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5 Tips To Getting Sharp Photos With a Shallow Depth of Field

By Max Bridge on January 13th 2016

One of the hardest obstacles to overcome as a photographer is learning how to get sharp photos with a shallow depth of field. It is not easy. On film sets, there’s a dedicated person who’s job (among others) is keeping everything in focus. Granted, autofocus is never used in the film industry but it gives you a good idea of how important and difficult this task can be. With this article, I’m going to give you a few tips to help you keep your photos sharp.

1. Know Your Basics When Using A Shallow Depth OF Field

This tip applies to so many things in photography (and life, for that matter) you need to know the basics. In other words, don’t run before you can walk. There is no magic setting (as of yet) which will ensure all of your shallow depth of field photos are sharp. Sorry. To give you the best chance possible, you need to first understand depth of field; you need to know simple things like what the minimum shutter speed you require is; what internal camera settings to choose; how to check the micro focus on your lenses.

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[REWIND: HOW TO CALIBRATE YOUR LENSES | A SIMPLE FIX FOR BLURRY IMAGES]

Achieving consistently sharp photos, while using a shallow depth of field, is hard. Do not be discouraged if at first you do not succeed. Give yourself the best grounding possible by making sure you fully understand your camera and the concepts of photography, before deciding this is too hard. Photography 101 is a fantastic resource for beginners and will give you all the info you need to get you going. Find it here.

2. Focus recompose, The Enemy Of Shallow Depth OF Field

When working with a shallow depth of field, you may have a very small amount actually in focus. Depending on the focal length of your lens, distance to your subject, and the aperture you have chosen, you may have anything from a few inches to a couple of millimeters in focus.

Focus recompose is a technique made popular by cameras that possess some focus points that, putting it kindly, are best avoided (think Canon 5D Mark II). When using cameras like that, photographers often stick to using the center focus point (normally the best) and then recomposing the frame once they have gained focus. The key point here is that by doing so, they have to move the camera. If your depth of field is only as wide as an eyelash, then you could very easily shift that focus with your movement.

Instead, try to select the focus point as near as possible to the point in your scene that you are focusing on, thereby reducing or removing altogether the possibility of losing your focus as you recompose your shot.

[REWIND: LOVE LIGHTING WITH STROBES OUTDOORS! USE AN ND FILTER FOR A SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD]

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This method would be ideal, but as I have already mentioned, on some cameras only the center focus point is worthwhile using. In those cases, your only option is to use the focus-recompose technique. It then becomes critical that you are acutely aware of your movement and that you regularly check the focus on important shots.

3. Movement Of Any Kind, Yet Another Enemy of Shallow Depth OF Field

It seems that shallow depth of field has a lot of enemies! That’s no surprise when you’re working with what could potentially be as little as millimeters in focus. Following on from the last tip (focus recompose), we have to think about all movement. If the camera moves a millimeter or two, we’re off. If our subject sways back and forth by a millimeter or two, we’re off. You must contemplate the movement of everything in your scene and use that knowledge to make better decisions.

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The photo above was specifically requested by a client. However, the subject in question was an energetic five-year-old girl. When working with a shallow depth of field, where possible, use a tripod. By doing so, you can, at least, mitigate one element (your movement). However, it’s not always possible to do so. In the case of the photo above, and a similar shot of her two-year-old (even more energetic) sister, I employed a couple of methods.

We we’re sitting down so I could somewhat control and reduce their movement. As I was so close to them, at such a wide aperture (f2.8 to f4), my depth of field was almost non-existent. Because of that, constantly auto-focusing was not possible. They moved too fast and the lens (Canon 100mm F2.8 L) could not keep up, nor could I keep the composition correct while focus recomposing; that’s right, I was using a 5D Mark II. I used the autofocus to get me in the right ballpark and then manually focused while shooting consecutively using a continuous shutter speed. While the camera was clicking away, I also slowly rocked back and forth. It was pretty crazy, but with some effort, we walked away with a few photos to choose from.

4. Communication, The Friend Of Shallow Depth Of Field

I gave shallow depth of field so many enemies that I had to think of one friend. Communication. I’ve spoken about direction before in previous articles, like this one here, and this is a critical part of it. Don’t keep what you’re doing a secret. Talk to your subjects whenever you can and explain what you’re doing/trying to achieve. That way they can assist you. If they want good photos, which most clients do, they will be willing to assist you a little.

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Unfortunately, some subjects (children and animals, for example) are not the most cooperative. In situations where I cannot communicate with my subject, there are a couple of techniques I use. First, you have to decide if a shallow depth of field will be appropriate. There’s no point if you know every photo will be out. Second, only use a shallow depth of field when you have the upper hand. Using children and animals as an example (they are so closely related anyway), wait until they are stationary, or in the case of children create that scenario (a sitting down family photo, for instance). Another surefire method is to over shoot. Just like I described for the extreme close up of the two little girls, stick your camera on high-speed continuous and fire away.

