View Full Version : Soft focus and shallow depth of field

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Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 05:20 PM
What are some good techniques for getting cool shallow depth of field and soft focus in images without participating in cliches?

09-09-2009, 05:27 PM
Any effect... any 'look' ...used for its own sake... can readily become a cliche. The composition should dictate what equipment and technique will be used. Not vice versa.

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 06:03 PM

I agree with you. but since I posted this thread to promote discussion, I ask, when is the right time, in your opinion to use one technique or another in any particular photo. How do you know what is the best plan for a situation? I'm not that interested in specific equipment either, other than using it in an experimental way to achieve something unique.

People often downshift into discussing photo gear rather than actual photography. I'd like to avoid that in this discussion....

Andrew Sanderson
09-09-2009, 06:29 PM
Dear Tom, use a lens which has a wide aperture for it's size, ie; 300mm f5.6 lens for 10x8 film, or 50mm f 1.4 lens for 35mm.
My personal favourite is the legendary Kodak Aero Ektar 7inch f2.5 lens on 5x4 format. If you can't get hold of one of those, try the 105mm f 2.5 standard lens on a Pentax 6x7.
Regards, Andrew.

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 06:43 PM
Thanks for the info Andrew.....by the way, nice pics on your website.

09-09-2009, 07:16 PM
Any effect... any 'look' ...used for its own sake... can readily become a cliche. The composition should dictate what equipment and technique will be used. Not vice versa.

i agree completely!

hi tom

i never stop down except if i have to :)
the best thing to do is play with whatever you have
and see how shallow focus, front focus, back focus
putting things infront of your lens ( obstruct it),
shooting through dirty filters or windows, or pantyhose
or "whatever" works in various situations.

have fun!

09-09-2009, 07:22 PM
You may want to try to use the smallest focal stop possible.

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 07:23 PM
i never stop down except if i have to :)

Now we're getting somewhere....What else do folks have to say?

--Thanks John!:)

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 07:31 PM
My original question may not have been perfectly phrased...I am asking a philosophical question here, not "How do I do it?" More like...."WHY SHOULD I do it?"

09-09-2009, 07:45 PM
"when is the right time"

When your photographic vision calls for its use.

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 08:19 PM
Any effect... any 'look' ...used for its own sake... can readily become a cliche.

"when is the right time"

When your photographic vision calls for its use.

So, since I posted this in Portraiture....How do you develop style using these techniques, available to anyone, and set your portraits apart from ten million others without overstepping a precedent of cliché? How do you utilize a variety of techniques, yet still have a continuity of vision? If you shoot a thousand portraits with the same camera, lens, lighting, film, etc. and have pictures that essentially look the same no matter who is in them, Have you achieved a signature "look," or have you failed as an artist? Is this a matter of how one discusses their work?

tony lockerbie
09-09-2009, 08:35 PM
When I used to run Adult education classes in photography, a girl who was very new to the art, bought her first "real" camera, a Minolta SRT101 with a 50mm 1.4 lens. She was totally rapt with the view through the camera, and immediately went out and shot heaps of portraits of her friends.
When she developed the shots, she brought them to me in a state of total disappointment, nothing like she had seen in the viewfinder at all.
The problem, of course, was that in metering she had closed the lens down to around F8, completely destroying that lovely feeling of isolation that she saw at F1.4. The depth of field pre-view was duly pointed out, an ah- hah moment was reached, and she cranked the lens right open and blazed away with renewed vigour.
If isolating the subject, or creating a 3D affect is important to your vision, then these fast lenses come into their own. A good thing about LF photography is the ease in creating this effect due to the long focus lenses involved. Funny how the shallow DOF is being re-discovered these days, almost forgotten in the clamour to buy zoom lenses. I have had a couple of digital shooters that have never seen through a fast prime, and are amazed when they do.

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 08:47 PM
...almost forgotten with digital cameras in general. I like your story Tony. This thread is an attempt by me to get people to talk about photography instead of cameras. The route it is taking is kinda weird, but interesting none-the-less. Shallow depth of field in portraiture is something I use occasionally, and I have been using LF more and more for that reason. I am at a point in my career where I have seen and made a lot of photos. I'm trying to get a fresh look on things.

Ian David
09-09-2009, 08:49 PM
It is hard to define what constitutes cliche anyway Tom. Truly standout images sometimes use exactly the same technique and effect as loads of other less striking images that you or I might dismiss as cliched. Look at landscape photos - the long-exposure seascapes, the stumps and reeds sticking out of lakes, the Adams-style Yosemite mountain pics, etc, etc. All of these have been done to death and are still being done to death, but occasionally you see a shot that falls into one of these categories which is just an outstanding image for some reason, despite the fact that it could so easily have gone the other way...
The same probably goes for super-shallow depth of field portraits.

09-09-2009, 09:03 PM
Tom, I think we just have to ask ourselves what motivates our technical decisions. If that motivation comes from your own artistic goals, then by all means be confident and go forth and make photographs! Frankly, I do not have that confidence most the time, it's a work in progress. But I do my best not to duplicate what I've seen before... unless it's just some technical exercise.

