What Is Shallow Depth of Field

We spend a lot of time as photographers trying to get our images in focus. When an image comes out blurry, we hit the delete button so fast that we barely look at the composition.

But not all images need to be sharp from front to back. Sometimes, an image is more beautiful if some parts of it are softly out-of-focus. An image can have impact if the focus is “shallow”.

In this article, I’ll let you in on the secrets of shallow depth of field (DoF). I’ll help you achieve the look and give you ideas on when to use it in your photography.

What Is Shallow Depth of Field?

In photography, depth of field describes how much of the image is in focus.

A deep depth of field (also called “wide” or “large”) means that most of the image is in focus. This is often the goal of landscape photography.

Shallow depth of field (also called “small” or “narrow”) means that only a part of the image is in focus. The background and sometimes the foreground is blurred. Shallow depth of field works in portrait, nature, and travel photography.

The out-of-focus part may be only slightly blurred or be completely lacking detail.

How Do You Get a Shallow Depth of Field?

There’s a lot of optical physics behind a shallow depth of field. But in this article, I’m going to keep the discussion practical.

In general, your depth of field will be shallow when using a wide aperture. This means setting your f-stop to a small number. On some lenses, the widest aperture is f1.4. On others, the widest aperture setting is f5.6. Using aperture priority mode may be a good idea when you’re trying for a shallow depth of field.

Aperture size isn’t the only thing affecting depth of field. Focal length is also important. Lenses with a longer focal length generally will have a shallower depth of field. Your camera sensor size will also make a difference. Cameras with larger sensors (full-frame) will create a shallower depth of field than crop sensors.

But creating a narrow depth of field isn’t all about equipment, it’s also about relative position.

Depth of field will change depending on how close you are to your subject and how far your subject is from the background.

If you’re not getting a shallow depth of field, step closer. If that doesn’t work, try moving your subject further from the what’s behind. There needs to be some distance.

How to Use Shallow Depth of Field

Let me turn to how to use shallow depth of field to make your photography pop.

Here are the top reasons for using a small depth of field.

To Simplify the Background

One of the main reasons to use a shallow depth of field is to simplify a busy scene. Portrait and nature photographers use this to create a clean backdrop.

You may want to remove all detail leaving only color or you may only want to de-emphasize the environment.

In travel photography and photo journalism, subjects are often photographed in context. We want to know where the person is or where the action is taking place.

But we want the context to be secondary. Blurring the environment allows the viewer to see the context without distracting from the main story.