Originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia by PiccoloNamek under GFDL-SELF

When Canon launched the 5D Mark II in 2008, it forever revolutionized video production. At that time, low-budget filmmakers were using a variety of techniques to make video footage look more like film. Video shooters tried reducing sharpness, using filters to lower contrast and adding fake grain to make their image more cinematic. But the Holy Grail was shallow depth of field.

The problem

The smaller sensors in video cameras required the use of wider lenses to achieve the same field of view as on 35mm film. Shorter focal lengths meant that deep focus was unavoidable.

In response, companies such as Letus and Redrock Micro developed ingenious adaptors. These incorporated ground glass screens and clever optics to allow the use of 35mm photography lenses on video cameras. These, however, were unwieldy and expensive.

Enter the 5D Mark II

When the 5D Mark II was announced, it was said to combine the shallow depth of field of a full frame DSLR with HD video. This was the answer to every indie filmmaker’s prayers. The video footage it produced was stunning. The 5D Mark II quickly became the camera on which many award-winning short films and low budget features were shot. In 2010, it was even used to shoot an episode of the TV show “House”.

The early adopters developed new shooting styles to exploit the 5D Mark II’s shallow depth of field. They overused these techniques. In fact, soon, these techniques became visual tropes. Think of the head and shoulders handheld tracking shot, following the talent from behind, keeping them in focus with the rest of the world merely a blur.

How shallow is too shallow?

Soon filmmakers began to crave an even shallower depth of field. Moreover, this craze wasn’t just limited to lenses with longer focal lengths. Using increasing levels of neutral density filters to crank their apertures wide open, filmmakers sought out bokeh and blurred backgrounds with wide-angle lenses on even the brightest of sunny days.

What had previously been taboo now became acceptable, even celebrated. Actors drifted in and out of focus while camera operators battled razor-thin depth of field. Audiences forgot what it was like to see both of a subject’s eyes in focus at the same time.

The obsession with shallow depth of field came from a widely held belief that it made your images look cinematic.

The obsession with shallow depth of field came from a widely held belief that it made your images look cinematic. While it’s true that nothing screams video louder than closeups with deep focus, the undiscerning overuse of shallow depth of field is not cinematic. Watch any Hollywood film (prior to 2008) and you will see a range of shots, some deep focus, some shallow. The power of the great Westerns came from the vast sprawling vistas, pin-sharp from foreground to horizon. Cinema greats such as Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick strived to keep everything in focus.

Shallow depth of field isn’t the only factor

By concentrating solely on depth of field to achieve a cinematic look, filmmakers fail to acknowledge other factors. For instance, the increased dynamic range also contributed to the more film-likelook of DSLR footage. By the same token, the shallow depth of field from full frame DSLRs like the 5D Mark II wasn’t even the best fit for 35mm movie film. After all, traditional motion picture cameras have a frame size closer to that of an APS-C sensor.

It is undeniable that the 5D Mark II and the video shooting DSLRs that followed were game-changers for low budget and independent filmmakers. However, while shallow depth of field is an important part of a filmmaker’s shot arsenal, this must be used with thought and purpose. Otherwise, it becomes just a lazy way to fool your audience into thinking that they are watching something cinematic.

Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies is a freelance cinematographer and camera operator from Manchester, UK. He also produces and directs short films as Duck66 Films.Pete's latest award winning short Once Bitten... has been selected for more than 70 film festivals around the world.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Bought a Canon DSLR to do video … My Video is 99% of Radio Controlled Model airplanes. What a wast of a little over a grand with all the accessories. Crap lens that hunt focus and out of focus every time you zoom. OK for stills but I;m shooting 30 to 50 fps. Then there is the lack of depth of field …. I’m making the next great Epic block buster … just TOY r/c model airplanes and I need constant focus and in focus from 10′ to infinity while zooming. If some guy is going to make a smoking hole with his $15,000 to $25,000 R/C jet, I want every little piece in focus when I SLO-MO the video. Long story short I bought a Canon XA-30 a real video camera with a 20X zoom that stays in focus right down to 10′ even when zooming. Almost as good as my old Canon XL-1 What Canon should have done is made an XL-1 with a DVR to replace the Tape Drive.

  2. I am happy to see someone call out the overuse of shallow-depth-of-field for what it is: a fad. Using the technique for a specific purpose is fine, but filmmakers should not think that using depth of field is amateurish or that it is not film-like. As the author mentioned, great filmmakers like Welles and Kubrick went through a lot of trouble to get everything in focus. Greg Toland, the cinematographer who worked with Welles on “Citizen Kane,” had to increase the lighting in order to close the aperture enough to get the deep focus look. That is one of the greatest films ever made, so it can’t be said to not have the “film look.”

    Another fad that has developed over the past ten years or so is the deliberate violation of the law of thirds. Directors now seem to love having an actor who is looking left placed at that end of the frame, with nothing behind. When this was first done, it was jarring and had a purpose, but now every director in every film does it.

    Filmmakers should think of the future and how audiences will judge such stand-out techniques. To get an idea just look at action films from the 1970s in which the quick zoom is overused. It looks corny today. Films from that time that do not use such showy visuals and keep the viewer deep into the story, come off much better.

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