How to Nail Depth of Field for Portraits

A shallow depth of field can breathe life into what would otherwise be a dull portrait. But dialing your aperture in just right in-studio can be a bit a tricky. To shorten your learning curve, freelance photographer Gavin Hoey shares his favorite tips and tricks for getting awesome shallow depth of field portraits:

Shooting portraits with a shallow depth of field (DOF) is a perfect way to bring a sharp, clear emphasis to the subject while leaving everything in the background soft and out of focus. More specifically, it creates a firm separation between subject and background that makes the subject stand out. But while getting a great shallow DOF is pretty easy outdoors, it can take a bit of practice to get it working well in the studio.


The first thing you’ll need is a fast lens (f/2.8 or lower). For this shoot, Hoey is using a Olympus E-M1 Mark II camera with an Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.2 lens—about as fast as it gets. If you’re a bit startled by his choice of a 25mm lens, keep in mind that the E-M1 Mark II is a micro 4/3 camera and a 25mm lens is the equivalent of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera.


The next thing to consider is lighting. Although you can get great shallow DOF portraits without a speed light, using high speed sync (HSS) can definitely make dialing in your exposure indoors a lot easier. You need a flash at a super-low intensity for a very brief moment in time so you can avoid overexposing your subject. (If you don’t want to use HSS, you can get a similar effect using ND filters. Here’s how.) In this shoot, Hoey is using an Olympus FL-900R Flash speed light combined with a Glow Parapop 38” Softbox. And since he wasn’t using a meter (even off camera), he simply used trial and error to dial in the exposure.


One of the main reasons to use a shallow DOF in portraiture is to separate the subject from the background, but if the background is a single color (especially white, black, or gray) it can flatten out the whole effect. That’s why Hoey recommends using a background with some texture. The background you see in these photos was painted on the wall of his studio by Hoey himself.

Beyond choosing a background with a bit of texture in it, the distance from your subject to the background will be the next key factor. And, as Hoey points out, this is all about the photographer’s taste; there’s no right answer. If you like the background more blurred, position your model farther away from the background. If you like the background a bit crisp, move your model closer.

Choose how in focus you'd like your background


To get a little more depth, have your model lean in a bit toward the camera or shoot from above. Both of these techniques create a bit more distance between the model and the background, thereby giving the image a greater sense of depth.


Hoey doesn’t cover this aspect much, but if you’ve ever shot with your aperture wide open (e.g., f/1.2) you’ve probably discovered that it’s often a bit difficult to get your model’s entire face in focus. That’s why it’s important to focus on the area where you want the viewer’s eye to go first. For most people, that’s the eye closest to the camera.

Using a foreground to add interest


The last (and most creative) tip Hoey explores is adding in a foreground to bring more interest and depth to the image. You might have seen this in classic brick wall portraits, where the bricks in front of the subject and behind are blurry, but those moving up to the subject become more and more in focus. In this shot Hoey substitutes a piece of translucent fabric and has his subject lean up against it like a wall. The effect is marvelous.

Adding a foreground to your portrait

Have any other tips and tricks for in-studio, shallow DOF portraits? Let us know!

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