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Thread: Overdoing shallow DOF?

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    brucehughw's Avatar
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    Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Hello, all.

    In my quest to improve my technique, I borrowed some art books from the library and purchased a cinematography text, The Visual Story. The art books have a lot of "old masters" paintings, portraits, landscapes, or still lifes. The DOF discussion in the film book does not advocate shallow DOF, suggesting to me that film makers strive to get more of a scene in focus, not less. The old masters certainly did not employ shallow DOF; they, I imagine, would have been thought of as supremely untalented if part of their painting was blurred. So, where does still photography fit in this? Is a shallow DOF for, say, faces, flowers, animals, and insects, always better? Do we always want that blurred background in non-landscape photos? Can one overdo a blurred background?

    Thanks, Bruce

    PS where can I find the "tag cloud?" I wanted to add DOF as a tag for this post, but it's not in the list.
    Last edited by brucehughw; 23rd June 2013 at 11:48 AM.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Quote Originally Posted by brucehughw View Post
    The DOF discussion in the film book does advocate shallow DOF, suggesting to me that film makers strive to get more of a scene in focus, not less.
    I'm confused. Did you mean to write that that would suggest that they strive to get less of a scene in focus?

    It was interesting to me that the movie, "Up," which is an animation, employed a shallow depth of field regularly throughout it to replicate the cinematographer style. I have seen few animations, but that was new to me.

    I like that a camera can produce both a shallow and extensive depth of field. I use both to varying degrees to suit whatever I'm trying to convey.

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    brucehughw's Avatar
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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Mike,

    sorry about my typo, I corrected the original post. The film book does not advocate a shallow DOF. Indeed, it hardly discusses it, suggesting that it's a given that the filmmaker will want more, not less, of a scene in focus.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Old masters tended to use lighting to emphasis the subject mater and any competing or discordant elements in the scene were either depicted in dull tones or just not painted in the first place. Using DOF is simply one of the tools photographers often use perform a similar function. With the ability now to easily control brightness, contrast, saturation within a scene and even clone out distracting elements in post processing a modern photographer now has a much wider choice of viable methods to isolate the subject mater and produce the image he wants. The trick is the same, just make the viewer see it how you want them to see it. You cannot control their response but you can try to control what they see.

    As to whether any of the techniques appear to be overdone will depend on the viewers aesthetic response. I certainly generally prefer to see some soft detail in parts of the out of focus area but it is over saturated images that probably annoy me more. If it works it is fine.

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    Administrator Manfred M's Avatar
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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    I would certainly not agree with your statements; film makers have long used shallower DoF as a compositional tool. Take a look at movie credits; you will find a position of "focus puller". This roll is to note where the talent will be moving through the scene (there are cues marked on the sound stage floor) and to adjust focus while filming to ensure that the main actor in the sequence is in sharp focus, while the rest of the scene is not. Another compositional tool that is sometimes used in cinema is change in focus during an establishing shot, where focus is changed from an object in the room to the talent. In both cases, shallow DoF is being used as a compositional element.

    Part of the issue in classical film making is that the film, even in 35mm movies was quite small. A full-frame sensor or piece of 35mm film is actually two classical movie frames; plus there has to be room for the sound track information. While there are many 35mm film formats, they are somewhere in the size range between a mFT sensor and a APS-C sensor, so narrower DoF was more difficult to achieve. Take other formats like 16mm or 8mm; the DoF capabilities are even smaller because of the small frame size; i.e. the same issue that we have getting narrow DoF with small sensor cameras like point & shoots.

    As for classical painters; it's hard to say that they were even aware of this; although they did use specific lighting techniques and often put less detail into the backgrounds as a compositional tool. These effects are somewhat shallow DoF like.

    Shallow DoF very much comes from photography; with its larger film / sensors and fast lenses. A standard feature film movie runs at 24 frames / sec (faster for some HD work), so we spend less time looking for the effect. In a still image, we can study a moment that has been frozen for a long time, so "defects" in a feature film will get blurred out by the mass of data, whereas they will be picked up in a still image.

    One reason that cinematographers flocked to the early full-frame still cameras with video capabilities (Canon 5d Mk II was the breakthrough camera here) was solely for their narrow DoF (roughly 1 stop better than traditional film), even though the camera itself is a very poor all-purpose video camera. Video cameras had tiny 1/4" or 1/3" sensors, so narrow DoF was not possible. Panasonic introduced the AF100P, a mFT sensor video camera to compete with the DSLRs with video capability, and now there are a number of excellent, "affordable" large sensor video cameras on the market (affordable means that they run at least 1x to 3x the price of a top of the line DSLR).

