This is where it starts to get weird.

I was at a photography class last week when we had a strange difference of opinion. The tutor showed us a picture like this one:


The taxi is in focus (ish), the background is blurred. This gives us the impression of speed. The taxi is the thing we’re focusing on and not the background.

Most of the people in the class nodded. Yes, good photo. Something of a cliché perhaps, but a good photo.

“I don’t like it,” said one lady in the class. “It looks wrong.”

I think I know where she is coming from. When I was a youngling (a long long time ago, in a galaxy far away) we wanted everything to be in focus. We would try to hold our primitive film cameras as steady as we could. We would dutifully stand with the sun behind us. “Say cheese”.

And then we would send the film off to Boots the Chemist to be processed, crossing our fingers that it would all turn out okay. We would live in dread of our prints coming back looking all blurry. Okay, maybe “living in dread” is a little OTT, but you get the picture.

Back in the day, it was all so simple. Poems rhymed. Stories had beginnings, middle and ends. Authors wrote in impeccable English with good grammar and proper sentences. Heroes were heroes. Foreign Secretaries were diplomats. And photos were in focus.

Something like this:


Or this:


It’s our old friend Ansel Adams, putting everything into focus. Because that’s what he did. He didn’t want to have anything to do with those experimental painterly types who went all arty-farty.

Focus was very important in the early days of photography. The pioneers made their money by selling prints which were as life-like as possible. Rich customers paid huge sums to have their portraits taken and they wanted it to be perfect, dammit!

The public would buy photographs of foreign lands and exotic sights that they could not hope to visit in person. And again they wanted those images to be perfect – as if they were there.

Photography’s first trick was being able to reproduce an image accurately. And for some people, that’s still what they want. In these days of high definition this and 4K that, we expect lots of pin-sharp detail in our images.

But …

There are problems with having everything in focus. For one thing, your eye doesn’t know where to settle. Unless the composition is tight on a single subject, your attention might wander all over the picture.

In some instances, having everything in focus means that nothing is 100% pin sharp. It’s all more or less there, but nothing truly stands out.

Photos where everything is in focus can also be a bit humdrum. If we all stood in front of the Pyramids and took a shot with everything in focus, all our photos would look more or less the same. That might be very booooring.

Instead, how about an image like this?


The model is in focus. The background is in outer space. We have no idea what is going on behind her and we don’t need to know. She’s the star.

There’s more. It’s not entirely true to say that the model is in focus. The photographer has actually focused on her face, because the human eye is usually drawn to faces.

No sniggering at the back, please!  This is not that kind of photography. And I did say ‘usually’.

You might notice that her right shoulder is out of focus and possibly a little over-exposed too (too white). Her hair falling over her left shoulder is also not sharp. None of that matters because we are meant to look at her face.

There’s even more. The photographer has focussed more precisely than just her face. He or she has focused on her eyes. And if the model had been standing sideways so one eye was closer than the other, the photographer would have focused on the eye which was nearest to the camera.

The out of focus elements of the photograph are used to draw your attention to the parts that are in focus.

Which is better – the Ansel Adams approach or the deliberate use of out of focus?

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Both styles of photograph are fine. The point is that we have to choose which style is most appropriate for the emotion we want to transmit to the viewer.

There are parallels with writing. We can choose to write long, descriptive passages where we describe everything in minute detail. That would be the equivalent of an Ansel Adams image where everything is in focus.

Or we can strip the description out and focus only on the main action. That’s also a valid choice. New writers can sometimes struggle when they use lots of description that they really don’t need.

“I hate you,” snarled Rex, angrily. His eyes blazed with the angry fire of a mythological beast. He wanted her to know how angry he was.

Woah! Too much description. I can tell he’s angry, okay? No need to slather it on with a trowel.

When I was being taught public speaking, the trainer said something which has stuck with me ever since. No matter whether you are speaking for one minute or an hour, hardly anyone in your audience will remember more than five things that you said. Most of your audience will only remember three things. In fact, the majority will only remember one thing.

That one thing might not be what you want them to remember. They might remember that you were wearing an awful tie or that you repeated “um” or “like” a lot.

Your job is to decide what that one thing is, and make sure they don’t miss it. Keep repeating your one thing. Justify it. Explain it. Reinforce it.

In other words, focus.

There are some very arty photos with little to no focus at all. But most photos – and most writing – has at least one clear point of focus. How much of the background you show is a deliberate choice for the artist – the writer or the photographer.

Whenever we add a new element into a photo, and whenever we add a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a character into a piece of writing, we need to ask ourselves these searching questions …

What is this thing achieving?

Why am I focusing on it?

What is the point?

The techie stuff about how to focus, I’ll cover a little later. For now, the point is to start noticing focus. One interesting little exercise is to look out for focus when we’re watching television or movies. Sometimes the camera will go all Ansel Adams and hyper-focused on everything. At other times, the background will be blurred to a greater or lesser extent.

Once you start to notice it, you’ll never think of focus in the same way again.


One thought on “Focus

  1. Focus means the AUTHOR has a plan the READER can perceive. You can tell which books have this kind of author, and it makes all the difference.

    People think that when you write long, it means you’ve rambled and padded.

    It is the exact opposite of what I do. Every one of the 167K words of my debut novel is the survivor of the massacre of a thousand other words – to have the story focus, just as you say.

    I find having a touchstone helps decide what stays and what goes. I know where the story ends, thought the reader does not yet, and that is the key: if it does not contribute to the end, out it goes to the gnashing of teeth in the darkness. The readers who get that arrive at the end breathless, wanting more, and, when they tell me that, I know they’re mine until the trilogy is over – if I can continue doing that cleaving and paring.

    I expect other writers to do their own version of the same thing. It’s not the number of words, but whether they focus on the story – and don’t waste the reader’s time.


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