Warning: Shallow Depth of Field May Be Ruining Your Photos

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Background blur and bokeh are the current rage in photography.  As soon as a person gets their first dSLR, they often quickly fall into the trap of trying to get the background of their images ultra creamy and blurry. I love bokeh.  I love blurred backgrounds. I love shallow depth of field. I understand why those starting out as photographers want it too.

Bokeh and blur may come at a price.

Often times as photographers aim to get shallow depth of field, the result is blurred ears, hair, sometimes one eye out of focus, or missed focus where the subject appears soft. Shooting at f1.4 or 2.0 when you are learning might be the very reason your images aren’t as sharp others.  Have you ever taken images off your camera to find that many have just one eye in focus and the other is soft?

In the image below, of my daughter Ellie, I was using the Canon 50 1.2 lens at f2.2.  I was close to her and focused on the eye closest to me. But since her head was tilted, the back eye is slightly soft.  I corrected most of the softness by using the Sharp as a Tack from the Eye Doctor Photoshop action, applied just to the out of focus eye.

With that fix, it is no longer a deal breaker on this image, but on some, it could be.  I love how her hair is soft as it gets further away, but the background was black and I could have been at f22 and it would not have mattered.  If I had shot this at f4.0, both eyes would have been in focus.  I’m not suggesting what I did was horrible or wrong, but that you should make these decisions knowing the impact.  Analyze your camera data after each shoot and learn from it for the next time.

(This photo was edited with MCP Fusion, Eye Doctor, and Magic Skin)

ellie and jenna together shoot 2 600x400 Warning: Shallow Depth of Field May Be Ruining Your Photos
pin it4 Warning: Shallow Depth of Field May Be Ruining Your Photos

As photographers we often love the artistic.  But much of the general public does not understand a photo like this one below of my daughter Jenna. Shallow DOF, eyes are tack sharp as they are on the same plane, but earrings are out of focus and top of head is chopped. This photo was shot with the Canon 70-200 2.8 IS II. Settings: 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.

(This photo was edited with MCP Fusion, Eye Doctor, and Magic Skin)Jenna with coral peach necklace 342 600x400 Warning: Shallow Depth of Field May Be Ruining Your Photos

If I shot this at 4.0 or 5.6, the background still would be blurry as it was very far away, I was close to her, and I was using a long lens (at 190mm).  I like the impact at 2.8.  But as you are starting out as a photographer, you may have been better off at f4.0.  And even professionals and seasoned photographers might want to reconsider if you always shoot shallow.  Try to mix it up.

There are very valid reasons for shooting a more wide open apertures, whether it’s low light or you really want the fall off on the face as I did above.  But understand WHY you are shooting with the numbers.  That is the key.

There’s more than one way to get a blurred background.

If you start learning more about depth of field, you will realize that not only does your focal length and aperture play a role. Two other key factors are the distance from yourself to the subject and the distance of your subject to the background.

The challenge.

Who is ready for a challenge?  For one week, unless needed for your professional work to do otherwise, take all your portrait images at f4 to f11.  Experiment and come share your results on our Facebook Group. Tell us your thoughts.  Be conscience of the background and try to separate your subject from it without rushing to f1.8.  If you are a newer photographer, we’d love to hear from you in the comments too.  Did this help you get more images in focus?  What did you learn?

 

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 Warning: Shallow Depth of Field May Be Ruining Your Photos

Jodi Friedman, MCP Actions

Jodi Friedman is the founder of MCP Actions. She designs popular Photoshop actions and teaches Photoshop to photographers across the globe.

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10 Comments and 1 Replies



  1. 1

    This hit the nail right on the head for me. I get sharp photos while shooting around f/1.8 – f/2 while shooting up close, but as I back off the subject they are not so sharp and I kept the wide open aperture for the bokeh background, but I am taking your advise and trying it at f/4 – f/11!!!! Thank you so much!!

  2. 2

    THANK YOU for this article. it is so timely. I am a huge fan of bokh and have typically always shot with a very low depth of field – as low as I could go. However, recently I decided to expand that and not shoot with such a low depth of field. I realized at times I could still get the same effect but if I am at a shoot and in the zone and I am on 2.8 I will loose out on more shots than if I am set at 4.0. SO, in a recent shoot I went with a 4.0 and it was my favorite shoot I have ever produced!

  3. 3
  4. 4
    Brian says:

    I think the shot of Jenna is great as it is a close-up. The cutoff and blurred ears just add to the shot. The sharp eyes and great smile are what make the picture stand out… Having the ears in focus would have drawn away from it I think.

  5. 5
    Kelly says:

    Wow, this came at exactly the right time. Today I was at the beach photographing the wild ponies there, and I found myself, out of habit I suppose, shooting at f2.2. Why the heck was I doing that? It was a group of ponies, it was sunny, there was no need for that. I switched over to f8 and suddenly, my pictures were so much better. I’m going to do this more. Unless the light requires the low aperture, I’m going to stay a little higher just to see how I like it.

  6. 6
    Dana says:

    This is true for macro as well and a lesson I learned hard when I first started out. Just because my macro lens goes down to f/2, does not mean I have to use it at that when I’m shooting macro! I now know that most close-up macro images need to be shot at f/11-f/16 just to get enough of the object in focus!

  7. 7

    As a repair shop we see this all the time, a customer thinking their equipment is at fault because the eyes are sharp and the ears are out of focus. Many think because their lens can shoot at f1.8 or f2.8 they should always be using it, if not why did they pay extra for the fast lens.

  8. 8
    sona says:

    I could use a bit of further clarification. Other than using my 2.8 for the close up sharp eyes, even with fall off, portrait, what do you use the open aperture for? I read it is supposed to be better in low light. How so if most everything is soft anyway? Perhaps not the right place for this answer, but can you direct me to the right place? Clearly I am a beginner :)

  9. 9
    Andrea M. says:

    Thank you for posting this!! I have been having such issues lately with my people being out of focus – though it is more a struggle of i find the “in focus” area to be about two feet behind them! :(

    Someone once mentioned that you should have your f stop at about the same number of people. But for one person, that doesn’t always make sense. Do you have any suggestions for f-stop for larger groups? From 3, up to even 10 people?

    Thank you!!

  10. 10
    Diana says:

    I just did an experiment earlier this month with my family Christmas photo. I normally shoot as wide as my camera and lens will let me and knew I couldn’t get the 6 of us in focus if I did. I decided to choose a location where the background would be simple with plenty of natural light (flat beach, camera pointing out to sea). I had my aperture as high as f16 and having focus tack sharp as far back as the waves crashing behind us did nothing to detract from the shot. All in all the shot that went in my cards and on my wall is one of my favorite family portraits, even with minimal bokeh (the shot I kept was shot at f11).



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