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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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.

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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.

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