5 Tips to get sharp photos with extremely shallow depth of field

Shooting with wide apertures can seem difficult at times, especially with moving children.

I regularly shoot with apertures f/1.6 and lower, but I didn’t always shoot that way. I used to shoot around f/ 2.2 – f/4.0.

I actually started to shoot with the super wide apertures because I dropped my camera when I was out photographing my son Noah. Yep. I just bought a brand new camera, and when I dropped it, the aperture ring broke, and it was stuck on f/1.6.

Being the daredevil (or crazy?) person that I am, I was going to use my new camera at my photo session the next day, and not my old camera. No way. No how. Well, I lucked out, and had a great session, and I realized how much I loved very shallow depth of field.

There were quite a few things I learned through out the years that helped me nail focus when photographing kids and families with wide apertures and hopefully these will help some of you!

1. “Anchor” yourself if possible.

If I can lean on walls, a tree, a car, or sit on the ground (and shoot up)…I do it.

Also, try to keep those elbows close to your side. The more your wiggle those elbows around, the more you risk camera shake. I like to anchor myself against walls a lot because it helps keep me still.

2. Toggle your focal points.

Single point autofocus (AF) shooting is a great way to ensure sharp images, and I find it is GOLDEN to me when using very wide apertures. By using this method, you’re able to hone in on the area you want to focus on, which can give you sharper images.

Regardless if you use back button focusing, or you use your shutter to lock focus (this is what I use), the single point focus is a method I can’t live without.

3. Watch your distance from your subject(s).

I really utilize this when I am photographing groups with f/1.6. I try to make sure I am not too close as that will cause the depth of field to be too shallow, and a greater chance of blurry images.

Instead, I make sure I am a good distance away (perhaps 10ft?) when photographing groups. A telephoto prime lens works best in this situation. My lens of choice is an 85mm 1.4.

Practice a bit with this to find your “sweet spot”. You definitely don’t want to be too far away!

4. Keep the group on the same plane and have them touching in some way.

This works well with siblings and families. I like to have them touching in some way. Either the shoulders, hands, heads, cheeks… something!

When I am choosing what to focus on, I pick an area where two people are touching. (the red dot represents the focal point)

5. With close ups, focus on an eye, but with far away shots, don’t stress yourself.

I’m a firm believer that stressing over the technical during a photo shoot will cause a photographer to make mistakes. With full body shots of single individuals, I prefer to focus on the eye area (any place on the face).

About the Author:

Audrey Woulard is a 100% natural light photographer based out of Chicago. She specializes in children's portraiture and commercial children's work and shoots in a 2100 sq foot natural light studio in Downtown Chicago as well as on-location. She also hosts workshops for photographers and teaches about photographing children.

56 Comments

  1. Margaret Feb 13 2012 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Oh my gosh, I love her!! Her work is beautiful and you can tell everyone is always having a great time. Love it!

  2. Simplyness Feb 13 2012 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Excellent tips. Thanks. Your photos are all beautiful.

  3. celeste Feb 13 2012 at 10:34 am - Reply

    Wow, I love this, so informative and the pictures are fantastic! I love to shoot wide open, especially at home indoors to creatively hide the clutter in the background! I learned something new from you – I usually spot focus on whomever is in the back (of the kids, on the same plane). I will try not to stress too much on that and see what my results are. I love your work! Great interview!

  4. Ashley Spaulding Feb 13 2012 at 10:34 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing with us, Audrey, and for participating in the "I am a Photographer" project! I love your tips and your work, and I particularly appreciated the illustration you offered with the red box. Thanks!!

  5. Jen Husz Feb 13 2012 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Thanks so much! I love shallow depth of field, but err on the side of caution and usually shoot between f/2.5 -4. You've inspired me to break out of my comfort zone!

