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Photography Focusing

Shallow Depth of Field

September 11, 2023 by

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know about shallow depth of field.

After reading this guide, you’ll know what a shallow depth of field is, why it’s important, and how to use it in your photos or videos.

With that being said, let’s dive in!

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Table of Contents

What is Shallow Depth Of Field?

A shallow depth of field in photography is achieved by focusing selectively on a specific plane, while everything else in the frame becomes softly blurred.

You may have heard photographers talking about low f-numbers or f-stops.

This refers to the aperture settings on a camera, which control how much light is let in when capturing a shot. With a low f-stop, more light circulates inside the camera.

When you allow more light in, it reduces the focus on the background and foreground, making your subject crystal clear, and everything else a soft blur.

Let me paint a picture, if you will. Imagine, you’re at a bustling, vibrant farmer’s market with rows upon rows of fresh produce and lively vendors. There’s a whole universe of color, shapes, and activity.

Now, think of a photo where the focus is solely on a single basket of crisp, ruby-red apples in the middle of this busy scene.

Everything else around the apples – the vendors, other produce, customers, even the shelves or stands – is softened, blurred to the point it’s almost like a dream.

But those apples? They’re sharp, in focus, irresistibly inviting.

This, my friend, is an example of what photographers call a “shallow depth of field”.

Imagine the aperture like the pupil of your eye. The wider it opens, the more light comes in, blurring out peripheral details and focusing only on what you’re directly looking at.

In addition, adjusting the distance between the camera, subject, and background can also create this effect.

Think back to the apples: approaching closer to the basket would result in a shallow depth of field, where the items in the front, behind, or around the subject blur, offering an artistic view that emphasizes our subject.

Just a word of caution, though. While shallow depth of field can give stunning effects, like any technique, it shouldn’t be overused.

The focus (no pun intended) should always be the story or message of the photograph.

shallow depth of field photograph
shallow depth of field photograph

Why is Shallow Depth Of Field Important In Photography?

Imagine you’re framing that picture-perfect shot.

You want your subject to stand out, maybe it’s a portrait of a loved one or a stunning flower blossoming in nature, but the background is just too busy and takes away from your focal point.

This, my friend, is where shallow depth of field comes into play.

Shallow depth of field allows you to selectively focus on a specific plane, your main subject, while subtly blurring everything else.

It’s like the spotlight on a theater stage, honing in on the main actor while gently softening the surrounding scene.

This is a highly effective tool to emphasize your subject and add depth and interest to your image.

To sum up, shallow depth of field in photography is like a filmmaker’s selective focus tool, drawing viewers to the star of the show while dimming the lights on the rest.

How to Use Shallow Depth Of Field?

How can shallow depth of field (DOF) be achieved? It’s rather like adjusting your eyesight.

Think about how when you focus on something close, objects in the distance become blurry.

This same principle applies when achieving shallow depth of field in photography.

By understanding and practising these steps, you can create stunning, professional-level photos emphasising the subject and adding depth and interest to your images:

1. Choose the Right Aperture

The first step to use shallow depth of field is to choose the right aperture.

Selecting the correct aperture (f-stop) is the most important step when aiming for a shallow depth of field.

A wider aperture such as f/1.4 or f/2.8 will allow you to capture that shallow depth of field look.

Narrower aperture such as f/8 or f/16 provide greater depth, but not a shallow depth of field look.

Wider apertures (lower f-stop numbers), will allow you to isolate your subject from the background.

For example, if you photograph a portrait at f/1.4, then you’ll be able to capture your subject’s face in sharp focus while the background is beautifully blurred with bokeh.

aperture photography chart
aperture photography chart

2. Focus on the Eyes (or Closest Subject)

The second tip to use shallow depth of field is to focus on the eyes or the closest subject.

In portrait photography or close-up shots, you’ll always want to ensure the eyes are in sharp focus.

The viewer’s to your photograph will always be naturally drawn to your subject’s eyes, so keep them sharp and in focus is crucial to creating an engaging and aesthetically-pleasing image.

I like to do this by adjusting my camera to single-point autofocus and putting the focus point on my subject’s eye.

