Focusing on What Matters

Introduction | I: Expecting the Unexpected | II: Focusing on What Matters | III: Becoming Composition Conscious | IV: Making the Unseen Visible | V: Knowing When to Quit | VI: Setting Limits | VII: A Spiral Model of Creativity

This is the second in a series of articles about becoming a more productive and inventive photographer. In these articles I’ll share some of the techniques I use to boost my creativity and I’ll show you how I’ve learned to be more imaginative with my photography. My goal is to help you to become more creative, too.

Each of the articles in this series presents assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!).

In the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, I explained that:

  • There is no simple formula for creativity;
  • It’s important to learn to see what is really there, as opposed to what you expect to see;
  • Great photographs can only be made when you strike the right balance between planning and “going with the flow”.

This article, Focusing on What Matters, moves on to take a closer look at what is important within the photographic frame, and what you photograph. Speaking informally, and not photographically, to focus on something is to pay attention to it, presumably because it matters. From a technical viewpoint, issues of focus have a great deal of impact on the success or failure of an image. Looking at things a little more broadly, you need to know (consciously or unconsciously) what is important to you about a photographic subject, or your composition will fight your content rather than work with it.

Finally, your choice of subject matters immensely in numerous ways. You must truly care about what you photograph to muster the energy, persistence, and creative juices that are needed to see a photographic task to the end. Don’t believe those who think of photography as something than can always be done casually. It is often (but not always) the case that the more effort you put into your photographic work, the more you will get back.

By understanding how to focus an image, you’ll clarify your compositions. Techniques for discovering and better acknowledging the true subject of your photos will help you be direct in delivering the power of your imagery. Also, by focusing on what really matters to you and your life, you’ll be able to integrate personal passion with your photography, and start on the life-long journey of discovery that true artists make.

This article presents ten approaches that will help you focus on what really matters by:

I. Understanding Focus

  • Understanding the difference in emphasis between edge-to-edge focus and selective focus
  • Knowing when an image is about photographic focus, rather than its apparent subject matter
  • Considering the difference between the subject matter that you, the creator, have assumed, and the content that is seen by your viewers
  • Emphasizing both the contrast and synergy between in-focus and out-of-focus in your imagery

II. Delivering the Power

  • Learn to pre-visualize how your photos will come out
  • Understand if your photo is primarily about formal elements—lines, shapes, colors, and composition

III. Integrating Personal Passion

  • Learn to express your passions in your photos
  • Listening to your unconscious when creating and editing photos
  • Be prepared to do what it takes to make great photos, and don’t stop with half measures
  • Tell stories that can move people to tears, despair, transcendence, and hope

I. Understanding Focus


I am passionate about photographing flowers, and I probably could be happy photographing flowers for the rest of my career. Flowers aren’t the subject matter for everybody, or even the only subjects for me, but I think they are infinite in their possibilities, colors, and variety!

That said, some of the variety in my flower photos comes from my various approaches to flowers and focus. The portrait of the Gazania petal (right) isolates a single element to present the curl of the petal close-up in a way it is not usually seen. In contrast, the Nigella blossom shown below is a textural image that is in focus end-to-end. (By the way, the poetic common name for Nigella is Love in the Mist).


Here’s my first point about focus: there’s a very different feeling between images that are completely in focus, and selectively-focused images that emphasize a particular element within the photo. However much depth they encompass within their edge-to-edge field of focus, the attention paid to a fully-sharp photo has a “flat” aspect. Focus is not telling the viewer to pay more attention to any particular aspect of the image. The story is not about selectivity within the image, it is about the whole photo. In contrast, selective focus images almost always emphasize the area that is in focus, although out-of-focus areas can be important, too.

Your assignment: Create two photos of the same subject matter, one using selective focus and the other delivering edge-to-edge sharpness. Which one is better? Why?


The photograph of bunched poppies (image right) is about how it is focused. By tightly focusing on the flowers in the intermediate distance using a telephoto macro lens, I allowed both the foreground and background to blur.

It’s hard for a photographer to look at this image without thinking about how it was focused. This is not really what I intended when I took the photo because I thought the subject was the redness of the flower. I’ll discuss the distinction between the photographer’s intended subject and the way the subject is perceived by the viewer later in this article.

Your assignment: Create a selectively-focused image in which the image is about how it is focused. In other words, your photographer friends should be driven to think about how the image was focused when they look at it. By the way, this is an exercise to get you thinking about, and working with, focus. In “real life”, the more powerful the photo, the less it makes viewers think about photographic technique, and the more viewers tend to think of the subject matter, with technique forgotten.


