15 Minute Photo Challenge: Shallow Depth of Field

Yeah baby! Shallow Depth of Filed (DOF) in photography is where its at! End of my sarcasm, but in all seriousness, Depth of Filed refers to the area of in-focus parts of your photograph. The smaller the depth of field, the less parts that are in focus and arguably the more professional looking the photograph.

Prescott Park, Portsmouth, NH – Nikon D700 1/640th f1.8 iso 250 – 50mm (50mm AF-D)

The smaller the sensor (ie an iphone where everything is typically in focus) the harder it is to achieve. In my case I took out my full-frame sensor (Nikon D700) and my $99 – 50mm f1.8 lens because that would let me get close with a large aperture (f1.8). The sensor in my Nikon D700 is about 1.4 inches by 1 inch (35mm x 24mm) compared to an iphone 5 which is a tiny 0.17in x 0.13in (4.54×3.42 mm) – the iphone has a 7.6x crop factor with a 4.1mm focal length. Yikes!

Prescott Park, Portsmouth, NH – Nikon D700 1/400th f1.8 iso 560 – 50mm (50mm AF-D)

But this isn’t about the iPhone vs full frame, its about shooting shallow DOF. Up here in New Hampshire, we’re in the throws of the dark days of winter. Last night it snowed, then rained and was foggy all day. To say the least, a challenging day for someone who loves to shoot people in warm weather, loves color and hates walking around in slush. I challenged myself to 15 minutes of shooting narrow Depth of Field (DOF) photos, outside in a park, on a winter day of things and not people. The goal was to not to put a lot of time or effort into shooting, proving to myself that I too can shoot narrow DOF with decent results with a minimal amount of time and effort.

Toyota Rav4, Portsmouth, NH – Nikon D700 1/125th f1.8 iso 6400 – 50mm (50mm AF-D)

As you can see I found some color after all, but I had to crank the saturation in Adobe Lightroom. This is much easier to do with things vs people. Humans know what people look like, paint on the other had can be any color so cranking the saturation, clarity and contrast still makes it look good.

Prescott Park, Portsmouth, NH – Nikon D700 1/800th f1.8 iso 560 – 50mm (50mm AF-D)

The next part of DOF is Bokeh, and that’s more subjective. Bokeh is the quality of the blurred background.

If you look at the picture of the locks on the fence, the Bokeh sucks. That’s not fake Photoshop DOF, its just really crappy. My $99 lens just isn’t cutting it for that shot.

If you ever wonder why different lenses cost a LOT more, this is one reason – you get what you pay for. Some lenses come out with delicious Bokeh, but they are typically a lot more expensive –  for example, the Nikon 58mm f1.4 is $1700 or the Nikon 85mm f1.4 is $1600. One factor contributing to Bokeh is the shape and quantity of aperture blades inside the lens.

Prescott Park - Nikon D700 1/400th f1.8 iso 450 - 50mm (50mm AF-D)
Prescott Park – Nikon D700 1/400th f1.8 iso 450 – 50mm (50mm AF-D)

My approach to my 15 minute challenge was to find things that I could shoot to show off a shallow DOF.  64 images later and the best picks are posted here. In all honesty it was more than 15 minutes. But the point was not to do a huge setup and not to take a ton of time shooting. My lens BTW is not working right on my D700, therefore I had to manually focus every shot, which was actually a blessing in disguise in that I could set my focus exactly where I wanted it. In addition I shot the camera in M mode with natural light letting the ISO float for automatic exposure.  I set the aperture for f1.8 for every shot and adjusted the shutter speed as needed.

Prescott Park, Portsmouth, NH - Nikon D700 1/400th f1.8 iso 500 -50mm (50mm AF-D)
Prescott Park, Portsmouth, NH – Nikon D700 1/400th f1.8 iso 500 -50mm (50mm AF-D)

If you examine my photos the secrete sauce for slicing a band of DOF is to shoot your camera as wide open as you can (f1.8 in this case), shoot as close as possible at the longest focal length possible (50mm in my case). You can enhance the effect by shooting at an angle so you can see the depth in the shot -or- putting your backdrop as far away from your subject as possible. That’s it! The longer the focal length (say a 200 mm lens) the better the effect. You can get decent narrow DOF using 200mm at 5.6 if you do it right. The reason a full frame camera is better than a DX camera at DOF is because at the same focal length you need to get closer to your subject to fill the frame identically with a full frame camera. At 100mm focal you have to stand 1.5 times further away shooting DX(crop).

When I shoot models I shoot with my 70-200mm lens almost exclusively because I can shoot at longer focal length. That and if I shot at lets say 24mm and simply got closer, I would change the perspective making things like a nose look elongated. I’ll touch on that in a future post with a few examples.

At Home - Dusty Laptop - Nikon D700 1/50th f1.8 iso 800 - 50mm (50mm AF-D)
At Home – Dusty Laptop – Nikon D700 1/50th f1.8 iso 800 – 50mm (50mm AF-D)

Your challenge:

Take 15 minutes, shoot the shallowest depth of field that you can on any object anywhere.  I could be your laptop like I did above, a chair, a nut, bolt, pen, or anything. You can do it with any camera including your iPhone. You can get narrow DOF out of an iPhone – just get close. Getting close is probably my number one suggestion to experiment with. The point here is to experiment and spend minutes and not days on this challenge.

Quick Tips:

  • Get as close to your subject as possible (zoom in more if you can’t get close)
  • Shoot as Wide open as you can (f1.8 instead of f8)
  • Shoot at the longest focal length that works for your shot (200mm instead of 24mm)
  • Shoot things at an angle to exaggerate the out of focus areas
    • Shoot a model laying down looking at her face with her legs further away
    • Shoot your subject leaning on a wall and shoot looking sideways at a 30 degree angle down the wall
    • Shot your thing sideways, not head on (look at the photos in this article)
  • Use a larger sensor size (choose your FX instead of DX if you have it)
  • Position your subject far away from your backdrop


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