#4 Secret of Shooting Video to Look like Film: Use Shallow Depth of Field

#4 Secret of Shooting Video to Look like Film: Use Shallow Depth of Field
This is a HUGE secret- itself alone worth the price of these articles. 

One big thing distinguishing content shot on film to most video is the natural shallower depth-of-field of a film camera.

What is Depth Of Field (DOF)?

Close one eye, put a finger close to your other eye and focus on it.

Now, while still holding your finger up, focus on the far wall.

Notice your finger is now blurry, because your eyes are focused on the wall. Now focus on your finger again. Notice objects in the background become blurrier.

The range of distances from your eye- or from a camera lens- that is in acceptable focus is called the “depth of field”.

If you have a shot in which close objects and far objects appear all in sharp focus, this is called a “deep depth-of-field”.

If you have a shot in which objects at a certain distance are in sharp focus, but objects closer or farther are obviously out of focus, this is called “shallow depth-of-field.”

Shallow DOF helps you tell your story. Cinematographers use shallow depth of field to organize their composition, putting their subject in sharp focus and the background out of focus. The human eye is naturally attracted to the subject, and not distracted by the background. Imagine how hard it would be to tell a story if background noises were as loud as a person talking, fighting for your attention. In a similar way, it is harder to tell a story when background elements are fighting for your viewers’ attention by being a perfectly crisp focus. Blurring out the background relegates the background to its proper status – as background, and not the featured subject.

Using shallow depth of field also puts the third dimension into your shots by cueing the viewer to what elements are closer or farther away from the camera.

Shallow DOF looks super cool! When your viewers look at your project, one of the key factors that will make them say “Wow! That looks like Hollywood!” is using shots with shallow depth of field

The Big Problem

35mm film has a significantly larger imaging surface than most video camcorders, which usually have 1/4″ – 1/3″ CCDs. Based on the relative size of the imaging surface, the rules of optics dictate that video cameras will have a very deep DOF – much greater than film.

And that’s the big problem. When you’re shooting video, this extreme depth of field means that every object in your composition- foreground and background- is likely to be in sharp focus, leading to a confused, distracting composition in which the audience is not sure where to focus, making it much harder for you to tell your story. And making what you shoot look very videoy and amateurish, much different than a bigtime feature film.

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Recipe for Shallow depth of field with small chips:

Getting shallow depth of field out of a video camcorder with small chips takes a little effort- and a larger area to shoot in. Here’s the three step process:

1. Make sure your iris is open all the way. A wide open iris will give you the shallowest depth of field.

2. You need your foreground subject far away from the background, and the camera far from the subject.

3. To accentuate the shallow depth of field effect, zoom in as much as possible.

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Whoops- too bright for shallow depth of field?

You’re outside in broad daylight. You open your iris all the way because you want to get shallow DOF to get a really cool-looking shot.

Hold on! You’re way overexposed! So, follow these steps:

1. Turn on your camcorder’s ND filter.

2. Switch to negative gain (like -3 dB) if possible.

3. If you’re till overexposed, try adding ND filters, either a screw-on filter or a matte box with ND- like a .6 or .9 – or even both at the same time.

Here’s a tiplet on Shallow Depth of Field

DSLRs are the best solution

DSLR cameras now shoot 1080 at 24 or 30 fps, with an imaging surface approaching – or even matching – a 35mm frame of film. These cameras include:

Canon EOS 5D Mark II



Canon EOS 7D


Canon Rebel T2i


Canon T3i


Canon 60D


Next Article: #3 Secret of Shooting Video to Look like Film: Shoot with a diffusion filter

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  1. Josh 15 years ago

    Ironically, as we all strive for shallow depth-of-field, some are striving for deep DOF:


  2. Josh 15 years ago

    This site goes through illustrated steps on how to create your own shallow DOF device for your DV camera:


    Or, download this PDF:


    Visit the website to see an absolutely gorgeous movie made with a homemade 35mm kit and a GL2:


  3. Josh 15 years ago

    Here’s some info on shallow DOF adapters:


  4. Josh 15 years ago

    A shootout between shallow DOF adapters:


  5. Josh 15 years ago

    I got a Brevis 35 adapter from Cinevate:


    It is awesome, you will see some footage soon!

  6. Mark 14 years ago

    Josh, I’m very close to pulling the trigger on the Brevis 35 adapter – How’s it going with yours? I’m going with the Nikon lens mount – Can you recommend a good “general purpose” lens for shooting mid range landscapes, b roll type footage with my XL2?

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