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Tuesday, 19 June 2012


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Yes - I have friends who have complained that none of their photos were sharp after switching to full frame prime lenses......... however after pointing a few things out, they soon got the idea. Main point is they had to think a lot more about their choice of shooting parameters. (I hope that doesn't sound patronising)

But I am fan of the effect that the larger image area seems to have. I'm in no position to explain it technically, but it's not about razor thin depth of focus - it's about the transition between planes which seems to me to give these images an immediately recognisable extra "depth"

When you posted these portraits from Afghanistan some time ago, with a "weird" camera, they said immediately MF to me. (and film... woops, and I promised I wouldn't use the F-word)

Ahhh... A truly satisfying post. Having shot a lot of 4x5 and 8x10 film over the last decades, finally having equipment that produces excellent quality and good depth of field has been a revelation. Our options have increased; let's use them. And boo to that Canon ad.

Well said, John. I fear this is another slavish imitation of large format photography like the execrable flowing mist depiction of water just because large format can't usually capture it any other way. Just look at almost any of the black and white artsy photo magazines which are frequently filled with large format image after image of blur and a tiny point of sharpness so small that it is difficult to tell what it is. A new "art" cliché being born.

Excellent article--I've been thinking this for some time now, what with whole groups on Flickr devoted to Rizla-thin depths of field, yet I can't think of a photo I really love that makes use of the effect. The recent Royal Academy "Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography" exhibition brought home to me how important the three-dimensional aspect of photographic composition is--without it, there is no story.


F64 Group... Adams, Weston, Cunningham,Van Dyke
and others. Their style, proven by the test of time.

Razor thin depth of (focus) field, if the subject requires it or you just want it. Why not?


In an age where people photograph reflexively (no pun intended), ubiquitously, constantly, it can be a challenge to make people realize that you are photographing for a reason, that you care and are paying attention and ought to be paid attention.

Short DOF says, in a way that's very quickly noticeable, "I care". It means the photographer has bothered to lug around a decent-sized camera. It means they've used film, or spent a lot of money.

None of this is meant to contradict a single word you've said, John, in your thoughtful essay. I'm just musing on why this "tic" has acquired such currency.

I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of this post but argue one very important advantage a fast lens offers is its improved autofocus performance (in the sense it will work in lower light levels). I have the Panasonic 20/1.7 for my m43 camera and doubt I use it wide open at all, but I do appreciate the fact I can focus indoors with it, which is a struggle with the kit lenses.


The emphasis on focus control rather than absolute DOF is eminently justified.
Yes, but isn’t the format and the finder — or lack thereof — also a practical consideration? Out of the six iconic examples quoted (Sander's pastry chef, Penn's Cocteau, Karsh's Audrey Hepburn, Avedon's Ezra Pound, Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl, and Steve Jobs by Albert Watson), I think only Steve McCurry used a 35mm SLR. The others I suspect were using large(r) formats. Albert Watson, if memory serves, used a 4x5 Arca with a 150mm Schneider lens for his portrait of Steve Jobs. Now, my Arca and Linhof studio days are long over, even my Bronica 6x6 has been gone for 25 years. But, using only SLR, RF, and now DSLR, I have never again achieved the level of subtle focus control that was possible on a large ground glass plate. Never again, that is, until I started focusing in LiveView on a MacBook screen to which a very ordinary Nikon DSLR was tethered.

There may be a particularly ironic twist in that the slow, painstaking control of focus and DOF once obtainable only on large format ground glass can now be approximated to some extent by the less fortunate amateur with just a small tethered digital camera and an adequate (computer or tablet) screen. (Always assuming a lens capable of adequate manual focus, a tripod, and allowance for the intrinsic relation between DOF, focal length and sensor size.)

I think for most people it's a matter of pride. They spent big money on big glass so they're damn well going to use it. For me it's always been to save my a** in low light situations. That being said, my clients are the ones paying me and they call the shots and pay my rent. Even if that means me shooting a portrait with my 85mm at f1.4 from three feet away on a white back ground with north window light directly behind me (my least favorite scenario).


I think that the mastery of light plays a very important part in these photographs, and the use of larger formats [mostly], combined with non auto this and that, that gives this type of result.

Of course also being a great photographer helps :>)


I completely agree, though would never be so brave to actually write. I don't see what is so attractive about a portrait where the person's nose and ears are blurry. As you allude to, I think this trend is probably more about showing off one's equipment and putting themselves into some sort of serious "pro" group.

I'm sure in 10 or 20 years we'll have the same feelings about these photos as soft-focus portraits from the 80's and 90's.

Photoshop's new blur control will hopefully save us from this madness. Everybody can do thin DOF these days. Soon those software tools will migrate into cameras too. I can imagine the first camera (a Sony?) to emulate the bokeh of famous lenses. The horror!

I am guilty of bloviating a lot about the utility of zooms compared to primes, and I have been outright derogatory about the old school teaching concept of using only a single prime for, say, an entire year.

