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Cooke Optics Gallery. The Art of Design for Film: Title, Screens and graphics

Updated: May 3

Focus is one the key tools in cinematography. When we think about camera focus, we tend to think of how sharp a frame looks, but it’s much more than that. In visual storytelling, focus directly impacts how the audience may perceive the subject matter. Directors and cinematographers use focus to convey a message about the story whether as a literal device, emphasising a specific detail; or subliminally to evoke an emotional response to the material or scene. 


The cinematographer collaborates with the director to translate the script into visual language. Art meets science in cinematography: they are visual psychiatrists who guide the audience through a film with lighting, composition and movement. Storytellers tasked with depicting the visual emotion behind the words. One of the most essential elements when making style choices about the film is how they choose to employ ‘focus’. 


Deep Focus 

An image with deep focus has the background, mid-ground, and foreground all in focus: everything is visible.  What is unique about deep focus is that the audience is immersed in the story but also 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.  


Shallow Focus 

Shallow focus is the opposite of deep focus in that the area around your subject is not as sharp. It uses a shallow depth of field and can isolate a character from the environment. 

Like shadow in lighting, shallow focus becomes about what you don’t show. Shallow focus forces you to focus on a specific element or can create a sense of mystery by blurring 

certain layers of the image. When juxtaposed against deeper focus sections it can differentiate between states of consciousness and story timelines. 


Racking Focus 

Racking focus is used to shift an audience’s attention from one thing in the frame to another. One object is sharp while another is out of focus, then the focus is inverted. Pulling focus or “Rack” focus moves the eye from point A to point B and can be used to shift attention. When used explicitly, this technique can add drama or humour to a shot. The shift can be quick and dramatic or slow and lingering. A change of pace can be suggested, actions extended, or an emotional connection strengthened. 


Unnatural Focus 

Split-field focus allows multiple planes of sharp focus whilst still maintaining a narrower depth of field if desired. The look is unique. Audience attention can be divided or planes of action can be juxtaposed against one another. Over the years cinematographers have always pushed the boundaries in order to utilise focus in unique and powerful way: from 

filters to macro lenses, perspective control lenses and beyond. 


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