Cinematographic and photographic techniques like shallow focus can serve your story or images in numerous ways. And mastering it isn’t overly complicated. Some filmmakers do tend to overdo these kinds of techniques to capture ‘that cinematic look,’ but being able to answer what is shallow focus and implement it in your work, is still an incredibly useful tool.

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Shallow Depth of Field

What to know before shallow focus

To understand what shallow focus is, you need a firm grasp on some other photographic elements like depth of field and aperture. Aperture is a lens setting that affects depth of field. 

Here's a breakdown of how aperture and depth of field work together to create a range of visual storytelling options.

What is Aperture?  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Depth of field is the area of acceptable sharpness in front of and behind the subject on which the lens is focused. It essentially refers to how blurry or sharp the area is around your subject. The camera’s aperture controls this blurriness and sharpness by adjusting the size of the opening in the lens. 

A shallow depth of field describes the small or narrow area that is in focus. Often, the background is blurred while only the subject stays in focus. This shallow or small depth of field can be achieved by increasing the aperture or rather lowering the f/ number.

SHALLOW FOCUS DEFINITION

What is shallow focus?

Shallow focus is a term referring to the technique that keeps one part of an image in focus while the rest is out of focus. Shallow focus uses a shallow depth of field by either widening the aperture, increasing the focal length of the lens, or placing the camera closer to the subject to create blur. It is blurring the background and foreground around the sharp subject. It helps emphasize one part of the image over another to draw the viewer's eye to a particular area of the frame or subject.

WHAT DOES SHALLOW FOCUS DO?

  • Keeps only one plane in focus 
  • Isolates the subject
  • Direct’s viewer’s attention to particular scene element

Shallow focus (or shallow depth of field) is just one of many types of camera focus in film. For a complete breakdown of these options, watch our episode of The Shot List that is dedicated to depth of field and camera focus.

Ultimate Guide to Depth of Field  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Shallow focus is a function of a shallow depth of field.

When I use a shallow focus, I have shallow, narrow, or smaller part of the image that remains in focus. This is compared to a deep focus that keeps all of the image sharp.

Implementing this technique can serve your stories in many ways.

Take this example from Road to Perdition and how a simple shift in focus is all we need to understand the jealousy and rage within a character.

Using shallow focus to get inside a character's head  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Knowing how and when to use this kind of focus is an art as well as a skill. Try not to use it too much, unless of course it genuinely works and enhances your narrative. 

For a greater understanding of shallow focus, you need to know your camera lenses. Download our FREE Ebook — Camera Lenses Explained Vol. 1 — where we cover everything you need to know about the different types of camera lenses, their unique visual characteristics, and how to use them.

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Every type of camera lens has distinct qualities and visual characteristics that every image-maker should understand. Download our FREE e-book to get in-depth explanations on prime vs. zoom lenses, anamorphic vs. spherical lenses, wide angle, standard, telephoto and even specialty lenses that all tell a slightly different story.

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Camera Focus

Camera Focus Techniques

Browse camera focus techniques, and learn how to couple them with shot size, angles and camera movements for impact.

Different Types of Camera Focus 

UP NEXT

What is aperture?

To get the most out of shallow focus in your projects, you need to have a firm grasp on one specific mechanism in your camera: the aperture. If you don't know what aperture is or how it works, it will be hard to get the control of focus you want. Read up on aperture to capture the blur and texture your vision demands. 

Up Next: What is aperture? → 

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  • Alyssa Maio is a screenwriter from New Jersey, now living in Los Angeles. She works as a copywriter here at StudioBinder.

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