But *this* idea - obtaining (just) enough DOF - is a good argument against my inclinations. Learning how to control DOF at different focal lengths, and different apertures, and different subject distances takes a lot of thought and practice, especially when we start moving into telephoto.

And there is a lot to be appreciated about the subtle artistic nature of how DOF reveals itself at different focus distances, depending on whether we use largish or smallish apertures.

Really interesting topic, John.

Yes, I think cliche or fad sums it up pretty well. I recall a similar fad of about a dozen years ago of using tilt lenses to leave only one stripe of sharp focus in a field of blur. It was interesting the first few times we say it, but after that...
One of the things I really like about modern cameras is being able to leave the lens set at f8 or f5.6 and adjusting the exposure with shutter speed and ISO.
I like selective focus, but subtle.

A lot of people who are enthusiasts about photography tend to notice that I don't mess about with depth of field much. Partly, it's equipment. I use an inexpensive compact camera. No direct aperture control. There are ways of forcing in blur if you really want it, but... I tend to not like the effect. There are instances where it will sometimes save a shot where my setup was a bit dodgy, but I tend to view that as user error. Often I had an option to frame the shot well, and I didn't because I was in a hurry.

I started doing photography because it's a quicker way to document my craft work than drawing. Photography makes it easy to show tiny details in a very precise way. Instead of taking days of sketching, it might take me 1 minute to photograph an illustration. Within a couple months of taking up photography, I was able to put together handspinner's eye view tutorials to teach tricky techniques. Occasionally, I have to have someone else take the shot as I need a full body portrait, but I have learnt enough that I can art direct it pretty well.

So for me, the detail is an advantage of photography over drawing. In a lot of ways both large and small, it's why I'm taking a photo rather than drawing a picture.

For me the allure of a larger camera is the option to get similar detail levels even when it's a bit dark for a handheld picture. I'm not terribly good at handholding, so I do use a tripod a lot for sharpness... but a tripod isn't always the friendliest thing.

I think the current mania for very shallow DOF comes primarily from two things. First, everyone wants what they can't have. With smaller sensor cameras getting thin DOF is harder, so of course everyone wants it.

More importantly, though, I think it's a self-justifying argument for those who, for whatever reasons, just can't accept smaller format cameras as serious. Spent a ton of money on FF cameras and accompanying lenses? Have a hernia from carrying it all around? Need to justify it all? "M43 can't be as good as my DSLR" Why not? "It doesn't do shallow DOF."

No need to do the hard work of figuring out if the IQ from a smaller format camera really is (or isn't) good enough for your work. No need to question your choices. Just belittle the alternative until your self-confidence gets out of the basement.

Excellent article. This is a little off topic, but this "shallow depth of field fad" reminds me a bit of the current "HDR fad", which attempts to banish shadows. Why? Shadows can contribute greatly to an image. Both techniques have their place, of course, but too many tend to use them as crutches. And as you suggested, any technique that draws attention to itself, and away from the subject, immediately raises red flags in my book.

So, Lytro to the rescue, then?

If I could have a pocketable large format view camera with hyperfast collapsing tilt/shift zoom and 256k ISO (256k should be enough for anyone), I would be totally uninterested in this topic and would be off taking pictures. Sigh...

"The grain is what I've been fighting against all my life" said my dad as he saw a plugin making a picture grainy. He would say the same about tiny DoF. As a former owner of the ultimate bokeh gun Mamiya 80/1.9, I could not agree more with you. You can not drop the background using small sensor cameras. You have to learn how to find something meaningful.

The work produced by the masters is not typical of "professional photography". To me, this term refers to weddings, studio portraits, commercial assignments ... the stuff which puts money on the table for the vast majority of those who earn their living with photography. The simple message and blurred background esthetic is firmly established for this type of photography. Last year I did an assignment with the art director on location. Although normally I don't shoot that way, she insisted on blurred backgrounds as they would make the photography look more "professional".

Voice of reason. The proliferation of the digital compact camera and camera phone are mostly responsible.

But who can blame people taking advantage of what is pleasing to the current viewer? It may not be as timless as many suggestions, but timeless seems to be dwindling as we rehash from eras past.


All the portraits are good - obviously! I can't help but be mesmerised by the beauty of Hepburn, every time I see an image of her. For me though the portrait that I would love to hang on my wall and admire for hours is the one of George Bernard Shaw on the same page as Hepburn - it 's so, so...rich for want of a better word. Stunning.


All of your examples are good, but the portrait of Colin Firth is exceptional. I've always hated - HATED - those pics of sharp eyes and lips floating in a pool of blurred protoplasm jelly, even as those pics are commonly used to demonstrate the superiority of 'full frame' cameras.

I switched to MFT, when the GH1 came out, and I have been thrilled by the extra DOF i get "for free", compared to my older cameras (right back to 24x36 and 6x6).

Even with the 20mm/f1.7 and 45mm/f1.8 you have few problems adequately focus late night indoor live performances. The format is very forgiving. And I need that.

In some cases, I've even switched to my Olympus XZ-1 at f1.8 (28mm eqv) to f2.5 (at 112mm eqv.) to obtain the dramatically larger "depth" in some difficult situations.

