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By now, you should be getting comfortable with the idea that you don't always want everything in your frame in focus. But shooting with a shallow depth of field is a great way to bring more attention to your subject. Depth of field can also sometimes bring a less harsh, dreamier atmosphere to a shot. But when it comes time to shoot shallow depth of field, it can be very tempting to simply open your aperture up as far as it will go and start shooting. However, depending on the speed of your lens--that is, depending on how wide its aperture can open--this may not be the best idea. There are two possible issues when you are shooting wide.
First, if you are shooting with a very wide aperture, your depth of field can go shallow enough that it can be difficult to ensure focus where you want it. For example, in this image, which I shot at f1.2, the depth of field is so shallow that if I focus on one eye, the other eye is out of focus. This is an extremely shallow depth of field that can be difficult to work with, unless you have a time to really go slow and check your focus. Anytime you are shooting a portrait, it's always best to ensure that your focus point is centered on your subject's eyes.
The eyes are the most critical thing in a portrait, and as long as they are in focus, it won't matter if the rest of the image is soft. In a case of extreme shallow depth of field, like this, if the eyes are off-axis to you--that is if the subject is turned in a way so that one eye is closer to the lens than another--then you need to either move yourself so that both eyes are perpendicular to the lens, ask your subject to turn, or switch to a smaller aperture to deepen your depth of field. As you open wider, your depth of field will get shallower and shallower. So before you open up all the way, you want to think about how abstract you want the background to go.
For example, this image was shot at f2.8. The background is soft, but it's not completely smeary, unlike this image, which was shot at f1.2. It's so soft that objects in the background are actually larger because they have been smeared to cover a larger area. Note also that the quality of the highlights in the background have changed. Here they are small round circles. Here they are oblong and no longer very bright. Believe it or not, there is actually an aesthetic for the quality of the defocusing and blurring that is created when a lens is opened to wide apertures.
Bokeh is a Japanese term that refers to the quality of the soft background, and typically what people focus on most with Bokeh is the shape and definition of the types of highlights that we just saw. The shape of these highlights is partly dependent on the number of blades in the iris of your lens. More blades should mean rounder highlights. If shallow depth of field is a regular part of your shooting repertoire, you want to give a thought to the Bokeh of the lens. Is it buttery smooth or filled with spiky highlights? And then when you take that lens out shooting, give some thought to how shallow is too shallow, and pay attention to how background details are affected by your aperture changes.
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