The Importance of Shallow Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field is an important part of the craft of photography. So often I get questions about how to get more depth of field, which can be important, yet getting less can be really, really helpful in creating better photos. It is a cool technique often missed by photographers who get stuck feeling they always have to have a lot of depth of field.

Just this week I photographed my son and his fiancé in a city park. We had no time to go to some other location, so park it was. I deliberately shot with very shallow depth of field to isolate them against a nice background that showed none of the park, the people there, the buildings in the distance, and so forth. The shot showing some of the background is from my wife’s iPhone — it gives an idea of the conditions.

Shallow depth of field is very important to nature photography, too. It can be a huge help in making sure your subject stands out in the photograph regardless of the surroundings. Exactly like my son and future daughter-in-law’s photos.

The easiest way to get shallow depth of field is to shoot aperture-priority exposure with your lens wide open (this means choosing the biggest f-stop which is also the smallest number) and using a telephoto focal length. The telephoto focal length also helps to compress stuff in the background, making it tighter and often less distracting.

For the photos of my son and his fiancé, I used my 40-150mm f/2.8 set to 150mm and f/2.8 (that lens on my MFT system is equivalent to 300mm in 35mm-full-frame and 200mm in APS-C formats). Sure, I had to back up to get the shots, but that backing up helped compress the background, making it more attractive, while that combination of 150mm and f/2.8 gave me extremely shallow depth of field. That meant making sure my focus was right on the eyes of the couple (any time eyes are out of focus, the photo will look out of focus to most viewers).

All of these photos required me to back up to get the shot, NOT stand in one place and zoom.

So if you are ever feeling trapped by a background, try getting out the lens you have with the longest, most telephoto focal length, then shoot with the widest lens opening (the smallest number). Then give this a try with other subjects. You may find it a lot of fun!

About Rob Sheppard

I'm Rob Sheppard and my mission is to connect people and nature through photography with celebration and joy. Nature photography, for me, is about finding ways to create meaning and joy in your photography and connecting people with the natural world. I consider myself a naturalist, nature photographer and videographer. I have been busy over the years creating many books related to photography, including Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, and the National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography. A Nature Photography Manifesto and Reports from the Wild are available from Apple’s iBookstore. I get around as a speaker and workshop leader, and I am a Fellow with the North American Nature Photography Association. I was the long-time editor of the prestigious Outdoor Photographer magazine and presently am a contributing editor. My education was both as a photographer and a naturalist specializing in ecology and botany.
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2 Responses to The Importance of Shallow Depth of Field

  1. Hugh Nourse says:

    Wonderful photographs! I have a nagging feeling, however, that there is one more item to be concerned about. You need to be sure that what should be in focus is still in focus, just the background is out of focus. In close-ups of flowers I remember this could be a problem.

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