How to Take Shallow Depth of Field Studio Portraits

Portraits taken with a shallow depth of field often look amazing, but getting them to look right with a flash can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a speed light. Photographer Gavin Hoey demonstrates how to get great results from a wide open lens without resorting to High Speed Sync (HSS) technology:

The main challenge when using fast lenses is that they can “suck in” ambient light, even when you’d expect the exposure to be fully dark. That’s one of the reasons using a flash in this scenario is so tricky; you need to overpower the ambient light but not so much that you over-expose the image. That’s why speed lights are so handy: you can set them at a low intensity for an extremely short amount of time.

So what happens if you don’t have a speed light? Well, the first idea that hits the mind of most photographers is to move the light source farther away, but that can create harsher shadows and substantially change the quality of the light. Hoey suggests using a “normal” flash and cutting down the intensity with a neutral density or polarizing filter.

Gear List

testing your light meter through an ND filter

Remember to take your light reading through the filter.

Of course, it’s helpful to know how many stops your filter is blocking. It’s probably also helpful to use a lens with a longer focal length.

use nd filter for shallow depth of field in studio

Still, the technique is sound and provides a low cost alternative if you haven’t yet invested in HSS.

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