The photo of the water drop (image left) is apparently focused on the drop itself, and on the sunburst on the drop. The water drop is attractive and interesting, but, paradoxically, the more you look at the water drop the more you are drawn to the background. It may to a while to see the way the out-of-focus shapes fit together, but puzzling it out, the background shows an out-of-focus flower.

Both parts are necessary to give the photo its interest; the sharply defined water drop works in combination with the impressionistic flower.

Your assignment: Create a photo in which both out-of-focus and in-focus elements are used in harmony to create and integral composition. Could this photo work without both in-focus and out-of-focus elements?

In this discussion of focus, I’ve shown you several kinds of flower images as examples. You should understand that my choice of subject matter is only illustrative. It works for me, but you may prefer to photograph something else. The focus techniques that I’ve shown you here work just as well with nudes, reportage, portraits, still lives—whatever you like to photograph.


II. Delivering the Power

I hiked down to a remote Pacific beach to photograph sunset and its aftermath. Passing the time waiting for sunset above the beach, I watched the surf crash on the dark sand. Pretty soon I realized there was a photograph in the situation.

But what was this image about?

It was not about color (there wasn’t any). It wasn’t really about the landscape or the ocean (there are more compelling beaches around). No, the image I pre-visualized was about the series of lines that divided the surf from the beach.

Once I realized what the image would be about, I could take the steps necessary to make it. I planned for a monochrome image, and used as long an exposure as possible to emphasize the transparency of the wave line. I also underexposed the photo by several f-stops to exaggerate the contrast between the dark beach and the white surf.

There are two points in the story of how I made this image that you should take to heart:

  1. Without pre-visualizing the image I wanted, I could not have known to use the technical tools I needed to create it;
  2. I needed to understand that the subject-matter I wanted to convey was the linear aesthetic of the surf lines, contrasted to the darkness of the shore or, once again, I wouldn’t have employed the right photographic toolbox.

Sometimes photographs are flip and casual “grab shot” responses to a situation, and that’s okay. But more often an image is greatly improved by a sense of where you might be going visually right from the start. To gain this advantage, you need to work on pre-visualization, the skill of knowing in advance how an image will come out depending on the decisions you make in capturing and processing the image. You also need to “focus” on what the photo is really about.

Your assignments: (1) Pre-visualize a photo and then create it exactly as you pre-visualized it; (2) Take a photo that is intended to be reduced (preferably in black and white) entirely to lines, curves, and shapes.

As I was photographing Las Vegas, Nevada at night, I came upon the faux canals and gondolas of the Venetian Hotel and Casino. As I pre-visualized the image, I realized that I wanted to capture the night Las Vegas scene in “photographic” sharpness, balanced by a motion blur of a gondola across the front of my frame.

My pre-visualization was a scene of contrasts: the blur of the gondola against the sharpness of the Las Vegas night.


The image I wanted to make was about displacement and alienation (unlike some people, I usually feel displaced and alien in Las Vegas). In my opinion, the whole concept of a ghostly and blurred gondola in front of a mock-Venice filled with neon lights is simply strange.

The image that resulted from my pre-visualization and conceptualization is shown here. Once you see beyond and beneath the attractive color surface of the photo, I think it does illustrate my original concept.

Your assignment: Pre-visualize, conceive, and execute an image that says something unexpected about its subject matter. For example, your photo could superficially be very attractive, but demonstrate, when studied, that the subject matter has an inner ugliness.


I was photographing architecture in San Francisco’s City Hall. I do love spirals in my compositions, and I was focused on the rectilinear spiral stair (image left). As I created my exposure, a newly married couple started down the stairs.

No amount of image pre-visualization can foresee all things that can happen, or everything that can waltz into a picture frame if you hold your exposure open long enough. Nor should it: as I explained in the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, it’s very important to take advantage of serendipity.

In this case, I didn’t see the serendipity, and I almost discarded the image. But a voice in my head told me to take another look. I’ve learned to listen to these voices, and so should you.

When your inner voice gives you ideas, it is probably your creative unconscious speaking. Don’t stifle your unconscious, allow it become a contributor to your photographic work.

When I looked at this photo a second time, I saw the dream-like possibilities: Why is this couple faceless? Is this marriage like a bad dream? Are they caught in an infinite spiral? This is an image that is not definitive in subject matter or meaning. It is ambiguous, and suggestive, and its power comes from this very dream-like, suggestive quality.

Your assignment: Create a photo that is suggestive and ambiguous in meaning rather than definitive. What does your inner voice have to say about the image? Does your inner voice have any suggestions for related images?

III. Integrating Personal Passion

For me, there is great power in the solitude of nature. Like the famous naturalist John Muir, I believe that if there is a place where prayer is appropriate, it is in nature, and in the wild places of the earth.

