The Challenges and Pitfalls of Shallow Depth of Field

Dancing, Diwali 2019 - Austin, Texas

Dancing, Diwali 2019 – Austin, Texas

It’s the fashion of the day to have shallow depth of field photos. That’s one of the reasons why full-frame cameras are popular. But, there are downsides to shallow depth of field, and it’s not the preferred technique for many types of photography. We’ll talk about that today.

I’m certainly interested in a shallower depth of field myself. That’s one of the reasons I’m using the Fujifilm system. Though not as extreme as a full-frame camera, the larger APS-C sensor isolates the subject more than point and shoots or micro 4/3.

Here are a few photos I made during the dancing finale at this year’s Diwali festival in Austin. It’s something that I wanted to shoot effectively for the last few years. With slightly better light this year, a bigger sensor, and decent focusing, I made some acceptable photos. They turned out better what my Olympus cameras can do and even better than my old Canon 6D full-frame.

But, while some challenges weren’t unexpected, it was still vexing.

Dancing, Diwali 2019 - Austin, Texas

I want the crowd to be in sharp focus, of course, but also I wanted more sharp details of the background temple building. The f1.4 aperture rendered the foreground sharp but has blurred the background. This works great for portraits, and what is generally preferred by many. But, what if you want to maintain the relationship between the people and the temple. That’s what I was going for.

I know to set a larger aperture to bring more of the background in focus. But, it was dark, and doing so risked a subpar, blurry photo. And, without in-body image stabilization, I’m left with a set of compromises. Using micro 4/3 or even a high-quality point and shoot, with good image stabilization, might have created an image more in keeping with what I wanted.

Dancing, Diwali 2019 - Austin, Texas

Shallow depth of field is great for isolating a subject — it’s done effectively here, separating the foreground dancer from the others. It also worked well in the first photograph. However, making these types of photos has its own pitfalls. With such a shallow depth of field, the focus needs to be extra precise. Just a slight change in the distance between the subject and camera can soften the subject, making it undesirable. That was the case with many of my dancing photos with the Fujifilm X-T10.

With an abler focusing system, such as the one if the newest X-T30, tracking and making shallow depth of field photos become easier. But, this four-year-old Fuji showed its weakness in this area.

Notice, I talked strictly about technical image quality and technique. None of this addresses the more important aesthetic concerns. I much preferred my One in a Hundred photo that I featured a few days ago. While made with an older inferior camera, I think it better captures the essence of the dance. That image has more character, and the strategic use of motion blur emphasizes motion.

While today’s photos are technically superior, I don’t think they make for compelling photographs. This has nothing to do with the Fuji, of course. However, it also means that the quest for making “perfect” images doesn’t ensure interesting images either.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenges and Pitfalls of Shallow Depth of Field

  1. I don’t think that any of these photos are suffering from shallow depth of field. Night shooting is a problem for many reasons, though, and I think that these came out well. In my experience, the biggest factor is distance to subject and this is much more of an influence on depth of field than sensor size or aperture.

    I was in Penang Malaysia during Diwali one year and that was fun to see. It is neat to watch Penang go rapidly between Islamic, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays through the year.

    1. Yes, night shoot can be challenging. Luckily, I wasn’t overly close, which would’ve made it even more difficult.

      Penang sounds like fun and it must have been a wonderful photographic opportunity will all the religious holidays.

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