Focus: Turn a Good Photo Into an Amazing Photo

Posted by | February 22, 2012 | Apps | No Comments

In the past two years, we’ve seen a lot of specialized photo manipulation apps enter the scene. Apps like Analog, Flare, and Instagram allow people to apply filters that recolor or add texture to photos. Focus is a photo manipulation app as well, but its specialty lies in creating unique blur effects in photos.

Cameras that have an adjustable lens allow you to change the focus of a photo, blurring objects at different distances. However, if your digital camera doesn’t have the ability to change the lens focus, or if you just took a photo without focusing it well, you might feel the need to give photos that effect manually. Read on to see what Focus has to offer.

How Camera Focusing Works

When you are taking a photograph, light from objects at different distances will hit your camera’s lens at different angles. A camera lens can only align perfectly to one of these light angles at a time, which means that only one distance can be in focus at a time. Whatever distance the lens is focusing on will appear crisp and clear, while the further you move from this focused area, the blurrier the photo gets.

Objects at the distance that the camera lens is focused on look very sharp, while objects at other distances appear blurred.

Objects at the distance that the camera lens is focused on look very sharp, while objects at other distances appear blurred.

With a nice camera, when you turn the lens by hand to change the focus, you can see some objects at one distance become clear, while objects at other distances begin to blur. Focus can’t perfectly replicate the kind of focus you would get from a camera, but it can do a pretty convincing job of adding this effect to photos.

Getting Started

The design of Focus immediately makes a great impression. Its interface is simple and dark, with clear directions, a textured background, and well-crafted icons. Just drop a photo in to get started.

The start screen of Focus.

The start screen of Focus.

For my first test photo, I found a nice one of Carl Sagan in the lab. Once you’ve dragged in your image, simply select what type of blur you would like to use from the bottom toolbar.

Carl Sagan awaiting the blurring process.

Carl Sagan awaiting the blurring process.

From there, Focus will let you adjust the angle, size, and intensity of your effects via the right sidebar.

Blurring Tools

There are five blurring options available in Focus, each one suited for different types of photos.

The blurring options.

The blurring options.

Portrait

The Portrait tool has a radial (circular) blur, and is optimal to use on a person. To adjust the size of the radial blur, click and resize the guidelines that show up when you hover over the photo, or use the two-finger pinch/expand gesture. The guidelines will automatically focus on a face using facial recognition, but you can drag them around easily if you want to manually set the focal point.

One nice thing about Focus is that the blur effects update live as you move them around or adjust them, making it easy to find the perfect blur settings.

Portrait blur makes our favorite astronomer really stand out.

Portrait blur makes our favorite astronomer really stand out.

If you want to adjust the spacing between the guidelines—in order to make the blur fade out more or less gradually—hold the option key while resizing them.

Nature

The Nature tool uses a straight, or linear, method of blurring. Its alignment is horizontal by default, but you can rotate it by grabbing the handles that appear on hover, or using the rotate gesture on your trackpad.

Nature blur lets you focus on a linear section of your photo.

Nature blur lets you focus on a linear section of your photo.

Architecture

The Architecture tool provides a linear blur just like the Nature tool, except it starts off in the vertical orientation rather than horizontal. You could basically create the same effect with Nature by rotating it 90 degrees.

A towering Tokyo building works nicely with the Architecture tool.

A towering Tokyo building works nicely with the Architecture tool.

Macro

“Macro” refers to macrophotography—close-up photos of very small subjects. The Macro tool in Focus gives you a radial blur similar to the Portrait tool, but it transitions to the blur much more abruptly. This tool is great for enhancing macro photos.

The Macro tool is perfect for small subjects like this fly.

The Macro tool is perfect for small subjects like this fly.

Tilt & Shift

In photography, tilt-shift is a cool effect that makes a real life scene look miniature. It works by creating a drastic blur in the foreground and background of an image, essentially fooling your brain into thinking that the object in focus is actually quite small and close to you. The Tilt & Shift tool is an easy way to recreate this effect in your regular photos.

