What is Shallow Depth of Field? Definition & Examples
- Shallow depth of field explained
- Shallow depth of field examples in movies
- How to use a shallow depth of field in filmmaking
Sharp and crisp images capture the attention of viewers with their definition and detail. Digital camera technology can deliver cinematography where everything appears in focus. Depth of field refers to the size of the area in a shot or image which is in sharp focus. A shallow depth of field puts the focus on only a relatively small part of the image, while other areas are blurry and out of focus. Filmmakers vary the depth of field to produce certain effects in shots and bring out the main subject in a close-up, for example. We’ll go into the definition and explanation of the technical term shallow depth of field, study shallow DOF cinematography examples, and discuss how to use it in filmmaking.
Shallow depth of field explained
Talking about shallow depth of field means talking about focus. When taking a picture or setting up a shot, you’ll likely adjust the camera’s focus point on the main subject. In portrait photography, for example, you’ll want the person to be in sharp focus: a close-up of their face can reveal facial features in detail and definition, but leave a blurry background.
There will be an area of focus in front of and behind the camera’s focal point. Everything in that area will appear reasonably sharp and naturally guide the attention towards it. The technical term to describe the size of that area is depth of field, or DOF for short, with the focus point at its center.
Imagine two lines crossing each other in the focal point, and extending on either side, in front and behind, in a triangular shape. That is the plane of focus: any part of the image on the plane is in focus. The depth of field specifies just how much the area of focus extends in front of and behind the focus point.
A shallow depth of field or small depth of field has a small area of sharp focus, leaving parts of the image blurry, as with portrait photography or macro photography. On the other extreme, a deep depth of field keeps a large area or even the entire image in focus, which is preferable for landscape photography, where you’ll want to recognize details in sharp focus near and far.
Shallow DOF: What determines the depth of field?
What are the parameters in photography or cinematography that influence the depth of field, resulting in a deep or shallow depth of field? The following is a brief introduction, but we’ll go into a bit more technical details below when we talk about how to use the effect of shallow DOF in filmmaking:
- Aperture: This term refers to the lens opening, allowing light to pass through. Aperture specifies the size of the hole that opens and shuts in the camera when you press the shutter. The greater the diameter, the more light will get in. Aperture is specified as f/stop, where a high number stands for a small aperture. An f-stop of 1.4 is therefore a larger opening than an f/stop of 2.8, or 22. A large aperture and low f/stop will create a smaller depth of field, because when more light comes in, less can come from the objects in focus. However, there are more parameters at play: shutter speed and ISO, meaning, how long the aperture stays open, and how light-sensitive the film is.
- Focal length: This describes the angle of view, meaning how much of the scene the camera captures, and how large individual elements will be. A longer focal length can zoom in, while a shorter focal length can show more in the frame. A shorter focal length results in a greater depth of field, while a longer focal length, for example, with a telephoto lens, will cause a more shallow depth of field.
- Distance: The further away you position the camera from the main subject, the deeper the depth of field will be. A short distance gives you a shallow focus and a blurry background.
Digital cameras also affect the depth of field, which decreases with an increase in camera sensor size. A full-frame sensor requires you to move closer to the main subject to fill the frame.
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What is bokeh?
Bokeh is Japanese for "blur." We associate it with a shallow depth of field because it occurs with blurry backgrounds: light that is out of focus in your shot will create the bokeh effect. These artifacts have the same shape as the aperture blades of the camera and will usually be round, but filters can produce hexagonal shapes, for example. You can create bokeh by using a fast shutter speed in Aperture Priority Mode or manual, a minimum aperture of f/2.8, and a relatively large distance between the main subject and the background. You can use the bokeh effect to soften a scene, create impressionist or abstract images, a magical mood, or romantic light effects.
Shallow depth of field examples in movies
Now let’s look at some examples of how filmmakers use a shallow depth of field for effect in movies.
Clarice Starling meets Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
When FBI academy trainee Clarice Starling pays her first visit to the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter in the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Jonathan Demme, the editing cuts back and forth between over-the-shoulder shots that blur the other character. The close-ups of their face leave everything else in a surrounding blur. Director of photography Tak Fujimoto highlights the two characters with shallow depth of field, setting the scene for their sparring yet to come. The shots make viewers aware of what separates them, and how maybe they're alike, if only in the sharpness of their minds.
Dick Cheney sweet talks George W. Bush in Vice
Vice (2019) by Adam McKay also has a scene where two characters want something from each other. Dick Cheney pretends to find the job of Vice President unappealing but goes fishing for more by complimenting George W. Bush and making a strategic proposal. Shot and reverse shot are even inter-cut with close-ups of a fishing line and sinker here, while the cinematographer blurs the background of the frames so that Cheney almost becomes looming, yet remains very slick in his manipulation. KQfiV9bC-64
The homely world of technology in Her
The protagonist Theodore Twombly in Her (2013) by Spike Jonze fits the bill of an introvert and loner who enters a kind of relationship with an AI operating system and a virtual assistant named Samantha. In the scene where the two "connect" for the first time, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema uses a shallow depth of field to frame Theodore and his relationship with technology. The outside world becomes a background blur, while the inside looks homey and warm where the sharp focus of everything is on Theodore.
