Overcoming Depth of Field Problems in Portraits

Overcoming Depth of Field Problems in Portraits


“Can you help me with a recurring problem I seem to be having in my portrait shots? I’ve noticed lately that I’m getting a lot of shots with some parts of my subject’s face in focus but other parts of their face out of focus. I’m using a Canon DSLR (Rebel) with a 50mm f/1.8 lens without a flash – mainly indoors. Can you help?”

Without seeing the actual images that you’re talking about it is a little difficult to assess what the problem is – however it sounds to me as though you’re probably shooting at the maximum aperture and might want to think about making a few changes.

The great thing about a lens like a 50mm f/1.8 is that it’s a nice and fast lens which is ideal for shooting in low light conditions. However the problem is that in shooting at such a large aperture the depth of field that will result will be quite narrow (learn more about DOF). This makes focussing difficult as you’ll find some parts of the image can be pin sharp while others are not.

For example check out this shot of my son – you can see his eyes are sharp but his nose and ears are not – the DOF is narrow (this was shot at f/4 – so you can imagine what would it would have been like opened up even further).


Extremely narrow depth of field can actually create some stunning effects – but when photographing portraits where you want to get the full face in focus it can also mean you take a lot of fairly unusable shots.

How to Overcome Depth of Field that is too Shallow

What I’d suggest you do is experiment with choosing a smaller Aperture (a larger number). Try experimenting with apertures in the middle of your lens’s aperture range. This will mean your depth of field increases and you might also find that your images become sharper also as a result of shooting within the sweet spot of your lens.

Keep in mind that using smaller apertures means that you need to compensate for the smaller opening in your lens and the smaller amount of light that it lets in. There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Light Your Subject – make sure your subject more brightly lit. You can achieve this by using a flash, opening some windows to let more natural light in or using some other source of artificial light (the room’s light or a purpose built photographic lamp). I personally supplement the ambient light in indoor photography with a flash – usually bounced off a ceiling or wall.
  • Increase the ISO – another way to compensate for the smaller aperture is to increase the sensitivity of your image sensor by increasing the ISO setting. Doing this will increase the ‘noise’ or pixilation in your shot but even just to increase your ISO a step or two will allow you to choose a smaller aperture.
  • Decrease Shutter Speed – when shooting people (moving subjects) you’ll be limited in how much you can decrease the shutter speed that you’re shooting at – but it is one possible way to compensate for a smaller aperture.

Once you’ve taken some shots head over to our forum to share your results in the Portraits Section.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Ricardo March 21, 2012 05:20 pm

    For the most part of you want to do portraots with a large aperture lens you a are limited to just a few subjects on the same plane. Otherwise you will see softness on the other subjects out side of the dof plane. For multi generational photograps with many people most of the sugestions here will work but you might also want to try different ways to pose your subjects. For instace, you can reduced the required dof by taking a photograph from a high location. The right height would make the required dof smaller if you are able to place all subjects faces on an even plane perpendicular to your camera.

  • Tomas Haran March 7, 2012 04:51 am

    This is a very nice article. DOF is one of those things that can be manipulated and customized by using a pro level camera. You can do so much with it. But you have to practice to know what works best and what fees most comfortable for you. For some of you shooting large groups, are you using a wide angle lens? If you are shooting at like F4-F8 should be plenty wide. If not invest in a monopod for those types of situations if you are starting to see blur.
    I don't shoot wide open usually, but am really enjoying the effect. I will try shooting wide open or close to going forward and see if I can get some stunning shots like the pros do.

  • paul webb December 10, 2010 02:03 am

    I found the article very useful. I do some nightclub work, which is mainly portraits although I do some dancefloor crowd shots as well. I love to use F1/4 for portraits and normally get the full face in focus although sometimes other areas may be slightly blurred, like a girl,s necklace for example, this can look quite nice.
    The problems start when you photograph a group of people who are not all the same distance from the camera. It may look ok in the viewfinder but I when see the photo on the club,s facebook page I can see it,s slightly off. Normally I go up to 2/8 or 3/5 for group shots but sometimes simply forget to do so in the hustle and bustle of a club. I put the occasional one on flickr but mostly I just leave them to the club to put on thier facebook page. I have a sony a550, 50 mm 1/4 and a f42am flash gun.