For travel photography - especially in those once-in-a-lifetime-situations - there's nothing that beats modern cameras.

When I think about all those invaluable travel images I have lost in past decades to bad focus or badly placed focus, I simply cannot get my hands down.

In very few cases I miss the opportunity to create really shallow DOF, and I still loose far more good picture opportunities due to lack of or misplaced focus (a very common "side effect" of shallow DOF).

So, to me at least, the tradoffs are "my cup of tea" entirely. And if I have to move opposite the current "popular trend", so be it.

Maybe it helps to lean towards becoming the proverbial "cantankerous old fart" who actually knows what he's doing - most of the time ;-)

Kurt Friis Hansen

Use of depth of field in a portrait. Actually, I do like this shot very much indeed. It's by some bloke called Kirk Tuck.... : ]


and there's nothing wrong with shallow DOF or wet plates, or dianas', or polaroid, or pin holes or cross processing or photoshop of B&W, or 16 frames per second or bigger or smaller or longer or shorter or what have you . . .. . . . . . . . it's really pretty simple . . . . .99.9 % of all the images created with all the types of cameras and lens and techniques stink . . . . meaning they don't significantly contribute in any significant way beyond some egotistically based satisfaction that they give to the person who made them - nothing wrong with shallow DOF, the "problem" lies in that like with almost all the other images it just another dumb image . . . . .

Well... I'm guilty of loving shallow depth of field. So I have to admit I failed to grok this article - am I right thinking what you're saying is: "Shallow dof is good when it's good, and bad when it's bad"? And if so, then isn't it, uh, kinda obvious? I'm also having trouble to understand how exactly shallow depth of field hurts portraiture... As a humble portraitist myself, I'd really love to hear you explain to me how would this for example: http://img151.imageshack.us/img151/5721/dsc05362edit3.jpg benefit from a deeper field?

Add me to the annoyed group on this subject. I'm not an abstractionist so I just don't get the appeal of that sliver of focus surrounded by unintelligible blur. Guess I'm supposed to read more into the image to find myself but my interest is landscape and wildlife - I want to know what I'm looking at to appreciate it.

Control of DOF - that's my challenge. And as was said, I can only get it via LiveView focusing, not through the viewfinder. Or on my 4x5 view camera. With all the technical marvels of modern DSLR's can't the engineers put a really accurate DOF preview in my viewfinder?

Shooting 4/3 format I've come to appreciate the challenges of composition with larger depth of field. And it's a boon to landscapes, really. For people shots, I love getting a small group just in focus, with the background only slightly blurred. With a sharp lens and good processing the results have a pleasingly "real" look to them.

I’m a daily reader of TOP and this has to be one of my favorite articles from the last several months. I like a good super-shallow DOF image as much as anyone, but the experience for me often feels like tasting a piece of candy—a sense of instant gratification that lasts only as long as I’m looking at the photo. I never feel a desire to go back and look at such photos again and again, nor do I learn much from them. They are often beautiful to look at, but rarely reveal anything beyond the first (often only) layer. A lasting image for me is one that has those many layers of content that Sam Abell referred to, and I’m most impressed by photographers who manage to use all 3 dimensions well, placing multiple elements perfectly within the frame and using the entire 2D space so well that the image feels larger and more content-rich than it would seem it has a right to. I am particularly in awe of street photographers who regularly compose such images on the fly—masterfully choosing the precise moment to capture chaotic, moving elements both near and far and at all points within the frame (even the corners and edges) in such a way that everything seems perfectly placed in the telling of a larger story.

As I was reading through the comments, I was struck by Ben’s statement that a photographer obviously “cares” about photography if he or she has gone to the trouble to make images with a large and/or expensive and/or film camera, with its attendant shallow DOF. (Were those comments made tongue in cheek?? My apologies if they were.) I don’t deny that many users of such equipment *do* care about their photography and purposely use the tools that help them best realize their goals. DOF—be it shallow or deep or anything in between—should always be taken into consideration by the photographer and used appropriately to create the desired end result. But I don’t agree that equipment (and in particular, expensive, super-shallow -DOF -capable equipment) has *anything* whatsoever to do with the photographer “caring,” and even less to do with the photographer being able to express a point of view or create a meaningful, lasting image. Serving as my own personal antidote to gear-envy and shallow DOF fetishism are some of my favorite images I’ve “collected” from the internet over the past year or so (3 small galleries selected from a larger folder of 600 images): http://www.flickr.com/photos/61320515@N08/galleries/72157629395157659/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/61320515@N08/galleries/72157629083267874/ All of these images (and virtually all of the 600 images in my larger Favorites folder were taken with an Apple iPhone. They are a ready reminder that--for me, anyway--emotion, richness of content, and point of view are always at the center of the most memorable and satisfying images. In my mind, those attributes demonstrate true “caring” on the part of the photographer, not the shallow DOF achieved (esp. when it is achieved just for the sake of shallow DOF and nothing else) while enduring the weight of one’s equipment or the lightness of one’s wallet.

