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How to Get Perfectly Focused Photographs When Shooting at a Shallow Depth of Field

Shooting portraits in natural light typically means choosing a huge aperture to create creamy bokeh and pleasing subject separation, but keeping your image pin sharp in the right places can be tough. In this short video, photographer Julia Trotti shares her tips on how to nail focus.

Julia has created a style that is based on shooting subjects in daylight using fast primes at their widest apertures — usually f/1.2 or f/1.4. With such huge apertures, focal depth can be paper thin and trying to keep your subject's eyes perfectly sharp can be a real challenge. The first step is knowing how to set up your camera to give you the best results, something that can differ massively between models and manufacturers. Understanding your camera's autofocus modes is probably your first step, so if you're new to photography, be sure to dig into your manual and spend a bit of time Googling to find out what will work best for you. If you're not sure how to select single point autofocus and specify which autofocus point to use, do some research first.

To add to what Julia suggests, there's a trick that I picked up from Manny Ortiz: sometimes it's worth shooting a short burst of images to increase the odds of capturing pin sharp eyes. In this video, Manny heads out to shoot with the Mitakon 50mm f/0.95, a manual focus lens that is full of character and when used at its widest aperture doesn't give much room for error. Any shift in distance between Manny and his subject could mean that the eyes are no longer in focus, and grabbing a burst increases his odds in the event that his model moves slightly.

If you've any additional tips for grabbing tack sharp images, please leave them in the comments below.

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Matt Murray's picture

So much upspeak? Statements sound like questions?

Deleted Account's picture


Matt Murray's picture

upspeak / "the valley girl" was around before "millenials".

Deleted Account's picture

Yeah but I only hear millennials do it. Kinda like saying, "Kids". They've always been around but at some point, people stop acting like children.

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

Funny, but the burst of shot at full aperture on fastest lenses work fine on dSLR too !

Karim Hosein's picture

«…work fine on dSLR *too* !»
…as opposed to what?

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

Opposed to the actual trend telling everywhere 'MILC only ar able to nail focus with really shallow DoF' !

Karim Hosein's picture

Yeah, but did anyone actually say that in the article, the Julia video, or the Manny video? I was speaking with regard to the “burst of shot at full aperture on fastest lenses” technique, but even at all?

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture


Michael Hickey's picture

Am I the only one who was expecting a little more than that?

Daniel Medley's picture

Of course everyone will have their way that works best for them. For me, if I'm insisting on shooting wide open it works well to BBF with AF-C/servo. Put the focus point where you want it, hold down the BBF button, fire off a short burst of frames while holding it down. She sort of touches on this.

At 1.4 to 2.0 the slightest front back movement can result in OOF. By holding down the BBF in AF-C it can compensate for any slight movement. Assuming, of course, that your camera can handle it.

Jay Jay's picture

Mirrorless cameras let you use different types of focus peeking, which is great for manual focus, since it highlights what you want to be sharp. Works great on my XT2, but sadly, i don't know of any DSLR outside of mirrorless that lets you do that.

Karim Hosein's picture

Almost every DSLR with a screen on the back, which is almost every DSLR.

Jay Jay's picture

You're actually wrong on that. Mirrorless, yes, a lot of them do. DSLR, no. You might be getting confused as to what it does, as in edge and contrast detecting to outline the sharpest parts of the image. Canons *can* do focus peeking in video mode via the Magic Lantern hack, but this is not native and centers on video, and not or ever still photos, to my recollection. Looking at the back of a screen in Live View and magnifying it can show what might be sharp, but that is the use interpreting what they think is sharp, as opposed to focus peeking, which shows edge sharpness in absolute terms, visually.

Mirrorless cameras have EVF, which is why this can work for still photos, DSLR's don't have EVP.


Karim Hosein's picture

From the three year old article you linked…. «Focus peaking works by detecting edges of highest contrast in your scene (and therefore most in focus) and highlighting them in a bright color…. The camera will use red, blue, green, white, yellow, or another color that allows photographers to recognize what is in focus and what isn’t, since it will be contrasting with the normal colors of the scene.»

I stand by what I said. I am actually right on that. DSLRs have Live view, which is how this works for still photos. As for Canon, I did say, “almost.”

P.s., The Pentax K-3 launched in 2013, and had this feature. How a three year old article says, «…this feature has taken so long to make it from video cameras into still cameras,…» and tries to justify that by saying, «…there is one …reason: it requires processing of the live image from the sensor in real time and a screen….» That is precisely what “Live view” does!

The article then goes on to say, «DSLRs can also benefit from focus peaking through the implementation of Live View,…» as if to suggest they do not already do so.

Dan Donovan's picture

Sony Eye AF