    So, narrow DoF very much comes from still cameras through their combination of large film / sensor size and fast lenses, not the other way around.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    The Visual Story was written a few years ago and the Old Masters were working a few centuries ago. The river of creativity, however, runs relentlessly in the now. Look to the past for ideas and inspiration but not for rules or justification for what you should be doing in the field today. You would seem to have some negative perspective toward narrow dof. That is fine. But, if I were going to bolster my positive feelings toward it, I would look to Impressionists like Renoir who gloried in blur. I went to a Renoir exhibit a year ago. It showed just a handful of his large portraits. Looking as closely as I could, in one portrait, the only strong, solid lines were in the two eyes of the subject. Some artists, like Seurat, provided more of a pixel level view with a collection of dots making the scene. No strong lines whatsoever. In recent movies, I see shallow dof techniques used more and more. In some cases, like in Scorcese's 3D Hugo, the effect is fantastic. In others, it can be annoyingly obvious and disconcerting. I think it is best to judge such things on a case-by-case basis.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    I wonder how much the job of the focus puller was/is to overcome the limited DoF of working under lights in the studio when the subject moved around though of course it is often used for dramatic effect... unlike the still photographer the cinematographer working with a 'standard'* lens which equates roughly to 90mm on Full Frame .... so while the gate is small the lens is long by still concepts. [*12.5mm for 8mm, 25mm for 16mm and 50mm for 35mm]

    Richard posted a photo recently making the comment that his sister-in-law had said to his disgust "It is a pity the whole photo is not in focus'" ... whereas my reaction was 'A pity the background which attracted attention by being brightly out of focus was not different"
    So while it can be used for dramatic purposes it can also be used to overcome problems out of our control at the time of shooting but with traps to trip us up but can be validly used to direct the viewers attention to what we want them to look at..

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Responding to Brev00: Wow, wonderful points (this is the best forum!). No, I don't have anything against shallow DOF. Indeed, a few weeks ago I took a bunch of graduation party candids and small group photos, and used a shallow DOF. I just thought that maybe one could overdo the blurred background. Today I took a few little league photos of my neighbor's son at bat, and saw later that the DOF left a lot of of the background (parents in lawn chairs!) in focus. So, no, I'm fine with a shallow DOF, just wanted to see what others thought about overdoing it. Thanks for the comments about artists. Fine art is not one of my strengths, so thanks for pointing out how some used their own version of a shallow DOF.

    Best regards, Bruce

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    I guess what I am trying to say is the the depth of field I choose is an artistic choice. Either way. Narrow or wide. And, like any choice, it will create a limited array of other choices going forward. I can focus on the foreground in a landscape and let the background become a blur of shapes and colors. I can use hyperfocal focusing to create a landscape with edge-to-edge clarity. Going one way or the other is a decision, neither good nor bad. I like doing both but usually one version per scene. I have enough options later in post processing not to have to deal with two takes of everything I shoot. So, I don't have a negative preconception based on the dof. I think viewing images, whether mine or others, with an open mind is critical to my approach. I am free to use whatever technique I have at my disposal when I am in the field.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    DOF is simply one of the tools/techniques that we employ to create a desired effect. Of course it can be overdone. Like most things more does not always equate to better. If/how one uses shallow DOF in wildlife photography for example depends on what one wants to focus the viewers's attention on. If the photographer wants to isolate then animal, shallow DOF is appropriate. If the shot is intended to shot the animal's habitat, then as in a landscape, then entire image should probably be in focus. Extremely shallo DOF such that only a portion of the animal is in focus may or may not be appropriate depending on one's desired effect.

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    Administrator Manfred M's Avatar
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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Quote Originally Posted by Brev00 View Post
    The Visual Story was written a few years ago and the Old Masters were working a few centuries ago. The river of creativity, however, runs relentlessly in the now. Look to the past for ideas and inspiration but not for rules or justification for what you should be doing in the field today. You would seem to have some negative perspective toward narrow dof. That is fine. But, if I were going to bolster my positive feelings toward it, I would look to Impressionists like Renoir who gloried in blur. I went to a Renoir exhibit a year ago. It showed just a handful of his large portraits. Looking as closely as I could, in one portrait, the only strong, solid lines were in the two eyes of the subject. Some artists, like Seurat, provided more of a pixel level view with a collection of dots making the scene. No strong lines whatsoever. In recent movies, I see shallow dof techniques used more and more. In some cases, like in Scorcese's 3D Hugo, the effect is fantastic. In others, it can be annoyingly obvious and disconcerting. I think it is best to judge such things on a case-by-case basis.

