Shooting with a shallow depth of field can look really cool and interesting…
But, like any other storytelling tool, how you use DOF and when you choose to rack focus should be purposeful.
We love the look of a shallow DOF just as much as the next cinefile, but what we remind ourselves of and what we want to remind you of is to be aware of the dangers of using shallow DOF.
What are the dangers of using shallow DOF?…
Ok, we’re not trying to SCARE you into not using shallow DOF… we just want you to remember a few things…
Danger #1: Unmotivated rack focus.
The cool thing about using a shallow DOF is that you can effectively make the audience shift their attention from one subject to the next by racking focus.
But what you don’t want to do is rack focus arbitrarily, without any motivation to further the story or add value to it in some way.
Why am I asking the audience to focus on this particular area?
What does this have to do with the story?
Once you answer this honestly, you can determine if using rack focus is necessary for a scene.
Danger #2: Overdoing it.
When you’re working with shallow depth of field, you might be tempted to go even shallower, to really hone in on your subject…
But what you need to be aware of is getting TOO shallow, opening your lens up TOO much, and not being able to hold focus on the subject.
If you’ve got the sensor opened up too much, you might see the subject pulling in and out of focus — especially if they’re a moving target. This can be effective and purposeful, say, if your subject is drunk and you’re trying to really make your audience feel that altered state.
Otherwise, it’s going to hurt your story and feel like way too much of a good thing.
So… what are you saying?
We want you to be aware of these dangers because when you DO work with a shallow DOF, you’ve got a whole new set of choices to make… and if you’re using it for the wrong reasons in the first place, you’ll have difficulty getting through the rest of the choices you need to make.
So let’s assume you are planning on using a shallow DOF purposefully and effectively… what’s next?
Now you need to ask yourself when to come in and out of focus, and what you’re focusing on.
In each of the examples that P walks us through, the camera racks focus differently, and we as the audience read the scene differently.
Here in this first shot, the 2nd character with the cupcake is out of focus until she gets up close to our 1st character, and we then focus in. As the audience we’re unaware of the surprise until she gets closer and the camera focuses in.
Now in this example, it’s reversed. We see the woman and the cupcake clearly in the background, and in the foreground our 1st character is out of focus. Instead of wondering what the surprise is, we’re wondering what his reaction is.
In this last example, we stop down a bit and aren’t really hiding anything — you can see the 2nd character in the background, and she steps more clearly into focus as the shot progresses.
The use of shallow DOF works in all of these examples, but it works to say something different each time — and as a badass filmmaker it’s your responsibility to know when and where you want to rack focus.
What’s your experience been with using shallow depth of field?
Do you always consider the dangers before diving into the shallow depths?