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.
In addition to making your depth of field too shallow, a difficulty with shallow depth of field, Boyd adds, is that “sometimes, people can overdo it.” Don’t abuse it, and don’t let this tool become a crutch that you rely on too much. If all your photographs are shot in one style, you lose the opportunity to push your creative boundaries. Don’t make your images uninteresting by leading the viewer too much. If there’s only one thing to look at, your photograph may lack narrative development.
Another main challenge with shallow depth of field is ensuring that your field of focus is wide enough, and in the right place. Boyd explains, “I suggest bracketing: Shoot a few shots, one at an f-stop of 1.2, one at f/1.8, and one at f/2.0, and so on. Hopefully one of those three shots has everything you want in focus and everything you don’t want out of focus.” Bracketing is especially useful in portrait photography and can help guarantee you get someone’s entire face in focus.
“When you really want to know what you're getting when you're using shallow depth of field, then manually focus your camera and zoom in,” Boyd says. Most cameras are made to focus on faces and can get distracted by high-contrast areas of your image. Putting your DSLR camera in manual mode gives you total control of where you want that shallow depth of field to be.
“When you really want to know what you're getting when you're using shallow depth of field, then manually focus your camera and zoom in.”
Avoid using a wide-angle lens when shooting shallow depth of field images. Wide angle lenses are better suited to deep depth of field, allowing you to get your entire scene in focus. Landscape photography is one area in which sharp focus and deep depth of field are desirable. Don’t set yourself up for failure, and instead use a longer focal length.
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.