Just how out of focus does every background need to be?

We photographed this image of Selena at Willy Nelson's small Texas town (he's moved a bunch of cool, old, Texas buildings to a ranch somewhere outside of Austin (NDA signed....). It's a popular location for period movies about Texas. Selena had a band called, "Rosie and the Ramblers" and she needed some publicity shots. And there we were.

At the time I was playing around with some Canon 1D mk3 cameras and a complement of Canon glass and I could have easily used a wide open aperture to make all the details in the background nothing more than a blurry wash of colors. It would have been in keeping with the prevailing compulsion among photographers to make everything into a bokeh experiment. But, practical person that I am I assumed that we get permission and travel out to a cool, private ranch just to blur the background into anonymity so I stopped the lens down a bit until I got a balance between emphasis on Selena's face and some descriptive texture in the background.

There's also a bit of flash being used to make the photo but I tried to make that as invisible as possible.

Could I have done the same shot with a m4:3 sensor camera? You bet. Could I have done it with a full frame camera? Yes, of course. The idea though is that neither format would have been demonstrably "better." Each would have resolved the detail we needed for every application we intended for the files. Each could be color corrected into the right box. We just had to decide what was important in the overall look and select the controls that would make the image happen the way we wanted it to.

It was a windy day and that was something we could not control. Saved us from having to rent a wind machine to blow Selena's hair around...


  1. This whole every portrait must have razor thin DOF is so tiresome. It's allowed the lens manufacturers to sell a boat load of fast lenses with magic bokeh as photographers look for the holy grail. I look forward to photographers starting to use a more intelligent and thoughtful approach to portraiture and tailor the DOF to an approach that tells us a bit about the person and possibly their environment if that is part of the story.

  2. Having taken a few people photos over the past year.... The depth of field has to be exactly right for the subject to look like they are popping out of the photo. I made that happen exactly once 8-/.... I think it’s a bit hit and miss if portraits aren’t your bread and butter.

  3. Everything comes together here very well. The colours in her shirt and the colours in the roof, a very attractive woman, but suggesting a strong personality. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but it looks like she would be tough enough to be a success in the old west hinted at in the background. (And (strike this if I'm being too non-PC) she looks like she would be taking no crap from all the men who have recently been in the news, and who have manipulated and preyed on those women who are more easily intimidated.)

    Terrible name for a band though!
    Peter Wright.

  4. Hi Kirk,

    normally, I'm reading your blog with an RSS-feeder but today I want to leave a "thank you note".

    I really like your work. A lot of today's rules are tomorrow's mistakes. Sure, a narrow DOF is nice, when I'm concentrating on the model's eyes. But why working at an interesting location when it's blurred out completely.


  5. When I started learning about photography in high school the 70's, fast lenses were discussed in the magazines as an expense to by borne should you need to shoot in very low light.

    Now no self respecting wedding wannabe will set out without their 50 f1.2, 85 f1.2, 35 f1.4 and a computer full of presets designed to smack style into their images.
    Optional upgrade: Medium format film camera from Ebay with color neg film processed and scanned to achieve a look that pros would have been shot for delivering.
    I know you know this but it is rue that in the 70's ,80's and 90's we strived to make our film images look almost as good as the best phone images today.


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