  6. Lone Rose Feb 13 2012 at 10:48 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this! I LOVE shallow depth of field but struggle a bit with blurry photo´s sometimes. This will definately help me next time. XOXO

  7. Cheryl Feb 13 2012 at 10:59 am - Reply

    THAT was absolutely fabulous information! THANKS so much! It really helped a new photog!

  8. Haley Kraus Feb 13 2012 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Thank you! I regularly shoot around f/1.6 on my 50mm f/1.4 and I always stress when shooting families. I love the idea of having them touch and choosing that area to focus on.

    Thanks again!!

  9. Marcy Feb 13 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Great tips! I love shooting at a wide aperture, but find sometimes my pics are not in focus. These are great tips to get better photos! Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  10. Christina Jack Feb 13 2012 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Great Tips. Am struggling with blurry images at wide aperture but will keep practicing using these tips.

  11. Anne Wick Feb 13 2012 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Awesome tips and gorgeous images ! Thank you for sharing, Audrey !

  12. Monica Wilkinson Feb 13 2012 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    Great tips Audrey!!! Your work is always so gorgeous!!!

  13. September Feb 13 2012 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    Thank you

  14. Cami Feb 14 2012 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous shots! πŸ™‚

  15. sara mitchell Feb 15 2012 at 1:49 am - Reply

    Love your images…there're nice and sharp, wish mine were like yours!

  16. Elizabeth Feb 15 2012 at 4:55 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this! Your images are so inspiring.

  17. Sonja Feb 15 2012 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    Fantastic ideas. I'm going to especially remember to anchor myself and keep those elbows in!

  18. Jessica Feb 16 2012 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    I could cry I'm so excited about this article. The timing couldn't have been more perfect for me. Amazing photos, awesome advice. Thank-you!!

  19. Chelsea Feb 17 2012 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this! I had read to focus on the eyes but always struggle when it comes to shooting more than one person. I'll definitely try this trick next time!

  20. Melissa Koehler Feb 18 2012 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    I love Audrey πŸ™‚

  21. noreen Feb 22 2012 at 9:44 am - Reply

    Great tips. I have done some of the tips and it's always great to refresh mind with it. I especially like to toggle my focus points although it makes it hard for me to get that shot when you have a moving subject (i.e. toddlers who doesn't sit still)..but it's still all good. πŸ™‚

  22. Bec Feb 23 2012 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Thank you so much! What a great article with lots of wonderful advice. I love your pictures!!! You inspired me a lot!!!!! Going to try it today ♥

  23. Crystal Feb 23 2012 at 10:32 am - Reply

    This article might also prove useful: http://gizmodo.com/5887389/army-officer-teaches-y

  24. Javier Feb 23 2012 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    I am wondering that since you're using a shallow depth of field do you have to use a filter to darken the image or do you just use a very high shutter speed???

  25. Oana Hogrefe Mar 02 2012 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    nice tips!

    I don't find though that anchoring oneself to avoid camera shake is really such a concern at wide apertures, as the speed is usually high enough to freeze most motion (camera's or subject's).

  26. Sarah Wilkerson Mar 02 2012 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Oana, I suspect that she's anchoring herself to avoid movement that can cause her to fall of the desired plane of focus at such shallow DOF (vs. anchoring to avoid motion blur :))

  27. Winnipeg Computer Lo Mar 02 2012 at 6:41 pm - Reply

    Good blog bro! this is great read

  28. nicole Mar 12 2012 at 11:58 am - Reply

    just wondering…is the single point AF where it's "one red dot" that shows you where you are focusing? will two faces or more faces be focused off of one red dot? or is it better to use the multi-focal point option…where a couple red focus dots pop up when you are trying to focus? thanks for your advice!

  29. nicole Mar 12 2012 at 11:59 am - Reply

    also…when is it acceptable to cut the top of someones head off in an image? I'm always afraid to know when it's appropriate and when it's not…any hints?

  30. Maisi Apr 15 2012 at 8:23 am - Reply

    Great tips! I am always afraid if shooting wide open with groups, but I'm going to try it more now!

