Working with Shallow Depth of Field

"Need. More. Depth of field," has become the photographer's war cry, and to achieve it he will go out of his way using smaller apertures and more expensive lenses. Yet as of late, I've found the photographs drawing me in are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are shape and color, out-of-focus and blurry. And I began to wonder why. Why does shallow depth of field appeal to me? Also, how can I deliberately use it to create spectacular images?

Let's face it. I'm not a people photographer, nor am I a landscape photographer. My gift is macro-work. I love close-ups of insects and flowers. I want to see "the whites of their eyes" so to speak. Perhaps this accounts for the "why". After all, most macro work involves shallow depth of field and shallow depth of field means more blur, right? Right. 

Now remember, depth of field is the amount of objects in a scene that remain in focus, so having less of depth of field means that more will be out of focus. Therefore, choosing to "keep it shallow" (my new mantra) means I need something else to hold the viewer's interest. This brings me to composition.

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Now, you say, "But I don't understand composition." Well, think of it this way. You purchase a new home with a huge, empty living room, and you have no furniture. Some benefactor writes you a large check to buy whatever you need. (Wouldn't that be nice?) So you hire one of those fancy-schmancy interior decorators to help you because you don't have a clue what to buy.

Ms. Priss-Decorator enters the room in her red, high heels swirls around and says, "We need this and that and one of those." But you don't see it, so you argue. Yet she persists. 

"Just trust me," she says. Eventually, you give completely in to her demands and send her off with the money. She decorates the room to her heart's content, presents it to you, and you stand there blown away by her ability to see what you could not.

Yeah. Composition is exactly like that. After all, how did she get to the point she could see in an empty room where the couch should be and the style of chair and what should go on the mantle? Practice. Study. That is why you hired her.

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Take away the details in any scene, and you return it to its two basic structures: shape and color. When working with shallow depth of field, these are the two things you'll need the most. Working with shape means studying lines. Lines come in various lengths and directions, the strongest being diagonals and curves, each drawing the viewer's eye in a particular direction. 

Color, on the other hand, has two factors: contrast and monotone. Contrasting color makes for some of the most spectacular imagery. Look at any color chart and each color presented has an opposite. Some of the most well-known combinations are red and green or yellow and purple. Monotones, however, can also give superb effect. Give me a field of blue and I'm feelin' cool and groovy. (People who know me would laugh at that image.) Make things all red and it's suddenly very hot. I think you get the picture.

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So the question remains how do you achieve a shallow depth of field? There are two ways. First, you choose a larger aperture. A larger aperture (thus a lower number) automatically lowers your depth of field. An image taken at F2.8 will have less than F4.5, which will have less than F8.

Second, go close-in. For each of these images, I used two close-up lenses stacked on my 55mm-300mm Nikkor lens. This shrunk my DOF to nil and forced me to look at shape and color as well as my point of focus.

"Okay, Suzanne. You've lost me again."

Well, simply put, point of focus is the one thing in each scene that will be the clearest. In other words, the point that is in focus. With a shallow depth of field, you have only one point to choose from and it is where you put this point that determines the quality of your photograph.

Here, I must pause and offer you a warning. Your camera will NOT be able to autofocus in extremely shallow depths of field so don't even try. (Okay, so try and then tell me I'm right.) Therefore, I always switch to manual and then physically move myself back and forth until the object I've chosen is in proper view. This requires steady hands and a good eye. It will also result in many mistakes, but it is rewarding and a great way to learn.

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Choosing shallow depth of field will stretch you as a photographer. Pretend for an hour your camera will do nothing else but use shallow settings. Limiting yourself in this manner forces you to do things you'd ordinarily avoid. It's kind of like going back to your previous camera. You know, the one you have in the closet that you decided you hated?

Though I take macros all the time, I was surprised at how much I learned and at the same time, how challenged I became. I was also surprised at how it helped me when working with larger depths of field. For afterward, I understood how depth of field works and could easily say, "I need those and that," to get exactly the effect I wanted.

It's now one of my favorite things to do and an important tool in my arsenal of knowledge.