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Shallow Depth of Field in Bright Sunlight

I have a general question regarding depth of field management when taking photos outside.  In bright sunlight, when taking photos with people as the primary subject, I'm usually using my speedlight (SB-800/D750) to fill the shadows.  I usually shoot at ISO100 with the camera set to flash sync (1/200) and then adjust aperture until I get correct exposure.  Trouble is, that in bright light, my lens is stopped so far down that the depth of field is huge.  I'm a fan of using a  shallower depth of field to isolate the subject, which doesn't ever work out in this scenario.  Of course, I can look towards longer lenses, but then I'm forced to backup to a point where the flash loses its effect.  I could also move in closer to the subject, but then I risk having the subject too large in the frame and/or deal with any distortion issues that might come up as a result of being so close.

I know that Neil highly recommends the B1 Profoto equipment, but I'm just amateur guy who's taking pictures of his kids so the Profoto isn't a good fit for two reasons: 1) On camera flash (outdoors at least) works well because most of my photos are candid shots and 2) The B1 is way too expensive for me (I feel lucky to have made the move to full frame).

Does anyone have suggestions on techniques I might use to shallow the depth of field in brightly lit environments?  I've tried a reflector and no flash so I can open the lens, but that takes two people and doesn't work well in a candid environment.

Thanks all,



  • Two ideas:

    - Use Auto FP (aka high speed sync), and increase your shutter speed well above 1/200, allowing you to shoot at more open apertures. You will likely need to bring the light in close to the subject, as it falls off very quickly when using high speed sync.

    - Buy a neutral density filter for your lens. It's like sunglasses for your lens. You could get a 3 stop ND and instead of shooting at 1/200 at f/8, you could be shooting 1/200 at f/2.8. Or you could try out those cheapie variable ND filters on eBay (Singh-Ray Vari-ND knockoffs), where you can dial in how much you want.
  • dbrunodbruno Member
    I was also going to suggest hi-speed sync as well.

    Nikonguy - about the ND filters: is it better to get them in "defined" stops, or are there actually good variable ones? I have no experience with ND filters.
  • CarlSCarlS Member

    Thanks for the ideas.  I've never used Auto FP, but I understand it's a constant pulsing of the flash to provide continuous illumination while the curtains track over the sensor. How high can I go with the shutter speed?  And is there a detriment as shutter speed increases over sync speed?  I'm assuming the flash can't provide as much light while continuously pulsing as it can during a normal impulse flash.  Perhaps heat related?

    On the ND filter, does the flash typically have the oomph to provide +3 stops? I've never tried one because I figured I would be fighting against myself by filtering the flash out as well. 

  • danfazdanfaz Member
    Carls, you should be able to sync at whatever your camera's max shutter speed is. It is highly effective, and very easy to use in Aperture Priority mode. Just pick your aperture, and the camera (when flash is in HSS), will automatically ramp up the shutter speed. You do lose about half your range, though.
  • Carl, give the auto FP a try since it doesn't cost you anything. I enable it in the camera and leave it on all the time. Your camera and flash will work normally up to the sync speed, and then if you go higher it will use the high speed sync approach. It does allow you to shoot right up to your max shutter speed. It will also work with you setting your flash as a remote and using your popup as a commander (popup must be set to '--' mode otherwise you will be limited to your sync speed).

    You lose a very significant amount of light, so that is why I suggested bringing the light in pretty close. It's worth experimenting with a bit. Good luck.
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    CarlS - as the others have suggested, use your speedlight in HSS mode / Auto FP.
    It is custom function E1 on your camera. 

    Your other alternative to get shallow DoF with flash in bright light - use a neutral density filter. Focusing might be a problem then though. 

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