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Is Shallow Depth of Field Over-Rated?


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#1 Tim Pipher

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 09:35 AM

I wonder if I've been too caught up in trying to achieve a shallow depth of field. Everybody seems to be looking for it these days. Postings all over the forums are full of statements like "Great Shot -- Love the shallow depth of field". Others say they'll never buy any camera that doesn't have a 35mm sensor because they want the shallow depth of field.

But maybe a shallow depth of field is unnecessary. After all, from what I understand, great directors like Orson Welles -- most notably in one of cinema's great masterpieces, Citizen Kane -- went out of his way to achieve deep depth of field, and the pursuit of deep depth continued throughout the 40's and 50's.

I know many filmmakers want complete control of the audience so they'll look where the director wants them to look, but when I'm at the movies, if I find the car in the background more interesting than the scene up front, I like having the freedom to look where I want. I'm not sure that viewers are particularly enamored with shallow depth of field.

Is it possible that 35mm shallow depth of field is over-rated and the deeper 2/3 inch depth of field might be a more pleasing compromise?
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#2 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 09:39 AM

I would say overdone, not overrated. I think this stemmed from that fact that, due to the proliferation of smaller-chiped cameras in the indie world, the pursuit of shallow DoF was necessary to help lend the ever illusive and vacuous "film look," to lower-budget productions. Does that make sense?
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#3 Jason Anderson

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 10:16 AM

Shallow depth works sometimes and deep focus works sometimes. Things like this should have been figured out and discussed between the DP, Production Designer, Dir before hand. Shallow focus is great tool for directing your eye and giving seperation. Our eyes focus on whatever is important to us, it makes sense that the camera would do the same. At the same time perhaps the production designer wants a decoration in focus because it is important to the story. I don't believe it will be possible to fit 4k lines of resolution on a 1/4" chip any time soon. A greater number of pixels is corelated to a bigger chip. The RED can crop the sensor down to 16mm from 35mm, but you lose resolution.

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#4 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 10:50 AM

I would say overdone, not overrated. I think this stemmed from that fact that, due to the proliferation of smaller-chiped cameras in the indie world, the pursuit of shallow DoF was necessary to help lend the ever illusive and vacuous "film look," to lower-budget productions. Does that make sense?


I don't think that just by having a shallow DOF means you're going to get a film look. Having seen a Pro35 on a Digibeta projected and comparing it to different productions shooting progressive on SDX 900 and PDW 530 with straight 2/3" lenses, the latter two looked more filmic. The most noticeable effect with the projected Pro35 was the softer look, rather than the shallower DOF.

Much of a "film look" on video is how you compose your shots, move the camera, the lighting, shooting progressive frame, plus a good colourist.

I remember playing with Zeiss Super Speeds wide open on a 35mm supermarket commercial I was DP ing and telling the director it was a rather neat effect, but I didn't think the rather conservative client would go for it because you couldn't see the supermarket in the background. The following year the extreme shallow focus effect became all the fashion in the high end commercials - missed out again in being the trend setter.
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#5 Ayz Waraich

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 10:55 AM

Shallow depth works sometimes and deep focus works sometimes. Things like this should have been figured out and discussed between the DP, Production Designer, Dir before hand.


I agree with what Jason says here. The shallow vs. Deep focus thing should really just be a personal choice by the filmmakers. There's no standard answer, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about. There have been great films on both sides of this issue -- Which really ends the debate.

I personally love shallow focus and longer lenses, but have shot otherwise as well. And you should base your decision on what you respond to more, not what everyone else considers better. You probably have a preference.

There's no right or wrong answer here.
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#6 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 12:05 PM

Well, since many low-budget productions are shot on Super8 and 16mm, you aren't going to see shallow DOF in these films. Shallow DOF does, IMO, sortof lead viewers by the hand and tell them where to look as though they are too dumb to know what's going on without the camera telling them explicitly.

