The Technique of Variable Planes of Focus for Reflective Artistic Outcomes
Photo by Pierre Dutertre
View cameras, with their ability to independently move the front and back standards to generate sharp images within complex environments where the detail of a product or structure has to be fully rendered, have been around for well over a century. Architectural photographers have used the swings, tilts and shift functions of their view cameras to generate accurate, fully focused and standard renditions of interiors and exteriors, ensuring perfect vertical lines and recording the fine details of a particular space or building. Commercial artists have indeed been fortunate to control precise planes of focus to accurately represent products without distortion and with immense or a very shallow depth of field. This was predominant in food photography, where only a small portion of the image would be in focus, thereby creating a visceral and imaginative reaction with the viewer.
However, this ability to precisely control 3-dimensional planes of focus (also known perhaps incorrectly as selective focus) can also be utilized by the creative artist who desires to highlight a particular point of interest in a scene, directing the viewer to an area of interest as intended for a concept-based reflective intent. This technique relies on the ability to move the lens 3-dimensionnally, with the equivalent of the swings and tilts available in a view camera format. There are several alternatives that replicate the front movements of a view camera, from the easily attainable to the exotic. The beginning point resides in a lens baby set-up available for 35mm DSLR cameras.
The operator can simply twist the lens in multiple directions to generate a fairly precise 3-diemnsional plane of focus.
The results can be very creative in isolating certain parts of the scene in order to create a mood or an ephemeral and mysterious image that denies a full view to the viewer, allowing for directed and controlled points of interest and therefore an artistic communication, resulting in a reinterpretation of the scene by the viewer.
Perspective correction (PC) or tilt-shift lenses for 35mm and medium format cameras have been primarily used by architectural photographers in order to control perspectives and distortion, but these exotic prime lenses can also be used to imbue a distinctive style and content to an image.
At the high end of the spectrum, one can use the X2 PRO system created for medium format and 35mm digital cameras, replicating the precise movements found in a view camera that otherwise may not be the best suited tool.
Although created for studio use the X2 PRO is still manageable on location as in my personal use, despite the bulk and weight of the complete assembly. Mounted with a refurbished Mamiya body, a flawed Phase One P25 digital array, an ancient Mamiya RZ lens and a monopod, this rig has been a mainstay of many of my personal projects, allowing me to precisely control the 3-dimensional planes of selective focus to convey a mood and expressive / reflective artistic outcome. From a banal scene, I am able to extract the essence of a particular subject in order to imbue the image with a communicative message, the real subject matter that transcends the recording abilities of the medium.
In effect, the technique of variable planes of focus imitates to some extent our human vision, monocular eyes that have a central point of sharpness, blurred peripheries and adjustable parallel focusing. The ability to push beyond these organic parameters with 3-dimensional planes of focus allows for a creative outcome, making images that are precisely controlled to add a quasi surrealist feel and mood, deconstructing unnecessary elements that do not support the concept, and creating engagement with the viewer as they examine a reconstructed reality as a personal communicative effort on the part of the artist.