Advanced Editing

Shallow Depth of Field with layers

Written by Gail Bjork

Create shallow depth of field in a photo after it was taken by using layers.

Depth of field (DOF) refers to the nearest and farthest points in a photo which appear in sharp focus. The amount of depth is controlled by lens aperture, focal length and the distance a camera is to a subject. Shallow depth of field is often used creatively by photographers when taking portrait, close-up and similar shots. The subject is emphasized because it is sharply in focus while the background, or portions of the background, are not.

Depth of field and layersSome photos look better with less depth of field. The good news is that, if you don’t get it quite right with your digital camera, you can add shallow depth of field to a photos using layers found in many editing programs.

The original image, not edited except reduced in size, appears flat. Every area in the photo is about equal sharpness. The background detracts somewhat from the main subject.

Our a step-by-step tutorial shows how to add the look of shallow depth of field to the background of a photo. Please note that the degree to which a tool or filter is applied is a matter of personal taste. For example, you may want the background blurred more or the subject sharpened less.

The tutorial is illustrated with Photoshop, however many photo editing programs offer layering and filtering capabilities. As with all image editing techniques, there are other ways to go about obtaining the same results.

Shallow depth of field tutorial

Layers palette

Tools, techniques & filters used in tutorial:

Duplicate Layer
Auto Levels
Unsharp Mask filter
Gaussian Blur filter
Erase Tool using soft-round brush

Four layers were used to add shallow depth of field to the background of the photo. To work on a layer, it must be highlighted in the Layers Palette.

Refer to your software help files for additional information.

1. A separate layer was created to adjust contrast and brightness using Auto Levels.

1. A separate layer was created to adjust contrast and brightness using Auto Levels.

2. The layer was duplicated and then sharpened using the Unsharp Mask filter.

2. The layer was duplicated and then sharpened using the Unsharp Mask filter.

3. The sharpened layer was duplicated and blurred using Gaussian blur.

3. The sharpened layer was duplicated and blurred using Gaussian blur.

3a. Parts of the layer were erased using the soft-brush. Various brush sizes and opacities were used to erase blurred areas.

3a. Parts of the layer were erased using the soft-brush. Various brush sizes and opacities were used to erase blurred areas.

Final image

Final image

As you selectively erase the area as shown in 3a, the sharpened areas from the layer below appear. 100% opacity was used to totally erase main subject.

To partially erase selected areas of the lower foreground, the brush opacity was varied between 30-50%. Zoom in to work on it more closely and precisely.

When the image is complete, save it. For a smaller file size, merge or flatten the layers before saving.

The final image on the left now has less depth of field in the distance than the original. More attention is directed onto the main subject.

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.