I don't know if this is true or not, but I had heard in college that using shallow DOF is not good on viewers eyes because of the contrast in focus. It's sortof akin to wearing prescription glasses that aren't right for you. Anyone know if this statement is true?
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#7 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 12:17 PM

I agree with Adrian in that the prevalence of 1/3 inch chip cameras has made shallow focus desirable.

Jason has a very good point about camera focus following the action as our eyes would.

I guess the thing to know is when to use which, shallow focus or deep focus, depending on what the project calls for.

Ultimately they are techniques that may reinforce storytelling if used correctly, or not.
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#8 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 12:24 PM

Agreed; DoF is just one of those choices you make when you're making the film; it should be based on aesthetic, and sometimes it falls into what's practicle. Personally, I like deeper DoF sometimes, and other times I long to have just a tip of a pen in focus.
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#9 Jason Anderson

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 02:45 PM

In the Graduate, Ben is looking out his car window while it is raining, it was not raining that day in reality, but it needed to seem that way, limited depth of field was very useful in that situation. They probably had 20-30 feet of acceptable focus.

Another point of interest, your eyes have shallower depth of field at night, makes sense right. When shooting night for day, stack on the ND and get a shallower depth like our eye percieves at night.

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#10 Valerio Sacchetto

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 05:24 PM

it's good to have it so you can choose not to use it ;)
Personally i think that, like almost everything in this wonderful world of ours, it's all about subtleties. Shallow DOF draws attention to itself like too deep DOF, in my opinion. With the latest frenzy about 35mm adapters there has been a sort of craziness about shallow DOF that was dictated more by the medium than by a real choice. That created a new aesthetic in my opinion that many people consciously searched for afterwards. Something like when we try to get the flaws of older equipment in our 21st century videoclips.
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#11 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 07:45 PM

I don't think shallow depth is necessarily a "film look" (16mm has about the same Dof as 2/3" HD) but it certainly is a contemporary look. Shooting in depth can require more effort to block actors and to create compositions, so that's one reason why you don't see it much anymore. Plus you'd need to light to a deeper stop. So it's really more convenient to shoot with shallow depth (unless you're using an adapter which eats a lot of light). My two cents.
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#12 Scott Fritzshall

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Posted 14 June 2008 - 08:11 PM

I think what has happened is that indie people, who, through budgetary constraints, were restricted to shooting on smaller formats, saw shallow DOF as an indicator of professional quality which they had been deprived of, and which they could obtain for themselves with the use of lens adaptors. This idea has kind of bounced around and gotten itself stuck in the heads of many many low-budget filmmakers- that shallow DOF imparts a look of professionalism and, according to some, makes their cheap cameras less distinguishable from far more expensive ones. The problem, of course, is that DOF has nothing to do with how professional or "filmic" something looks. The real answer is that professional DPs tend more frequently to be given larger formats to shoot on, and thus have the ability to decrease DOF if they choose. That's it. Having a lens adaptor doesn't make your film look professional, and it doesn't make you a professional. I'm of the belief that lens adaptors are totally unnecessary for 95% of the people who use them. Technically, it softens the image to what is for me an unacceptable degree, and aesthetically it encourages inexperienced directors to wildly overuse shallow DOF and crazy rack focus shots simply because they can.

Tim, you had mentioned that you've got some HPX3000 cameras; in my opinion a 2/3" chip gives acceptable DOF on the whole, and lens adaptors are unnecessary for them. If you need to reduce DOF, get on a longer lens, stop down, open up. If you've got specific shots that require extremely shallow DOF for artistic reasons, then use an adaptor for just those shots.
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#13 David Rakoczy

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 07:02 AM

Well, since many low-budget productions are shot on Super8 and 16mm, you aren't going to see shallow DOF in these films. Shallow DOF does, IMO, sortof lead viewers by the hand and tell them where to look as though they are too dumb to know what's going on without the camera telling them explicitly.

