A Fresh Look at Depth of Field: Using foreground to achieve creative depth of field

A Fresh Look at Depth of Field: Using foreground to achieve creative depth of field

The following post on depth of field was written by Hawaii photographer Natalie Norton, of natalienortonphoto.com.

depth of field foregroundWe talk a lot around here at Digital Photography School about Depth of Field. I’m writing this based on the assumption that we all understand that in layman terms, “depth of field” is the portion of an image that is in sharp focus. To illustrate: in landscape photography, generally you’re working to achieve a very large depth of field. You want EVERYTHING in the scene to be in sharp focus. With portraits, photographers are often shooting for (lame pun intended) a more shallow depth of field, focusing in on their subjects and working towards fall off or blur in the background. Why do you think this is the case? Clearly to draw focus to the story being told. Well what if you want to tell a different story OR what if you want to tell the same story in a different way? Today let’s talk about depth of field and some ways you can use foreground in a different way to draw a different kind of attention to the story you’re trying to tell. Here are 3 ways to create “story telling images” using foreground to achieve creative depth of field.

1. Framing with foreground:

I wanted to find the most straight forward illustration I could to get the point across clearly. This shot (left) is from a recent senior portrait session. I wanted to draw attention to the senior, particularly I wanted him to seem strong and capable: READY to take on the world.

The frame of the foliage around him draws attention right to him… it focuses the story of the image. I recognize that foreground used in this way can also be distracting, this image is borderline distracting, I recognize that. You need to be aware of that and be sure to make foreground work for you, not against you.

How to get a shot like this: well I was shooting with a 50mm lens. I got right up close to the foliage that separated Melvin and I. First I tried with auto focus, but because of my proximity to the leaves, I had to switch over and focus manually.

foreground-depth of field.jpg

2. Don’t be afraid to throw your subject out of focus:

When you’re doing portraiture, you’re generally trying to establish some kind of mood through imagery: happy, solemn, lovesick, sexy. . . Generally the mood is created through posing etc. For the next shots I let the foreground tell a few different kinds of love stories for me.

Back in March, I was shooting on Balboa Island in California. We were out on this dock shooting the typical, fun, happy, “we can’t wait to get married” stuff and I was getting bored. I had them take their shoes off and put their feet in the water. Better, but still pretty typical. So I waded out into the water, hitched my skirt up around my waist, nearly dropped my camera into the ocean, and created these. First I focused on the couple and threw the water out of focus. It’s a nice shot. It looks like they’re sitting on the dock watching the sun set. Nice. Then I focused on the water throwing my subject out of focus. A little sexier huh? Like, we’re sneaking up on some steamy make-out sesh. . . ha ha! But really, both images are good, while neither image is going up for any awards any time soon, they’re both good images. The second just speaks to you a little differently, tells their sexy love story a little more clearly.


Here’s another image where I decided NOT to focus on my subject, again to tell his story better. Back to Melvin’s senior session. Here he is walking into his future. I wanted to show where he was going, but also to illustrate that he’s on his way there because of where he’s been. . . I think this image is a powerful one that illustrates hope for the future and grounding in the past.


Don’t be afraid to throw your subject out of focus!

3. Same shot+different focus=different story:

This next series is a favorite of mine. Essentially the same shot, but different focus makes it tell a different tale. Both images were taken within seconds of each other. But they each tell a different person’s love story. First, the love of a father for his daughter and the second the love of a little girl for her daddy. Framed side by side. . . ahh. I get all warm and cozy just thinking about it.


Depth of field is a simple concept, but the ways it can be arranged to create powerful images are endless. Go get fresh with depth of field! Feel free to report back! We’d love to hear/see how you did!

Happy Shooting!

Natalie Norton lives and shoots on the North Shore of Oahu, HI with her husband Richie and her 3 crazy boys. See more of her work at natalienortonphoto.com.


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Natalie Norton is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at www.natalienortonblog.com. You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • John July 31, 2013 10:52 am

    Amazing article for a beginner I've been reading up on depth of field all day and this is why!! Will my Nikon 18 - 55mm lens be ok for these types of shots??