  • Mike Minick April 30, 2010 10:40 pm

    Here's a DoFcalculator that I use. Very helpful.

  • Ruth anne Baker April 29, 2010 01:28 am

    The comments made on this site are typically very helpful and not critical or ugly to posters. I really appreciate this. This is a nice group.

  • tyler August 31, 2009 06:19 am

    What lens are you using on the Sony Alpha 700?

  • tyler August 31, 2009 06:18 am

    I am all for shooting wide open. I heavily use my nikon 50mm 1.4. But in portrait shoot you add to subjects in varying distances shooting wide open and someone's gonna get the fuzz.

  • Wendy March 13, 2009 01:04 pm

    Dept of field????? are there any suggestion with an Sony Alpha 700

  • Betty Knight October 18, 2007 01:09 am


    The comments were very helpful! I am a photographer and have a Cannon D60--those suggestions will help me as a shoot a wedding in December!

  • shroticg August 20, 2007 10:27 pm

    u can experiment with any lens but for portraiture closeups the correct lens is 85mm to 135mm which gives sufficient distance and taking at the aperture of f8 focusing on the eyes is the best way to get good portrait shot, otherwise it can be taken upto bust and then crop for face. as suggested above ISO increase may also be a solution to decrease DOF.

  • Pearl Racette August 18, 2007 01:49 am

    thanks for all the replies on this simple issue -

    I need a DOF problem HELP with ... to anyone who successfully shoots generational portraits or weddings with large groups....
    I have an issue that I have been running into whenever I shoot larger groups - doing lots of generational portraits lately - last 2 with 19 or more people/kids - need a good DOF to insure all clients from front row to 4th row is in focus.
    I try to shoot at f16 to f22 but have to slow down my shutter speed to 1/30 or at times 1/15th when shooting in the open shade (to prevent squinting). This creates an issue of blur if the client moves even a little ... so what is the answer.????.. tried to add flash and was able to bring SS up to 1/60th but still felt some blur at times...and would prefer not to be on a tripod to allow more creativity and movement. what's the answer to large groups????

  • Iain Adam AIIP, AIMBI August 17, 2007 11:21 pm

    A 50mm lens is far from ideal for portraiture, you really require a 85mm lens if using film, this has been proved as ideal over the ages. Lighting is ofcourse very important, you want a main light, a fill in light or a strong reflector to lighten the shadow, a rim light in certain conditions and a background light. The main light must be strong enough to enable you to select an aperture that will get the subject in focus and the background less sharp. You may want the background totally out of Focus. I started on a half plate Gandolfi Camera in 1962 and now use a Nikon D100, I have a selection of lenses I use about 120mm for portraits.

  • Steve August 17, 2007 11:02 pm

    Simple adjusts from all. Little more light, slower shutter, smaller aperture, move the subject father away from the background to help keep your blur. I never shoot portraits wide open. like my 85 @ 1.8. its to soft for me. unless I'm trying to get that effect. make sure your camera lens plane is straight/flat also. no tilt. space issues with digital cameras bring these issues into play sometimes due to the crop factor. like my 85 on my 20d with the 1.6x crop factor. I have to move pretty far back. so if you have limited space it hard to control your DOF (as far as subject placement goes)
    Enjoy, create and shoot

  • Darren August 17, 2007 10:01 pm

    Rusty - good pick up. Guess I wrote this post a little to late at night :-)

  • rediguana August 17, 2007 08:58 pm

    Bob - could it be because of smaller sensors that digital generally have less DOF? Except of course on full frame.

  • Matthew Miller August 17, 2007 01:36 pm

    Some notes on other comments above:

    Greater focal length doesn't actually much affect depth of field. See this http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/depth-of-field.htm for details.

