How Shallow DOF Just Might Ruin Your Photography

How Shallow DOF Just Might Ruin Your Photography

Why are photographers obsessed with shallow depth of field? And why I think it can ruin your photography as it almost did with mine. Read on about how it started to affect my photography and what I did about it. 


I hear the judge’s voice “How do you plead, Vojkan…” 
“It is pronounced Voy-Khan, your honor.” I mumble to myself.
“...on account of excessive use of shallow depth of field?”
“Guilty your honor.”
“I sentence you to 15 years of using lenses with aperture of f/4 or smaller. Your only lens will be a zoom. 28-200mm variable aperture. f/4.5-f/6.1!”

I wake up in a cold sweat and this thought keeps coming back to my mind — why are we (at least most photographers I know) so obsessed with shallow DOF? I am not talking about bokeh, but shallow depth of field in general. At one time I was pretty obsessed with it.

The Beginning 

My journey in photography started way back when in 2007/08. I bought my first “serious” camera, a Fuji FD6500. It was a toss-up between it and a Canon PowerShot (some pocketable model with power zoom). The Canon 350D was well out of reach and film cameras were out of the picture as well. Even back then I thought a bigger lens equals more professional results, which as we all know is defined by shallow DOF. And the Fuji had a bigger lens compared to the Canon.

Well, I was wrong. Both about the Fuji’s shallow depth of field (wonderful camera, but everything is in focus as you’d expect from a small sensor camera) and that pro photography is all about shallow depth of field.

And, there I am, shooting with my little Fuji, everything in focus. But I desperately want my images to look good. So, I start experimenting: editing, composition, reading books on photography, emulating (copying) old masters, searching for light, contrasty scenes…

Until I bought my first “real” DSLR. Canon 5D Mark I. 2009. Used. I bought one lens, the 50mm. To test the cameras I was looking at. And to have at least one lens. I was blown away. First by the image quality and second by the shallow DOF. Yes, finally! Pro photographer results!

The next lens I bought was a 35mm f/2. Not enough shallow DOF! I got myself a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 soon after. Next lens: 85mm f/1.8. Holy cow! The magic is happening at apertures below f/2. Back then, I didn't care about zooms at f/2.8. Unless they are 70-200mm and above, then yes as it gives me a shallow depth of field; It blurs out everything into oblivion. 

After some time I settled with this combination 35/50/85. I got everything I needed in those three lenses: Light, affordable, and fast.

The Effect

After a few years, I noticed that all of the things that made me a decent photographer were slowly dying in front of my eyes. I stopped looking for light because, you know, shallow DOF will take care of everything. I stopped looking for nice scenes. I stopped looking for composition. I just stopped caring about other elements of photography, because shallow DOF will take care of everything. 

Why I didn't bother to move a bit so I can better incorporate the arch in the background in this image?

It affected my photography in the most horrible way. Something that I am struggling with to this day. Poor compositions, poor lighting, poor scene selection.

The Solution

But, I am working on it. Mindfully closing down apertures to f/2.8, f/4, etc… Slowing down the pace. Pushing myself to think about other elements constantly. I even started using a zoom lens. Something unthinkable because, you know, primes equal shallow DOF.

All of this has a very positive effect on me and my photography. First, I noticed that clients don't really care about things I care about. Not one client ever said "Wow. I love how blurry the background is." Second, I noticed a nice bump in good composition and using good light to my advantage. I'm not always satisfied, but it has been a gratifying process.

The Question 

And I started wondering, why am I and other people so obsessed with it? I know immensely gifted photographers who are always salivating at f/1.2 lenses. Because f/1.4, and god forbid f/1.8, are so lame. And they are pretty open about it. “It will give me more blur” or “I want the background to be completely blurry.”

So, what is it? Why?

My opinion is that we are obsessed with it because we can buy it. It is one photographic element that you can actually purchase. I mean, it has its uses, but shooting everything at f/1.4 just because you can is just lazy.