That's a real boat in Venice, but Tilt & Shift makes it look like it could fit in your bathtub.

That's a real boat in Venice, but Tilt & Shift makes it look like it could fit in your bathtub.

Additional Features

Cropping and Straightening

Focus conveniently offers some general photo editing features common to apps like iPhoto and Picasa. If you click the Place button in the toolbar, you will be able to crop or adjust the ratio of your image. You can also adjust the horizon of your image, which is great if the camera was not level when the picture was taken.

The Leaning Tower, straightened out by adjusting the horizon.

The Leaning Tower, straightened out by adjusting the horizon.

Vividness

Focus’s vividness adjustment is another basic feature that you can find in Picasa and iPhoto, but it is nice to make all of these enhancements in one app. Turning up the vividness adds a little extra color and brightness to your photos. You can alternatively press the Enhance checkbox and Focus will try to automatically correct these qualities.

On the left is the original image. On the right is the image with the vividness turned up.

On the left is the original image. On the right is the image with the vividness turned up.

Cons

The main downside of Focus is that it cannot genuinely recreate the focus effect that adjusting a camera lens would. The reason for this is a technological limitation; digital photos do not currently store the information of the entire light field coming at the camera lens in different directions, which would be necessary to refocus objects at different distances. This means that you might have trouble giving certain photos an authentic blur look.

Take as an example the following image. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Pluto are at roughly the same distance from the lens, and should therefore both be in focus. However, The Portrait tool really only lets you focus on one person at a time, so most of Pluto is unfortunately getting blurred.

This image demonstrates how Focus cannot replicate a genuine blur on certain photos.

This image demonstrates how Focus cannot replicate a genuine blur on certain photos.

Another issue I experienced with Focus was occasional sluggishness. Sometimes the app would freeze up, especially when I had multiple photos open at once. I eventually brought the app to its knees when I tried to open a 4 megabyte photo.

Focus also lacks bulk support. There is currently no way to store and cycle through a folder of photos to liven them up. This single-photo approach is the trend among smaller photo editing apps, and suggests that Focus is really intended to be used on the occasional photo, not an entire album.

Alternatives

While writing this review, I discovered an app that similarly allows you to add blur effects to photos, called Big Aperture. The app is usually $10 (it appears to be on sale at the time of this article for $0.99).

After a quick test of the trial version of Big Aperture, I noticed that the app feels a lot less native and refined than Focus. However, the app does tout one impressive feature: it lets you select specific objects in a photo to apply the focus effect to. With Big Aperture, you can use a brush tool to manually pick out all of the items in a photo that you want to bring into focus. This functionality could solve the problem I experienced with photos containing multiple objects that should be brought into focus. It would be great if Focus added this kind of functionality in the future.

In Big Aperture you can select objects that you want to bring into focus.

In Big Aperture you can select objects that you want to bring into focus.

On a related note, a company called Lytro has been in the news lately for creating digital camera technology that can save the entire light field to photos that you take, allowing you to accurately change the focus of the image after it has been taken. It is pretty amazing to witness. You can test it out by clicking on different objects in the images here.

There have been rumors that Steve Jobs was in contact with the Lytro founder before his death, possibly to get the technology integrated with devices such as the iPhone. So maybe one day, we will be able to perfectly alter the focus on a photo after it’s been snapped.

Conclusion

Focus does what it sets out to do well. The sleek interface and (mostly) smooth user experience make this app enjoyable to use. Personally, I don’t know if I would use it often enough to justify the $15 price tag. It was originally released at $5, then went up to $10, and is now at $15.

I think Focus fits better in the $5-10 price range like Analog and Flare, apps that all let you add simple effects to photos. You can look into Big Aperture as well if you are interested in a cheaper offering. Still, if you want a good blurring or tilt shift effect on your photos, Focus is a great app for the job.