I don't know if this is true or not, but I had heard in college that using shallow DOF is not good on viewers eyes because of the contrast in focus. It's sortof akin to wearing prescription glasses that aren't right for you. Anyone know if this statement is true?



1. Many Low Budget productions are shot on Super 8... huh?

2. One has to 'work' at achieving Shallow DOF in 16mm as one does in 35mm. Try shooting daylight ext without NDs and a talented 1st ac... you will never have Shallow DOF. I often run NDs (3,6,9 and more) on interiors to achieve less DOF... I also fly in and pay well phenomenal 1st ACs to help me successfully pull this off. 16mm does NOT mean Shallow DOF... nor does Super 8. If anything it is the opposite as Super 8 projects (usually) do not have the Filters and camera assistants needed to get it right.

3. Shallow DOF bad for the viewer... huh?.. that's (sort of akin) to saying light everything in frame at key so the eye does not have to 'struggle' to see into the darker areas which is harmful to the viewer.

Mathew.. I really don't mean to be harsh but I could not disagree more with your post.

In brotherly love,

Edited by David Rakoczy, 16 June 2008 - 07:04 AM.

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#14 David Rakoczy

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 07:16 AM

[quote name='David Rakoczy' post='236854' date='Jun 16 2008, 06:02 AM']

Mathew... so sorry.. I misread part of your post. My apologies.

However,

Having shot tons of 16mm, Super and regular, I have ALWAYS fought (as others have) to lessen the DOF (when appropriate.. and for me that is almost always).

Edited by David Rakoczy, 16 June 2008 - 07:21 AM.

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#15 John Sprung

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 02:44 PM

Another point of interest, your eyes have shallower depth of field at night, makes sense right.

The human eye has a range from about f/2 to f/8, and is fairly wide angle, so each individual eye generally has lots of DOF. The big difference between us and our cameras is that we have two eyes. The region in which we can converge them and see a single image is much shallower than any restriction due to DOF. You can see this quite easily:

Look at something about eight feet or more away from you, then bring your thumb up into your field of view at arm's length. You clearly see two thumbs when you're focused and converged on the far object, and two of the far object if you converge on your thumb. We're so used to this that in everyday life, we simply ignore stuff we can't converge. Try it again with one eye closed. It should be clear that convergence trumps DOF in human vision. But DOF is what we can use in shooting to simulate the natural limitation of convergence of our eyes.




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#16 Jason Anderson

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 03:59 PM

Look at something about eight feet or more away from you, then bring your thumb up into your field of view at arm's length. You clearly see two thumbs when you're focused and converged on the far object, and two of the far object if you converge on your thumb. We're so used to this that in everyday life, we simply ignore stuff we can't converge. Try it again with one eye closed. It should be clear that convergence trumps DOF in human vision. But DOF is what we can use in shooting to simulate the natural limitation of convergence of our eyes.
-- J.S.


Interesting, my father lost an eye about ten years ago, he drives and does fine, though he has trouble judging the distance between two objects. Perhaps this convergence is what helps us judge depth. I wonder if we will ever be able to watch a movie, that is captured through two cameras, and play it back, and experience it the way we see with two eyes.

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#17 John Sprung

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 04:42 PM

I knew a guy who had been a pilot in WWII and lost an eye to flak. He was able to drive with one eye, judging distances by rocking his head from side to side. Yes, convergence of two eyes is how we judge distance. He was able to learn how to substitute one eye moved to two positions a short time apart. Presenting separate left and right eye images is the idea behind 3D movies.




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#18 Tim Partridge

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 05:37 PM

No money for controlled art direction + no money for lighting = convenient, economical, aesthetic solution (shallow DOF and longer lenses).
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#19 Giovanni Speranza

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 06:26 PM

When discussing with people about the need for a 35mm adapter, we always talk about look, cinematography, history, film. But there is another, more important reason:

Our eyes focus on the infinite only when they watch at the infinite. So a camera with infinite d.o.f. with a person in the foreground could be interpreted by the brain as a camera watching at the background (!!). And would be fatiguing and unnatural.
A 35mm adapter makes the image more logical to our brain.

