Eight Ways to be Creative with a Shallow Depth of Field

Your camera’s aperture has the ability to (mostly) control your depth of field – which is a powerful creative tool that many photographers use to evoke depth, mystery, and intrigue.

Not only is it one of the key components in creating bokeh, but your aperture has the power to transform the ordinary into an abstract….creating a surreal interpretation of what we normally see.

1. Isolation

The ability to quiet the distractions of your scene and isolate your focal point is a dynamic creative method. Beyond the visual attractiveness of a shallow depth of field, you can direct your audience to focus on elements that you find important in your landscape – whether it be the texture of a tree, small bits of foliage, or a field of wildflowers.

When working wide open, even the smallest adjustment of your focus can completely change your focal point, and thus the overall mood and interpretation of your image.

2. Balance

Another way to think of “balance” is to think of weight – what parts of your image are heavy, and which ones are light?

What draws the eyes in first, and do your eyes want to stay there?

Are there other elements that call for your attention?

The ability to adjust your depth by moving your slice of focus is a powerful tool, one that allows you manipulate the weight of your image and redistribute it for a more balanced (or unbalanced) composition.

Whichever you choose, your aperture can help you alter the weight of focal points and transform the flow of your landscape.

In the example above, I wanted to balance out the heaviness of the distant coastline and make the colorful foliage my main focal point. By using a very shallow depth of field (24mm @ f1.4), I shifted the weight onto the leaves, which would have been lost if I had used a deep depth of field.

3. Depth

Photographs are two-dimensional, so we rely on elements in the landscape to act as reference points for depth.

When an image is taken with a wide aperture, you can heighten the depth by moving your slice of focus in from your immediate foreground. This will create a shallow focus in front and behind your focal point – a layered effect that adds depth to your photo, giving the viewer a more “three-dimensional” experience.

For this image, I pushed the slice of focus back a bit from the immediate foreground, adding depth by blurring the areas in front of as well as behind my focal point.

4. Minimalism

The depth of your image can change a busy, complicated scene into a minimal composition with only a small portion in focus. A wide aperture can expand your creative boundaries for any location by allowing you to quiet the detail and bring out the inner serenity of a landscape.

A sharp focus and deep depth of field can capture much detail, but widening your aperture can create an entirely different mood. Minimalism photography is possible with a wide aperture, transforming any scene into a simple and mysterious creation.

The two images above were taken of the same tidal pool during the same evening, but resulted in two completely different moods by a simple adjustment in my depth of field and composition. By tightening my frame and widening my aperture, I was able to minimize the detail of the sunset sky and create a starker, simpler photo.

5. Transforming Light

If you know how to create bokeh in your landscapes, you know that wide apertures have the unique ability to transform your light sources (either direct or reflected) into defined, coarse shapes which can add layers of interest.

For overcast days or other situations where light sources are not visible in your frame, a shallow depth of field produces a different effect for your landscape. A dream-like, painterly quality is applied where the colors and tones wash together, much like a watercolor painting.

So the type of light you are photographing – whether overcast and soft, or direct and intense – can greatly change how it is interpreted by your aperture before it hits your sensor.

6. Leading Lines

Another fantastic way to use your aperture to create is to frame your image around prominent lines – such as boardwalks, trees, or any other line that travels across your frame – and allow them to lead the eye through your landscape.

A thin slice of focus can soften the appearance of these lines, but still render them as a forceful component to your image – now with added intrigue from their abstract nature.

7. Structures

Shooting wide open allows you to lighten the weight of “heavy” subjects, which you can use to compliment your landscape.

I will often frame my image with a small and unnoticeable subject in sharp focus, and use my aperture to throw a well-defined, prominent structure – one that would otherwise overpower my focal point – into obscurity.

Strong, isolated structures like bridges, buildings, and trees work well for this method.

Not only does this help to balance out the weight of your photo, but it creates a surreal image by softening the appearance of a subject just enough to make it painterly, but still be able to identify it based on the shape.

