If you want more inspiration to shoot, intentionally shoot blurry and out of focus photos.
Fighting back against the tyranny of sharp and in-focus photos
Some photos by William Klein which better highlight human emotion through his use of blur:
Emotional photos by Daido Moriyama, through his blurry, out of focus, and imperfect photos:
What I learned from the impressionists
If you consider abstract art, the lesson is this:
The purpose of art is to provoke an emotional response, not to be formally perfect.
For example in the past, painting was all about creating photorealistic scenes. But the abstract, impressionist painters rejected this tyranny of photorealistic paintings, and decided to paint an emotion or mood instead. Thus the genius of Vincent Van Gogh.
What is the point of photography?
“Sharpness is a bourgeoise concept.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
In photography, I feel the same. As photographers we must seek to capture an emotion, rather than make “technically perfect” photos for the sake of it.
To me this is liberating in many ways:
- You don’t need expensive camera equipment, or sharp lenses.
- You can shoot more spontaneously, like a child.
- You can shoot more without thinking.
Some tips to shoot better blurry and out of focus photos:
1. Shoot out of focus
If you have a manual setting on your lens, intentionally make your photos out of focus, to heighten the emotion, mood, or mystery of your scene.
A. For example, this is a photo I shot of a building at night with -1 exposure compensation on RICOH GR II in program mode:
When it is in focus, the photo is a bit boring.
B. What I then did was set my RICOH GR II to macro mode, and focused on my hand. Then while holding the focus set to 1 meter, I pointed my camera up, and shot the building out of focus, thus making this photo, which is more interesting:
Now the photograph has more emotion from the lights, which are bigger, and more abstract.
Assignment: Shoot buildings or lights at night with your focus prefocused to 1 meter. Experiment with different focusing distances, and shooting at night or during the day, to change the effect.
Some examples from Boston:
More examples from London:
An example of shaking my camera while shooting:
2. Shoot at night, while walking
Another tip: shoot at night while walking. I usually shoot with my RICOH GR II in program mode and ISO 1600. This usually slows my shutter speed to around 1/15th of a second, making my photos more blurry.
In the above photo, I like it because of the dramatic red light, and the dark silhouette of Cindy which looks more mysterious. To get a deep red color, I shoot high-contrast color JPEG preset (positive film setting).
3. Photograph colorful emotion and mood
One of the benefits of shooting with an LCD screen: you see what your photos look like before you shoot them, especially when you see colorful scenes.
At night, I love seeing how the colors render in my camera. Whenever I see nice colors, like the deep purple-blue of the photo above, I will just shoot it while walking, or just handheld the photograph (without worrying about getting it sharp).
The reason I like this: the blurry color photograph at night abstracts the image. It becomes more about the color itself, rather than the subject matter of the photo.
4. Shoot a lot of random photos
This is another practical tip: when shooting at night, shoot a lot of random photos! Often you don’t know what kind of photo you want before you shoot it.
Therefore, allow yourself to shoot random photos while walking, allow them to be blurry, and also tilt your camera (Dutch angle).
For example see all these photos I shot of Cindy at night while walking. With blurry photos, you will never have any idea how they will look like. Therefore, I just shot three quick photos of Cindy, while having no idea how the photo would turn out. I didn’t review or check my lcd screen until I went home. When I went home and looked at my photos in Lightroom, I was very pleased to see these three interesting blurry renditions of the same scene.
Now I have a benefit:
I have the choice and a variety of photos to choose from.
5. Shoot with a flash while people are running around
To add a sense of motion and dynamism to your scene, shoot your subject with a flash while they’re running around or moving around.
Settings to experiment on your camera/flash:
– Experiment with “first curtain flash sync” and “second curtain” to see the different motion blur effects.
– Shoot with flash in manual mode, and adjust your shutter speed. Try shooting with a slower shutter speed, like 1/15th, or even 1/10th of a shutter speed.
6. Shoot with a flash through a clear umbrella when it is raining
This will make more mysterious photos. This works best with clear umbrellas when it is raining, especially in Japan.
For these photos, I used my RICOH GR II with the popup flash in program mode:
7. Shoot in hot and steamy situations that fog up your lens
A portrait of Cindy in the shower, with the hot shower fogging up the lens, creating more drama and mystery to the photo.