  31. angela Apr 15 2012 at 6:41 pm - Reply

    would you mind telling me a little bit more about Single point autofocus?

    angelarenee2@gmail.com

  32. deepa Apr 19 2012 at 9:08 am - Reply

    wow..is all I can say…so much talent!!

    thanks for the inspiration…

  33. Amal Jun 05 2012 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Teri Davis – Wow. I mean WOWOWOWOWOW. I love them all so much. You guys are THE bomb dot com!!! And Bowen keeps asking where the two of you are and when can he pway wif Emmie, va wiltte girl. Ha! Thanks so much you two for such a wild, crazy, and fun filled afternoon!I heart my pics!!

  34. Nicole Aug 31 2012 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Love that you use natural light. I love natural light. I feel so carefree and unhindered when I shoot that way. Thanks for the tips.

  35. Nicole Sep 09 2012 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    I can shoot in the f/2.8 aperture. Problem is, it seems like the focus is achieved directly in front of the subject. I have adjusted the Microadjustment but it still looks slightly off at 100%…. any suggestions?

  36. Sydneypaige Sep 14 2012 at 6:20 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for these great tips! Photographing one person with a wide aperture has been relatively easy for me, but all my group pictures come out looking like I only meant to photograph one person and have everyone else in the background πŸ™‚ I'm excited to try these tips out!!

  37. Samantha Sep 14 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Awesome! Thanks so much! I was having trouble keeping people in focus – but I love the tip of just going a little further away. πŸ™‚

  38. julie Oct 14 2012 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    When having more then one subject, how do you shoot without the others getting blurry? I was shooting f2.8 and just a small area was sharp and the rest was blurry.

    • ClickinMoms Oct 14 2012 at 10:57 pm - Reply

      When shooting at a wide aperture with more than one person you need to make sure all your subject are on the same focal plane.

  39. myrtle Jan 14 2013 at 4:07 am - Reply

    Great! What a lovely blog indeed.=D

  40. michelle lewis May 03 2013 at 10:16 pm - Reply

    Fantastic pics. My eyes are drawn to the person and that is what photography is all about. EXCELLENT.

  41. marloes Nov 13 2013 at 8:09 am - Reply

    love her work!!!! i had a similar experience…..was doing a photoshoot in a forest and it was dark…i set the aperture on 1.8 en f at 1/500 ..shooting two girls thrlowing leaves in the air…and my pictures came out super sharp!!! sharper then ever….with very nice dof……

  42. Thetesa Le Jun 08 2014 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much! I also like using a wide open aperture for the same reason, but with groups or more than one person have a hard time keeping crisp focus. I’m going to try your tips!

  43. Angel Jun 09 2014 at 3:32 am - Reply

    Great article! I love Audrey’s work, and was recently able to take a weekend workshop by her in LA. It was fantastic and I learned so much, and enjoyed her too! I got some great images out of the shooting portion of he workshop too. If you get the chance, I highly recommend her workshop! Thanks CMs for posting this article!

  44. John Hester Oct 18 2014 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Very helpful tips! I love the look of very shallow depth of field, but often have trouble making it work without a main area being out of focus. I’ll have to try some of these suggestions and see what happens!

  45. Camille Jan 28 2015 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Love love this. I have recently bought an f1.8 and I love it too! Great for portraits

  46. Robyn Apr 19 2015 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    This is a great article! Such helpful tips! I would have loved if these pictures would have included the settings–it would have made it that much more helpful!

  47. Jaqueline Oct 11 2015 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    I love this article! I have a 50mm f1.4 lens and it is hard to get sharp images with a wide aperture. Should I change to the 85mm f1.4 you mentioned? Do you think this will help me to get sharper images or I can use the tips you gave and get good results with my 50mm f1.4? Thank you.

  48. Andrea Nov 18 2016 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    I have a 50 mm f1.4- would I be able to achieve this with that particular lens? Thanks in advance!

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