When it comes to photography, there are a myriad of tricks and techniques you can use to help tell your story. Whether it’s an artistic spin, a unique subject, or a technical choice you make — these are all tools in your camera bag that can make your images uniquely yours. And, using a shallow depth of field is one of these tools.

So, what is shallow depth of field, and how can you achieve it? This article will take a detailed look at shallow depth of field, otherwise known as DoF. We’ll explain what affect it has on your images. And, we’ll discuss the many different ways you can achieve it.

shallow depth of field
Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

What is shallow depth of field?

When we’re talking about shallow depth of field, it first helps to understand depth of field, which we discussed in great detail in this article. But, to put it simply, depth of field is the distance between the closest and farthest objects in a photograph that appears acceptably sharp and in focus.

So, when we’re talking about shallow DoF, objects in the background (and often in the foreground, too) are out of focus and blurry. Portraits, macro photographs, and wildlife photography are often shot with a shallow DoF. They have soft, blurred, out-of-focus backgrounds that direct the viewer’s attention directly onto the subject of the photo.

The following images are examples of photos with shallow depth of field. As you can see, a very small plane of each photo is in focus.

Shallow depth of field
Shallow depth of field
shallow depth of field
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
shallow depth of field
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

On the contrary, here is an image with a large or deep depth of field, where most of the image is in focus. This is often the goal of landscape photography:

large depth of focus
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Why use shallow depth of field?

There are many reasons you’d want to achieve a shallow DoF as a photographer. It’s one of the best, and easiest, ways to highlight your subject while softly blurring out everything else in the frame that could be a distraction. 

Use shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s eye exactly where you want them to look and away from the things that are unimportant.

Other ways you can use shallow DoF are to:

  • Simplify the background or remove distractions;
  • Guide the eye or draw the eye away;
  • Create a mood and soften the scene;
  • Create depth;
  • Give your portraits a more professional look.

How do you get shallow depth of field?

There are several different ways to achieve a shallow DoF in your photographs. We’ll discuss what affects the depth of field: aperture, focal length, sensor size, and the position of your subject.

Aperture

The easiest way to achieve a shallow DoF is to use a lens with a wide aperture, or low f-stop — the lower the better. An aperture of f/1.4 will produce a softer, shallower DoF than an aperture of f/4.

Focal length

While it’s the first setting you should go to when looking to achieve shallow DoF, the aperture isn’t the only thing that will affect your depth of field. Focal length also comes into play. Longer lenses will generally produce a shallower DoF and it can be difficult to get a shallow DoF from an ultra-wide lens. So reach for your long lens when you’re going for shallow DoF.

Sensor size

Your camera’s sensor size also makes a difference with DoF. Larger sensors, like those in full-frame cameras, will create shallower depth of field than crop-sensor cameras.

portrait with shallow dof
Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

Positioning your subject

Lastly, the closer you and your camera are to your subject, the shallower the DoF will be. So, if you’re not achieving the shallow DoF you want, try moving closer to your subject. 

Also, have your subject move further away from the background. There needs to be some distance between the subject and the background in order for it to be out of focus.

Final thoughts

Now that you know how to achieve a shallow DoF in your photographs, the next step is to get out in the field and try your hand at these techniques. How will you use shallow depth of field in your photography?