8. Framing

When shooting wide, you can frame your image with elements thrown completely out of focus – such as bits of foliage surrounding your lens. This can add interest, filter out distractions, and create depth and intrigue by framing your image with soft, saturated colors.

By pushing your focus to the background and composing your image with foliage (or other elements) overlapping the foreground, you can capture your landscape with a natural, complementary frame.

And sometimes, you don’t need a specific plan or workflow when shooting with a wide aperture…and will find much enjoyment with experimenting to see what creations you can come up with. The key is to shoot often, keep pursuing the methods you enjoy, and discard the ones that do not compliment your creative style.

13 thoughts on “Eight Ways to be Creative with a Shallow Depth of Field”

  1. David Latremouille

    Excellent article. I personally use all of these techniques a lot in my photography, as I am personally inspired by and enamored with the Impressionist school of painters, specifically Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh whose paintings demonstrate many of these principles from a painters perspectve. I think every photographer can learn a lot from these two artists in particular, as well as from photographers who use these techniques to such beautiful effect a seen here in this article. The one point I think that many photographers don’t get is the one discussed in item #3, with the slice of focus somewhere in the mid ground…while it can create an amazing look…I have had many people look at photos I have done in this fashion and dismissed the effect as merely being out of focus. So I am happy to see this presented here as being a valid and useful tool in your bag of photo magic.

    1. Christopher O'Donnell

      Sorry for the late reply David. Yes, absolutely…moving your slice of focus around can produce incredible results and invoke a completely different atmosphere than setting it on the foreground or background exclusively. Thanks for the kind words! Chris

  2. hello thank you for this lesson on 8 ways to ref shallow depth of field. I like very much the fact that there is an image that the words describe. Very simple but extremely helpful. Most other photographers show loads of words, very little a picture of what they are talking about . This way you have is excellent for future reference rather than look at video lessons that could last much more that 10 minutes which because of my mental illness I loose concentration. hope I explained okay. Thank you best wishes

  3. Inspiring photography which I found most helpful in advancing my camera skills. Could you recommend a lens that is effective in achieving these results?Thanks for your superb layer videos,

  4. Great articles Chris. I love this artistic type of photography and the creativity that goes with it. One question, do you use a full frame sensor which means that your 24mm lens actually is 24mm ? My APS-C sensor would convert that to 38.4mm. If I got a 16 or 18mm focal length would I be able to get a simiilar result?
    At the moment my shortest lens is 50mm which converts to an 80mm focal length, but it does have an f 1.4 Av. Guess I’ll just have to experiment and see how shallow I can go. I don’t want to buy another lens unless there’s no other way to get that sort of result.
    Thanks for another terrific tutorial.

    1. Christopher O'Donnell

      Hi Cecilia –

      I am using a full frame sensor, so you would have to go a bit lower with your focal length…around 16mm. The image perspective will look the same, but the depth of field will be slightly deeper on the crop sensor dso you would need a wider aperture than 1.4 to get the same depth of field. Hope this helps!

  5. New camera’s, new remote controls and new accessories can help by giving new opportunities ….. new camera’s with tilting LCD-screens focus-peaking and/or touch-focus ….. new remote controls, GSM with the right apps ….. new accessories : lighter tripods for lighter mirror-less camera’s or a PlatyPod to really get down …… all light, small and easy to carry along ….

  6. Very good article. And the photos you show for each chapter are not only relevant, but very inspiring as well. I though already about 3 shots I did, which will definitly be better (or show another story) using some of these techniques. Your articles always give me new idea and “force me” to hink outside the “comfortable” box. Thanks

  7. Excellently crafted and stunningly beautiful pictures. Maybe someday, one can only hope and follow the advice of one who is there. I have attempted bokeh and have had varying degrees of success. I am eager to try some of the ideas,. If it oaky with you I plan to have this printed and use in as a guide.
    All the Best, Lyndon

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