Abstract The patterning of contact holes by selecting out-of-focus image plane (defocus) using attenuated phase shift masks (APSM) has been studied. Defocus is found to enhance the image modulation at low partial coherence for contact holes with negative local average of mask function. Semi-dense holes up to 130 nm in 8% APSM have been printed by 0.5 μm defocus at a partial coherence of 0.31 using KrF scanner with highest numerical aperture of 0.68. However, these holes were closed with in-focus imaging. Defocus is also found to be beneficial for patterning the pitches that have extensive side lobes with in-focus imaging.