Of course, I’m also a child of civilization, and I depend upon technology, computers, books, and digital cameras. I have responsibilities, assignments, deadlines, and kids. But I like to escape as often as I can, recharge my batteries, and enjoy solitude.


One of my favorite places to go is Yosemite Valley. But I always feel ambivalent about staying on the valley floor. It’s hard to escape light pollution, the noise of internal combustion engines, and the general contamination of society.

The photograph you see (image right) is an expression of my ambivalence. Sure, Yosemite Falls is beautiful, and the stars are naked in their solitude. At the same time, the area under Yosemite Falls is lit by mercury vapor lights from Yosemite Lodge, and there is light pollution to the left and to the right even in a moonless Yosemite night.

Your assignment: Photograph something you are passionate about, but also have mixed feelings about. Your photo should express this ambivalence.


This photo (image left) shows the famous ladder up Half Dome at sunrise. To be in position, I stayed up all night on top of Half Dome, and came down the ladder at the first light of dawn.

Your assignment: In the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, I suggested you find familiar things to photograph in unfamiliar ways. It’s also important to go all out to photograph subjects that are a stretch, physically, mentally, or spiritually. If you really want to make great photos, you can’t stop with half measures. So imagine a photo that will be really difficult for you to make, and go ahead, and make it!


The day my daughter was born she was given low chances of survival. I saw her lifeless, blue body and then followed my wife on her own trip through intensive care. We assumed the worst, but in the days that followed Katie Rose miraculously defied all odds. I knew I had to photograph the story, and to focus on what mattered emotionally: the little hand in her mother’s big hand (shown at the beginning of this story; another version of little Katie in her mom’s hand is show right), and not the machinery and tubes that kept our daughter alive.

Coming from a time when hope was all we had, my thought was that my photos of our daughter would send a message to hang in there, based on our experience, to others in the same situation.

Your assignment: Life and death situations involving people you care about don’t happen all the time, and that’s a good thing. But everyone has something they care deeply about, so deeply that just thinking about it brings them to tears. Find something you care about, and then find a way to create an image of a detail that tells the whole story—the way the photo of my daughter’s little hand in her mom’s big hand shows what really matters. Consider the message you want to send to others in the same situation.

Nothing is every truly straightforward or one-sided. If you stay focused on what matters, you can integrate ambivalence and ambiguity into your imagery. Suffering in and of itself doesn’t make great art. But there’s no reason you should expect image making to be easy, and it is good to get in the habit of going all out, and investing the effort that it will take. Photography can be used to tell stories that involve great sadness, great happiness, inspiration, and tears. Find these stories, and use your photos to tell them!


You need to know what your photos are about. This starts at the simplest level: what are you focused on? The next step is to become aware of whether you are making a photo that is about formalism or its emotive content. In either case, you should become able to express the nature of the subject matter, and what is significant about it.

Finally, you should try to use your photography in the service of full-fledged and nuanced narrative. What is the story you are telling, and why will it move your viewers? This article has provided some assignments to help you jump start your understanding of how to photograph what matters to you. These assignments include:

  • Focus exercises, to help you understand the difference between selective and edge-to-edge focus, and to know when out-of-focus areas are integral to a composition;
  • Exercises to help you with pre-visualization, ambivalence, and increasing your ability to rely on your unconscious
  • Thoughts about how to recognize photographic subjects that will lead to images that matter


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

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    • Thank you for a most stimulating and helpful way of taking creative photographs. Your thought process made me think more about the way I take photos and why they succeed or fail.
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    • Thanks again! Keep on teaching!
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    • Great article, thanks a lot!
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    • Great Article. What is also really what matters when you shoot is keeping the rule of thirds in mind when planning the composition. And do remember, rules are meant to be broken they say, and there are no hard and fast rules in photography or any form of art for that matter. Rock musicians often break the natural flow of chords to create stunning effects, and photographers too can create fascinating pieces of art by applying or purposely breaking the so called rules. However, the key word here becomes control and awareness. Getting an image right by fluke is one thing, but getting it right through planning and execution is so much more fulfilling. That’s what makes a good photographer after all…
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    • Technical issue: I am able to e-mail this column to myself, but not the author's first column, which produces a "meta tag" error or something. I would like to keep these homework assignments handy. Much of the content is above my head as a beginner, but I can really understand this talented instructor. Thank you so much for bringing us his inspiration!
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    • Very nice! Many thanks for teaching!
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    • Great article, but I was touched by the last shot of your little Katie. Hope mother and beautiful daughter are now doing well. Kids -- they'll tear your heart up, but boy, are they ever worth it!
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    • Thank you. Still a great article in 2011. Very helpful about the thought process in taking a photo.

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