    Bob Dale: Depth of field is greater on a dSLR simply because of the smaller-than-film sensor size.

  • Rusty August 17, 2007 12:28 pm

    Increase Shutter Speed - when shooting people (moving subjects) you’ll be limited in how much you can increase the shutter speed that you’re shooting at - but it is one possible way to compensate for a smaller aperture.

    Surely this should read "Decrease Shutter Speed". If you want to let in more light you must decrease the shutter speed, not increase it!

  • Chris August 17, 2007 10:53 am

    Shooting with a shallow depth of field can give some great results in portraits. I think the key is always to focus on the eyes of a subject, when they're in focus the rest seems to fall into place.

  • Bob Dale August 17, 2007 09:38 am

    Digital photographs seem to have less depth of field, I don't know why they would....maybe it's just more sharpness. You can blur the background in Photoshop if you wish.

    Bob Dale
    Master Photographer
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  • Francoism August 17, 2007 08:13 am

    Sometimes, the solution can be so simple. Thanks Tana.

  • Sime August 17, 2007 07:05 am

    I recognise that little guy!... I got around some minor DOF issues lastnight by playing around with the iso on my Canon EOS 30D. Worked quite well in the end... Like Tana mentioned, backing away would have also been an option but the room didn't allow :(

  • David Crellen August 17, 2007 06:24 am

    Don't you mean to Decrease shutter speed, as in make the shutter slower, in this statement:

    "Increase Shutter Speed - when shooting people (moving subjects) you’ll be limited in how much you can increase the shutter speed that you’re shooting at - but it is one possible way to compensate for a smaller aperture."

  • Andrew Ferguson August 17, 2007 06:19 am

    Tana's solution is also an excellent tip. Stepping further away, if you've got room, will really make a difference.

    I've got the same camera/lens combo and backing up is my usual trick :)

  • Scott August 17, 2007 03:20 am

    I shoot almost all my portraits wide open. A shallow depth of field is what I want, not what I'm trying to avoid. It's exactly the effect I'm looking for -- a soft and silky background that is deliberately thrown out of focus. Ask any portrait photographer who works in the field: it's one of the key reasons why we pay the big bucks for fast lenses.

    Donncha O Caoimh says to use a tripod. But that's crazy, unless you're talking about formal studio portraiture. The whole point of a good portrait is to get it "on the fly" -- to captures a subject in his or her natural setting and context. Good portraits, at least those that are spontaneous and real, are nearly impossible to get with a camera mounted on a tripod.

  • Sid August 17, 2007 02:25 am

    In the picture above you mentioned using f/4. Is the DOF so narrow because you are using a telephoto lens from a far distance back?

  • Stewart Rand August 17, 2007 02:14 am

    Is that example photo taken with the same lens?

    If not, it's not really a valid example, since DOF decreases with longer focal lenghts at a constant aperture.

  • Donncha O Caoimh August 17, 2007 01:33 am

    Tripod, tripod, tripod. It's yer only man when you have to close down the aperture, even with a flash to light things up.

    You could always try a wide angle shot too, the DOF of those lenses are much deeper, but of course doesn't suit all situations.

  • Tana August 17, 2007 01:00 am

    I have the same camera...same lens. My solution is to back away from the subject. Distance also increases the depth of field just as a smaller aperture does. The advantage of using distance rather than a smaller aperture means you can still get the shot in low light without using a flash. I have the XTi and with 10+MP, the little bit of cropping I do to make the subject fill the frame again is not an issue.

  • Bryan August 17, 2007 12:45 am

    You mentioned you're using a Canon Digital Rebel - you might want to also explore the A-DEP shooting mode.

    "Automatic Depth of Field AE works to achieve the greatest depth of field by measuring focus at all focus points available to the camera, and selecting aperture and shutter speed settings that will capture a sharp image for both the nearest and farthest selected points measured in the frame."