Good article - and the main premise is true for me - that there is an advisor whispering "Shallower, shallower." in my ear. So it's good to hear a voice to question that.

Great article. But the interesting point is not sharp or shallow, or great photographer or not, or expensive lens or not, the point is "Zeitgeist". We have changed, the way we see has changed and today we need more stimulation than ever. We want to be intrigued, seduced, entertained.
Sharp-unsharp does that. And maybe we also want to be told what to see. Sharp-Unsharp does that as well.

My personal favorite lens is a 80mm, 1:2 Contax 645 Zeiss lens.
It is nearly impossible not to take a stunning, intriguing and beautiful picture. (Not my opinion but the instant reaction of viewers) The out of focus area tells a story as if it would be sharp and in focus. So much for the masses of blur.
And in regards to one of the above comments. Beautiful eyes can be very intriguing when surrounded by unnecessary and unsharp nose and ears. Believe me!

It's been a long time since I bought a camera/lens with meaningful DOF scales, and composing on a teeny little viewfinder is also pretty hopeless.
HC-B is said to keep his Leica set at 4 meters and f:11.

Yes, sir. Web tyros complain that small sensor cameras have "bad bokeh."

I love long depth of field. Limited depth of field screams, look at me, I'm not only an image, but I'm an artistic one, plus I was made with a camera, plus my master took photography in high school and knows all the cliched techniques."

I used to walk around with a handheld Rollei. It was troublesome on heavily overcast days. UnAvailable light forced you to make choices. Limited ones.

This is one reason I like small yet highly adjustable cameras, things like Nikon P7100s. It frees me from the tyranny of DoF. This is one of the bigger benefits of small sensor digital cameras in my book.

I agree 100%. Exceedingly shallow depth of field is another of what (I think it was) Ctein called the photographic fetishes. Just as sharpness, noise, and lifted shadows, are all some seem to have eyes for, so too shallow depth of field.

It's cool that TOP runs a story about appropriate depth of field on the same day that Kirk Tuck writes a post about how a photo can be visually appealing even if it isn't perfectly sharp. Similar lessons.

Dear John,

I think there's a pretty simple and reasonable explanation for what you're hearing. It's not that the number of photographers who want or need shallow depth of field has increased, they're still a small minority of all photographs. ** It's that in the bad old days of film, when 35mm was the smallest size for serious photography and many folks were into even larger formats, having shallow depth of field was never difficult; it was getting enough depth of field that was the problem. So that's what you heard people complaining about.

Now that ever-shrinking formats allow for high-quality photography, fewer and fewer people have reason to complain about not being able to get enough depth of field whereas for that minority who want really shallow depth of field, it's gotten ever more difficult. So those are the complaints more likely to crop up.

It's also a matter of differentiating onesself from the masses, artistically. In the old days, getting good depth of field was uncommon because it required some serious attention to technical detail. Nowadays it's the opposite.

I don't think it's anything more profound than that. No fundamental change in styles or demographics, just that the squeaky wheel just happens to be at a different axle now.

In 10 years when everything has gone to computational photography, it'll move to another wheel; there will be something else that will be relatively difficult to achieve.

**(Important note: this is NOT dissing the style nor criticizing the results; it's just a statement about numbers. It's no different than pointing out that the needs of black and white photographers constitute a small minority of all photographers.)

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Nearly got boo-ed off a well know gear head forum for daring to suggest that the great thing about APSC sensors is that you can get MORE DOF for the same aperture which often compensates for the lower ISO performance.

I have always wondered what the problem was with people complaining about dof. I shoot a Canon 20D and my main lens is the 24-105 f4L and I have never had a problem with getting a shallow enough dof. So, I wholly agree with this article.

What is this rack and roll music kids listen to these days ?
Why can't they just learn to love Montevoni?

I'm thinking of a specific photograph by Joel Meyerowitz used by Olympus to advertise (I believe) the Camedia E-10 about 11-12 years ago, but I can't find it online.

He took advantage of the small sensor to show a street corner in NYC in which he had everything from the person in the foreground only arm's-length away all the way back to infinity in razor-sharp focus.

He made it work, to say the least, and I remember thinking at the time that a paradigm shift was taking place. Of course, since then, as Mr. Kennerdell writes, this aesthetic hasn't found much favor with the push for larger and better sensors. But even in the days of 35mm film, large apertures were the vogue - a 1.4 lens on your Nikon showed you had aspirations.

BTW, Mike, my first grasp of bokeh as a concept came from reading an article by you back when you were the Sunday Morning Photographer at LL.

That just reminded me about how difficult it is to shoot a good portrait of a horse :-)

If you need thin depth of field to isolate your subject from the background, you don't know how to compose a photograph. Just sayin'.

