Whether you’re interested in photography or cinematography, you’ve seen the gamut of what can be done to manipulate images to get breathtaking cinematic effects. Some though, aren’t as complicated as they may look. This article covers the fundamentals of one of the most commonly used techniques that yields incredible looking images. What is shallow depth of field and how can we use it to get consistent quality out of our work?

Defining Shallow Depth of Field

What is a small depth of field?

A shallow depth of field and a small depth of field are terms used interchangeably. They are also referred to as narrow or even thin depths of field. Yeah, it can get confusing, but it’s really not a difficult concept if you understand depth of field and aperture.

Aperture is a lens setting that affects depth of field. Make sure you’re well-versed in these, but if not, I’ll give you a quick recap so we can jump into what makes a shallow depth of field. 

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. Now how might we get a shallow depth of field. Let’s properly define it and then see how to do it.


What is shallow depth of field?

shallow depth of field is the small or narrow area in an image 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 depth of field yields blurrier backgrounds and can work well for portrait photos. By decreasing the depth of field, and increasing the aperture size you can create this blur.

You can also achieve this blurring effect by changing the camera-subject distance and adjusting the focal length of the lens. If the camera is closer to the subject in question, parts of the image will be blurred, resulting in a smaller depth of field, or narrower area of focus. Similarly, a longer focal length, can also create background blur.

How to decrease depth of field:

  • Widen the aperture (a lower f/number)
  • Situate camera closer to subject
  • Distance between subjects
  • Lengthen focal length (can use a longer lens)

Reading a shallow depth of field definition is helpful, but seeing what all that means visually might help solidify any lingering confusion.

Racking focus 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

Now that we have a firm grasp of shallow depth of field, let's look at some examples from film and photography. Below are some best practices for achieving a small depth of field. 

Shallow Depth of Field Photography

How to decrease depth of field

With the three ways mentioned above, adjusting aperture, changing camera-subject distance, and considering focal length, let’s take those a bit deeper. You can watch Sierra’s video below, or keep reading.

Learn how to capture the blur

Widening Your Aperture

Opening up your lens aperture to a low f/stop can dramatically decrease the depth of field. The bigger the opening, the more blur in your image or footage. But keep in mind this also means you will be letting more light. Understanding what ISO is and even how shutter speed works is critical to balancing your photo’s exposure

Move Camera Closer to the Subject

The closer the camera is to your subject, the more shallow depth of field. This positioning creates blur in the foreground and background. 

Keep Subjects Far From Each Other

The further the subject is from the background dramatically decreases the depth of field as it gives the image some depth. The distance between subjects will also give this effect.

Lengthen Focal Length

The longer the lens, the more shallow depth of field you can achieve. If you have a camera that has interchangeable lenses, and happen to own an 85mm or longer lens, you’ll be in great shape. Zoom lenses or telephoto lenses work well here but aren’t required. If you can’t afford or just simply don’t have a longer lens option, don’t worry.

You can zoom in to the lens’ maximum capacity. Just make sure your camera is mounted on a tripod as zooming that far in makes your image more susceptible to shake.

Pro Tip

 If you’re using a longer lens, you can actually station the camera further away and still maintain that shallow depth of field. Even though, as mentioned above, closer distances give you that blur, these longer lenses allow flexibility in the camera-subject distance. 

Let's move on to some examples.

Shallow Depth of Field Photos

Examples of shallow depth of field

Academia isn’t always practical, so why don’t we see some examples of what shallow depth of field looks like and how the above mentioned tricks interact to give quality blur, and make our subjects pop.

What is Shallow Depth of Field - Shallow Depth of Field Example

ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/100 second exposure

The next post dives into critical exposure considerations. 

Up Next

What is Shutter Speed?

If you’re comfortable with shallow depth of field, and how aperture affects it, but are unsure how other lens considerations work, take a dive into our next article Shutter speed is another of those essential requirements for achieving consistent quality images.  

Up Next: What's Shutter Speed? →
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