Photoshop: Combining Shots to have Shallow DOF

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Often when I am shooting a car show, I am simply shooting the car with my 28mm f/1.8 at f/2 to f/2.8. This gives me a shallow depth-of-field (DOF) to my shots, which is sometimes referred to as “background blur”. I get a lot of questions on how to do it, and it is really simple, but there are other ways to shoot and keep the car sharp, while blurring the background. One way that I see people do it is that they shoot a sharp shot, then try to use Photoshop or Lightroom’s clarity and sharpness sliders with the brush tool to fake a DOF blur. I never do this, as it always looks too fake to me. Instead, I use multiple shots, and combine them in post-processing.

The easiest method to keep the car sharp while getting a shallow DOF without faking the DOF with clarity or sharpness controls in Photoshop involves shooting 2 different shots – one with a shallow depth of field, and one with a long depth of field.

First, we put the camera on the tripod, and frame the shot. Then we set the camera to Aperture priority mode, and set the aperture to f/1.8 and focus on the front bumper. We have to be close to the car to throw the rest of the car, and the background out of focus (blur). Once we have accomplished this, we switch the autofocus off, to manual focus. then, we take the shot.

Shot 1
Shot 1 was shot at f/1.8 with the focus being on the bumper.

Without changing any other settings or moving the camera, we change the Aperture setting to a higher aperture number. In this case, I used f/11 to exaggerate the difference. With no other changes, you click the remote and take the shot (yes, you should use a remote shutter release. Get one, they are cheap.)

This shot will be sharp, and with have everything in focus. For the sake of this article, I used just the JPEGs produced by the camera, with no post-processing.

Shot 2
Shot 2 was shot at f/11 with the focus being on the bumper.

To get out final shot, we open both shots in Photoshop, and copy the second shot and place it on a new layer over the first shot. Then we hide the layer, and paint the car with white to reveal the top layer. Only paint the car, not it’s shadow, and not the background or pavement. Because we want the focus to be on the car, we only paint it. It will take a few minutes to do a photo, so you don’t do this for every photo from a car show (I sure don’t). When you are done, you have a final shot that has the car sharp, but the background blurred.

I hurried this one and didn’t do a really good job, as it is just an example, but this should be enough for you to see what you can do with your own shots. I exaggerated the effect by using f/1.8 and f/11, but I suggest that you start with f/2 for your shallow DOF shot, and with f/4 or f/5.6 for the car shot. Additionally, if you have to be farther back and get too much of the background in focus, you can cheat by manually focusing, and intentionally putting the entire shot OOF, and then combine them.

Combined Shot
Combined Shot of Shot 1 and 2

2 Replies to “Photoshop: Combining Shots to have Shallow DOF”

  1. I was hoping you’d have a howto for the method that produced these excellent shots. I was at the show on Sunday…first time. Brought my new Focus ST and was hoping you captured it, but alas….no dice. The best camera I own is a Canon SX40HS, which won’t do an aperture that low, even in AP mode. I’ll try your method with the lowest aperture I can muster. I guess it’s ime to upgrade!

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