4 Tips for Taking Photos with an Extremely Shallow Depth of Field

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I like to mix and match when shooting. For instance, combining a wide open, super-sharp landscape vista to the softness of a more shallow perspective. Photographing what is closer to you often requires a visual shift, a slight adjustment to a more intimate point of view.

Words and Photography by Chiara Zonca

Playing with shallow depth of field can literally transform the landscape in front of you and your own approach to shooting. Here’s a guide for those of you who would like to try and integrate depth of field into their photos.

Step 1: look for layers

When working with shallow depth of field, layers are key. I usually try to look for scenes that feature a multitude of foreground and background elements. Whether it’s geometric lines, interesting textures or foliage and flowers, finding a multi-layered scene to photograph is usually the first step in my creative process. I don’t worry too much if my scene looks “messy” at first, depth of field will blur part of my foreground and background anyway, making everything look very different and simplifying the composition.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a Canon 50mm 1.2L lens and an Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+.

“I don’t worry too much if my scene looks messy at first, depth of field will blur part of my foreground and background anyway.”

Step 2: pick your hero

Once you’ve identified the scene you want to photograph, it’s time to decide which element is going to be in focus. I usually start with whichever part sits in the middle. I then play around with focussing on different elements to see whichever gives the most interesting results. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, for example if light is hitting a specific part of your scene, like a flower or a rockface, in an interesting way, that’s probably the one you want to focus on. Other times it takes some experimenting but eventually it will get easier to identify your hero.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a Canon 50mm 1.2L lens and an Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+.

Step 3: go super shallow

When working with plants especially, I love to set my aperture at the widest point, resulting in an extremely shallow depth of field. Trouble is, in daytime there is just too much light for a wide aperture. This is when an ND filter becomes super handy. In these images, I used the Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+. This variable filter allows you to block 1-5 stops of light. I had it at an average of 6-10 and it gave me just about the exact level of darkness to counterbalance my wide aperture, making sure I was able to use the extreme blur on a very bright Summer day.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a Canon 50mm 1.2L lens and an Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+. Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a Canon 50mm 1.2L lens and an Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+.

Step 4: colour twist

Playing with colours is probably my favourite approach to photography in general, therefore it’s no surprise I use the same mindset when dealing with shallow depth of field. A trick I often use is to find an element in my scene that has a vibrant colour and blur it as much as I can in the foreground. 

This will create a very interesting effect, similar to brush strokes of colours, making the photo more painterly in nature. Whether it’s a flower, a detail of a dress or a mesh-like texture, this effect is probably my favourite way to play with depth of field and get creative.

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a Canon 50mm 1.2L lens and an Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+.

“The ND2-32 filter made sure colours weren’t washed out in the process.”

Shot with a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a Canon 50mm 1.2L lens and an Urth Variable ND2-32 Filter Plus+.

Conclusion

Playing with extremely shallow depth of field in broad daylight is basically pushing your gear to its limits. I used to get discouraged in doing that as my pictures would often come out washed out or over exposed. I was never fully loving the colours.  

I started using an ND filter precisely because I was interested in capturing the vibrant colours of a daylight scene, with aperture as wide as you can get. It quickly became a staple in my kit.

Not only has my ND2-32 filter come in handy when using a wide aperture in the daytime, it also made sure colours weren’t washed out in the process. Tones became rich, closer to a picture taken just before sunset, while keeping the extreme blurring I love so much. Win win!

You can purchase the camera Chiara used to shoot this series here:

And you can purchase the lens Chiara used to shoot this series here: 

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Chiara Zonca

Chiara Zonca is an artist currently living in Western Canada. Her mystical aesthetic evokes dreamy landscapes that seem to exist beyond time and place. As an Urth ambassador, Chiara shoots with Urth lens filters.

2021-08-03T01:51:08+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |