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Creating Portraits with Shallow Depth of Field with the Fuji 50mm f/1.0

Los Angeles Photographer Kevin Gilligan explains why shallow depth of field is often desired in portraits, and provides four (4) tips on ways to improve your portraits. 

Portraits with shallow depth of field draw your eyes into a photograph. You may not know how, or why, but you are captivated. Images with sharp details contrasted with a soft blurry backgrounds draw the eye in because it is uncommon. Our eyes don't see this every day. 

The two images here were both created with the Fuji 50 mm f/1.0 and both were shot with at f/1.0. This is a VERY wide aperture (opening) for a lens, and very few lenses can capture an image at f/1.0.  These two images are straight out of camera, which is remarkable! 


1) With enough distance you can create a creamy background (bokeh) with almost any lens. The  Fuji 50 f/1.0 is an awesome lens and makes capturing these types of images much easier at close distances. You don't need an f/1.0 lens to capture blurry backgrounds (bokeh). You can create bokeh with a longer lens, smaller aperture and more distance between you and the subject.  One of my favorite blurry background images was taken with the Tamron 150-600 on a soccer field. I was about 40 yards away, shot at 500. I focused precisely on the two people and the background is blown out completely even though the maximum aperture on that lens is f/5.

2) Choose your focus point intentionally and precisely

With a very shallow depth of field, you must be precise and intentional in your focus. In most portraits of people, this means getting the closest eye in focus. The rest of the image will be more blurry. Sometimes even the nose in front of the eyes and ear in back of the eyes will be blurry. I recommend learning how to use a single focus point, and make the focus area small. I prefer a single focus point and moving the point around the frame with a selector button rather than using a zone focus which might choose an area I don't want. The left photo (top on mobile phones) is my friend Steven, he's one of those multi-talented guys, he's a volleyball coach and a terrific photographer.   In Steven's photo the sun glasses are in focus and you can clearly read the words Ray Ban. I used the auto focus and it focused on the glasses. I know better than that, but when we took the images, I meant to just show him the shallow depth of field on the lens, and didn't really plan on it being a portrait. Turns out I liked the image so much I'm using it here.  I should take my own advice. It's also a good learning point when you take images of people with glasses on. A TINY move of the focus point from glasses to eyes makes a difference. Be intentional.  Steven's portrait of me, on the right, is a technically better image because the eyes are so sharp. Still, photography is art, not science, and you might like the picture of Steven better because of his high wattage smile and good looks. 

3) On bright days use a very high shutter speed or a filter 

When shooting "wide open" (the widest opening the camera has, f/1.0 in these) on a bright day you run the risk of letting in too much light and blowing out the highlights and overexposing the image. You may need to shoot at a very high shutter speed (1/4000 of a second here) or use an Neutral Density filter (ND Filter) to to reduce the light coming in. They do this in movies all the time. They shoot wide open to blur the background and put a very dark filter on the camera to expose the image as desired. If you have not noticed this before, next time you watch a movie, look for it. 

4) Consider black and white to remove distractions

To further isolate the subject in the images, consider black and white. By eliminating color in your images you remove distractions. Don't get me wrong, I love big color and dramatic images like this portrait in a red flowing dress, but not always. A simple black and white portrait can be simple and elegant. 

Most importantly, HAVE FUN! That's the point.

Kevin Gilligan is an award-winning portrait, landscape, sports photographer and workshop instructor from L.A.'s South Bay. His work has been in over 30 exhibitions, three solo shows and in museums three times. To book a portrait session or workshop, or just say hi send an email here!

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