5. Accepting The Inevitable

Scrutinize any film and you will notice quite a few shots that have soft focus, especially apparent in the cinema. Despite employing highly skilled, well-paid individuals to ensure accurate focus is achieved, there are still shots with less than perfect focus. Something you must understand when working with a shallow depth of field is that some photos will be soft. It’s unavoidable but not necessarily death to that image.

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We’re always aiming for an image that is as sharp as possible but is it the end of the world if we’re a little off? The answer to this question will depend on what you are shooting. With product photography, yes it matters. Whereas, a portrait of a couple, family photo, and many other instances are a little less crucial. If you are already working with a very shallow depth of field, then your images will have a very soft quality to them anyhow. In my opinion (and some of you may disagree), we can extend our range of what we call “acceptably in focus.” In terms of what is acceptable, you must use your own judgement. But don’t simply discard an image if the focus is a little off.

If this article spoke to you, then may I suggest you take a look at Photography 101 (click here). I think you’ll find it very beneficial. SLR Lounge creates so much fantastic educational content that will advance your skills as a photographer and Photography 101 is one of the best courses we have.

Please put any tips of your own in the comments below.

[REWIND: IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY WITH THESE 3 ESSENTIAL PRACTICES]

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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20 Comments

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  1. Sarah Johnson

    “…we can extend our range of what we call “acceptably in focus.”” LOVE that line! I am always super hard on myself if an eye of my subject is not tack sharp when zoomed in 100%. And I’ve found, most of the time, when printed out you can’t even tell. I like being given a little “wiggle room” as to what the focus “should be like.” I think you’ve just lifted a weight off my shoulders and won’t be AS hard on myself when in image ends up being just a bit softer than I would have thought it should be. Thanks!

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  2. Chris Biele

    Thanks for this article, Max. One thing which also could apply here is focus stacking. I’ve only tried this technique once, but I can see the value in it. Obviously it is only really applicable for still life!

    Here’s the image I took. It’s five pics in total, and if you look closely at the first section of chain you will see I went past one area. Next time I’ll use more precision! https://www.flickr.com/photos/mac_dub/4144417309/in/album-72157632886965016/

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Chris,

      Focus stacking in still life is a very good technique, one which I need to try more.

      Oh, and nice photo!

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  3. Joseph Prusa

    Thanks for posting.

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  4. Ben Perrin

    It certainly is hard. Don’t forget the micro adjustments on dslrs can also be crucial in getting that focus tack sharp. I have certain lenses that just seem to love my 5d2 but if I put them on a different body then all hell ensues. I’ll say that I’m different to Kyle in that I think back button focus is brilliant for these types of things and wouldn’t shoot any other way. Definitely a huge time saver. I also seem to be the odd one out with focus recompose. I kind of have to use it with the 5d2 as nothing but the centre point is sensitive enough. On the a7r2 I haven’t found a good way to quickly switch to a different focus point (maybe someone here knows what to do). Make sure you try to use cross type af points if you do venture off-centre as non-cross type af points will have difficulty will either vertical or horizontal lines. Also with the reciprocal rule make sure you use that as an absolute minimum unless you are sure of yourself. For a 50mm lens I’d prefer to be shooting at 1/200th of a second or faster for example not at 1/50th as my hands aren’t too steady and motion blur can also creap in as well as camera shake. Everyone has different limits though. If in doubt, shoot more than 1 frame.

    Great article Max. It certainly is hard to do but so worth it when you get that razor sharp image.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed comment Ben.

      I’m with you when it comes to back button focus. Loved it from the moment I tried it! If someone hands me their camera and it’s not set, it feels dirty. Ha ha.

      Seems we have a lot in common as I also suffer from less than steady hands. I’ll just use the fastest shutter speed possible without compromising my ISO too much. Always a balancing act.

      P.S. I did mention the micro focus adjustment in the “know your basics” bit but it was only a couple of words. Thanks for bringing more attention to it. I also posted a REWIND to one of Jay’s articles on calibrating your lenses – https://www.slrlounge.com/calibrate-lenses-simple-fix-blurry-images/

      Thanks

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    • Chris Biele

      I am also a big fan of back button focus, but in the end I have disabled it from my main camera because I was finding it difficult to activate the back button when holding the camera in funny angles, like above my head at weddings / events or down super low to the ground when I had to contort my body to get into the position. If anyone has a trick for these times I’d love to hear it!

