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Date: 16/01/2014 | By: Mathieu

A shallow depth of field with a Micro 4/3s camera? Yes, it is possible!

E-M1, 1/1250, f/ 18/10, ISO 200

A shallow depth of field with a Micro 4/3s camera? Yes, it is possible!

Many photographers looking for a lighter solution to their DSLR halt in their tracks when they hear the words ‘Micro Four Thirds sensor’. They fear that the depth of field and overall result produced by a smaller sensor will not be adequate to give that “3D pop” that many desire to see in the images they produce. Certainly, the way you handle depth of field on a full frame camera is different to a Micro Four Thirds camera. It is also true that there are some full frame lenses capable of rendering an astonishing bokeh that you will rarely, if ever, see on a M4/3s camera unless you use those specific lenses with an adapter.

Personally, the presence of a smaller sensor and the resulting depth of field would not influence my decision to either keep or discard a system. Bokeh is a natural consequence of how I take a shot and the feelings I want to imbue it with. The important thing is to know the system and lenses inside and out, and pick the best lens for your goal. I’ve never had a moment’s hesitation when shooting MFT nor thought of what I could have achieved if I’d had a full frame camera instead.

But why are we so attracted to a shallow depth of field in the first place? Well, there may be different answers to that questions. Certainly there is an artistic aspect involved; I think a shallow DoF is the first thing a novice photographer wants to achieve to enhance his skills and “level up.” It is certainly one of the primary things that can make a picture stand out from those taken with a point-and-shoot or smartphone.

But as much as lens bokeh can be pleasant to the eye, it is and remains an element in the background of your photograph and thus should not be the principal point of attraction. If you care more about your bokeh than the rest of the elements in the picture, that is, the subject, this means that there is something wrong with the picture in the first place.

When I see a beautiful portrait, my eye may be captured by the physical beauty of the model, his or her expression, or the light that makes the photograph interesting. Bokeh always comes last.

Coming back to our Micro Four Thirds sensor discussion, and in response to the concerns described at the beginning, I feel that the old adage “a picture speaks 1000 words” is appropriate. Feel free to skim through the images below, and then we’ll get into the nitty-gritty.

E-M5, 1/50, f/2 , ISO 500Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95
E-M5, 1/50, f/2 , ISO 500
E-P5, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 1600
E-P5, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 1600
E-M1, 1/80, f/ 28/10, ISO 200
E-M1, 1/80, f/ 2.8, ISO 200
DMC-GX7, 1/5000, f/ 1.8, ISO 125
DMC-GX7, 1/5000, f/ 1.8, ISO 125
DMC-GH3, 1/1000, f/ 1.8, ISO 200
DMC-GH3, 1/1000, f/ 1.8, ISO 200

As you can see, it is absolutely possible to achieve a shallow depth of field with Micro Four Thirds cameras from both Olympus and Panasonic. The question that remains is: how can it be done, what are the limits and the tips and tricks to achieve it, and more importantly, what are the recommended lenses for a beautiful shallow depth of field?

Let’s start with the basics, which perhaps many of you already know. On any camera, shallow depth of field depends on a combination of three factors: the lens aperture (or how much light I let enter the lens), the focal length and the distance between you (the camera) and the subject.

In general, the best way to achieve a shallow depth of field is to use a long focal length (a telephoto lens for example), pick a lens that has a fast aperture of 2.8 or less, and focus close to your subject. This last point can also be a disadvantage. If, for example, you are shooting a portrait, getting too close with the wrong lens can result in the subject’s face becoming distorted, which may emphasise oversized body parts such as a big nose – not very flattering at all.

The beauty of shooting with a full frame sensor of course is the ability to obtain a shallower DoF even without a long focal length. Since the MFT sensor is smaller, this is more difficult to achieve but far from impossible.

1. Get close

Taken with a DMC-GH3 at 1/50 , f/ 2 , ISO 3200
DMC-GH3 at 1/50 , f/ 2 , ISO 3200

In the photo above, I created the shot with the M.Zuiko 12mm f/2, which is a 24mm equivalent in 35mm format, so a standard wide angle lens. To create an interesting bokeh with these kinds of lenses is not easy as the short focal length naturally reduces the possibility of a shallow depth of field. But the 12mm can focus relatively close, and combined with its fast f/2 aperture, you can achieve really nice results. In this case, I focused as close as I could on the locks. There were already some artificial lights on the bridge as the evening was approaching, and this gave me the opportunity to have a nice background with rounded bokeh circles.

With fast wide angle lenses, there is enough leeway to isolate your subject from the background, but it isn’t as easy to give a real three-dimensional perspective. A image that comes across as 3D will ultimately be the result of three factors: a) the type of background, b) the light and c) the subject in the foreground.

E-M5, 1/4000, f/ 2, ISO 200
E-M5, 1/4000, f/ 2, ISO 200 – M.Zuiko 12mm
E-M5, 1/100, f/ 2, ISO 200
E-M5, 1/100, f/ 2, ISO 200 – M.Zuiko 12mm f/2

As you can see from the photos above, focusing close is the only way to achieve a shallow depth of field and results may not always look as pleasant as we’d like. Increasing the focal length can help, but I would say that up to 25mm (50mm on full frame format), the chance of a very nice DoF is more limited.

Below, an example with the M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8

E-M1, 1/50, f/ 1.8, ISO 1600 - M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8
E-M1, 1/50, f/ 1.8, ISO 1600 – M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8

2. Use a fast lens

If you want a more attractive shallow DoF, you need to choose lenses with a very fast aperture for MFT. The choice isn’t as vast as a full frame reflex system, but there are a few lenses that are definitely worth checking out.

On the native lens side, there is the Lumix Leica 25mm f/1.4. It will give you an equivalent of 50mm on full frame format, so a standard angle of view lens. Its fast 1.4 aperture is enough to start playing around seriously with depth of field. Plus, the lens has been designed by Leica and has a little bit of that “Leica feel.”

If we turn our attention to third party manufacturers, there are also some very interesting manual focus lenses from Voigtländer with a very fast aperture of f/0.95.

E-M5, 1/640, f/2 , ISO 200Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95
E-M5, 1/640, f/2 , ISO 200
Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95

I only had the chance to try the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 (see our review here), but there are also the 17,5mm f/0.95 and the 42,5mm f/0.95. The 25mm is rather soft at its fastest aperture but being a manual focus lens, it is a very special lens to use. The results you can achieve are quite interesting, especially for the overall look it gives to the images. One great advantages of these lenses is the ability to focus relatively close, which can be an additional advantage for DoF as seen before.

E-M5, 1/1000, f/2 , ISO 200Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95
E-M5, 1/1000, f/2 , ISO 200
Voigtländer 25mm f/0.95

You can check out some nice samples of the 42.5mm f/0.95 on Pekka Potka’s website.

3. Use a long focal length

Of course the other option is to simply use a longer focal length, which by default will reduce the depth of field by reducing the field of view. There are many telephoto zoom lenses for MFT cameras but if we combine them with fast apertures, the chance of successfully achieving a pleasant bokeh certainly increases.

If we have a look at the portrait lenses, which have an equivalent focal length of around 85/90mm, there is the fabulous M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8, the Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95 and the Lumix Leica 45mm f/2.8 macro, which despite being designed for macro photography, can also be interesting for portraits. There is also the M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8, which is longer (150mm equivalent) but currently rated the best MFT lens ever. And with the imminent release of the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 (the fastest MFT lens with AF to date), the choice of fast medium telephoto lenses is getting vaster and vaster.

E-P3, 1/125, f/ 1.8, ISO 200
E-P3, 1/125, f/ 1.8, ISO 200 – M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8
DMC-GX7, 1/640, f/ 28/10, ISO 200
DMC-GX7, 1/640, f/ 28/10, ISO 200 – Leica DG Macro 45mm f/2.8
E-M5, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 800
E-M5, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 800 – Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8
E-M1, 1/100, f/ 28/10, ISO 1600
E-M1, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 1600 – M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8

Of course the results you have seen here comes all from very fast lenses but you can also achieve good results with your kit lens if you follow the tips and tricks explained before. Use the fastest aperture you have and focus close as you can. Using a telephoto zoom lens will increase the chances of a shallower depth of field even if it doesn’t have a fast constant aperture.

Pen E-P5, 1/640, f/ 5, ISO 100 - With 14-42mm kit lens
Pen E-P5, 1/640, f/ 5, ISO 100 – With 14-42mm kit lens

Conclusion: it is a question of lenses

As you can see, an attractive shallow depth of field is often if not always related to the lenses we use. As I often write, the camera body is important, the sensor in it is important but the most important thing to consider is the piece of glass you mount in front of it. A pleasant shallow depth of field will always come more easily from a fast prime lens or high quality lens with a constant aperture.

And remember, especially if you are a beginner, that you can always experiment at home with the gear you have to get an idea of what you can achieve and what the limits are. Below, you can see a final homemade example!

DMC-GX7, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 1600, 35mm
DMC-GX7, 1/100, f/ 2.8, ISO 1600, 35mm – Taken with the Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8

The moral of the story is that if you use the Micro Four Thirds system, achieving shallow depth of field in your pictures is less dependant on the camera and sensor size than it is on the lenses you choose to use with it.

To achieve an impressive shallow DoF, the lenses you ultimately select must have: the option of a very fast aperture (f/2.0 and faster) and a relatively long focal length (at least 45mm). Generally, primes are better than zooms unless the zoom has the option of a constant aperture like the 35-100mm f/2.8 mentioned above.

I tend to use these Micro Four Third lenses for my work as an event and wedding photographer.

Have an example of a photo taken with a Micro Four Thirds camera that has a shallow depth of field? Share it with us on our Flickr Page or in our Google Plus community!

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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Maxipes Fik

    Thank you, nice reading! As a note, although you have written it correctly, but I didn’t realize it you told it implicitly: yes, it’s the _field of view_ which decreases with the increasing FL, which causes most folks think that bigger FL produces shallower DoF. It’s not. Only aperture + distance changes the DoF, not the FL. The FL _compresses_ the given background @ the given DoF – and this _compression_ results in most people saying “wow, how shallow DoF is this” ;o).

  • Ben

    Thanks for the article. Many full-frame shooters might not consider these images examples of shallow DOF. I guess it’s all relative. In my experience, most cameras can achieve some kind of separation of subject/background, but the advantage of full-frame is doing this with wider lenses, at shorter distances and not always needing to be wide open. Some shallow DOF demos also seem to forget composition changes. But thanks for the tips and hats-off to the GH4 team for cramming so much great stuff in.

  • Jared

    Beautiful photos! Just one point though, this sentence doesn’t make sense:
    “Of course the other option is to simply use a longer focal length, which by default will reduce the depth of field by reducing the field of view”

    The longer focal lengths have larger apertures for the same f-stop. That’s why depth of field is reduced. You double the focal length for the same f-stop you are also doubling the aperture diameter, which quadruples the area that’s blurred for out-of-focus areas. (Coincidentally the aperture diameter has to go up to keep the same light gathering power because the field of view is smaller–a smaller solid angle of light gathered. So in that sense what you said makes sense but that doesn’t seem clear to me from your explanation.)

  • Michael

    Dear Heather,
    thanks, you will not believe, but it is in the middle of Hamburg, where is shot both.

  • Mathieu

    Hi Hans and thanks for commenting. I agree with you, there are several lenses that are not expensive. The M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 for example is a great low price / high quality deal. Heather had the chance to try the Nokton 50mm f/1.1 on the Pen E-P5 and it can work really well as a portrait lens, so the same can be applied to many 50mm lens as you said.

  • Hans

    Great article, thank you very much for posting. One thing I would suggest adding is that experimenting with shallow DOF using MFT does not have to be expensive (fast MFT primes can get somewhat pricey for a lot of users). Adapted legacy 50mm prime lenses in the f1.4-1.8 range can easily be found under $100 and are a great way to start (if you don’t mind the manual focusing). It’s a great focal length for portraits given the 2X crop factor.

    Thanks again, I enjoy your website!

  • Mathieu

    I think that the Pana 25mm 1.4 could be more appropriate to replace your Nikon 35mm. Or the new Olympus 25mm that will probably be cheaper.

  • Heather

    Beautiful shot, Michael! This one of yours is also gorgeous, and a great example of shallow DOF.

  • Michael

    Look here another sample of shallow depth of field with the E-M1

  • Guénaël

    Currently, I have a D300S + 35 F1.8 + 85 F1.8D + Tokina 12-24 F4
    I like landscape and portrait (no sport).

    I’m planning to buy an EM1 before summer.
    For the lenses, not sure but :
    – Oly 12 F2 for landscape (no need to a UGA because I like shooting pano)
    – Oly 17 F1.8 or 25 F1.8 (new) or Pana 25 F1.4 or … to replace my Nikon 35 F1.8
    – Oly 45 F1.8 for portrait

  • Mathieu

    Glad to be of help Guénaël. Which Nikon model do you own?

  • Guénaël

    Thanks for this excellent post.
    I’m still with my Nikon APSC and love shallow doth of field.
    I’m planning to migrate to MFT and your post is very usefull.
    Thanks again for your excellent website.

  • Peppe Baldo

    E vabbè, toccherà a me strafare dando fondo alle mie scarse conoscenze di inglese per tradurre gli articoli….
    A parte ciò vi seguo sempre con interesse e piacere.

  • Mathieu

    Ciao Peppe e grazie per il tuo commento. Ci piacerebbe molto rendere il sito bilingue ma ci porterebbe via troppo tempo. Già così dedichiamo al sito tutto il nostro tempo libero, non vogliamo strafare altrimenti rischiamo di sacrificare altri elementi più importanti. Quindi per il momento è una cosa che dobbiamo lasciare da parte.

  • Peppe Baldo

    Complimenti per gli articoli che trovo sempre chiari ed esaustivi però, visto le tue origini italiane, vorrei chiederti perchè non posti anche in Italiano?

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