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There is more to camera focus than what meets the eye. Focus is much more than creating a clear and sharp image. It is an important tool and path to elevating the quality of your storytelling in many different ways.

When camera focus comes to mind, we often tend only to think from the perspective of how sharp an image looks in the frame, but it's more than that. In visual storytelling, focus directly impacts the introduction of a subject matter and subsequently how that subject is perceived by your audience. Directors and cinematographers use focus, or more importantly depth of field, to convey a message in a story whether as a literal device—revealing a plot twist —or subliminally to foster emotional responses to a scene or moment.

In this article, we'll discuss what focus is and the different types of camera focus you can use to elevate your storytelling. The better understanding you have of focus, the better storyteller you'll become.

What is camera focus?

In its simplest form, focus is finding the optimal sharpness of the subject you are capturing in a shot. It is how clear the image appears in its final state. A completely sharp image is said to be in focus, while an image that's "blurry" is termed out of focus.
Focus - Studio Binder

In videography, you can find focus either using manual focus where you adjust the focus by hand or by the use of an autofocus system, which finds focus for you automatically when engaged on the camera. You can even manipulate focus in post-production using editing software and tools that can sharpen or soften the image further.

Technically speaking, focus is the result of how light enters a lens and hits the sensor on a digital camera. A lens is made up of several "elements" that are usually paired in "groups" that all work together to allow light to pass through and be manipulated. As the light passes through it's collected by the photodiodes located on the digital sensor which produces an image.

With focus, there are two focal planes: a front and rear focal plane. You can think of it as what's happening in front of the lens vs what's happening behind the lens. The rear of the focal plane is referred to as the depth of focus. The depth of focus is where the mathematical algorithms take place on various autofocus systems. The front area of the focal plane is referred to as the depth of field. The focal plane is the region where objects will appear sharp in the image, but as creators, the main focus tends to be the depth of field.

Pun intended.

Depth of Field

Depth of field is a term for the area around a subject that is in focus. You can change how much of an image appears in focus by adjusting the focal length of the lens, adjusting the aperture, or physically playing with the distance between camera and subject.

With a deep depth, more of the image will be in focus, whereas a shallow depth of field will have less in focus around your subject. This is often coined as shooting "wide open."

  • Deep depth of field: Higher T-stop or f-stop number (f/11, f/16)

  • Shallow depth of field: Lower T-stop or f-stop number (f/1.2, f2.0)

A Common Depth of Field Misconception

One misconception is that sensor size affects the depth of field. Sensor size has no direct effect on depth of field. Larger sensors require creators to change the focal length and camera distance to a subject to produce similar fields of view and results.

Now let's take a look at a few different types of camera focus.

Deep Focus

When you want to have everything in focus, deep focus is the way. A shot with deep focus has the background, mid-ground, and foreground all in focus, and everything is as visible as possible.

A shot in deep focus. Wonder Woman(2017)

When it comes to creating shots with deep focus, you'll need to understand aperture and use larger aperture settings on the lens to create the look. Deep focus is a great way to immerse an audience in the story but also have them take in the environment. Viewers connect with the production design, lighting, and set decoration. It invites them into the space and allows them to look around. It plays a great hand in creating a feeling of revealing something new in each additional re-watch of a scene.

This unique strength of deep focus comes at the cost of added constraints and importance on compositions. You have to make sure all the elements in the frame don't distract from the story or call attention to inaccuracies. For example, if it's a period piece and we see modern cars in the background, it's not going to make any sense to the audience. It is impossible to hide anything when deep focus framing is employed.

As for visual context, you can use deep focus to your advantage. How? If your entire project is in deep focus, your viewer will start to connect with that visually. Then, when the moment is right, you can use a shallow focus to emphasize a plot or character point. The audience will feel it, but they won't necessarily know why. You can do the opposite with a project that heavily uses shallow focus.

Shallow Focus

A shot in shallow focus. The Handmaid's Tale(2017)

Shallow focus is the opposite of deep focus in that the area around a subject is not as sharp. It uses a shallow depth of field where the out-of-focus area of the image is often referred to as bokeh.

Bokeh is defined as "the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light." When it comes to lenses, the bokeh will generally look different from lens manufacturer to lens manufacturer and even different within the same family of lenses. High-end cinema lenses (and still lenses) develop lenses with as similar bokeh as possible so that when moving from lens to lens, the image is minimally affected.

Shallow focus is achieved with lower or rather "faster" aperture settings, increasing the lens focal length, or changing the distance of the camera to the subject. The lower T-stop or F-stop, the more out-of-focus the image will become as it relates to lens focal length and distance to the subject.

You can find examples of shallow focus everywhere. It's a useful technique that allows you to draw the attention of the view in a certain direction. It's also a great way of hiding things on set you need unseen and even when adding mystery to a subject or scene.

Rack Focus

The rack focus is a must-have in any cinematographer's bag of moves. This practice involves shifting focus of the lens as a shot happens in real-time. The term refers to small or large changes of focus that play to the depth of field.

The process of rack focusing is simple, but perfecting the technique takes time. The ideal way to do it is with a manual focus set up with either a film or digital camera. Generally what you'll want to do is pick two objects in a scene and pull the focus between the two so that one starts in focus and finishes on the second in focus. It's a good idea to have a run-through before filming your first take, but as with many directors, the run-through is take numero uno. Marking the focus ring can be beneficial in creating smooth rack focus.

Soft Focus

Not to be confused with shallow focus, soft focus affects the entire image as it creates a "soft" blur or glowy effect around a subject. Soft focus shots require special filters or lenses to achieve the look, but can also be done in a DIY fashion by wiping vaseline on the lens or by stretching nylon across the front lens element.

The idea behind soft focus is that it creates an almost dream-like and slightly unreal quality. It's a technique especially used in older films and a good way to separate flashback story points to reality or if you want to create a dreamy sequence.


Tilt-shift often refers to lenses that manipulate the perception of an object or subject. With tilt-shift videography, you can tilt or shift the lens to where the image is focused. Doing so can dramatically change your plane of sharp focus where images appear miniature.

Tilt-shift is a great way to control perspective. Shifting the lens up or down can eliminate unsightly angles of buildings or landscapes, which is why it's diligently used in architectural photography. It's also a good way to minimize or maximize the depth of field. You can tell when a tilt-shift lens has been used when objects look miniaturized.

Focus on Focus

Hopefully, this Morii guide to focus has given insight into the intricacies and the techniques used to frame shots. Now it is time to start exploring different ways to visually tell your own story. A reminder and caveat we love to share is that there are no rules when it comes to creativity. Master one focus move and then move on to the next. learn how to couple them with shot size, angles and camera movements for impact. Then proceed to mix and match them in ways that make sense for your story.

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