Of the three crafts that have occupied my time over the last 50 years. Audio has been the one that pays the bills. Photography the pastime and music the failing. So, if i may suggest, The relationship between Audio and Photography and their related physics and presentation have been widely accepted. The most obvious is how digital trickery has opened a significant window of questioned creativity. The other is how analog or traditional use of related materials/tools impact the final result. I submit that as a reproduction medium both are best served by whatever method is available to present the "minds eye" or ear as the case may be. For me, the standard of excellence in audio is a that a system should be recognized that it was "on" until it is turned off. In the case of photography, the subject image, not the technique should be what is noticed. And to Bill Hughes, if you haven't seen Karsh's prints in person, you need to. The Shaw's skin tones stick in mind even though it has been years since I saw it. Oh and both the Hepburn and Loren shots will never be forgotten:-)

Did you take that? I don't know what John would say and I don't speak for him, but to me that's an example of good d.o.f. control, not bad.


The other side of the coin.

I'm not good enough to use my lenses wide open routinely. It's hard to admit that. Once I grew up a little and started to stop down, my 'keeper' rate went up substantially.

The last few photos on my flickr page are an exception. Forgive me, I just got a new fast 50mm!

I think the point is: It's easier to buy a super fast lens and isolate the subject with a shallow depth of field than make a complex layered composition with multiple elements. So, that is what most people do. Afterall, you'll get good comments in flickr, and that's what matters.

At any given time 90% of humanity is bored with whatever they have. The other 10% just took delivery from Adorama.

Lots of "fast glass" owners seem to think there's only one way to shoot portraits - set the camera to Aperture Priority and the lowest F number. This often results in photos of models with only one eye in focus, something I find distracting.

Similar dogmatism is common among many "ultra-wide glass" owners, who always shoot at the shortest focal length, never exploring other settings for optimum perspective (foreground/background) control.

BTW, I believe you can take memorable, content-rich photos with very shallow depth of field, to see some examples browse photo essays by Tomasz Gudzowaty: http://www.gudzowaty.com/#/essays

Maybe the new new thing is "f1.2 and be in the exact precise spot!"


Getting to this late and far, far back in the note line. But I offer this anyway, as John's scratched a sore for me, too.

Any technique can be tediously over-applied in photography. Shallow depth-of-field is a frequent case in point with hobbyists. (I've often speculated that this aesthetic comes from watching television dramas where shallow DOF has become a technique for reducing production costs by reducing the scene dressing for setups.)

Overuse of shallow focus falls into the basket of other artificial image sweeteners that have become commonplace. When it's used well it's powerful. But like keyhole-vignetting, bone-crushing contrast, over-sharpening and garish saturation it so often diminishes an image's potential.

Interestingly, although I've not yet seen all 20,000+ images in the collection at the AIC I'm probably well past the halfway point. Off-hand I cannot think of a single image in our collection where shallow focus is a key compositional element. That includes our portraits.

Personally, I often try to get as much stuff going on in candid imagery as I can cohesively contain. I enjoy capturing multiple planes of subjects and/or collage-like compositions that give the viewer something new to find over successive viewings. To those ends I'm often at f11 or f14 for such images, something that today's clean high ISO sensors enable me to do easily.

I have more than my share of very fast lenses which I enjoy. But as with nutrition habits, all things in moderation is good guidance for using them wide-open. It has to serve the image.

I am guilty of being partial to shallow DOF (Depth of Field) but, like my bad case of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) I am getting over it.

I was the guy who would shoot a 50mm f1.4 wide open on an APS-C DSLR and of actually putting the blur ahead of the image. I do not even want to use the word bokeh because it was just about the paper thin focus for me. I have always read Mike's articles and I do find I usually agree with him. This article , and especially Sam Abell's image, has reminded me that an image tells a story. The shallow DOF may sometimes create mystery but often just isolates the subject to the point of excluding the story.

Only a true fool would now proclaim "I am cured". I will continue to make similar mistakes but, with the help of the Olympus 17mm f2.8 I am learning that an image with real depth (pun intended) can put the subject matter in context not hiding behind blur. All I have used for the past few weeks is my Olympus gear, and since I just have the two bodies and two lenses I have had to learn to adapt. I think my images are showing some improvement because I am no longer striving for the pseudo-professional look created by shallow DOF.

I still like the look of shallow DOF night shots but I appreciate having a greater degree of clarity in my work. Although it may not have the initial "Wow factor" it makes for a more enduring image. As a car fanatic I can use this analogy, the original Ford Probe had the wow factor when introduced however it looked old after only a couple of years, more modestly styled cars such as the 1960s Alfa Romeo coupes have styling that has endured. Wow is a short word and usually its effect is equally short.

Shallow DOF has its place, and when used effectively it is magnificent, but when used indiscriminately, or as an end in itself, it actually distracts from the image.

Thank you for a very eye-opening article.