Our eyes have a focal aperture of f/2.25. the retina is 30mm wide. The perfect focus area of the retina is just 2mm wide. The rest is bluried and doubled due to stereo imaging.
Our eye has a shallow DOF and small focus area.

Our eyes scan the world at an amazing rate. They move as fast as 1/50 of a second to look at some detail then stops for as short as 1/20 of a second, that information is sent to the brain and then the eyes scans again for new details. In a second we focus on 50 things. This give us the illusion of infinite dof. But it's just an illusion. Our eyes have a shallow DOF

Try to look at a person in front of you and still try to see the details on the background. It's impossible because our eyes produce a stereo image. The background is bluried because the 2 images from the eyes are shifted and out of focus. The result is bokeh.

A person in focus with a background in focus is impossible in the real life unless you are watching at the bkg.
And this is the reason because the camera has to focus on the person, because if you want the audience to focus on the person on an infinite focus shot IT'S IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE THE PERSON AND THE BACKGROUND ARE ON THE SAME SCREEN PLANE!

Only a 3D movie could work at infinite focus because the audience would be able to select and focus what they want.
Until we shoot movies in 3D, which could be at infinite focus, the director has to focus artificially on the subject, because the audience can't select the focus on the image projected, with the result to fatigue the eyes and the brain.
The need for a shallower dof is not from an artistic view only. The shallow dof is a highway to the brain. shallow dof images are more logical to our brain. We see everything isolated, and a movie should do the same in order to be natural, apart large shots.

When discussing with people about the need for a 35mm adapter, we always talk about look, cinematography, history, film. But there is another, more important reason:

Our eyes focus on the infinite only when they watch at the infinite. So a camera with infinite d.o.f. with a person in the foreground could be interpreted by the brain as a camera watching at the background (!!). And would be fatiguing and unnatural.
A 35mm adapter makes the image more logical to our brain.

Our eyes have a focal aperture of f/2.25. the retina is 30mm wide. The perfect focus area of the retina is just 2mm wide. The rest is bluried and doubled due to stereo imaging.
Our eye has a shallow DOF and small focus area.

Our eyes scan the world at an amazing rate. They move as fast as 1/50 of a second to look at some detail then stops for as short as 1/20 of a second, that information is sent to the brain and then the eyes scans again for new details. In a second we focus on 50 things. This give us the illusion of infinite dof. But it's just an illusion. Our eyes have a shallow DOF

Try to look at a person in front of you and still try to see the details on the background. It's impossible because our eyes produce a stereo image. The background is bluried because the 2 images from the eyes are shifted and out of focus. The result is bokeh.

A person in focus with a background in focus is impossible in the real life unless you are watching at the bkg.
And this is the reason because the camera has to focus on the person, because if you want the audience to focus on the person on an infinite focus shot IT'S IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE THE PERSON AND THE BACKGROUND ARE ON THE SAME SCREEN PLANE!

Only a 3D movie could work at infinite focus because the audience would be able to select and focus what they want.
Until we shoot movies in 3D, which could be at infinite focus, the director has to focus artificially on the subject, because the audience can't select the focus on the image projected, with the result to fatigue the eyes and the brain.
The need for a shallower dof is not from an artistic view only. The shallow dof is a highway to the brain. shallow dof images are more logical to our brain. We see everything isolated, and a movie should do the same in order to be natural, apart large shots.

Of course if we ABUSE dof and work always at f/1.2 it is unnatural too.
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#20 Giovanni Speranza

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Posted 16 June 2008 - 06:41 PM

Oops double post in the same text area...
Anyway here is an example
A normal city, a normal day, shot with a 35mm adapter "NOT OVERUSED" and the movie look is much more pleasant than an ENG dof could achieve.

Click here for the movie
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