Other photography elements like composition, reading light, picking out a good scene for a shoot, or being able to see a part of of scene and use it to your advantage… it takes time, effort, failure, and grit to master those. Shallow DOF just needs a trip to your local camera dealer and buy a new lens.

What are your thoughts about it? Are you obsessed with it as I once was?

Vojkan Milenkovik's picture

Vojkan is a (documentary) wedding photographer based in Skopje, Macedonia. Has been dabbling in photography since 2008. Otherwise, holds a degree in linguistics, has interest in semiotics and loves chocolate.

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Vojkan Milenkovik asked,

"What are your thoughts about it? Are you obsessed with it as I once was?"


I don't think it is a phase that most aspiring photographers go thru, although you seem to think that it is.

Shortly after I got serious about photography, I bought a Canon 400mm f2.8 lens. It was my primary lens from 2008 to 2013, but I almost never shot it wide open at f2.8. Why? Because the depth of field was too shallow, and I never really liked that. I mean, as a wildlife photographer, I didn't want close up portraits of Moose or Deer of Bighorn Sheep in which the eyes were sharp but the nose or ears were soft. That just looks stupid.

Although I absolutely loved the focusing speed and accuracy of a huge f2.8 supertelephoto lens, and loved the rendering quality of the out-of-focus areas, I did not get the lens because of being able to shoot at f2.8. The main benefit to me was that Canon's huge f2.8 supertelephotos - the 300mm and 400mm - take tele-converters so well.

In 2014 I switched to a zoom for my primary lens - the Sigma 300-800mm f5.6. I really love the ability to adjust the framing of an image, as opposed to the rigid confines of the prime lens. I kept the 400 f2.8 for 5 years after acquiring the 300-800mm zoom, but hardly used the 400 prime anymore, so in 2019 I sold it and never looked back.

I am pretty much all zooms now, except for the 100mm macro and the 15mm macro shift primes that I use for photographing reptiles and amphibians.

I am often wanting MORE depth of field, not less. I figure that if I really need shallow DOF because of distracting or unattractive or "busy" background elements, then it really isn't such a great scene to photograph anyway, so I prefer waiting for a situation that does not have such a bad background instead of relying on my gear to try to blur something out that shouldn't be in the photograph anyway.

Nice article. It’s easy to get carried away with shallow depth of field but I was never obsessed. I understand its advantages but it’s not really a thing in street photography, for example. Personally I like how my lenses render around F5.6 so I keep a middle ground and adjust according to the situation.

Thanks for reading. Glad to hear you weren't bitten by the shallow DOF bug. Yep, there are plenty of genres that benefit from closed aperture, street photography included (probably one of my favorite genres). On the other hand I had people around me shooting everything at the widest possible aperture (from portraits, to street photography and even some landscapes).

I have done this for decades, though as a wedding photographer from 1974-1994 I switched to using f8 or f11 and I was actually happier with the results. I often shoot in rather low light but I have lately returned to using a tripod much more which makes everything look better and more deliberate.

I hate to spoil the love of primes over telephotos for the narrow DOF when wide open and the solution for having wider DOF is just going up in f/. But even using the 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 + 2X telephoto or even my everyday carry 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 but even they get narrow DOF. How just use the small square as the focus point or even eye AF blur the background

I noticed the shallow dof obsession around 13 years ago when people started using dslr's for video and just assumed shooting everything wide open meant they were getting a 'film look' as good as cine cameras 🙄.

You have to partly blame camera reviewers for this obsession because they seem to base lens reviews on how a lens looks when shot wide open and how sharp it is. I mostly shoot street photography and have never been obsessed with shallow dof. Even at f8 on my 40mm lens not everything will be in focus so you still get some separation whilst still being able to properly see the background.

I agree it's always been a marketing strategy rather than a real need.

Very true. There is a misconception that cinematic = shallow dof. But even one glance at movies will tell that more depth of field with well crafted light and composition is key. Thanks for sharing.

