Shallow DOF with M4/3

This article discusses some basic techniques that can be used to achieve shallow DOF (depth-of-field) with M4/3 equipment. There is quite a bit of assumptive thinking on the internet, as well as people regurgitating things they have read about shallow DOF with M4/3.

It is absolutely possible, and actually very easy, to achieve shallow depth-of-field with M4/3 camera gear. People who state that shallow depth-of-field is “impossible” with M4/3 equipment are simply misinformed.

How we go about creating shallow DOF with M4/3 may be somewhat different than using other camera formats. And, the results may also look somewhat different than those created by full frame equipment. This isĀ  similar situation to shallow depth-of-field looking somewhat different when using a medium format camera compared to a full frame one.

Every camera system comes with its own strengths and challenges. As has often been stated in articles here… all things photographic come with some kind of trade-off.

It may be helpful to remind ourselves about some of the factors that can impact depth-of-field. These include the aperture used. The focal length of the lens. The focusing distance from the subject. And, the the distance between the subject and the background.

In a recent article we reinforced the notion that wider angle focal lengths will always have more depth-of-field than longer focal lengths when used at the same aperture. In the case of using M4/3 equipment this can be a distinct advantage with photographic genres like landscapes and macro photography.

Knowing this fact leads to a basic technique when trying to achieve shallow DOF with M4/3. Using a longer focal length. Combining that with a fast aperture and a relatively short minimum focusing distance, can yield good shallow depth-of-field performance.

All of the sample images in this article were captured using an OM-D E-M1X fitted with an M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom lens. The photographs were all captured using a focal length of 150 mm and an aperture of f/2.8.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1250, ISO-200, subject distance 845 millimetres

Whenever we want to accentuate shallow depth-of-field we can capture our subject from a front quarter view or similar angle. As we see in the photograph above the depth-of-field drops off very quickly when a longer focal length is used in combination with a fast f/2.8 aperture.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1600, ISO-200, subject distance 805 millimetres

Composing an image where the subject is parallel to the focal plane of our camera’s sensor tends to hide this depth-of-field drop off. On the positive side, shooting with the subject parallel to the focal plane can help create subject separation from the background.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/4000, ISO-200, subject distance 740 millimetres

By composing images with an angled view we can accentuate the out-of-focus drop off as we can see with the flower image above. The M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom is my favourite lens for flower photography as it also has a comparatively short minimum focusing distance of 70 centimetres (~2.3 feet). Focusing on the portion of the subject closest to the front of the composition can help accentuate shallow depth-of-field.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO-200, subject distance 700 millimetres

Composing a subject against a more distant background also helps with subject separation and achieving shallow depth-of-field. I typically use a single auto-focus point when composing shallow depth-of-field images as I want to be very precise with the point of focus on my subject.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/3200, ISO-200, subject distance 705 millimetres

Choosing a focusing location on the front half of a subject usually works best as it allows for a logical drop off in image sharpness in the back half of the frame.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/3200, ISO-200, subject distance 755 millimetres

Stacking elements or revealing repeating patterns can also help to accentuate shallow depth-of-field. This is illustrated in the image above as the blossoms in the background are out of focus. The further away from the subject in the foreground, the more out of focus other elements in the background will be in the composition.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO-200, subject distance 700 millimetres

Whenever I’m out with my camera creating images with shallow depth-of-field I always take a set of extension tubes with me. Using an extension tube shortens the minimum focusing distance of a lens further which can enhance shallow depth-of-field. The photograph above was captured using a 10 mm extension tube. When using extension tubes we need to remember that there will be a loss of light. Obviously the use of extension tubes with subject matter other than flowers has the same effect.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO-200, subject distance 700 millimetres

The image above is a 100% crop of the previous photograph. You can see how quickly the in focus area drops away.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-200, subject distance 940 millimetres

Using an extension tube can be helpful when attempting to photograph ants and other insects scurrying about.

Here are a few more photographs that help demonstrate shallow DOF with M4/3. These last images were very quick captures in my backyard.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1600, ISO-200, subject distance 750 millimetres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-200, subject distance 715 millimetres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/800, ISO-200, subject distance 1 metre
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1250, ISO-200, subject distance 935 millimetres

In summary, shallow depth-of-field can be achieved with a wide range of camera formats. It is quite simple to create shallow depth-of-field with M4/3 equipment. To do so, we typically use longer focal lengths, combined with wide open apertures on lenses that have comparatively short minimum focusing distances. By paying attention to the focusing distance to the subject, and the distance between the subject and the background, a photographer can enhance shallow depth-of-field.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. All photographs are displayed as full frame captures without any crops. This is the 1,060th article published on this website since its original inception.

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6 thoughts on “Shallow DOF with M4/3”

  1. A very useful collection of techniques to employ. However unlike the assumptive crowd I often wish for more DOF as even with my M.Zuiko 40-150 Pro mounted on the MC14 converter I am often challenged to get both a bird’s beak and eyes in focus at ranges of less than 5 meters. This is due to being forced to shoot at f4 to maintain shutter speed (between 1000-2000), usually exposure compensation at +2 for backlighting, and then the ISO is usually going up to 6400. Physics will get you in a corner one way or the other with birding – so the challenges never cease!

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion! I agree that there are always challenges associated with birding.

      Earlier today I was out doing some bird photography. This included trying to photograph a green heron standing in dark shadow with bright sunlight in the background. Using exposure compensation is something that I use very frequently… and I’d often use it in this type of situation. This morning I switched things up a bit and changed to spot metering… which seemed to accomplish what I needed in terms of getting decent exposure on the green heron without needing to use exposure compensation and taking my ISO up.

      Tom

  2. You also didn’t touch on a macro lens like the Oly 60mm f2.8. A fantastic lens which produces lovely images.
    This article puts to sleep the notion that shallow depth of field is not possible with M4/3.

    1. Hi Kin,

      My work almost never involves shallow depth-of-field. On occasion I will produce some images for articles here. As time permits I’ll see if I can create some additional images. The basic approach is the same regardless of the size of the subject.

      Tom

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