your photo editing software and look at the location that is supposed to be in focus. Most importantly remember that we don’t always get the shot, and photoshop is magic with a lot of things, but until the subject sharpening technology catches up with content aware fill, we need to be more careful about our focus.

Finding a solution

My camera (Canon 5D Mark IV) does have Dual Pixel AF, but as of this writing, my experimentation with that feature has yielded marginal positive results when shooting larger scenes. If you are shooting a model at F2.8 in dual pixel AF, you can usually bring the model’s far eye into focus, but in the case of my image, I caught focus on the back of the car not Fauna. I have not had good luck with the dual pixel AF recovering that distance at the aperture I shot in. Another downside of Dual pixel AF is that you need to adjust it in Canon’s proprietary software as the feature is not yet available in Lightroom.

What do you think? Would you post an image that was minimally out of focus like this one? Especially when considering that downsizing the final image to .jpg is going to smooth it anyway? Not to mention the associated softening inherent in Twitter, Instagram and Facebook compression algorithms, would it bother you? I would likely post the image on social media, but I would not print it big for an exhibition.

I love to hear from my readers, feel free to contact me on any of my social media pages, I’d love to hear your thoughts on images with missed focus. These image review blog entries often generate many reader questions, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have thoughts on anything in this article.

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