I'll tell you another good reason to like extended depth of field. One of the best portraits I've ever taken was done last Christmas, while my grandchildren opened gifts. I was simply blasting away (had the m4/3 camera hung around my neck) in a fairly bright room, probably shot a hundred frames and imported them into Lightroom and then didn't look at them. A week or so ago, I had nothing to do, so I was scanning what I had in Lightroom and was deleting a lot of junk. Then I noticed a shot of my grandson. He was almost against a wall, looking quite pensive, with some light shadows gathered around his head, and he had two nice crisp highlights in his eyes. He was not the particular subject of the shot -- and the m4/3 had just enough resolution to allow a nice isolating crop out of what was otherwise a snapshot. If I'd been really focusing on good, isolated shallow-depth-of-field shots, I never would have gotten it; his face probably would have been bokehed.

I think shallow DOF is much like shooting Black & White: you allow yourself to worry about one less aspect of the final image, at the cost of making problems in any other all the more noticeable.

And like B&W vs Color, it's not that either is inherently harder than the other since it all balances out in the end, but switching between both approaches will test aspects of your shooting you might not have considered (as strongly) until then, which can be problematic. But again like B&W vs Color, that only makes it all the more exciting to try ;)

I find that one thing working against more DOF is autofocus. It's almost impossible to focus behind the main subject.

Why so much emphasis on the abs when you have skinny noddle arms? :) DOF be damned.

People often mistakenly credit shallow DoF for drawing attention to the subject in great portraiture, when it is really careful control of the background doing the work. I think this error is the source of much shallow DoF fetishism.

I value shallow DoF most when I have least photographic control: social snapshots of family and friends, when I cannot position the subject relative to the background, have limited space in which to use a longer lens, and so on. It's value born of necessity.

I find paper-thin-DOF really annoying with video. You see many videos where the subjects ears are in focus, than the nose, now nothing in focus, almost got the eyes in focus, now the ears ... And the Internet Gurus tell the clueless that Shallow-DOF is Cinematic. I worked most of my adult life in Hollywood, and I can tell you that's not true. Spend an afternoon at the local CinePlex, and see for your self.

The nice thing about deep-focus is that things in the background can be as important (or more important) than the foreground.

Dear Scott,

You can hardly be faulted for not precisely remembering a 4.5 year old column, but that's not what I said. A preference, even a strong and peculiar (to your standards) one is not a fetish.

Anyway, here's the link for thems what wants to see what I writ.

The Photo-Fetishistic League


pax / chicken-lovin' Ctein

Well you're right on target when it comes to many of my photos. I probably overuse shallow DOF because it gives simple gratification, especially when you dont have that much time to spend on your hobby.

Shamelessly linking one of my own photos that I feel have a distinct DOF but still remains "3D": http://rkling.tumblr.com/post/18896279811

Yes, it's mine. And my point is, we all have our little fetishes. I love it when these beautiful* faces sort of pop out of the image at me... So I cringe whenever I read something like: "If you need shallow dof for your portrait it means you suck as a portraitist." Painful remark, and quite unfair.
And I know for sure I wouldn't be able to pull it off with u4/3. And not only because to get it I'd have to shoot at something around f0.9 (yes I am aware there are lenses that go that wide).

*) I made it a rule for myself to only shoot beautiful women. Or handsome blokes. The world has enough of ugliness as it is. Color me escapist.

Well said. But then I think photography is about subject and not just 'the light' or the 'picture is all that counts'.

The choice of middling to small apertures remains key to including context in a picture. It's also a reason I'm very fond of 35mm lenses on 24 by 36mm frames (avoiding the F word).

I wonder if the purveyors of 'gauzy idealised landscapes' are also slightly to blame as the obsession with resolution leads many to think they have to use their lenses at f5.6 or wider.


From my head to your website article. Good channeling.

Shallow DOF portraits are fairly easy to do. It it's one of the few scenarios where simply spending some money on a FF camera with a good AF system and a fast lens or two really can help to make a novice photographer's pictures look quite a lot better without them having to learn much about making better photographs.

Using shallow DOF to smoothly blur a nasty background in a poorly composed image really does make it look better. Thus my irritation with the technique.

Heck I love the way it looks too. But it don't impress me much.

I have been poring over your posts from the archives, picking up things that may help in my recent obsession - photography.

This post makes a lot of sense. I am trying to figure out what style should I pursue as that would determine the gear investments I am about to make. Or should I just keep shooting what I find interesting and hope to understand my style as I go along. (Example of what I mean by style: A shallow DOF with good bokeh, or a small pancake driven style focusing more on unobtrusively getting my composition right)

(Pentax 31mm FA Ltd vs say DA 40mm Ltd)

I'm sure I remember reading, back in the days when a new Spotmatic II was the apple of my eye (still a beautiful artefact) that viewfinder DoF preview was deceptive, because one's eye couldn't resolve the loss of sharpness adequately. Apparently one could get a better idea of the printed appearance of the out-of-focus areas by viewing 2 stops wider than the eventual exposure.

This presumed a good SLR viewfinder, like the SP II's, and a sensible size of print.

Why bash selective focus? Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Here is one image that would certainly not benefit from more depth of field, dont you think?


I agree that the control of DOF in order to achieve the photographer's intent and vision is what's important. I also agree with Chris Lucianu that achieving precise control on a large ground glass is one of the best ways to do that, at least for me.

