Get shallow with creative depth-of-field

Get shallow with creative depth-of-field

Lounge-Thumbnail_Brightf1.4We’re all used to seeing photographs taken with perfect sharpness and maximum depth of field. Shooting at wide apertures, however, opens up a world opportunities to create some truly artistic imagery.

Shallow depth-of-field can be used for many reasons; to highlight areas of the image, isolate a subject or guide your viewer’s eyes to a certain part of the image. It’s certainly a technique that’s worth mastering if you want to get some creative photos. Using the right optics with a fast aperture is a vital part of getting the best results from this technique. Sigma’s f/1.4 lenses such as the 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART lens and 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM are perfect for this type of work. However, opening up your lenses to maximum aperture is only half the process. There are other factors that influence the outcome of this technique. Camera to subject distance is also an important factor. The further you are away from your subject, the greater the depth of field – perfect for landscape photography – but for creative work, getting close reduces the depth-of-field dramatically and accentuates the blur.
Setting your camera to Aperture Priority is always advisable as you will have full control and be able to keep the aperture open without the camera taking over. Perfectly accurate focussing, either manually or automatically, is also important as there is little margin for error. Using Live View can often benefit in these situations where accuracy is critical. A tripod will also help by giving you more time to accurately set up your compositions – especially useful when photographing static subjects. Here are a few ideas to get you started with creative shallow depth-of-field photography.
 
Shallow landscapes
Traditional landscape photography tends to be images where everything in the frame is perfectly sharp, but the shallow focus technique can be used for landscapes just as effectively. Select a fast aperture and find a point in the landscape, preferably one close to the camera, to focus on. This technique works well with fields of flowers which are full of colour. If you shoot into the sunlight you will also get some great highlights which add an extra element to the image.
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Photo by Younes Bounhar, All rights reserved 2013 http://www.sigmacanada.ca/pro-gallery/younes-bounhar/
 
Soft highlights
In normal situations, the background within shallow depth-of-filed images is soft with smooth tones. The smoothness is controlled by the aperture rings within the lens – the rounder the aperture ring, the smoother the background. If points of light are behind the subject they form soft highlights within the image. This can be great for outdoor images at night where city lights create an interesting and usually colourful background. The size of the highlights depends on the distance from the camera and the shape depends on the shape of the aperture rings. Opening the aperture up fully gives the roundest shape and generally the most pleasing effect.
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Photo by Lau Fai Hung, LRPS  All rights reserved 2013
 
Change your focusing position
So we know that shallow depth-of-field is useful to isolate a subject but why not turn things around a little and focus on a different part of your image while keeping the main subject matter silky smooth and out of focus, with just a hint of what the subject is. Composition is a big part of getting this to work effectively and it usually works best with simple scenes rather than complex ones.
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Photo by Paul Reynolds ARPS, All rights reserved 2013
 
Move closer
The closer you get to your subject the less depth of field you will have available. At such a close distance, even smaller apertures will only allow a narrow point of focus making accurate focussing tricky but ultra-important. Close-up photography can allow you very creative images, especially at fast apertures, so it’s worth experimenting with different points of focus and aperture settings.
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Photo by Lau Fai Hung LRPS All Rights Reserved 2013
 
An eye for detail
A technique often used in portrait photography is to focus on the eyes and allow the rest of the face and body to fall smoothly out of focus. This effect encourages the viewer to the subjects’ eyes and strengthens their gaze. To create such an effect, a lens with a fast aperture, such as f/1.4, is essential. To add a little extra depth-of-field and allow the whole face to be in focus while still throwing the background out, close the lens down to about f/4 or f/5.6.
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Photo by  Younes Bounhar, All rights reserved 2013 http://www.sigmacanada.ca/pro-gallery/younes-bounhar/
 
Customise the highlight shape.
The shape of the aperture blades is what governs the shape of the out of focus areas of the image. Usually, round highlights are the most pleasing which is why it’s good to buy lenses with rounded apertures. However it’s easy to mix things up and change the shape completely by cutting out your desired shape from a piece of black card or paper and placing it tight up against the front element of the lens. If you have a UV filter, you can fit the card tightly onto that without risking any damage to your lens. The shape needs to be slightly smaller than the open aperture of the lens so this technique works best with lenses with a very wide aperture such as f/1.4.
Bokeh
 
Long Lenses
Long lenses naturally give the impression of shallow depth-of-field compared to wide-angle lenses as they compress perspective. A fast aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4 is still ideal and, as with other lenses, the depth-of-field will be reduced the closer you are to the subject. This is a great technique to use for flowers as it gives an entirely different perspective than shorter macro lenses. As long lenses are susceptible to camera shake, it’s always best to use a tripod where possible for added support.
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Photo by Paul Reynolds ARPS, All rights reserved 2013
 
Lead-in lines
Lead-in lines are often used in landscape photography and lead the viewer’s eyes into the subject. This technique can be strengthened by using shallow focus to give a sense of depth. Try it on a variety of subjects with repeating patterns such as fences or brick walls. Taking a few test shots with varying apertures will give you a choice of final results so you can pick the best amount of depth-of-field.
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