    Of course, the Impressionists and other "modern" schools of painting got started when this new-fangled device called the camera came out and did a better job of doing portraits, more quickly and far less expensively than the traditional portrait painter could, putting him out of business unless he "changed his business model".

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Thanks, Dan. That's another point (isolating animal vs. showing its habitat, too) that I would not have thought of. Without meaning to sound glib, I think one can apply this to human subjects. I take a photo of someone in their home. Do I include some of the furnishings (part of their habitat) or isolate them (only they are in focus). Food for thought.

    Bruce

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    brucehughw's Avatar
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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Manfred,

    Is that how it happened? The camera forced portrait artists to adapt?

    Bruce

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Hi Bruce,

    A very good question. When is shallow DOF more appropriate than having all of it in focus?

    Maybe the old masters chose the appropriate background to suit the painting. In photography we cannot always choose the background. Controlling DOF in my opinion is to remove distracting objects from the picture. A great tool us photographers have the opportunity of using.

    Does shallow DOF always apply in most non landscape images? I do not believe so. Shooting a portrait of Barak Obama in front of the White House, you would want the White House to be in focus.

    DOF control depends on the circumstance and what the photographer wishes to depict in the image. It is entirely up to the photographer to decide what DOF should be used and there can never be a set rule as to “what is beter”. In many a landscape image you would like the foreground to be OOF to create a feeling of depth. In many a portrait you would like the background to be in focus to give more meaning to the image.

    I would like to believe it is entirely up to you, the photographer, to decide how to use DOF creatively.

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    Administrator Manfred M's Avatar
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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Quote Originally Posted by brucehughw View Post
    Manfred,

    Is that how it happened? The camera forced portrait artists to adapt?

    Bruce

    If you look at the timing and history, the answer is clearly yes. Daguerreotype was commercialized in the 1840s while wet plate and tintype became popular in the 1850s. The impressionists hit the scene in the 1870s. Cause and effect, as they say.

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    brucehughw's Avatar
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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Thank you, Andre. Every comment here has helped. One of the neat things about photography (for me, of course, but I suspect others) is the constant need to solve little puzzles. Barack Obama in front of White House? Get both in focus, or at least the latter somewhat in focus. Barack Obama at his daughter's birthday party? Probably the two of them next to the cake is enough to keep in focus, and the background won't matter so much. As Dan mentioned earlier, it's partially a question of wanting to include the habitat or to isolate the subject.

    thanks, again. Bruce
    Quote Originally Posted by AB26 View Post
    Hi Bruce,

    A very good question. When is shallow DOF more appropriate than having all of it in focus?

    Maybe the old masters chose the appropriate background to suit the painting. In photography we cannot always choose the background. Controlling DOF in my opinion is to remove distracting objects from the picture. A great tool us photographers have the opportunity of using.

    Does shallow DOF always apply in most non landscape images? I do not believe so. Shooting a portrait of Barak Obama in front of the White House, you would want the White House to be in focus.

    DOF control depends on the circumstance and what the photographer wishes to depict in the image. It is entirely up to the photographer to decide what DOF should be used and there can never be a set rule as to “what is beter”. In many a landscape image you would like the foreground to be OOF to create a feeling of depth. In many a portrait you would like the background to be in focus to give more meaning to the image.

    I would like to believe it is entirely up to you, the photographer, to decide how to use DOF creatively.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Quote Originally Posted by AB26 View Post
    ...Maybe the old masters chose the appropriate background to suit the painting. In photography we cannot always choose the background. Controlling DOF in my opinion is to remove distracting objects from the picture...
    Exactly so. Like the old saying "Painting is the art of inclusion, photography is the art of exclusion". The painter gets to choose what goes into the scene. The photographer must manipulate composition, lighting, and DOF to exclude unwanted content.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Quote Originally Posted by NorthernFocus View Post
    Exactly so. Like the old saying "Painting is the art of inclusion, photography is the art of exclusion". The painter gets to choose what goes into the scene. The photographer must manipulate composition, lighting, and DOF to exclude unwanted content.
    I would add to that since I have mainly used bridge cameras in the digital past and MFT now I do not bother about narrow DoF in-camera but use it in editing to subdue background and foreground[ infrequently] detail which detracts from the subject. Except for when using long lenses I don't think trying to do it in-camera is particularly effective and having got so far in-camera one needs to increase the effect in editing.

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    I think that whomever might have suggested you to have a look at the Master Artists and also perhaps talked to you about Cine Works did NOT mention that these two references for learning are a small portion of the whole gambit of learning reference material open to you.

    I also think that your advisor did not mention: One key point about taking ANY set of reference material and then applying it to one’s learning is to have a broad understanding of the culture, nature and purpose of that Reference Material.