The only drawback is lack of pocketability. ;)

Just give me a 24-70mm lens with a constant f1 and you won't hear a peep from me again!

People always want what they don't have, or what is hard to get. Or expensive. It is good to have the option, but narrow depth of field is too often used as a gimmick, just to show off a 1.2 or 0.95 lens. It should be a purely artistic decision.

I get your point, while also believing you've missed it.

It's about choice. The same choices we've all grown up with. We probably all started 'serious' photography with a 35mm camera, and a 50mm f2 or faster lens. When the NEW equipment we buy can't perform the same visual effects, people get annoyed and see it as a limitation.

And, just as you can immediately put your hands on books in your personal library from photographers who embraced The Big Stop-Down, i can do the same, with classic photographers who shot with bokeh.

Staring back at me now is a Shorpy print of a picture by Lewis Hine. Large format. Bokehlicious.

Richard Avedon's Rolleiflex 'street' work. Boubat, Doisneau, McCurry.... Then, if you look at location fashion photography, it's virtually imperative that you be able to isolate subject matter. In both sets of instances, you're not getting those types of results from small-sensored cameras.

We can argue matters of 'taste' forever. Some tasteless schmuck might employ a technique to horrid result, while another photographer might make a career of it. Those bemoaning shallow DOF should have a look a Paolo Roversi's 8x10 Polaroid work.

I find it a bit ironic that experience photographers are now, here, defending the 'F64 aesthetic,' when it so quickly brings them back into the pool of amateurs shooting with pocket digicams and cell phones. When everything is in focus, you could have shot the image with a 10-year old digital P&S. When everything is in focus, as often as it can be claimed that 'careful composition' was employed, it can be assessed that 'no decisions' were made.

f1.2 and be there.


Deep focus is like counterpoint or polyphony in music. That's of course much more difficult to compose but it's also much more satisfying when it's well done.

IMHO shallow DOF has its place, one tool among many, but I agree it's frequently used as a crutch particularly among wildlife photographers (which is what I'm most familiar with).

If you'll forgive my stepping onto my soap box, one popular bird photographer claims the obliterated wash of color in the background as his signature style, and has been teaching the techniques to recreate this style to a whole generation of aspiring bird photographers.

What a waste of perfectly good pixels! The background can be used to tell much more about an animal than what it looks like; at the very least it can give a clue to its preferred habitat. Many wildlife photographers claim that shallow DOF is inevitable because the subject requires supertelephoto lenses, but Nick Brandt's photos (http://nickbrandt.com/) suggest otherwise.

What seems to me is that for many it's much easier to load up a credit card buying a fast supertelephoto than it is to spend enough time with each animal that the critter learns to trust the photographer so that a shorter lens may be used. End of rant.

Best TOP post in some time. Learning how to use DoF to have everything you want in focus - and nothing more - is a crucial part of photography and can take years to master.

Before people had compact digital cameras and cameraphones they had instamatics and brownies and polaroids--cameras designed with small, fixed-focus lenses that gave more or less infinite (and unchangeable) DOF (admittedly, they couldn't generally focus very much closer than a few feet). These cameras were what most people used, and today's cameraphones are their direct lineal descendants. So I think you are not quite right in saying that DOF was the great technical challenge--for the mass market, it was not. The only difference was that the mass-market users for the most part had no aspirations of artiness. Well, at least not until affordable 35mm SLRs came on the scene. I think this phenomenon is less new than you suggest.

"So I cringe whenever I read something like: 'If you need shallow dof for your portrait it means you suck as a portraitist.' Painful remark, and quite unfair."

It would be indeed, except I don't think that is at all what John is saying. He's saying that when it comes to d.o.f. you shouldn't use the least possible amount reflexively and unthinkingly, but control for just the right amount according to your aesthetic intentions for the shot.

Which seems to me exactly what you've done. That's a marvelous portrait. Any photographer and any portrait subject would be proud of that.


I was quoting, rather loosely, one of the posters: "If you need thin depth of field to isolate your subject from the background, you don't know how to compose a photograph. Just sayin'." You can see this sentiment prevailing in the comments:
"instant gratification", "good for novices", "photos looking good while really being bad" etc.
Perhaps it is so. I don't know. But depth of field is a compositional tool, one of the most basic and important we have. Saying that it's evil when it's shallow, is like saying the colour green is wrong. Nonsense.
Anyway, I'm really glad you like the photo. Took time and patience, this one. Some skill and basic grasp of composition were involved too I hope, despite the shallow dof. Just sayin'.

I love the variety of discussion on this site. As for DOF, I have always loved the blur my big Canon lenses gave me, and lived for it. Then I bought an Olympus EPL2 and a Panny 20 1.8. The clarity and sharpness of the DOF blew my socks off. I found the same with the 12-50 kit lens that came with the OMD. So now I have replaced all my Canon stuff with a OMD EM5, the 20mm 1.7, 12mm 2.0, and 45mm 1.8 - and have just ordered the PanLeica 25mm 1.4 to still have some blur as needed. Its all about choice and options! I never would have thought that the great DOF would have been so wonderful.

