It Is Harder Than It Looks: The Difference between Intentional Blur Photography and Out-of-Focus Photos


Recently I have noticed that my work with  blur photography is often misunderstood by folks I interact with on various social networks.  Some people assume that I just select some cool blurred or out of focus out-takes from my regular photos, others that I make out of focus images on purpose but that I do it by not focusing the camera, and still others assume that I am a camera tosser aficionado. I am sure some think I have trouble focusing in general. None of these accurately reflect what I am interested in doing. 

First, I do not select outtakes that are accidentally blurred or out of focus and decide I like them and want to keep them. Although this has happened once or twice, notably with portraits in lowlight conditions, virtually all blurred photo that I keep and display were intentionally created by moving the camera itself at the time of shooting.

Second, although I enjoy some camera tossing photography, where people literally toss the camera and record the results, this is not what I do.  I like the random compositions that happen this way, and I see how unexpected composition can teach us a great deal about angles and idea that we are missing in our purposeful and organized attempts at composing an image.

To me it is very important to make a distinction between "out-of-focus photographs" and "blurred photographs." Both can be beautiful in their own way, but as yet I have not attempted the former. An out-of-focus photo may be said to be “blurred” or “blurry” but it is created by intentionally or accidentally not focusing, or focusing incorrectly. Here is an example.


This photo has no redeeming qualities. It is not clear because it is not in focus. There is no interest in composition, white space, color or light.  Perhaps it could be worse if the bird were in the middle of the frame, which I couldn’t bring myself to do, even in an example of a bad photo.  Perhaps it would be  better if it were oddly placed at the edge somewhere. Not worth the effort at any rate.

Here is a photo that is not in focus, but has some interest because of shape, light, and placement.


This photo has a tiny bit of Uta Barth-ness to it. There is some variation in  color, and white space, and the composition and addition of what seems to be a bird in the distance (actually it is a tiny insect almost in focus and nearer than the bird) is kind of cool. Nevertheless, it is an outtake, and I was unsuccessful in capturing the insect-hunting sea bird.

Yes, yes, the birds in both cases were in motion, and one could call these motion blurs, but, in truth the subjects just weren’t in my focusing plane, and moving or not I missed the shot.

I like some out-of-focus photos, like Uta Barth’s and often wonder if she moved the camera or “focused” to the point of “unfocus” that she desired. Flickr also has an interesting Out of Focus on Purpose group that is work checking out. Some of my blurs can take on a Barthish-ness even though my camera was moving.


The work that I am currently pursuing is not out of focus, however. It is blurred though purposeful camera motion. I want to take a typical subject and capture the aspects of light and color and motion that we see as we unconsciously focus our eyes, but which, like a dream forgotten, is lost once we have brought the object into clarity. To me a blurred image is most interesting when it still retains some recognizable form, rather than becoming blurred into a compete abstract, although I am drawn towards these abstract blurs too at times.


This image is pretty, but it is too abstract to count in my blurs of New Olreans-- I think.





In order to take a proper blur, I first find a subject that might be suitable. That is a whole different subject.  Then I decide on exposure—“correct” exposure isn’t always the best for capturing the light variation that I want. Sometimes I over-expose and sometimes underexpose. I try to take an establishing shot that is in focus. This helps me to remember what I was trying to capture when things go wrong, as they invariably do. It also is kind of like those occasions when you dream or have a premonition of a future event, like your friend having a flat tire in front of a Dairy Queen, and telling them just to prove later that you really “saw” the future.

Unfortunately, sometimes in the heat of the moment I forget my establishing shot, and I always regret it.  The establishing shot, also shows how I would’ve framed the shot, given complete control. This control of composition is lost to a great extent once the camera is moving, and learning to estimate how fast to move in order to have a pleasing composition is half the battle. Just to make things more interesting, this speed varies depending on lighting conditions and camera settings. Of course.

Before I go any further I want to point out that I take basically two kinds of blurs. In one type, the blur is obvious, and often looks like a motion blur of a static object. The second type of “blur” photo actually seems to be in focus, but has an odd quality of light. The cactus below seems to be in focus, but actually is a pretty extreme blur. Because of bright light conditions this was a “difficult” blur, but the result taught me how to achieve this non-blur blur. The technique is useful in capturing textures and creating a mood




Here is the establishing shot for a “non-blur blur” or one where motion isn’t obvious, even if the lack of clarity is. If you look closely at the establishing shot you can see that the leaves reflected in the window are in perfect focus.


Here is the blurred version. I like the random element introduced by having to move the camera. One cannot perfectly compose all the elements since, like time, motion has its own plans.



In the final version I was able to capture a little of the moving shadows on the wall, the detail of the cracked stucco, the reflection of the leaves, and the quality of the evening light, while still being “blurred.” Note” this is not out of focus, it is blurred though motion. I have to focus and then move the camera in order for this to work. So, to recap: to me a blur involved camera motion. I could have blurred this image by NOT FOCUSING and keeping the camera still. That would be an out-of-focus on purpose photo. By moving the camera I get more light play and a feeling of time play that, at least in my eyes, adds emotion, perhaps unconsciously reminding the viewer of the nearness of death and the fleeting nature of existence, even for still stones, cacti, and historic buildings.

The other kind of blur photo is more difficult to achieve. In it I want a large play of light and color. I want crisp movement-arcs and or squiggles.  I want to be able to see and identify the subject. I want it to be pretty. I want to enhance whatever natural lines dominant the scene. I want a pleasing composition. I wish myself luck.

Here is a series of photos where I tried to capture the traditional New Orleans balcony life with blur. I established, I tried and failed several times, and I finally got close to what I wanted to achieve.

 I'd like to claim this as an establishing shot, but actually I got caught up and forgot to get one. It is a failed blur--in too much focus, but not an in-focus shot.

Another failure, boring composition, poor blur.


Fail. Too much blur, not enough light play.


Getting there. This one is pretty good. It catches the obvious NOLA atmosphere.



I like this one the best, as it has a great deal of light play, and life.


Here are a few more examples. 

 unremarkable establishing shot


Not ringing my bells. Not enough light play. Composition poor.



This one has some mood and I like the texture. Composition still not good enough.




now we are getting somewhere, I like the downward lines, I like the mood, I like the angles. Not my favorite though...


This one has sideways movement, and worked the best. 

See what you think of these:








Trying to Talk about Black and White and Missing the Mark

Ponies in March Fields