If you are photographing a group of people and still want to capture a shallow depth of field, then make sure they aren’t too far spread apart, and then put your focus point on the closest subject to you.

shallow depth of field focus on the eyes
shallow depth of field focus on the eyes

3. Use Prime Lenses

The third tip to use shallow depth of field is to use a prime lens.

Prime lenses are lenses with fixed focal lengths such as the 50mm f/1.8 lens, also known as the “nifty-fifty.”

Prime lenses are ideal for achieving shallow depths of field because they often have wider maximum apertures which allow you to create a more pronounced background blur.

This isn’t always the case of course, as some zoom lenses allow you to “stop-down” to a wider aperture, but using a prime lens for a portrait, headshot, or product session when you need to capture a shallow depth of field is most common.

4. Mind the Distance

The fourth tip to use shallow depth of field is to mind your distance.

The distance between your subject and the background will affect the overall quality and extent of your background blur caused by the shallow depth of field.

If your subject is closer to the background while using a shallow depth of field, there will be background blur but it will be easier to see what the background is.

shallow depth of field subject closer to background
subject closer to background

If your subject is further from the background while using a shallow depth of field, then there will be a stronger bokeh effect where it will be harder to see what the background is and might become a mixed bag of blurry circles.

shallow depth of field subject further from background
subject further from background

5. Consider the Foreground

The fifth tip when using a shallow depth of field is to consider the foreground.

While I’ve been mentioning the background alot, a shallow depth of field is not limited to just isolating the background.

You can create a visually-appealing image by also having a foreground that is blurred and out of focus.

For example, you can capture a landscape shot of a mountain range with a blurred, flower-filled foreground. This would create a sense of depth and scale.

shallow depth of field foreground blurred
shallow depth of field foreground blurred

6. Use Manual Focus for Precision

The sixth tip when using shallow depth of field is to use manual focus for precision.

There are some situations where I’ve had autofocus struggle, such as in low-light conditions or when focusing on a specific detail.

To fix this, I switched to manual focus.

Manual focus will allow you to have precise control over what’s in focus.

For example, let’s say you’re capturing a macro shot of a water droplet on a leaf and autofocus isn’t working. If you switch to manual focus, this will ensure the droplet’s tiny details are razor-sharp.

7. Practice Patience and Precision

The seventh tip when using a shallow depth of field is to practice patience and precision.

Just like any other photography technique, achieving a shallow depth of field can be challenging, especially in the beginning, and if you are in a fast-paced situation.

If you’re having trouble getting it, just remember that it takes practice and patience.

Take your time to compose your shot, focus accurately, and make sure your subject is where you want them within your frame.

Follow these tips and steps, and you’ll be a master at shallow depth of field photography in no time!

When Should Shallow Depth Of Field Be Used?

In various types of photography, such as portraiture and nature photography, there’s an opportune time to employ this strategy.

Imagine you’re taking a portrait; you want to highlight the person’s features, expressions, or maybe a specific detail, like a jade pendant they’re wearing.

You can use a shallow depth of field to bring attention to your subject and make that jade pendant or their sparkling eyes stand out, shrouded by a beautiful, creamy bokeh.

Conversely, the same principle applies to your spectacular looking Tiger Lily in a field of numerous flowers.

However, you have to strike a balance.

Shallow depth of field is like the hot sauce of photography – a few drops can enhance the taste, but a whole bottle might ruin the dish.

It’s essential to contemplate the story or message you want your photo to send and not let the blurriness steal your narrative.

Remember, the goal is to add depth and interest to an image, not fluster your viewer with a chaotic blur party.

All in all, shallow depth of field should be your go-to when you aim to cue viewer’s focus on a specific subject, add a sense of depth, or infuse a layer of intrigue to your images.

What focal length is best for shallow depth of field?

A prime lens with a focal length around 50mm and a wide aperture, such as f/1.8 or f/1.4, is often considered the best choice for achieving a shallow depth of field in many situations, especially for portraits and close-up photography.

What is a strong depth of field?

A strong depth of field refers to a photographic technique where a large portion of the scene, from the foreground to the background, is in sharp focus, creating a detailed and expansive view with minimal blurring.