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After Effects Tip: Simulating Shallow Depth of Field


When you’re faced with a plain looking shot that’s severely lacking in depth, this quick After Effects tip can help transform your image.

Shallow depth of field may be overused at times, but there’s no denying that a nice soft background and selective focus truly make for a pleasing image. After all, that’s why the look became so popular in the first place. With that said, there may be times when you’re editing footage (whether it’s your own or not), and find yourself faced with a pretty boring looking shot that doesn’t have much dimension to it.

For the record, I wouldn’t ever advise simulating depth of field in post unless you absolutely need to. The best results when it comes to selective focus will, of course, always be had in camera, not in the editing room. But in a pinch, having the ability to create an organic shallow DOF look in post is a nice trick to have up your sleeve.

After Effects Tip: Simulating Shallow Depth Of Field - Depth of Field Photo
Image from Shutterstock

If you are faced with a problem shot that you desperately need to add some selective focus to, using After Effects is absolutely an option. However, you need to make sure that the shot you are bringing in to After Effects makes sense for a shallow DOF look. Certain source images may be framed or lensed in a way where only deep DOF really would be possible in camera, so if you are working with a shot like that, simulating DOF may only make things worse.

But in scenarios where you’re working with suitable source material, here are a few easy steps you can take in After Effects to achieve that shallow DOF look:

1. Import and Add an Adjustment Layer

With your footage imported into After Effects, start off by creating a new composition with an adjustment layer on top of your source footage.

Depth of Field Step 1

2. Add Blur

Select your top layer (adjustment layer) and add a blur effect to it. I typically use gaussian blur, but you are welcome to test out any number of the built-in blur filters on After Effects to find the one that suits your taste.

Dial up the blur setting until you reach a reasonable point, but be sure not to go overboard. You want to add enough blur that the effect is noticeable, but not so much that it feels synthetic or artificial.

Depth of Field Step 2

3. Add a Mask

In most situations, a custom mask will work best, but in some cases you might be able to get away with a circular mask. Either way, you want to create this mask on your adjustment layer and center it around the subject or object that you want in focus, and then invert the mask. This will allow you to limit where the blur is affecting the frame, ultimately leaving as much of your subject in focus as possible, while letting the blur mainly affect the background.

Depth of Field Step 3

4. Feather

Adjust the amount of feathering on your mask until you find a nice organic rolloff. The idea here is to eliminate the obvious harsh cutoff between in-focus and out-of-focus elements in the frame. Be aware though… as you feather your mask, you may also need to expand or shrink it to compensate for the effects of the feather.

Depth of Field Step 4

5. Adjust Opacity

This step is somewhat optional. If you’re happy with the look at this point, you can stop. But if it’s still not looking quite real enough, try adjusting the opacity of your adjustment layer so that the blur effect is less pronounced.

Depth of Field Step 5

As I mentioned before, simulating DOF is certainly never going to a replacement for the real thing. But when you’re in a pinch, it you can certainly get close with the right approach in After Effects.

Depth of Field Example