How to Focus Attention with a Filter

Matty Graham explains how to draw attention to a focal point in your frame by using this clever technique that makes use of your ND Grad filter and a little Photoshop trickery…


Focus attention with your filter

As the photographer, you are responsible for making a subject stand out in the scene. This is important, as it helps prioritise the importance and prominence of the different elements in a frame. For example, you don’t want to take a lovely portrait and have the viewer’s eye drawn straight to an inanimate object in the background. Luckily, there’s a number of tricks and techniques photographers can employ to help direct the viewer’s eye. You can use leading lines by utilising railings, roads, fenceposts and so on, so the viewer’s gaze starts in the corner of the frame and works it’s way to subject in the centre. Alternatively you could use different lighting styles, perhaps with a flashgun, to darken areas of the scene that are less important. However, a more creative and aesthetically-pleasing technique to try is to frame the subject within a filter frame and to blur the background so that only the area inside the filter is in sharp focus. Our final image looks like a seamless shot, but is actually made up of two different images, merged together in Photoshop. Here’s how to create this look…

Step one: Set up the camera – This technique revolves around being able to control the depth of field within your image, so switch to Aperture priority mode (A or Av on your mode dial). We want to purposely blur the background in the image, so dial in a large aperture of f/4.


Use Aperture priority mode to control depth of field

Step two: Capture your first images – We need to capture two images without the camera moving around, otherwise they won’t line up later in Photoshop. First, half-press the shutter to activate the autofocus system and focus on the point where your fingers (or your model’s if you are shooting someone else) are holding the filter. Once focus has been achieved, fully press the shutter to take the shot.


Focus on your fingers first

Step three: Capture your second image – Straight after capturing your first photo, refocus the camera without moving it. You can do this by changing from the central the focal point to one at the edge of the frame. Once you have focused on your subject in the background (in our case the pretty little chapel), click the shutter once more.


Next, focus on your main subject

Step four: Select your first image and copy the pixels – With the images download, start up Photoshop and open both images by clicking File>Open… Start with the image of your fingers in focus and click Control & A (or Apple & A if you are using a Mac) to select the whole image. The ‘marching ants’ highlighting the boundary of the frame will confirm the frame has been selected. Next, click Control & C (Apple & C on a Mac), to copy the pixels to the clipboard. You can now close this image down by selecting File>Close.


Select your first image in Photoshop

Step five: Merge the images – Select your second image (with the background in focus) and then click Control & V to paste the first image over the top of your second image. A new Layer will appear in your Layers panel, and will be automatically selected, ready for you to work on. Head back to the Layers panel and click on the ‘Add Layer Mask’ option, which is identified by a ‘circle within a square’ icon.


Paste one image onto another then add a Layer Mask

Step six: Brush out pixels – Select the Brush tool and make sure it is set to black. Change the size of the Brush using the Square Bracket keys and then proceed to brush out the pixels within the filter area, revealing the Layer below until the entire area of the frame is now sharp. Once you’re finished, click Layer>Flatten image and then save your file by click File>Save.


Brush out the pixels in the filter area

Bonus tip: You don’t have to stick with square or rectangle filters with this technique. Why not try singling out a great subject in your scene using a circular filter instead?


Mix up your filters!