What is shallow depth of field?
Shooting with a shallow depth of field is “having a plane that’s in focus, and everything else is out of focus,” explains experienced photographer Jeff Carlson. It’s a technical choice, influenced by the aperture on your lens. “If you have a wide aperture, the lens is letting in more light,” says Carlson. “The more light that gets in, the more you get that shallow depth of field effect.”
Successful shallow depth of field.
Depth of field in portraiture.
“People talk a lot about using shallow depth of field when you’re doing portraiture,” Klise says. Portraiture is often about highlighting features on someone’s face. Getting a shallow focus on the subject’s eyes can be important when, for example, you want the viewer to connect directly with the subject in the photo. Shallow depth of field can also help eliminate distracting details in the background. But “there’s a huge amount of hit or miss” when using shallow depth of field in portraiture, Klise adds: if the depth of field is shallow, but the focus is only on the subject’s nose, you’ve missed the mark, and obscured the viewer’s connection to your subject.
If you’re shooting a portrait in a dim environment, you may need to open your aperture to f/1.4 to get enough ambient light to make a good exposure. But this leads to a shallow depth of field, which could make your subject blurry. You can combat this unintentional shallow depth of field by opening up to an aperture of f/5.6 or f/8 to ensure you get the person entirely in focus. But at this aperture, you’ll probably need additional, artificial lighting to get an adequate exposure. Art director and photographer Alex Tan suggests that beginners “understand and learn the artificial modification of lighting, like strobes and continuous light.” Don’t be overwhelmed by the world of artificial lighting; it’s just an opportunity to learn. And having the correct lighting tools at your disposal helps you compose the best shot and get the shallow or deep depth of field you’re looking for.
Challenges with shallow depth of field.
How to improve your focus.
Experience is the best teacher. If you’re looking to master the technical side of shallow depth of field, go out and shoot. Carlson suggests “shooting either in manual mode or aperture priority mode.” He advises beginners to choose a simple subject and experiment with focus bracketing. When you’ve taken the same photo with different apertures, go back and examine the differences. See what level of detail you get with each image, and learn the range of each depth of field.
Another way to improve your shallow depth of field is to focus on the narrative in your photograph. Is one object essential to the story your image is telling? Experiment with both shallow and deep depth of field, and see how they change that narrative. After all, photography is all about storytelling, and techniques like shallow depth of field are choices an artist can make to prioritize and amplify that narrative. If you didn’t nail your depth of field while shooting, you can always tweak some of that blur in post processing. To get started, check out this tutorial for selecting an area of focus in your image in Photoshop. Building up your foundational understanding of these simple tools can help you adjust the blur and depth of field in your photographs.
Now that you know the ins and outs of using shallow depth of field, how will you apply it to your own photos? Remember, this is a technical choice that can help convey your artistic vision. It’s an essential tool for photographers to understand and master. But don’t let it become your go-to camera or aperture setting, as it’s easy for unintentional movement to take your subject out of that shallow plane of focus. If you want to explore more uses of shallow depth of field, dive into macro photography, as close-up images inherently have a very shallow depth of field. Otherwise, be intentional with your focal point, and try your hand at this technique.
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