Line of margaritas with soft background

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.


Black and white of the Paradise Cafe

Black & White Photography–The Journey Continues

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

I am continuing my quest to learn black and white photography through the process of converting a number of my color images to b&w. If you didn’t see my last post converting landscapes to black and white, jump back there and take a look.

Each photographic subject, whether sand dunes or deep forest, has presented its own unique challenges. I have been especially struck by the amount of burning and dodging that was necessary for images that look quite good in color.

Black and white of oaks in fog

Black and white of oaks in fog

It has also been a challenge deciding how much contrast I want, especially in the details. I like some velvety blacks in my images, but it is easy to go too far with contrast—almost like too much saturation in color images.

Let’s see how black and white conversions work with images of people.

My first portrait conversion was almost monochromatic to start with. While teaching lighting at a design school in China, I used the schools lighting kit—two fluorescent lights with umbrellas—to demo beauty lighting. These were tight head and shoulder portraits and I was going for a clean, graphic look.

Black and white portrait of student in China

Black and white portrait of student in China

I chose a student from the first row as a model and had her position her hands to help frame her face. The images looked pretty good, but I wanted a little more impact so I had her close her eyes.

The twin arcs of her dark eyelashes on her pale cheeks worked well and seemed to be a natural for black and white conversion. Using the HSL slider, I darkened her sweater and lightened her skin. The last step was pushing the Clarity Slider to -15, giving her skin a soft glow. Ridding this portrait of color seems to have created a more dramatic yet serene image.

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Tight head and shoulder portraits seemed to convert well, but what about environmental portraits with all their location details? This, I found, was similar to converting a forest scene. Detail contrast was critical and some of the presets in the Develop Module proved useful shortcuts.

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Subtle vignetting using the Radial Filter helped focus the viewer’s attention but a fair amount of burning and dodging was still necessary, just as it was in the landscapes.

The one thing that changed drastically from the tight portraits was the Clarity Slider. A slight negative Clarity setting smoothed out skin texture, but with less skin and more detail in the environmental portraits, I defaulted to my usual Clarity setting of plus twenty or so.

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

My “street photography” is often busy restaurant interiors, like the image at the top of this post, shot in the venerable Paradise Café.

Converting this image to black & white seems to pump up the energy of the scene, stripping away the soft mood of warm afternoon light and replacing it with pure vibrance and hard-edged light.

Black and white of an Old West town

Black and white of an Old West town

I’m starting to actually see the possibilities in a color image before I convert it. Decisions on the processing steps are getting a little more intuitive and the particular “style” of black & white that I personally prefer is also coming into sharper focus.

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

I’m getting a terrible urge to start printing some of these images, but I know my eye for black & white needs to develop further. A box of archival matte paper is already on my shopping list along with extra black ink cartridges, just in case my willpower fails.

If you are making this exciting journey to black & white along with me, let me know how you are progressing. This is turning out to be quite challenging but also a lot of fun.

For a listing of my tuition-free Spring 2020 Non-Credit classes at Santa Barbara City College, please click here.


Carvings on Mayan Pyramid in Mexico

Travel Photography with Chuck Place

Travel Photography is much more than shooting snapshots of your vacation. Images created during your travels should transport you back to the magic you felt as sunset light washes over an ancient Mayan pyramid or recall the drama of colorful powwow dancers as a late afternoon storm builds behind them in the distant mountains of New Mexico.

Travel Photography Class with Chuck Place

Join professional travel photographer Chuck Place in a new 6-week course in the Brooks at UCSB Program, learning to capture the magic of new places, people, events and flavors. Each 6-hour class will include a 2-3 hour location shoot here in Santa Barbara and then classroom lectures and assignment critiques covering such travel subjects as architecture, landscapes, people, activities and food.

Learn to capture memories and create images with impact. Join Chuck Place this fall and immerse yourself in Travel Photography.