Friday, September 1, 2017

How to get shallow depth-of-field effects with any camera

Many photographers turn to full-frame cameras and fast lenses to get shallow depth of field, but what if you only have a smartphone or a basic compact? While it certainly helps to have a camera with a large sensor and a wide-aperture lens when trying to achieve shallow depth of field, it’s still possible to achieve these same kinds of effects to some degree on cheaper compacts and camera phones, without resorting to digital manipulation. The first thing you should do is to use as wide an aperture as possible, but basic cameras and smartphones may not give you control over this. Even if they do, you may still find that it's not enough to provide you with the kinds of results you're after.

How to get shallow depth-of-field effects with any camera

Get close to your subject

If you’ve ever used a macro lens you may already appreciate how focusing closely on a subject affects depth of field. Whereas, for example, a 90 mm lens used conventionally for a portrait will may give shallow depth of field at a given aperture, a macro lens of the same focal length will produce only a very fine sliver of sharpness when used to shoot a subject only a few centimeters away at the same aperture. This isn’t limited to macro lenses, however, just that they are designed to focus much closer than conventional optics, so the effect is much easier to appreciate when using them. Modern smartphones and tablets can capture subjects just a few centimeters away, so even with their smaller sensors they can render blurred backgrounds. Compact cameras may not be able to focus down to the same distances at conventional settings, which leads us on to the next step…

Use the macro mode

The majority of compact cameras offer a macro button or setting, which is usually marked by an icon of a flower. When set to this mode the camera is instructed to focus closer than usual to a subject, perhaps just 1 cm away or so. With focus so close, more distant subjects are forced into blur as they lie so much further away from the zone where you're actually focusing. Most cameras will require you to switch to the wide angle setting when using the macro mode, as they will not be able to focus this closely when using longer focal lengths. Bear in mind that capturing images up close with a wide angle focal length could lead to your subject being distorted, so either watch this as you shoot and adjust your position or try to rectify this using some kind of distortion correction.

Separate the background as much as you can

Whenever you focus on a subject, you're letting the camera know which part of the scene is the priority. However, the camera will not only focus on the subject itself, but will extend focus to a zone behind and in front of the subject too, which is partly determined by the aperture you use. This means that anything in the same area will also be rendered in focus, gradually becoming more blurred as you get further away from wherever you’ve chosen to focus. So it follows that background (or foreground) details further away from the subject will be blurred to a greater extent than those closer to it. Bear this in mind when it comes to framing your shot, moving anything that may distract from the subject out of the way if possible and changing your position so that the background details are as far away as possible.

Choose a different focal length

Longer focal lengths are often thought to produce images with shallower depth of field than wider ones, although this isn’t quite the case. It seems to be so, as you’d naturally opt for a long telephoto lens when isolating a subject from its background rather than a wide angle optic, but to make the comparison fair you would need to move so the main subject occupies the same proportion of the frame in each image you capture. If you did this, you would see that depth of field hardly changes between the two. Yet, images appear to have more pronounced blur in shots captured with telephoto lenses. So what’s happening here? With a narrower angle of view, less of the background is being captured with the telephoto lens than it is with the wide angle lens. As a result, what is being captured is essentially being stretched to a greater extent in order to fill the frame, which appears as stronger blur. Of course, whether this technically creates more shallow depth of field or not isn't really the issue; it appears to be the case and that's good enough. If you're using a compact camera, zoom in as far as possible and capture your subject from the minimum subject distance at which your camera will allow you to focus. To check where this is move very close to the subject and try to take the image, before gradually stepping back and repeating the process until the camera confirms focus. 

For subjects in a line, shoot at an angle

Strictly speaking, this method doesn't create shallower depth of field although it works by using additional points of reference to highlight how shallow the depth of field actually is. Let’s suppose you’re capturing a series of railings, with your camera's sensor parallel to the railings, and you're focusing right in the center of the frame. As the entire railings are more or less all at the same distance away from you, they will all be recorded with roughly the same focus. Now consider what would happen if you carried on focusing exactly where you were before but you moved to one side or another so that you were at a 45 degree angle to the railings. Some would be further away and some would now be closer to you – and with a sufficiently wide aperture you would be able to blur both to leave the middle of the frame focused. Move to a more acute angle and this would increase even further. By filling the frame with subjects that you know will be out of focus, more attention is placed on the shallowness of the area that is in focus. Obviously this won’t be appropriate for every scene, but it’s useful to know if you only want a very small part of the scene to be in focus.

I hope this will be of inspiration. Do you like images with shallow depth of field?


  1. Dear Mersad,
    I like this kind of images very much. Thank you for these tipps.

    Many greetings

  2. I appreciate the tips... thank you.

  3. Mersad, the aperture on smartphone cameras is fixed. Depending on the model of phone the aperautre can be between ƒ/2.2 to ƒ/1.2. The only adjustable part of a smartphone camera is ISO and shutter speed.

  4. I like both the closeups and the distance pictures. Different subject matter requires a different approach. Your photos are always beautiful. :)

  5. Excellent tips and beautiful captures!



Image Credits

All Rights are Reserved. The images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of the author.