Dialog between Mark Zuckerberg and Erica Albright in The Social Network
At the beginning of David Fincher's award-winning The Social Network (2010), Mark Zuckerberg and Erica Albright talk at a bar. The personal conversation moves over into a break-up as Erica leaves Mark on the spot, which becomes the setup for his later actions and behavior. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth uses a shallow depth of field to keep the focus on just the two characters and their increasingly heated exchange. Everything else fades into the background, just like Mark becomes laser-focused on Facebook.
The finals in Pitch Perfect
The Acappella group, the Barden Bellas, competes in the finals in Pitch Perfect (2012) by Jason Moore and performs a piece arranged by Beca, which serves as an apology to Jesse - they kiss after the performance. The cinematographer singles out Beca on stage with shallow depth of field shots, while the camera cuts away to Jesse in the audience. The close-up and blurry background highlight his reaction and emotional response, and we get the impression that Beca is singing only to him.
How to use a shallow depth of field in filmmaking
The following is an introduction for beginners on how to use a shallow depth of field in filmmaking and photography, both from a technical point of view, and how to affect your shots with it.
How to get the shallow DOF effect
Let’s recap: four factors affect the depth of field—aperture, focal length, camera distance, and camera sensor size. Use a wide aperture for a more shallow depth of field, that is a small f-stop number. However, the aperture is part of the so-called exposure triangle, together with shutter speed and the ISO number, the light sensitivity. You will need to compensate for a large aperture by increasing the shutter speed. The aperture priority mode is semi-automatic and adjusts for your lens aperture setting since you’ll be letting in a lot of light.
Focal length is the distance from the optical center of the lens to the focal point. A shorter length increases the depth of field, and a greater focal length lens gives you that shallow depth of field effect. As a rule of thumb, a longer lens focal length shrinks the DOF. Yet in macro photography, a wide-angle lens also gives you that effect because you are so close to your main subject. A telephoto lens or zoom lens enlarges the subject so that even when you increase the distance, the magnification of the lens will give you a shallow DOF.
If you cannot swap out the camera lens to adjust the focal length, you can step closer and decrease the subject distance. A long lens at a greater distance has the same effect as a wide lens at a shorter distance. A telephoto lens works as if you’re moving your camera closer. When you reduce the actual physical distance, you change the focus distance and need to adjust the focal point accordingly to keep the main subject in focus.
How does the camera sensor size factor into the equation? In DSLR cameras, a full-frame sensor is equivalent to 35mm film. A smaller or cropped sensor requires an equivalent cropping of aperture and focal length. One half of a full-frame sensor has a crop factor of two, which makes a 50mm lens equivalent to a 100mm lens. A larger sensor captures a large part of the image, but you need to step closer to fill the frame.
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How to use the effect
When do filmmakers and photographers use the shallow depth of field? Here's an overview of what you can achieve with the effect.
- Guide the attention of viewers. The main subject in sharp focus will stand out against a blurry background. Select a focus point in a busy scene, or even just one face or feature, and you can determine with great accuracy where the eyes of your audience will land first.
- Establish a relationship. Even in a shallow depth of field, everything on the plane of focus will appear sharp. You can highlight two people in an otherwise blurry scene, for example, and connect them visually or prioritize them.
- The shallow depth of field effect can simplify images, for example in portrait photography. Similarly, filmmakers use close-ups with a blurry background to establish intimacy or instill a sense of calmness, putting the rest of the frame at an emotional distance.
- A narrow depth of field can also blur out a busy or impeding foreground. At a distance, a crowd close to the viewer can become a soft blur. A fence, a curtain, smoke or fog can likewise fade away as you shoot at a distance with a wide aperture.
- A shallow depth of field can set the mood of a scene. Soft lights and colors can provide a romantic appearance, or create a magical feeling or nostalgic look. Disappearing details can also seem mysterious, abstract, dreamy, unreal, or even frightening.
- You can frame a subject with a shallow depth of field by creating a layer in sharp focus between a blurred background and foreground. This can give a sense of separation, but also embed a subject.
Cinematography and photography tips for a shallow depth of field effect
In smartphone photography, modern camera apps allow you to select a portrait mode or shallow DOF effect to take snapshots with the desired effect. A DOF calculator is a handy tool that allows you to determine the focus distance and depth of field for your photography or cinematography setup by inputting focal length, f-stop, and subject distance.
For digital photography, tutorials can help you understand the DSLR settings of your Nikon or Canon camera and how you can use lenses of different focal lengths interchangeably on cameras with different sensor sizes and compatible lens mounts to achieve that shallow DOF effect. In conclusion, here are a few tips:
- Vary your position. Where you place the camera in relation to your subject makes a difference in the depth of field.
- Experiment with lenses when you can. Their focal length and the aperture will affect the depth of field, but not all bokeh is equal. You’ll notice some lenses give a ‘softer’ blur effect.
- A wide aperture lets in a lot of light, so you’ll need to increase the shutter speed to compensate. Should you hit a physical limit, you can filter some of the light with a neutral density filter, for example.
- Experiment with backgrounds. If you want that blurry background, you might have to increase the distance between the background and the main subject to blur out what is further away.
- Study photographers and cinematographers. Find shots with your desired effect and learn which settings were used to recreate the shallow depth of field.