Achieving Shallow Depth of Field Success

Nikon D3s | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII @ 155mm |1/60sec | f/2.8 | ISO 200

Even if you don’t know what its called, people are sure to recognize images with shallow depth of field as the artistic look of professional photography. 

If you’re just starting out, getting that look with your camera can seem elusive, especially if you don’t have the right gear. In this blog post, we’ll talk about the four things that create shallow depth of field and how to go about getting it.

SHALLOW DEPTH OF WHAT?

Shallow depth of field is an optical effect that gives a photographer the power to achieve sharp focus on a subject while blurring the areas in front of and behind that subject. This effect is governed by a lens’ maximum aperture, focal length, subject distance and sensor size: the most crucial of these elements being maximum aperture and focal length. 

Nikon D750 | 50mm f/1.4 | 1/80 sec| f/2.8 | ISO 800

Unlike many things in photography, your skills as a photographer don’t matter when it comes to shallow depth of field. Without the right gear, you’re stuck. If you’re shooting kit lenses, you’ll be unable to recreate this look at normal focal lengths below 100mm. There just isn’t much you can do to overcome the slow f/3.5-5.6 maximum aperture. 

The goal of having shallow depth of field is to allow you to make your photographs highlight a specific area that you choose. As an artist, you get to assign importance to what you show in sharp focus. This gives you a lot of control over the balance of your compositions. Shallow depth of field is the most powerful effect in photography for conveying a three dimensional space in a two dimensional medium.

Nikon D4 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII @ 105mm |1/800sec | f/2.8 | ISO 800

HOW TO GET IT?

To create shallow depth of field at most focal lengths, you’ll need a “fast” f/1.4 – f/2.0 prime or a f/2.8 zoom.  Then you’ll want to shoot your lens wide open or as close to it as possible (f/1.2, f/1.4, or f/2.8 for example). To test this out, change your camera’s exposure mode to aperture priority or manual mode and set your lens to the widest setting. This way you’ll know your camera’s aperture will stay locked at the f-stop you choose.

Keep in mind, on bright sunny days, you may not be able to shoot wide open without overexposure. To fix this, you may have to stop down as you’ll be limited by your camera’s base ISO and maximum shutter speed. Alternately you could add some neutral density filters to help cut down the amount of light while still shooting wide open.

In addition to aperture, the shallow depth of field effect is influenced by focal length, subject to background distance and sensor size. Generally, the longer the focal length and the closer your subject is to your camera, the shallower your depth of field will be. Take a look at the example below. Both images were shot with a 50mm lens at f/2.5. You don’t get the shallow depth of field effect unless you’re focused on objects close to your camera.

Both images shot with a 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2.5. Notice how the barn & silo are both in focus near infinity. The same settings and lens in the coffee image has a much different look when focused close.

When you get to focal lengths above 150mm you can still get a shallow depth of field look at apertures smaller than f/2.8, even with your subjects some distance from the camera. The compression effect telephoto lenses have compensates for the smaller maximum apertures. Additionally, full frame sensors go a long way towards creating shallow depth of field in comparison to smaller crop sensor cameras.

Nikon D4s | Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VRII |1/320sec | f/3.5 | ISO 400

GET STARTED

The easiest lens to play with shallow depth of field for new shooters is the 50mm f/1.4 (or 35 f/1.4 for crop sensors). The 50mm focal length makes a great introduction by being smaller, lighter & more forgiving than the longer focal lengths. While it doesn’t really fall into the telephoto category like an 85mm f/1.4, it will still give you nice background blurring and subject isolation. It even performs well when stopped down one or two stops from wide open.  

Not into primes and want a single lens solution that’s closer to your kit lens? The 24-70mm f/2.8 or the 17-55mm f/2.8 (crop sensor) is great because it covers the zoom range you’re already familiar with. It’s hard to beat the convenience of these lens options if you want a step up in optical quality that also gives you shallow depth of field. The 24-70 f/2.8 and 17-55 f/2.8 also give you the convenience of a zoom which makes them great everyday/walk around lenses for all sorts of photography genres.

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