One of the best posts on photography I've recent in some time. And its interesting that last few days I've been thinking the same thing. Having moved from APS-C to M43 (and the fact that I only have the kit lens right now), I see more DOF in most of my shots than before and I tend to like it more. If I want the background not to intrude, I try to change the background, not necessarily try blur it out.

You say that high DOF photos are difficult to make because you need to make sure everything in focus adds to the image. I say that low DOF photos are also difficult to make because you need to be sure that the thin slice which is in focus needs to have enough to engage the viewer.

Terrific article, that clearly hit a nerve. Does one's sensitivity to such observations about the evolution of equipment on technique correlate to the size of one's aperture?
I recently had a very helpful and thoughtful online critique with Brooks Jensen, and after looking through the photos I'd chosen one of his first comments was that the photos that stood out had layers, several planes, depth of field.
This commentary couldn't be more timely for me. Thanks for another great article and "conversation".

" . . . clearly hit a nerve."

I didn't realize what a hot-button issue this was till a friend sent me a long and rancorous thread from a photo forum in reference to this post. I quit reading it about the time people started calling each other names like "sad lonely w@nker" but by then it was clear that some enthusiasts are very invested in shallow-focus photography and are sensitive to anything they regard as a slight against it. I was also amused to hear about my "scorn" for it, which suggests neither very careful reading nor even the briefest visit to my website.

All I was trying to do of course was to suggest to shallow-DOF fans that they occasionally might want to try stopping down a bit, and to provide some examples of great photographers doing just that. Were the trend the other way, obsessing over sharpness and not paying attention to the blurry bits, I'd probably write from the opposite point of view . . . hang on, I think I once did!

Great article !
Shallow DOF is certainly abused nowadays also because it is MUCH easier to compose acceptable photo (especially portrait) with shallow DOF.
But this also affects lens selection - fast lens is generally considered superior to a slow lens. I know guys who struggle with Pentacom Six only bacause they can mount 180/2.8 Sonnar on it ...
Anyway, it all gets down to "obsession of possibilities" - you can buy possibilities, but you cannot buy skill and artistic taste.

Elisabeth, you missed my point.

The "default camera" at this point in time is a digital camera with a very small sensor. Low DOF means you've used a non-default camera -- either film, or larger digital -- and is thus the easiest way to signify that you care.

I did not say that using a small digital camera means you don't care!

Showing pictures in b&w is also a signifier of caring, btw.

Thanks for this great article!
Sometimes I am a DoF-junkie myself, but as with all drugs, it's the dose that makes the poison.

In street, documentary and photojournalism I tend to prefer everything in reasonably sharp focus, especially photos with a sort of theatrical milieu or lots of activity for the eye to explore, like this recent photo by Zun Lee (whose documentary on fatherhood was recently featured in the NY Times Lens blog): http://www.flickr.com/photos/rogueinterventionist/7175611273/in/photostream

I'm not allergic to borkeh'd pix, but I'm not addicted to 'em either.

The Colin Firth photograph is so absolutely flawlessly executed it makes me want to cry. Thanks for the article. Excellent points!!

I don't believe this thought has been shared. As a father/coach/photographer, I take many photographs of team members, siblings, parents, families. From web data, the photos people like most by far has shallow dof, usually one person unless siblings or the same family. Stated simply, we like looking at ourselves, our families and our children, without other strong photographic elements that may be distracting. I used to use mainly a dslr, now 4/3, which with the right lens still has sufficient shallow dof and shows the same trends.

This is one of the most interesting posts and discussions that I have seen on TOP in quite some time. In support of John Kenerdell's thesis regarding DOF, I will simply cite the words of the great philosopher Chico Marx:

"Enough is enough, and too much is too much".

Ben, I may still be missing your point (sorry!). I don't understand how merely using a particular camera, be it "default" or "non-default," signifies anything at all about a photographer’s level of “caring.” Nor do I understand how showing pictures in B&W signifies anything, either, especially if the images are just straight conversions to grayscale. My point was that an image’s content, ability to create an emotional response in the viewer, and point of view (photog actually having something to say via the image and especially via the larger arc of his work) are the signs that imply to me that the photographer cares. But not one of those criteria is the exclusive domain of any particular set of equipment used to create the image.

Lexnotlex2 -- what a great shot!

This one pleased me rather a lot. As did this one.

"We probably all started 'serious' photography with a 35mm camera, and a 50mm f2 or faster lens."

Some remarkable chronological and demographic assumptions embedded there, no?

Simply excellent subject and discussion. I don't quite subscribe to the "shallow is better" catch all that is used these days. I like to see (when it pertains to the images' value) more of the environment, or details of a face.

Good stuff.

Eliott Erwitt, Venice, 1949. Do we really need to say anything else?

Surely he advantage of a fast lens ... is that you can get an appropriate DOF .... so with the FA77 Pentax ... often stopped down one or two stops the lens is at its best and the DOF is moderate ... you are never going to get the best out of a lens fully open surely ??

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