Let me give you a concrete example relevant to the issue of softness and out-of-focus rendering. I use a 50/1.2 lens in 35mm and an 80/1.9 and 110/2.8 in MF, and I use them quite a bit. Of course, I have seen all manner of daytime photographs with razor thin DOF, it's clearly a popular look. So naturally I asked myself if I were simply shooting wide open to follow the fad. But... most of the time I shoot at those apertures, it's not for DOF at all. On the contrary, it's because I like to shoot in "quiet," soft, muted light and I also have an intense dislike of artificial light. I am especially allergic to flash.

(And no, its not just because almost every family snapshot in my life has depicted me with demonic red eyes :rolleyes: )

The reason why I like available light so much is because it is so natural, so unclinical... and it is undisturbing to the subject. Doesn't jar them out of their normal state. So, I would assert that I make the technical decision to shoot wide open not for the effect of razor-thin DOF, but rather because of the quality of the light that I prefer.

I can't think of any aesthetic reason why I'd prefer to have somebody's ears out of focus!!! I mean, sure, eyes are expressive and we emphasize them for that reason, but they are not the only thing in the image....

I am not saying that shallow DOF is inherently a cliche. On the contrary, if it serves an artistic purpose then what's wrong with it? I am not bound to some f/64 code of conduct! Nor am I bound to f/1.2 for portraits or whatever.

Now, I make as many cliches as anybody; I shoot 'em daily. I am sure that I don't even recognize half of the cliches I shoot as such. So I think there is the need to inform oneself of what others have done and what others are doing, and to step back and ask, why am I doing what I do? Why don't I do something else? Am I afraid to go off-recipe? Or am I so afraid of making a cliche that I won't even try something like shooting a fast lens wide open?

We have to talk to ourselves ;) ...and ask questions like why do you do what you do?

David A. Goldfarb
09-09-2009, 09:09 PM
It's very easy to produce mush with a soft focus lens, so I find the trick with soft lenses is to blend soft and hard. A portrait with a soft focus lens really uses the qualities of the lens to advantage with hard light. Where a contrast ratio of 1:2 or 1:3 is typical for portraits with lenses designed to be sharp, a diffuse focus lens calls for a contrast ratio of 1:4 or 1:5. A main light and no fill will often be just right, and when shooting with available light that isn't hard enough, it may be appropriate to extend development time to increase contrast.

I also find that I have a characteristic aperture. With a soft focus lens, you have to look at the whole groundglass and adjust focus and aperture until it looks right. You may use a loupe to make some particular detail sharp, but there is no "correct" focal point with a soft focus lens. If I'm using a Verito or Heliar (which isn't a soft focus lens per se) and I adjust the aperture by looking at the groundglass rather than the ring, I find I'm just about always around f:5.6. For whatever reason, that's where the balance of sharp and diffuse looks right to my eye.

Someone on the LF forum a few years ago posted a summary of an article in a photo magazine from the age of soft focus lenses where various professional portrait photographers were asked to focus the same image with a soft focus lens, and the focal points were marked on a strip of tape on the camera bed, and there was a wide spread among the various choices and no two photographers agreed on what was "in focus." Each photographer was painting with a different brush.

Dave Pritchard
09-09-2009, 09:13 PM
Almost any technique or known presentation can be a cliche. You can tell the difference. Frank Sinatra singing about dames could be a cliche, but isn't. A bored lounge hack doing the same thing is a cliche.

Tom Nutter
09-09-2009, 09:15 PM

I have seen all manner of photographs with razor thin DOF, it's clearly a popular thing. So naturally I asked myself if I were simply shooting wide open to follow the fad.

I have a friend who photographs monuments at the Gettysburg Battleground. He recently showed me some very nice prints he did of these where all of the monuments were centered in the frame...sort of a snapshot quality to them. I asked him why he shot them that way and he said he saw no reason to compose using the rule of thirds just because he was supposed to do so. That blew my mind.---Nothing to do with shallow depthof field, I know, but the point is that he chose to simply disregard what some may call a most basic element of composition--Just because he felt like it. This was a learning experience for me.

Okay, I'm up too late.

09-09-2009, 10:08 PM
the beautiful thing about rules is they are a wonderful tool to learn with.
rules of thirds, everything razor sharp in focus, focus on the eyes or the tip of the nose
leave about 1/2 your thumb between the top of the subject and the top of the frame &C &C
but at a certain point you need to remove the training wheels and realize that rules are a guideline
and don't need to be followed to the letter.

as someone previously said, everything pretty much has been done before,
don't worry about clichés everything pretty much is a cliché ... just enjoy yourself .. :)


09-09-2009, 10:12 PM
I suppose an example where I might use shallow depth of field would be to subdue a distracting background and emphasize an object near the camera -- or visa versa! A broad array of tricks can always prove handy. Generally soft focus can be useful to simplify a scene to the larger forms without a lot of texture and detail. I can't say I do much of that, I'm more of a "sharpness" fan, but I guess my annual Pinhole Day excursions could qualify for soft focus. :)