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Tips for Working With a Shallow Depth of Field

Caleb Ward

Give your video shots greater dimension! Follow these tips for shooting shallow depth of field.

Camera Lens - Shallow Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field places the focus on one part of your image, while other areas in the frame are out of focus. A lot of video (and still photo) newbies struggle with creating selective focus in their videos. So what can you do to give your video shots shallow DoF? Follow these tips for success.

Creating Shallow Depth of Field

1. Open up your aperture.

The quickest way to get shallow depth of field is to shoot with a wide aperture lens at a low f-stop number. Unfortunately these lenses are expensive. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on wide aperture zoom lenses try looking for prime lenses instead. They tend to give you a much wider aperture at a much lower cost. Plus, having a zoom lens isn’t as important with video as it is for still photography.

2. Use a telephoto lens.

Telephoto lenses have a much more shallow depth of field than their wider counterparts. This means, generally, an 85mm lens will have a more shallow depth of field than a 50mm lens and so on.

3. Create Distance

Simply separating the distance of your subject from the other elements in your frame will increase background blur considerably. Another consideration would be moving your subject close to your camera. This will give you a psuedo-macro environment, and in-turn make your background much blurrier.

4. Use a Full Frame Camera

Full-frame sensors are capable of producing a shallower depth of field than a cropped sensor. This is due to the fact that to get a 50mm equivalent image on a APS-C sensor you would need to use a 31mm lens – the wider the lens the less blurry the background.

Shallow Depth of Field Tips and Tools

1. Focus on the Eyes

Audiences are extremely unforgiving if your subjects eyes are out of focus. When performing a critical focus, concentrate on the eyes. This is of course not a hard-and-fast rule, but in most circumstances, eyes make great focus points.

2. Use a Monitor with Focus Assist

Some monitor brands like Small HD have built-in focus assist

A portable reference monitor is essential if you want to take your productions to the next level. You need to see your footage in a larger format than the small LCD screen on your camera. One key feature that high-end monitors have over their cheaper counterparts is the ability to display focusing information. Focus grids make it easier to tell if your subject is in focus or not –  when you have a shallow depth of field these become even more important.

3. Use a follow focus

A follow focus is essentially a small wheel that can manually adjust the focus of your lens. When working with shallow depth of field it can be really easy to over or under shoot your focus points if you’re simply adjusting the focus with your hand. A follow focus will allow you to make very precise changes in your focus.

4. ND Filters

As we discussed above, one of the best ways to get a shallow depth of field is to use a wide aperture. But if you are shooting in a bright environment like the outdoors than you will likely have an overexposed image that will be unusable. To fix this problem try shooting with an ND filter. An ND filter will act like sunglasses for your camera, cutting down the amount of incoming light. This will allow you to shoot at wide apertures even in bright sunlight.

5. Find Your Marks

If you’re shooting a film with a shallow depth of field marking both your actors marks and your focus marks is incredibly important. Most follow focus’s allow you to write markers with dry erase markers. However if you aren’t using a follow focus you’re still fine. You can use a pencil to mark your focus points on your lens and erase them afterwards. For your actor it can be helpful to label their marks with gaff tape.

Have any other tips for shooting with shallow depth-of-field?
Share in the comments below.