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Arts & Entertainment

How to Use a Deep Focus Shot When Making a Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 21, 2020 • 3 min read

When film directors and cinematographers want every element of their shot to be in focus, they employ a technique known as deep focus cinematography.

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What Is Deep Focus?

In filmmaking, deep focus refers to a technique where all elements of an image—foreground, middleground, and background—are all in sharp focus. This technique helps directors imbue their shots with detail.

Why Do Directors Use Deep Focus?

Directors use deep focus for scenes that involve important activity in both the foreground and the background of the picture. Directors call this form of staging "deep space" or "deep staging" because it involves the placement of actors, props, and set pieces at great depth. For such a shot to work, a director must be able to capture a clearly focused image. A deep focus shot will allow such clarity.

How to Achieve Deep Focus Cinematography

How to Achieve Deep Focus Cinematography

You can capture deep focus shots with the following camera adjustments:

  • Large depth of field: Depth of field is the distance in an image where objects appear acceptably in focus or have a level of acceptable sharpness. A large or deep depth of field will bring a longer distance into focus.
  • Small aperture: Aperture the hole in the middle of the camera lens which allows light to pass onto a digital camera’s image sensor or the film strip on a film camera. A small aperture allows less light to reach the sensor, which helps create a longer depth of field.
  • Small camera sensor: A camera sensor collects incoming light when the shutter opens. Cameras with smaller sensors have larger depths of field because they allow for shorter focal lengths.
  • Short focal length: Focal length is the distance between the point of convergence of your lens and the sensor recording the image. Shorter focal length lenses are called wide-angle lenses because they allow you to get a wider field of view and deeper focus in one image.

Note that these elements are interrelated. For instance, you can pair a lens with a short focal length with a larger camera sensor or a wider aperture, you can still achieve a relatively deep focus; or, you can combine the short lens with a small sensor and narrow aperture for an even deeper focus.

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Deep Focus vs. Shallow Focus: What’s the Difference?

Images shot in shallow focus require shallow depths of field, lenses with long focal lengths, and wide apertures. Deep focus images require short focal lengths, narrow apertures, and deep depths of field. Images with shallow focus tend to feature sharply defined foreground figures and blurry backgrounds, making them perfect for close-ups and brief shots with minimal visual information. Shots with deep focus draw a viewer’s attention to all corners of a deeply staged shot and are more visually dense.

Deep Focus Examples: 3 Filmmakers Who Use Deep Focus

Many great filmmakers have achieved breathtaking shots in deep focus.

  1. Alfred Hitchcock: From Dial M for Murder to The Man Who Knew Too Much to Psycho, the master of suspense loved staging actors on distant planes, which necessitated deep focus photography.
  2. Sergio Leone: The king of spaghetti westerns used deep focus to portray vast landscape shots in films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
  3. Brian de Palma: Highly committed to experimentation, de Palma made use of a device called a split-focus diopter (sometimes shortened to split diopter) for his film Blow Out, which allowed wide shots to focus on a foreground object on one side of the frame and a background object on the other side of the frame. A split diopter doesn't produce deep focus in the purest sense, but it permits a similar level of detail in a director's staging.

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