The issue with feeling confident with wide aperture is light, because you don't need that much output. That's been great for manufacturers, but moving from the bokeh and wide aperture trap, I feel that many up coming photographers have been deceived. Now you have to spend more and sometimes serious money to learn new aspects of the trade and evolve as a photographer. There was a time when wide aperture was the thing and you had articles on 100-200ws Godox nearly every day. Now Godox sells much more powerful power packs but basically no one post anything big about the brand because it's line has now joined what some used to see as for old people with more power than needed. I shoot f16 a lot, not because I like it but because the product I shoot will be sharp front to back on the web, print, wide format, billboard or what ever. That's what the client need and expect. Very wide aperture can be cool, but it's a small portion of client's real needs, that's why they don't care for it. It's always been a trap.

Living in a bubble, created by algorithms, I might be wrong about my opinions, but It looks like there is turn this past 2-3 years from shooting almost only using natural light to incorporating flash more and more in the wedding photography industry, which gives a lot more flexibility in terms of lighting opportunities.

When I started shooting weddings, everybody around me was shooting with a flash (bounce card up) and a stopped down lens, which kind of helped to be a bit different since I was one of the few that had to shoot at wide open no matter the cost, didn't shy away from using ISO3200+ and did not mind the noise.

There is a trend in wedding photography nowadays that is "borrowed" from fashion photography, which is nearly direct hard flash light in combination with f8 or f11. At any given point in the day. Mostly for details and couples shoots. And I like the look. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that it works well only in certain surroundings, but I might be wrong. Maybe it is just the images that are shared from high end weddings.

Hey @BeeZee, do you have a preference for using f16 with flash in 1exposition instead of say.. f8 with a focus bracket ?

I take a lot of furniture silos on location, warehouses, stores and manufacturing (in their studios) and usually have little time to do it. No time for stacking. Typically I see the product one time and it's gone so I wouldn't take a chance with stacking. Room scenes are a totally different game often shot f8, f5.6 in purpose. If I still did jewelry, I'm sure I would do stacking when appropriate.

Yeah, back in the day, I used to be obsessed with very shallow DOF. My f1.4's where only shot at f1.4 for the bokehliciousness. About 7 years ago, I've decided I like having more detail on the subject and the background being a little more distinguishable. I'll usually start at f2, then may stop down depending on the surroundings.

You can't really blame people for relating cinematic = shallow dof. There's quite a few movies and tv shows that have some level of shallow dof. And, even medium format gave it a special look. Below are just a few examples.

I love that picture on the bottom left.

You seem to treat short DOF like a disease such as measles that you can't avoid catching. The photographer creates DOF as needed for a shot, it doesn't just bully its way into the photograph. Depth of Field is based upon the aperture and focal length of the lens which is completely under the photographers control. Most lenses are sharpest around f/8 and unless you want their eyes in focus and nose out of focus close down the lens. Just because you have an f/1.2 lens doesn't mean that you have to use it wide open. Generally speaking, you should shoot closed down to maximize the sharpness of the image and increase the DOF to help minimize potential focusing errors. Certainly a short depth of field is often used in portrait photography to enhance bokeh but that is at the discretion of the photographer and not forced on him.

That's the technical explanation and the proof is that no one was ever that obsessed with it in the film days and about 10 years of digital. But we have "influencers" nowadays who have to permanently fill quotas in order to justify their own existence and trends are now more than ever marketing ploys. It is or was a disease, just like all those affordable low power strobes that accumulate dust on shelves in dark basements.

I became interested in shallow DOF about 7 years ago when I bought the Kamlan 50mm f/1.1 for a laugh. Since then it has become an obsession outside of doing landscapes. I love it because I love the aesthetic. The areas of blur, the fall of light and nice scenes are just as important as it always was. Creating interesting textures in the blur is one of the aspects I find appealing and challenging. It isn't a fad, a phase or a bug or a disease, not for me anyway. It's an artistic choice. My choice. If you don't like it, I couldn't care much. I also think shallow DOF can make your photography and make it better. If you focus solely on the DOF perhaps you're doing it wrong. If you ignore basic concepts such as lighting, composition, texture etc. you're definitely doing it wrong.