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    • Ben Perrin

      It’s not for everyone Chris. It’s just a technique that helps some of us work a little faster. For others it may even have the opposite effect. That’s OK. One thing is that I move the focus button from the AF-On button to the * button as it is easier to reach for me. Just looking at the image you posted on this thread you seem to be using a Pentax. Maybe they have an option to move the BBF to an easy to reach button as that certainly makes a difference. With the Sony cameras they have about 4 or 5 buttons that you can assign it to which makes it really easy to use BBF comfortably.

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    • Chris Biele

      I guess in my case I should have it activated on some custom profiles, and not on others. That way it would be easy to switch from precision mode to shoot-from-the-hip mode!

      I was a Pentax user many moons ago, but am now fully invested in Nikon. Auto focus on the K10d was atrocious, especially for events!

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    • Kyle Stauffer

      Technical question for you guys if you don’t mind taking the time to reply….

      First – I realize back button AF is best used when in AF-C. When in AF-C i’ll use the back button as a lock which does the same thing, just in opposite order. The only problem is that there is no confirmation of focus in very low light.

      Here is my conundrum – When in low light it sometimes takes a 1-2 seconds to achieve focus. In dark reception where there is very little light and the music is playing too loud to hear/see confirmation it’s hard to know if the camera locked. This is why i’ll sometimes use AF-S and keep the shutter button as my focus during little to no action in the reception. I’ll hold the button down the entire way and when the camera reaches focus it automatically takes the photo.

      Anyone else have a better solution other than manual focus in these tough situations. I sometimes which I could keep it in AF-C an do the same thing where when it locks it either tells me with a subtle beep and/or takes the image.

      Thanks,
      Kyle

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    • Max Bridge

      As far as I am aware Kyle, there is no way to have your camera take the photo once accurate focus is achieved in AF-C, would be quite inconvenient actually. However, I understand your problem and can see why you may actually want that.

      What about using the focus confirmation light in the bottom right hand corner of the viewfinder? You may find it a little annoying to have to check but I’m sure you’d get used to it.

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    • Kyle Stauffer

      Thank you Max! I may give that a try

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    • Max Bridge

      You’re welcome. Just realised, it’s actually the bottom left of the viewfinder.

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  5. robert raymer

    I love a good image with shallow DOF, but apparently I also love to frustrate myself to no end, since two of my favorite things to shoot are my Nikon 50mm 1.2 AIS (manual focus) on my D800, or my 4×5 film camera.

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    • Max Bridge

      oooooh manually focusing at f1.2 on a D800 must be crazy! I bet you’ve come up with a few techniques of your own to get sharp focus

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    • robert raymer

      I looked forever for a good split prism focusing screen but couldn’t find one, so I either try to use a tripod and live view when I have a subject that I know will stay still, or a 15x loupe that I attach to the screen and use live view as a DIY EVF when I have a subject (i.e. my kids) that will not sit still. Regardless, I end up with quite a few misses and really wish Nikon would make an interchangeable split screen for the D800, though I hear it will potentially mess with the AF system.

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  6. Kyle Stauffer

    A great and very useful article! Much appreciated! I’m always grateful for articles like this to either give reassurance and confirm a method, or come to find that there is a much better one.

    Using low light primes has definitely shaped the way I shoot. I used to try and keep things simple and only use the trusty center focus point. I found that too many times I was not only slightly missing focus, but also picking up slight movement blur from not completely stopping the camera during the re-compose (Became very apparent with the D800). The focus/recompose method died while trying to shoot my nephew’s. Simply looking at the scene and deciding beforehand which side of the frame I wanted the subject helped tremendously with pre-selecting the focusing point for a quick shot.

    I tried the back button focus button, but realized it added that little bit of extra time between the focus lock and shutter. I continue to use the shutter button as the focus simply because I’ll simply push it the whole way down to minimize the time between focus and image capture when trying to get that split second opportunity.

    -Kyle

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    • Max Bridge

      Glad you liked the article.

      Focus recompose can definitely hinder attempts at achieving sharp focus. However, if it is the only technique available, due to camera limitations, it’s not the end of the world; you’ll just have a harder time with it.

      I’ve been shooting with the 5D MKII for a long time now and have only just got a camera with which I am confident to stray from the centre. I’m having to alter my way of thinking and, as you said, anticipate where I want the focus point to be.

      In terms of back button focus, I could not live without it. But hey, each to their own and all that.

      Thanks for the detailed comment!

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  7. Archie C

    I love that the portraits shown are of deer and ducks
    ???

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    • Max Bridge

      Ha ha. I wondered if anyone would think about that. All of the photos have a very shallow depth of field. Less so, the deer in the fog, but I was still fairly close at 200mm and f2.8

      :)

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