The arrival on the market of digital SLRs that can shoot high quality pictures in very low light has made the use of lighting more of a positive choice than the necessity that it once was. Only six years ago I was shooting with cameras that whose image quality was poor above 400 ISO. Now I'm getting magazine front pages from 2000 ISO and I haven't even had to go higher yet. One of the techniques that I always loved to use when shooting without flash was the ultra short depth of field. This technique feature shows a couple of ways to do narrow depth of field without pain...


In the first example above I was shooting on a Canon EOS20D in available light. It was a cloudy day and we were in a park surrounded by trees. That meant that we had flat light with the odd area where there was a bit more light. I hadn't expected to be shooting pictures on this day and I only had a few bits of kit in my bag - including a mark one Canon EF 50mm f1.8 lens. On a 1.6x crop camera like the 20D this is an interesting lens - especially when shooting wide open at f1.8.

I wanted to shoot without flash - partly because I wanted the effect and partly because I only had a 220ex or the built in pop-up with me. There is a large glass building behind me which was adding some fill light anyway and I shot at 400 ISO, 1/180th of a second at f1.8.

This kind of picture only has one difficulty - getting the eyes in focus when the depth of field is measured in single figure centimetres and this close up it is probably less than four centimetres. Every photographer has their own way of doing this: some put the camera on continuous focusing, others use single frame focusing and I change my mind depending on which lens and camera combination I am using! For these pictures, and because the 50mm f1.8 doesn't have ultrasonic focusing, I use manual focus and rock myself slightly back and forth until the eyes are sharp and then take the picture. My big piece of advice for shallow depth of field portraits is to shoot a lot more frames than would normally do whilst explaining to the subject that what you are shooting is flattering but technically tricky and that's why you are going overboard.

One of the reasons that I quite like focusing manually for this kind of picture is that it is often tricky to get the focusing point exactly on the right place (the nearest eye) without compromising the composition slightly. Modern high pixel count cameras will allow you to crop the composition back to how you'd like it if you shoot deliberately loose but I prefer to get it right in camera.


The second example above was shot with flash. With a Canon Speedlight 580exII to be precise. The flash was on a Manfrotto 001B (nano) stand with a shoot through white umbrella in a reasonably well lit room. I was working with a pair of Canon EOS5D MkII bodies and this one had my 85mm f1.8 lens on it. This lens focuses very quickly and so I left it on single frame auto focus with the focusing point selected to give me the right composition.

The available light exposure at f1.8 would have been about 1/45th of a second at f1.8 on 400 ISO and so I set the camera at 1/125th at f2 to make sure that it was mainly flash that gave me the image. The beauty of working with a speedlight is that you can dial the output right down and so I played about with manual settings, finally going for 1/16th power with the umbrella only a metre (40") from her face, slightly above and to her left of her eyeline.

The magazine that the picture was shot for runs in colour but I often add a mono version of one or two of my favourite images so that they have the choice. Occasionally it just reminds designers that a strong black and white image printed in four colour on good quality paper can have a big impact.

I have just been back through the RAW (CR2) files for this job and counted my hit rate of getting the focus exactly right. I reckon that I have about 40% spot on and another 10% just about usable from this shallow depth of field section. Of course I shot a whole range of other images and so I am covered if shallow depth isn't what the designer is looking for.

© Neil Turner February 2009

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