  • Yoalnda July 27, 2013 01:28 pm

    Can someone explain step by step......using example f stops and etc. ...on how to create the shallow depth of field in the foreground.....I am a beginner and I need to create some shots ASAP for a class.
    Thank you!!

  • Rita January 20, 2012 12:12 am

    Great article and comments!
    Just something to add... using a 50MM lens or any other that can go f/2.8 or lower apperture has had a great impact on my photographic journey. I love the soft blur and the bookeh in the images. Also, I've used a lot the focus points manually to allow me to choose where to place the focus point in the frame, while the automatic mode may not help to tell the story. I just love it both in portraits, but also getting a detail in a crowded street or in still life even...
    It's a whole (amazing) world in itself. :) Enjoy!

  • CRISTY January 10, 2012 01:42 pm

    hi natalie,

    after I read this one, I was digging up my old photos in the net...and found this one:


    I was thinking before I'm alone making my subjects out of focus..goood thing I found this site and found your tips, now I'm a bit calm with this out-of-focus-thing for subjects. hope you check out my work...

    A very great tips natalie and thank youuu for the greattt tips...

  • Dewan Demmer December 29, 2011 12:51 am

    This is somethign I have been toying with recently and really do enjoy the flexibilty it adds to a photo opportunity.
    In fact here is a photo where I have the person in focus out of focus.

    I have a few of these, but they really not as common as I would like them to be, I think I will work on that.

  • Pang December 27, 2011 04:01 pm

    Nice article!!! Learning something new here.

  • Scottc December 27, 2011 08:46 am

    Another possible use for foreground, stressing the importance of foreground. Great article.


  • tjade December 25, 2011 03:19 pm

    Thanks for any feedback on this attempt :)


  • raghavendra December 24, 2011 04:11 pm

    Foreground and background does matters a lot
    entire article for this makes it to add more cautions


  • Jean-Pierre December 24, 2011 11:18 am

    Blurred out foreground and background with lots of movement, still and intimate moment because they are in focus.


  • Jean-Pierre December 24, 2011 11:14 am

    Having the subject out of focus can convey nostalgia and mystery. Here's one with an M42 lens, 50mm. Thanks for the article!


  • CJT December 24, 2011 07:20 am

    1. RE: Using manual focus, rather than autofocus. As I'm looking at the Auto Focus and Manual Focus images. it appears that the camera focused near the center of the image and I'm wondering about how you used the camera's auto focus.
    (a) Did you use a program in which the camera chooses where to focus?
    (b) If you used a program in which you choose where the camera focuses, could it be because which AF point you chose?

    2. I like the walking into the future and that only the nearest footprint is sharp. After all, what lies in the future is not sharp until it becomes the present. I would not have thought of it. Very good.

  • Chris December 24, 2011 07:03 am

    Don't really like #1 at all... The water one is nice though...

  • Daddy December 30, 2010 07:18 am

    Great article. I'm so glad that I finally decided to switch to my current Nikon D90 instead of using my old but reliable Canon IXUS point and shoot camera. Although I did catch some very nice pictures with my Canon, I could never get that DOF with it. My Nikon D90 on the other hand is a different story altogether, especially when I bought a f1.8 50mm portrait lense and recently a Sigma f2.8 18-50mm lense. You can catch some of the pictures at http://babynme2008.blogspot.com.

  • Photo-Puppet September 5, 2010 01:01 pm

    I love this article. It's given me some really good ideas for a portrait session I'm planning. Tricky part is that it's photos of myself and my boyfriend. :S Glad I found this article though. Very helpful. :)

  • JohnallynC.de los Santos August 1, 2010 02:10 pm

    hi sir,
    as an amatuer n beginner photographer,i just wanna ask if how to used depth of field..and how to photograph foods.

  • Hriddhi May 14, 2010 02:27 pm

    Very Nice and motivating article !! kudos !!

  • Stewart Smith April 7, 2010 06:06 pm

    Interesting... What about the power of DoF within the subject rather than just their surroundings. On effect I love is for the eyes to be very sharp with the bokeh creeping in to the nose and back to the ears.

