Blur the Lines

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 4 Comments

Heard about the “Depth of Field” topic a hundred times before?

I am sure you have.

Tried and tested this in the field with absolute success?  Well, perhaps only some of us have.

There are so many articles relating to this topic, yet it is one of the most asked about questions I get and so many people still get this wrong.  Let me tell you how I feel about using depth of field to get the most out of your wildlife images.

Taking control of how much detail you include in your image is something you will need to master. It may sound simple on paper, but once out in the field the task takes some getting used to.

depth of field

By getting really low I can get a great angle, create distance between my subject and background, and my f3.5 aperture makes any solid lines disappear.

I absolutely love creating images where my subject explodes from the surrounding landscape. It may have slipped past you, but see how I mentioned the word “create”.

I do not believe that all of the great wildlife shots are just by pure luck or being in the right place only. All of that certainly helps but ultimately understanding your camera and controlling aspects such as DOF, framing and looking for opportunities where there sometimes seems to be none, will help you create an emotive and story-filled image.

depth of field

By choosing an f5.0 aperture, I was able to ensure her sharpness and at the same time I could smooth out the back and foreground, emphasizing her hidden approach.

I often love shooting at apertures ranging between f2.8 and f4.0. This allows my back and foreground to dissipate, drawing more attention to my subject.

This is especially helpful in a cluttered and busy environment.

If there are unwanted leaves, grasses, trees or branches surrounding your subject, most of this can be ironed out by selecting a large aperture such a f4.0.

depth of field

This leopard really stands out from the background, thanks to an aperture of f4.0.

If you do this well, the background colours actually blend together into a seamless tapestry of shades and textures.

There are some risk factors to consider though.

By changing aperture, you essentially change the area of focus your lens achieves.

Why is this dangerous?

If you choose an aperture such as f2.8 and your subject is too close to you, you are likely to soften details of that animal you were meant to have in-focus.

Always make extremely sure of where you are focusing, usually the eyes are a great reference point.

depth of field

By looking at the original photo all seems well. Take a closer look below to see how close I came to ruining this shot.

depth of field

An example of how small the area of focus can be. I was 3 meters from this chameleon and almost lost focus on the eye. Notice how his nose, a mere centimeter or two away is already losing sharpness. I almost messed this up because of me being so close, regardless of my f6.3 aperture.

If your subject is too close and your focus too fine, a careless shot may render the nose perfectly sharp yet the all important eyes undesirably soft.

Also be careful with moments of action or rapid movement as a shallow depth of field will not always give you a completely sharp image due to the narrow area of focus resulting from f2.8.

Let me add a little more to this tricky equation.

What happens when the animal is moving towards you? You need to act quickly and keep this in mind when shooting with wide-open apertures. Both distance and speed of movement will influence your area of focus and you need to continually be aware of this in order to attain a sharp image.

depth of field

When viewing this from far out all looks pretty good. Take a closer look on the pic below.

depth of field

Classic mistake. I forgot to change my aperture from f4.0 to something like f5.6 and I messed up an amazing opportunity. Notice how the face is soft and the mane behind in focus? He was walking towards me and I was not paying attention to my aperture, a costly mistake.

Something that helps immensely here is using the continuous focusing method. This will ensure that you keep tracking your subject as it moves, ensuring you will always achieve sharp focus where you want it most. It takes some getting used to but over time you will get the hang of it.

The more you use it, the better you will get at it.

This is one aspect of your photography where the gear you have actually does make a difference. Achieving a wide aperture range requires more expensive lenses. Fortunately for some of you out there using lenses unable to get to f4.0 or f2.8 such as the ever popular Canon 100-400 f5.6 lenses, or Nikon 80 – 400 f5.6, there’s still hope.

Don’t be despondent.

Just think through what you would like to capture.

Perhaps by getting a little lower you are able to create more distance between your subject and the background.

This will automatically create the out-of-focused effect that you are after.

depth of field

This was shot with a Canon 40D and a Canon 100-400 f5.6. By being at eye-level with my subject I was able to capture a beautiful, out-of-focus background.

Most importantly, enjoy being out in the bush as much as possible.

Appreciate every moment.

Capture beautiful and unique moments out there and be an ambassador for our natural world.

Marlon du Toit

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Comments 4

  1. Emi Nienaber

    Visiting Kgalagadi in March 2014. Thank you very much for all the helpful information. Will be the first time that I will photograph wild animals in their own habitat. Nervous but very exited. Love your inspiring images

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  2. Danie Vermeulen

    Hi Marlon. Congratulations with the new post. Singita is going to miss you sorely! Thanks for all the tips. It really helps a lot. I hope join you on one of the adventures in the near future. Maybe I can bring Danie Jr along. That should be fun.

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