Why Film Directors Avoid Deep Focus in Cinematography

You may notice that most cinematography has a shallow depth of field. There are lots of reasons for this, and in this video, one filmmaker goes through the pros and cons of using it and why it is often avoided.

Wolfcrow is by far my favorite YouTuber on cinematography and filmmaking. His analysis of even the most foundational of subjects in cinema is always astute, clearly presented, and engaging. This video discusses the topic of deep versus shallow focus, particularly in films, and why you might choose one over the other.

One obvious element is a technical limitation. To use a more narrow aperture and deepen what's in focus, you are limiting the amount of light that can hit the sensor. In photography, this can be compensated by slowing the shutter speed, but the exposure triangle in video is more limited as the shutter speed is typically fixed. The only solution, therefore, is to either crank up the ISO — which has baggage that comes with it — or add more light to a scene.

The question I came away with after watching the video is this: do I prefer shallow depth of field in cinematography because it's aesthetically better, removing distractions and giving a softer feel, or is it merely what I'm used to? Deep focus is certainly a lot harder and requires far more consideration of everything that's in a frame, so it ought to be more impressive, right?

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Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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15 Comments

Films never used to be made with this shallow depth of field obsession. It has become popular ever since DSLR’s started offering video and people used shallow depth of field with their lenses. People who claim shallow depth of field creates a ‘cinematic look’ are quite wrong. Cinematography uses many techniques to look cinematic and you can’t simply claim to create it with shallow depth of field alone, without considering lighting, exposure and colour grading, for a few examples. Hitchcock films are cinematic but he was obsessed with making sure everything right into the background was in focus, even using the focus stacking technique. Using a shallow depth of field should be used in places deliberately to create mood and to direct the audience to something specific, not just because it’s trendy.

The down vote is weird.. anyone paying attention to backgrounds in studio-released films and TV series will see that super shallow DOF isn’t that common. Directors tend to keep the background identifiable but lightly blurred.. it’s a balance that doesn’t distract yet still places the actors in their environment. Agreed that much of this emphasis on “cinematic blur” reflects a trend among enthusiasts and smartphone users more than professional filmmakers.

Good points. I think it’s because photographers are used to using very shallow dof like f1.4 but don’t realise the same setting doesn’t look good with video and they end up shooting video with too shallow a dof. Somehow this has found its way into mainstream filming as a trend which is very annoying. Thankfully a lot of directors don’t do this but there has been the odd TV series where everything in the background is blurred out and the person in the foreground is not all in focus. The other irritating trend on YouTube is filming talking to camera with an unnecessary super shallow depth of field so that every time the person moves the autofocus has to readjust and it is quite distracting.

--- "Films never used to be made with this shallow depth of field obsession. It has become popular ever since DSLR’s started offering video and people used shallow depth of field with their lenses."

I'm pretty sure DSLRs of the early 1990's didn't spark this trend. Just as an example, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was doing it during the DSLRs' infancy. I wouldn't doubt if there are more films out there with similar super shallow dof.

I never said it hadn’t been used before but since DSLR video it has become more of an obsession and is more noticeable in films and also on TV shows, not just dramas either.

The question is how are you coming up with DSLRs are the reasons for this? Do you have any filmed on DSLR videos to back that conjecture? I've never heard of a cinematographer saying, "Oh, wow, I want that DSLR look!" :D

Bokeh has been a thing as early as 1959 movies, 1980/90's sitcoms, and large format. Heck, if I were a betting man, I'd say large format is what started it. Nowadays, it's just easier to do.

The basic principle in using DoF is on the need for showing reality. It is not that only long lenses gave the bokeh effect. Humans always see large wide scenes in full focus with DoF reaching infinity but when they look at single faces even in a crowd the mind defocused other faces and concentrated on that single face. This effect was given by using shallow DoF and technically sound film Directors and Directors of Photography used this for their advantage.

I like seeing a combination of both shallow and deep dof. Having both dof feels more natural; and cinematic. :D. And, no, shallow dof does not necessarily mean wide open like f1.4.

A lot of dslr/mirrorless owners seem to think shallow means wide open whereas f4 on video looks really shallow and even then still doesn’t offer a lot of dof for moving subjects in the shot.

--- "A lot of dslr/mirrorless owners seem to think shallow means wide open"

How many owners did you ask?

1. The title of this article sucked me into reading it. Why would filmmakers not use deep focus? Then when I click to read it, I switched to shallow depth of field. My student films were always more focus than the other students because I would zoom into the eyes, set focus, then reframe the subject. I had an advantage because I learned that working at the local TV station. And that technique can cause some problems if the subject moves on the axis.

2. I understand what is not in focus is this zone of blur, but when one says depth of field a lot of other things come into play. The first thing comes to mind is the focal length of the lense. People really used the focal length, tape measurer from the plane of film to the subject, light meter, and you would look these numbers up in an American Cinematographer handbook. I think you wanted to satisfy conditions for an aperture of 4.5 to 5.6.

3. But it was a choice and often an accommodation. Seven Days In May, Citizen Kane, many old films are deep focus. But at different points of some of those films, directors might use shallow dof for conversation, or to convey a dizzying feeling to the audience. Hitchcock too. You start to see it move in the sixties because independent filmmakers have more portable equipment to do and experiment with what they want

4. Someone said the infancy of DSLR around Silence of the lambs (1991). This is very important. Around the early '90, beginning filmmakers are miserable because super 8 wasn't cutting years earlier, 16mm was expensive and video wasn't there yet. We even put Conklin matte boxes on video cameras trying to change the aspect ratio. Also notice how Latin America, Mexico, Spain, Asian countries make better storytellers. They accept the technology and tell stories. Many in my generation missed out because we didn't like the aesthetic of video in the early 90's. Big mistake because cable tv became a leader in production.

5. VHS, Betacam, Betamax, 3/4, there was no infancy of DSLR in the early '90's. There wasn't even prosumer camcorders until the mid and late 90's. People that shot on video were trying to transfer to larger, better formats, then editing on linear machines. Later computer editing, non linear got better and really helped video production. It was somewhere around 2004 or 05, the DSLR is getting notice. From about the mid 90s to 2005, prosumer camcorders, Canon, Sony, Panasonic are the alternative to film. And last thing, and I could add more, filmmakers are always pushing for technology to be affordable and give the film look. Video camcorders with contact lenses for optical elements gave rise to dof adapters. DSLR got filmmakers close to original filmmaking with interchangeable lens but then you had to deal with electronic technology, ex. Rolling strobe. I just hate the stuff they try to do on a computer. One of those Oscar nominated films for cine looks like S@#$