  • CH February 27, 2010 04:15 pm

    NIce photos!!!! But how do you get the darken border around the photo edges?

  • Aspen Wedding Photographer December 29, 2009 01:40 pm

    The depth of field is what makes a photo!!! Good advice...

  • Swiss JHG Photo December 16, 2009 06:36 am

    Good info

  • Nose reshaping before and after September 24, 2009 09:09 am

    web-project, which contain information about decorative surgery in California.

  • Repty July 12, 2009 07:04 pm

    Thanks so much for this! I'm going to try to keep it in mind and apply it.

  • DSLR Camera May 7, 2009 03:22 pm

    Useful Article may be i use this tips next time when i go outdoor.

  • Eric February 8, 2009 03:40 pm


    "he’s on his way there because of where he’s been. . ."

    I love this one! You make me creative! I love the article!

  • Alan November 8, 2008 01:47 pm

    On My Canon EOS 40 and 50D there is a d.o.f.button on the left side under the lens,or below the manual flash button about 3 inches.When you push it the part of the photo that is going to be out of focus will darken.A nice little feature.Also there is a A-DEP setting that helps.You have some nice photos on here,and different perspectives on photos.Thanks.To view some of my photos put Alan Hinkel Photography into a search engine.You can view and purchase prints on smugmug.

  • Furious Photographers July 30, 2008 04:07 pm

    I like the last example the most since it talks about the different DOF and how it changes the subject of the picture. That is why when I photography weddings, my favorite lenses are the Canon 24mm f/1.4L and 50mm f/1.2L. It allows me to do so much more!

  • josh June 18, 2008 02:21 am

    I can use a sd1000 cannon. Can any of this stuff be done with a small camara like mine?

  • Vincent May 20, 2008 04:19 am

    Sorry, I am a newbie in Photography. Can anyone teach me how I can make the picture's four corners a little darker? Like the one taking in the beach above. I don't want to do that in Photoshop. Should I use some kinds of filter? Thanks a lot.

  • Photochick (Amanda) May 20, 2008 04:01 am

    Fantastic article! I'm very blessed with an SLR, but until I found this site, I really didn't know enough about it. I'm still learning a lot thanks to wonderful information such as this (thanks Natalie!)

    I still have a point & shoot camera though, and the best way I've found to achieve the fun depth of field shots is to move branches, curtains, etc. out of the way for a 'clear' shot. I then lock in the focus on my subject (by pressing the capture button in half-way) and allow the extra stuff to drift back in to the edges of the picture. Give it a whirl and see if it works for you all!

  • DKCN May 18, 2008 02:16 pm

    Fantastic Article.

  • Beyond The Sea May 18, 2008 03:53 am

    Thanks ! This article helped with my 3-D shots . Giving me options, as how to always place something in the foreground, without making shots look the same.

  • Katherine May 17, 2008 12:28 pm

    Great! I linked this post to my blog (http://schutterbug.blogspot.com), where I show how tried the same techniques by chance today prior to reading the post. Now, I'm even more in love with the technique. Thanks for the creative inspiration.

  • Richard May 17, 2008 10:53 am

    Inspiring! Thank you. Seriously. Thanks for taking the time to share things that I can really put into practice to improve my photography!!!

  • Rich May 16, 2008 11:01 pm

    Great article! It was like hitting refresh on my browser. Sometimes you can forget things and hitting refresh just brings it back. Thanks.

  • Kim Siever May 16, 2008 10:08 pm

    DOF with a non-DSLR is possible if the camera has a macro mode (and even if it doesn't one could still make the foreground blurred by getting up close). Prior to getting an SLR last year, I used my P&S for shallow DOF shots all the time. Since the focal point was fixed, it took some practice (and a series of shots) to get the subject in focus.

    Here are some examples:


    Remember, it's not the tool that makes good photos.

  • PRH May 16, 2008 09:08 pm

    Thanks Natalie for those wonderful images. I've never been good at portraits and your post has inspired my to keep practicing.