    Some responses above touch on this point, some citing specific examples.

    As general examples – if we take a step back in time and think how they thought - the Great Artists probably didn’t contemplate DoF. Many (most?) of the wide range of Portraiture has the background in reasonable “sharp focus” and the separation of the Subject from Background is created by other means – colour; light and shade; texture; complexity (usually the Subject) vs simplicity (usually the background . . .

    So when we look at (for example) The Birth of Venus, we might learn about composition, colour, expression, texture, lighting (perhaps) but we probably won’t learn anything about employing Shallow DoF. What we might however see, when we look at ‘The Birth of Venus’ is that if this were a Photograph, it would have been made with something close to a “Standard Lens” or “Normal Lens” (about 50mm on a 135 format or 30mm on and APS-C camera).

    We might also learn that the lighting is quite complex, even though it appears to just be natural lighting, that cannot be so, as (for one example), there is no shadow thrown from the Cloak (camera right) which is being thrown to cover Venus: so we might begin to appreciate the complexities of Flash as Fill for outdoor group portraiture.

    As the above example shows, we use the conditions that existed; the cultures and the purposes and apply those as reference material to our Photography today and learn that way.

    ***

    The way your question is framed, it is taking elements that we use in Photography TODAY and searching for those applications in the PAST works of art – that is a process which is back to front.

    ***

    Similarly thinking about the (general) purposes and cultures of Cine work – cinematography is a fluid work: certainly there are (many) points in time where there is a great “still shot” within any great Film: but as a fluid (moving) work of art, the culture would not necessarily RELY ON shallow DoF as much as a Still Photographer would. This is a general point – and there are many other (mentioned above) technical reasons concerning Shallow DoF and Cine work.

    Rather than ’concluding’, after reading one book, that Cine Makers don’t value or use Shallow DoF, what I would suggest is that you watch some great cine works and note WHEN shallow DoF is employed and think about WHY the Director / Director of Photography made that choice.

    ***

    As an example of learning from associated reference material:

    In respect of: Perspective; Camera Viewpoint and how no suitable lens Focal Length Lens exists, we might realize how ‘impossible’ it is to make a single Photograph the same as the ‘Last Supper’ . . .

    However, to get the perspective on the Subjects, we can use a lens approximating a Normal Lens and then shoot several shots and then merge them as a panorama . . .

    Or (for Cine) we can choose to change the shot and move the Camera Viewpoint and shoot from the side and use selective focus (shallow DoF) as we pan along the table: an example is the banquet scene in the movie ‘The Dirty Dozen’.

    These points I learned (a long time ago) from studying a great artwork and also a (reasonably great?) Cine Production.

    I found both these points very interesting: AND also very useful learning tool which I could apply to my Profession.

    Hence, using Film and Digital, I've often shot the main Wedding Table in sections; and I have sometimes merged four separate shots of the Main Table into one, for a centre-page Album spread.

    Also I have used Shallow DoF, along a diagonal table line.


    WW
    Last edited by William W; 25th June 2013 at 01:18 AM. Reason: corrected typo

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    Re: Overdoing shallow DOF?

    So, where does still photography fit in this? Is a shallow DOF for, say, faces, flowers, animals, and insects, always better? Do we always want that blurred background in non-landscape photos? Can one overdo a blurred background?
    There is some very interesting material in the replies to your question, but I think if one takes the question more literally, there is a much simpler answer. There is nothing that "we always" should do, and nothing is always better. Do what you like. I'm not being dismissive in writing this. If you like an image with shallow DOF, create it that way. If you don't, then don't.

    To give a concrete example: I do a lot of flower macros, and my taste runs to deep depth of field and clear detail. This is a long-standing taste: decades ago, when I was young and just starting in photography, I was very much drawn to Ansel Adams and the f64 group. One friend of mine, in constrast, much prefers what he calls a more "painterly" look with shallower DOF, where the key parts of the flower are in focus and the rest not. Is one of us wrong? Of course not. We just have different tastes. And even for one person, the answer may vary. For example, in this shot, I wanted deep DOF to keep pretty much everything in focus:

    Overdoing shallow DOF?

    But in this one, I wanted the petals out of focus. I actually did it both ways and compared.

    Overdoing shallow DOF?

    Are these the 'right' decisions? It depends on your tastes.

    So my bottom line is: ignore virtually any advice that tells you what you always have to do. Create what you find pleasing. By all means look closely at others' work, because it will give you ideas, but you don't need to follow anyone's path.
    Last edited by DanK; 25th June 2013 at 01:14 PM.

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