Another photo of Cindy during the winter when we left the (cold) streets of London, and entered the Tate modern museum: the camera lens fogged up (because of the change of temperature). I made this photo of Cindy that looked dramatic:
Another example of a selfie in the bathroom inside a warm restaurant, shot with a flash:
This is what the same photo looks like without the blurry condensation fog:
8. Shoot a silhouette of your subject
Photograph your subject with the light source behind their head, and use -1 or -2 exposure compensation.
9. Shoot your loved ones at home
A photo of Cindy while she was yawning, while we were sitting on our couch at home. Her hand gesture and obscuring her face makes a more dramatic photo.
10. Shoot out of focus photos through condensed windows in the winter
If you can get condensation or water drops on windows, it will add a nice melancholy mood. Here are some photos I shot while in (very cold) Boston:
11. Photograph trees at night while walking
Trees shot at night look spooky. Go for an evening walk at a local park, look up, and shoot the trees while walking:
Shoot some horizontal orientation, some photos vertical orientation:
Also for some photos to exaggerate the blur, literally shake your photos while shooting:
12. Shoot while leaving restaurants or establishments
Some of my best random street photos are when I’m entering or exiting an establishment.
As an experiment, always keep your camera on and ready with you, either on your neck or wrist. If you shoot sith RICOH GR II, use the ERIC KIM NECK STRAP, or for other cameras use an HENRI NECK STRAP.
When you leave a bar or restaurant at night, shoot whoever is exiting the place, or whoever is entering. Do this while moving, to get dramatic and dynamic street photos.
13. Fishing technique in street photography at night, with flash
14. Shoot through the window (outside in the cold, into warm establishments)
Shoot more street photography when it is cold outside, in the winter. Shoot into bars, restaurants, or other establishments through the windows. This will often blur the subjects inside.
15. Focus on the background further away
If you shoot manual focus, set your focus to 5 meters to infinity, at f8 for zone focusing in street photography.
Or when shooting portraits, put your camera really close to your subject, but focus on the background:
16. Shoot through glass cups and wine glasses
When you’re at home eating dinner, or at a restaurant, shoot through a cup or wine glass. Put your camera really close to the cup, and fill the frame, to blur your subject.
A photo of Cindy through the bottom of a water cup:
Another photo of Cindy through a wine glass at night at a restaurant:
17. Use a flash, and don’t focus on what is closest to you
Above is an example of a photo of Cindy, with the focus on her face, shot with a flash (and her hand closer to me). This adds more depth and mystery to the photo.
If you’re curious, below is how the photo looks without a flash:
Or an example in street photography, I saw a woman with orange hair walking towards me, and I waited for her to enter, and I shot with a flash, with the focus set at around 5 meters.
18. Shoot shadows
19. Shoot with a flash on a reflective (mirror) surface
Experiment shooting with a flash on reflective or mirror surfaces.
20. Shoot when it is foggy outside
This will give you a “film noir” mood, popular in cinema (Third Man film).
21. Shoot through puddles or reflections in water while walking
22. Dutch angle and blur
To create heightened drama in your photos, combine both a blurry photo with the Dutch angle composition in photography.
23. Colorful background, and blur of your subject walking
24. Shooting street photographs with a flash while they’re walking toward you
Street photographs shot on Leica, with the Leica SF 20flash, in manual mode, with 1/15th shutter speed. Note how the subjects close to me are sharp, but the background is blurry:
25. Street photographs of subjects walking toward you (without flash)
Street photos shot at around 1/15th shutter speed (without flash):
26. Street photographs with flash, with smoke
I am anti smoking, but smoking with a flash makes for some pretty cool and dramatic photos.
27. Photographs silhouetted people through blurry windows and surfaces
28. Experiment and have fun!
You never know what a photo will look like until you experiment shooting!
Shoot by experimenting with your camera and technical settings:
– Try shooting shutter-priority in your camera, and experiment with different shutter speeds
– Experiment shooting while moving your camera (shake it left and right, up and down, in circular motions, or while moving towards your subject or pulling away from your subject).
– Experiment zooming with a zoom lens while using a slow shutter speed.
29. Dance with your subject!
The photographer Richard Avedon would often dance with his subjects, and ask his subjects to jump up and down, to make more dynamic and blurry photos.
Assignment: Ask your subject to move around, dance, wiggle their limbs, legs, and arms to capture photos of them in motion, to get better blurred photos.
30. Shoot with your heart
Ultimately remember, photography is all about capturing the joy of being alive, photographing your loved ones, and making beautiful visual art!
Disregard technical perfection: seek emotional impact through your photos. If motion blur and out of focus photos will help you achieve your artistic vision, experiment, have fun, and shoot with your heart and soul!