Making Compelling Photos Through Selective Focus

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great petrel trio falkland islands

The South Polar Skua is far from my favorite bird. They are scavengers patrolling the beaches over rookeries on islands with large nesting populations of penguins. I watched their tactics first hand on South Georgia. They swoop down to steal unprotected food from other birds, scavenge the remains of dead birds and even eat feces left on the beach.

In the air the skua uses speed and brute force to harass other birds into dropping their catch. Apparently it is not uncommon for the attack to end in the death of the other bird. A pirate of the seas, skuas even eat feces left on the beach by other birds.

Grim Reading Follows

Penguin rookeries are a particular favorite of this predatory species. Smaller chicks are swallowed whole. Larger ones pecked to death and then eaten, from the inside out. In some cases a protective parent is simply dragged off its nest, from behind, so that the skua can jump over it to get to the chick or eggs within the nest. This is nature, but it doesn't mean we have to like it.

Now for Beauty

The Wandering Albatross gets much better press. Immortalised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem the Rime of the Ancient Mariner this is a most amazing bird. Awkward on the ground, yet a study of grace and efficiency in the air, the wandering albatross has a wingspan of up to 3.4 meters (i.e. 11 feet) and can cover up to 10,000 kilometers in search of food.  Talk about a melancholy existance.

I was fortunate to witness and photograph numerous bird species, such as the group of Great Petrels pictured above, during my travels to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. Back then I was using a Canon 5D Mark II camera. Now, for its day, this was a great camera for landscape and portrait photography. But it simply was not designed for extreme climates and fast moving action photography. Frankly I missed out on a lot of great bird in flight photos by having to accept the limitations of the 5D Mark II. I was very happy with my compositions and exposure but, when it mattered most, I simply couldn't record the exact moment when the birds wings were in the ideal position during flight.

Fast flying birds flap their wings faster than the human eye can see. This makes it near impossible to synchronize the camera's shutter with that of the bird's movement at the exact moment to produce a pleasing result. A newer camera with far better high ISO performance would allow for photos to be make at faster shutter speeds. Likewise a camera with extremely responsive and bitingly accurate focusing, that's able to successfully track and adjust focus of a fast moving subject, with a higher frame rate and large buffer, would allow for more photos per sequence. And that's really the key because to be able to photograph a fast flying bird you need a camera that will allow you to make a lot of photos, over a very short period of time, that tracks the subject's movement and maintains sharpness from frame to frame.

If I was still using the Canon system the obvious choice would be the new Canon EOS 1Dx camera for such work. But, at present action photography forms only a fraction of the photography I undertake. What's more, I have handled the Canon EOS 1Dx and I can tell you it is both a complex and very heavy camera. Technology, robustness and waterproofing come at a cost, both to the wallet and the back and shoulders.

I'm disappointed with the above photo. I wish the wandering albatross was tack sharp. I just didn't have the camera and lens combination suitable for fast moving action. The bird was actually landing as the photo was made. Still, while not a portfolio image, for the purpose of this article it should suffice.

Selective Focus - A Definition

This scene included loads of interesting subject matter. And that's just the problem, with so much potentially competing subject matter, it's hard for the viewer to know where to look. All those pretty penguins, crowded up together in the background, are a case in point. Selective Focus allows you to direct viewer attention to whatever you've determined is the most important focal point or subject within the frame.

Birds not doing it for you? Here are a few more examples:

  • Bridesmaid/s pulling the viewer's attention away from bride (though shalt not)
  • Small group of flowers, some in better condition than others, all competing for attention

A more compelling image often results by separating the subject from their surroundings in a way that's usually not possible, at least not to the same degree, with most smaller sensor cameras. Here's how to do it:

  • Critically focus on the most important subject within the frame
  • Employ a shallow depth of field (DOF) to further separate them from their surroundings

Ultimately, you're using a shallow depth of field to separate your point of focus (subject) from potentially competing subjects and, thereby, keep the viewer's attention where you want it to be. Their eyes will wander around the photo, but will always return and linger on the actual point of focus. Which is, of course, the whole point of the exercise.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru