Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.