Some skilled photographers are obsessed by it because shallow DOF just maybe their 'thing' that excites them and fuels their creativity. To write an article about one aspect of photography that one eventually 'gets over' is a thinly veiled perjoritive to those who love it and take it seriously. Each to their own.

Well, isn't it a matter of style and purpose?

For environmental portraits you rather tend to include the background instead of melting it away, for architecture shallow depth of field delivers you some nice isolated details and a whole lot of pretty boring dof games, so it's rather useless in that genre.

On the other hand you can easily make impressionistic images of plants, portraits when using the right lenses (providing f1-f1.4 for smaller focal lengths, f1.8-f4 for larger ones, or different styles like tilt lenses, lensbabys, petzval style, bubbles, swirley goodness, softness and lots of vintage characters, or, as someone mentioned, cinematic style).

I guess that closed apertures mostly deliver the stuff that earns the money, and the shallow depth of field can give you the joy of knowing how to use it. We need some joy too, don't we?

It’s my impression that a lot of enthusiasts come to believe that shallow DoF is the mark of professionalism because of the cost involved in achieving it. Only pros can afford it, ergo, using it makes one a pro.
Which is, of course, ridiculous. Look through books and galleries and museums of the greatest photography ever produced, and very, very little of it involves shallow DoF.

Very correct observation about the great photographs. Almost all of them have a rather deep DoF.

Take into account with the photography greats that lenses were not that fast, deep DOF was a thing, focusing with a rangefinder was inconvenient for street, focus was oft preset for war and reportage. Practical reasons.

Right. But many of the past's great and iconic photos are great because of what they depict, and the emotion and deeper meaning that they communicate. They are not necessarily great because of sheer beauty, a.k.a. eye candy.

Not all of us are interested in capturing photos with substantial deep meaning. Personally, I have little or zero interest in the human species, and don't want to make photos that showcase great moments in human history. I just want to show how beautiful and cool looking nature and wild animals are. For me, photography is 100% about the visual appeal and not any kind of deep or emotional response.

Depth of field is simply a compositional tool just like framing, perspective and focal length. Shallow DoF can be helpful in many situations to obscure distracting background or isolate subjects. Extreme depth of field can provide context. Just tools in the toolbox.

widely agreed … there is an informative video on YT > Andrew Branch - Bokeh is overrated (

Perhaps one of the reasons why great photographs from the past were shot with lots of DoF was that, until relatively recently, lenses were not very good wide open?

The trend or fad for shallow DoF was also seen as a way to differentiate "real" photography from smartphone images - but then smartphone image manipulation caught up.

Personally, my favourite lens is my 85mm F1. 4 and I often shoot it wide open. Sue me.

I agree, even if I have a fast lens on, I prefer a middling aperture - enough light, enough DOF for the whole subject to be in focus, while retaining some hint of the background. Also not afraid of using small sensor cameras if the whole shot needs to be in focus.

Very much agree. When a 400f2.8 was my main lens, from 2008 thru 2013, I almost never shot it wide open. Almost always stopped down to at least f4. Why? Not enough of the subject was in focus at f2.8. A wildlife portrait looks asinine if the eyes are tack sharp, but the nose and ears are a bit soft. That just looks ugly.

Just because you shoot wide open doesn't mean that you don't take compositional and lighting considerations into account. In the right mindset, shooting wide open can actually free you up to think more about these aspects because it you have less brain space managing motion blur when you have slow shutter speeds. Just because you're shooting wide that doesn't mean that blurring the background eliminates or covers up the need for composition. You can still use compositional elements with a shallow depth of field even if things are blurred out. If anything, it takes greater care to notice how compositional elements still affect your image when they're blurred. If you weren't using lighting and composition to its fullest, it's not because of the shallow depth of field. It was because you were lazy. By all means, if you love the dream like quality of shallow depth of field then use it to define your style. There are, of course, instances where a deep depth of field tells the story better, so use it when it fits the vision.