    @Scott...lovely images, thanks for sharing. I especially like the one at Binna Burra

  • Patrick May 16, 2008 08:23 pm

    Very nice picture and good info to thanks


  • Patrick May 16, 2008 08:23 pm

    Very nice picture and good info to thanks

  • shelly May 16, 2008 01:30 pm

    I loved this article! You're inspiring me to get more creative again with my photography. I loved all your examples. Thanks once again, Natalie!

  • Bruce May 16, 2008 10:19 am

    @Jill...I recently upgraded from a Canon S3IS to a Canon 400D for the exact same reason you posted - Lack of decent control over DOF. I almost brought the S5IS, but after two months, I now realise that an entry level dSLR will beat any point and shoot camera hands down...

  • Scott May 16, 2008 08:41 am

    I love getting shots like this but never exspected to see a DPS posting on it.

    Thanks so much i will make good use of this.

    Here are my recent attempts at it:-

  • KD May 16, 2008 07:37 am

    Great tips, thanks for posting! I'll have to experiment with that when my family comes to visit this weekend :)

  • Marlon May 16, 2008 07:09 am

    I like the in-the-water shot of the couple on the dock, and the footprints, but I usually hate when I see images of 2 people who are more or less side-by-side with only one of them being in focus.

    Interesting article though, we are all guilty of ignoring foreground from time to time.

  • Mathieu May 16, 2008 05:44 am

    Great examples, I really like the one of walking toward your future while grounding the past.

    I've owned my camera for over a little two weeks now and I'm definitely starting to understand how you're not trying to make the "perfect" shot, with perfect setting every time. Being out of focus, using ISO to your advantage or some blur can add a different touch to pictures.

    Great stuff, thanks!

  • Trude May 16, 2008 04:27 am

    You're so right! Thanks for this article. It really helps to get thinking more about what you're trying to say with the shot...I always need this reminder! :)

  • Smitty May 16, 2008 03:48 am

    Great article!

    Dovetailing with the last couple of comments, I love how much my new DSLR has been able to expand my creative vision. I've owned a Nikon D-80 for about a month now and the flexibility is amazing. I used to try to force DOF during post-processing (blur a duplicated layer and paint in the background), but that was always such a tedius step. It's so nice to pop on a prime lens at f/1.8 and fire away.

    One of my favorite shots is of my two-month old little boy playing on his activity mat. It's a very vibrant, colorful bit of fabric with several basic toys hanging from some overhanging 'branches'. I have several shots of his face, in sharp focus, framed by the toys which are sufficiently blurred by the narrow DOF. I also have a great one where I've focused on his face in a mirror (also a part of the activity mat) with the back of his head blurred in the foreground.

    Lots of fun!

  • Seb May 16, 2008 02:28 am

    I agree with Jill, trying to get what you want with a compact/non-DSLR is more luck than anything.

    Before making final selections of shots it's probably worth reviewing with an independent eye. To me the walking across the sand pic is beautiful, but certainly not a 'walking into the future'/'going boldly...' story for me. The image to me is melancholic, 'lonely/lost on a desert island' and/or 'turn by back and walk away'. I'll admit I'm a bit cynical, but the contrast with the artist's meaning is rather startling.

  • FFB May 16, 2008 02:12 am

    Nice article! I'm so happy I bought my DSLR. I was missing out on so much with my P&S. I wondered why I couldn't get pictures that looked better. One answer - Depth of Field!

  • KD May 16, 2008 01:26 am

    Great article. I especially like the last example. Such a difference just by changing the focus.

  • Jill May 16, 2008 01:21 am

    This is a great article! Thanks for sharing. This is why I REALLY want to get a DSLR camera. I use a Canon S3 IS now and although I can sometimes achieve some depth of field with this camera, it is its main fallback for me because I just don't have the control over the amount that I would like to have in my photo. Hope to upgrade in the next year or so.

  • AC May 16, 2008 01:09 am

    Brilliant stuff. I still find it a little scary to throw my subject out of focus, but I am learning :)

  • taryn May 16, 2008 12:58 am

    this was a great article. makes us "think" a little more when photographing people. i played around a little bit with DOF recently while photographing my daughter. you can view them here.