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Shallow Depth of Field With Studio Lighting

May 14

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Today we had a huge shoot in the studio with four photographers and two helping out. Rio let me borrow his 85mm 1.2 lens to get some headshots, and here I’ll show you our lighting setup and go over a few tricks for opening up our aperture. You don’t want lights that put out a lot of light, we lowered them down to minimum power to open up more.  Bringing the ISO down to 50 will give you another stop, and you can also use a ND Density filter. We’re using a 50inch softbox as our main light and a gridded softbox for fill.  Here’s my favorite shot!

Why we shot at f/2.5

Some comments make a great point asking why we shot at 2.5 if we are using a 1.2 lens. The lights we used were set at their lowest power, the ISO on the camera was at 50, and with the lights placed where they were, 2.5 was as low as we could meter. There are several things that could be done to let less light into the camera. We could have moved the lights farther from the subject, but this would have changed the light on the subject, making it appear more harsh. We could have also used a ND filter on the lens to let less light in, however because this was a borrowed lens, we did not have a ND filter in that size. Finally more diffusion could have been added to the lights to make less light hit the subject.

In the end the shot was more about the light quality and the mood, and the difference from 2.5 to 1.2 probably didn’t make or break the shot.

  • Kyle Simpson

    Only thing that confuses me is why borrow a f1.2 only to shoot at f2.5?


    Referring to natural depth of field ie: bokeh as “blurry” is probably not the best way to explain that to people learning techniques from your videos.


    Yeah I was wondering that too.  That really doesn’t show much depth of field in the shots.  Window lit would have probably been a better example for the notice/beginners.  

    Samples attached shot at f/2 and f/1.8.  

  • hayao Miyazaki

    Because lenses with higher apertures such as f1.2 not only has an increase in aperture but also in overall image quality. My source I am a lens technician which use to work in Canon Japan. Now i’m working with Sigma


    Ummm how does this have anything to do with what the video was trying to teach?  Aaron could have used the lens at f/1.2 and moved the lights away from the subject to show real depth of field.  

  • Hayao Miyazaki

    I think their studio dont have enough room to move the lights further. Anyways why move the light away if you can just adjust the aperture on the cam. Much easier ryt?!

  • Ray Mond

    Hi Sir Aaron Nace. I represent (PPA) Can you feature an episode using a basic Rebel cam and 50mm 1.8 with Yong Nuo flashes. We are really interested what you can do with it. Our group the Poor Photographers Association will be watching. KUDOS for ART no matter your status in life.

  • CJ

     Moving the light further away would make the light a harsher light rather than that beautiful soft light he was getting.

    With the lights at min power, 2.5 was probably all he could get without using the ND filter.

    Shot looks great to me…


    That is what I am trying to get at.  He was using a lens that had the ability to shoot at 1.2 but instead shot it at 2.5.  What’s the point of using that lens if your not going to show the fully potential of it.  Especially when making a video to show off shallow depth of field, the final shots do not have that.

  • Jxphotography

    Good stuff Aaron Love that 85….

  • Angelo Dau

    simply: all lens loose details with full aperture. My 1.8 lens reach the highest quality @5.6, a lot of 3.5 lens @7.1 and so on.. 1.2 is too much, too soft


    Yes I know that, I do a lot of portrait photography.  1.2 may be too soft for your style/preference, but not for me.  I prefer shooting at f/1.2 – f/2.8 and rarely go past f/4, take a look at my work

    I was getting at the fact that the video really wasn’t showing a proper shallow depth of field with studio lights.  With the lighting setup Aaron could have shot that at 1.2 and not 2.5.  

  • Trevor Ager

    As I understand it, using a ND filter will not make any difference to the Aperture when using strobes. It is only effective for this purpose when using continuous or ambient light.
    When using strobes it would be necessary to fit ND filters to the strobes themselves to cut the amount of light emitted.

  • Kyle

    For some reason Chrismday I find myself very drawn to your portfolio! lol :-) Nice work.

  • CJ

     Dude, chillax.

    At f2.5 his DOF is like 1 inch to the front and back (or less if he was closer than 6 feet). On the girls head/face that is plenty to show shallow DOF for the purposes of this video.

    The only thing he did wrong in the entire video is use the word blurry – but everyone except total beginners will know what he meant anyway


  • Bryan Dockett

    Trevor not really….. ND filters cuts down the amount of light entering the lens meaning you’ll be able to use larger apertures without the light from the flash blowing out the highlights. So it effective for any type of light (flash, continuous, ambient). And usually if you wanted to do this without a filter and keep the aperture open you’ll have to push the shutter speed past the camera sync limits. 

  • Bryan Dockett

    that’s what it is right. Anything more than that is just over kill and focusing too much on stuff that shouldn’t matter. 

  • Trevor Ager

     Thanks Bryan and putting me right. I was familiar with the use of ND filters to get the flash sync speeed low enough. Looks like I will have to try it out in the studio.

  • Elias

    how bout shooting at 1.2 with only the modeling lights on (no flash)? :)

  • Eric Devir

    Aaron-can you link to your fellow photographers’ work?

  • Alain Pilon

    I used to shoot with the 85L1.2 and it is totally useless @ 1.2 unless you are shooting for the web. First the image is too soft and secondly, the DoF is so small that you cant even get the eyes sharp… The biggest advantage of this lens is that you can use it at f1.8/f2 and start getting a very sharp picture which is something very few lens can do. 

    Most photographer who shoot to print will use higher f stop that what people who shoot for the web do because of these sharpness issues. The resolution of a computer monitor is not high enough to really give a good idea of a picture sharpness in the context of the full image.

  • Nonexpectedz3


  • Merrit Olson

    That’s a great idea! I’m going to try that one. Man, I would send you money for that idea. lol


  • Anthony

    Your exemple defy the purpose of shallow DOF in a STUDIO using STUDIO FLASH.

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