Playing with Focus / by Julian Alexander


In my current job with the Red & Black, photography is relatively straightforward. What we do is pure photojournalism - we seek to portray the world as it is seen. In my job as a contributor there is little room for artistic interpretation. If I do a portrait assignment, all subjects should be in sharp focus. Nothing is left to abstraction.

In my personal work, I enjoy playing with the settings on my camera to produce something different. One of my favorite areas to explore is in out-of-focus photography. As a child I found I could blur my own vision at will, and through the lens of my camera I am able to do the same thing. For those that don’t know, DSLR camera lenses are equipped with a manual focus that can be used to create either sharp images or abstract pieces.

Whenever I play with abstract focus, I typically emphasize the relationship between light and focus. Out of focus lights can create dazzling images that are awash with color. The effect is similar to the cover painting of The Great Gatsby, where the lights of New York are represented by simple colors, not by specific buildings of the skyline.

Playing with out of focus photography typically does not work with buildings. Architectural photos are best in sharp focus; a wide angle shot of a building will simply look like a blob out of focus. Light is almost always the key element. Out of focus photography almost never works in the daytime when the lighting is flat, like at noon.

In this post I’ve included some of the photographs I took while in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The West and East buildings of the National Gallery are connected underground by a tunnel that is lit with thousands of LED lights. These lights can be programed in different patterns to create stunning displays.

When I was last at the National Gallery of Art in 2016, I took some time to play with my camera in this tunnel. I shifted the focus in and out to get the exact depth of field I could see in my mind’s eye. The result was dazzling. Instead of sharp focus lights that felt cold and empty, I created an abstract piece using the design of the space.