Shallow Depth of Field (DOF) - Digital Photography Tutorial by Emmett Lollis Jr.
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How to use Shallow Depth of Field


What is Depth of Field?

Depth of Field or DOF for short is a description of how much of your photograph is in focus. A shallow depth of field simply means that one specific area of your photo is tack sharp while other elements remain blurred.


When to use Depth of Field in your Photographs

One of the greatest uses of DOF is to single out your subject while at the same time reducing the effect of distracting background clutter. This can be used in almost any style of photography, portraits, sports, photojournalism, close-up and macro all use shallow DOF extensively. Personally I like the effect so much that I rarely ever take a photo that doesn't utilize some form of this technique. The basic rule is that if you want something to pop out, use shallow DOF.

How to get Shallow DOF

The basic formula for shallow Depth of Field is to get as small of an f-stop setting as you can reasonably get away with in your photo. The smaller the f-stop, the larger the aperture. The aperture basically works the same way your pupils do, the more dilated it is, the more background is blurred. A good technique for getting shallow DOF is to start with the smallest f-stop your lens will allow. 2.8 or better works well for this style. A good way to experiment with a digital camera is to set your camera to its smallest f-stop, take a picture, increase the f-stop by about 1 stop, take another and compare results. Once you get the hang of it things will be much easier and there will be much less thinking involved. Another factor is the ISO setting, the higher the ISO, the less DOF you will get so try to keep it as small as possible in the particular situation. In this case the most useful setting on your Digital SLR would be Aperture Priority.

Shallow Depth of Field in Use

Depth of Field in useThe most common and simple way to use shallow DOF is to simply bring the foreground element into focus and blur the background. A good example of this is my spider picture on the left. While the vast majority of the picture is out of focus you're eyes are immediately drawn to our webbed friend. If our background were in sharp focus he would be immediately lost in the background. Of course each photograph is different for every situation but the basic idea is to get all or most of your subject in focus and as much of your background out of focus as possible. Now there are cases where you just want to isolate a specific part of your subject to bring importance to it as in the 2nd image to the right. In this example the area of focus is the sharp looking edge of the pipe, at the same time the main body remains blurred. This brings immediate attention of your viewer to the part we want to show, the sharp edge in this case. You will find as time goes on that you will get better at identifying when to use DOF and how much to use it. Remember if overused it will distract from the entire picture, you don't want a complete blur. Another less common use for shallow Depth of Field is to have part of the foreground out of focus, then sharp subject, then out of focus background. This is one of the most effective techniques if used properly. The effect it gives is one of clear separation between the elements of the photo and when interpreted by the mind it really adds to the realism of your 2 dimensional photograph.

Shallow Depth of Field in Portraits and Photojournalism

PortraitSome of the most important styles of photography that you'll want to use Shallow DOF are portrait photography and photojournalism. It is a helpful tool to use for story telling and as in all other uses it brings attention to where you want it. Imagine a natural setting where a person picks a flow and sniffs it with a childish smile on their face. You can use shallow Depth of Field in many ways here, first and most likely you will have both the flower and part or most of the face in focus with say a 2/3rds view. This effectively says "Hey, bring your attention to the interaction, forget the rest.". Another way you may go about it is to bring only the flower into focus and leave the person as a blur in the background, most likely an almost straight on frontal shot. That example would be a more abstract and artful way to tell the story. One last interpretation would be to blur the flower in the foreground and focus on the emotion that the person is experiencing. This would lend itself to a photojournalistic interpretation.

Uses in Abstract Photography

Shallow Depth of Field - AbstractOne important aspect can be uses of blurred or surrealistic imagery. With a good quality lens and an eye for the art in nature you can truly find ways to distort reality and bring your mind's eye into the photograph. I won't go into too much depth here because this is the area where you have to determine what you're going for. Some techniques include merely blending elements to present a sort of photographic oil painting as in the example photo on the right. You can also obtain a nice effect by having high contrast patterns in the background, such as sunlight through leaves with a nice looking subject in the foreground such as a flower or that super model down the street that's in love with you, OK I'm getting carried away with myself here. It's time to move on to my..


Final Thoughts

On your journey of photography you will be presented with many tools and techniques for your story telling. While not the only way to tell your story, I think your will find that shallow Depth of Field will remain one of your most useful techniques to get what you're looking for out of almost any photograph. Thanks for checking out this Digital Photography Tutorial. Keep checking back for more lessons.

Photography tutorial by Emmett Lollis Jr. February 26th 2005


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