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Tips & Tricks

Depth of Field, Demystified

By Michael Henson on December 14th 2014

Introduction

So, you’ve snagged a super sweet DLSR or even a nice point and shoot camera and you’re ready to start taking those incredible photos you’ve been visualizing for weeks now. You gather your family and friends, line them up against a cool background, snap what should be an outstanding photo and…disappointment. Maybe that background you expected to be blurred out with beautiful, soft textures (bokeh) is altogether too sharp and clear…or those photos of your Great Aunt Trudy has her nose perfectly in focus, but the rest of her face is unpleasantly blurred, which might not be a bad thing, but she doesn’t realize this and wants everything sharp.

Why did this happen? This is a travesty and, if you’re anything like me, you are immediately disappointed and begin thinking about taking up something less frustrating…like cross stitch or making those cute little cat videos for YouTube… Never fear! You’ve come to the right place!

DOF-Combo

What Is This Thing You Call ‘Depth of Field’ Anyway?

I’m glad you asked! Allow me to take a moment to explain. Depth of field (DOF), simply put, is the portion of your photo that is perfectly in focus. Due to the nature of camera components and the way they interact with light, every photo you take (with some random exceptions we won’t get into) will be impacted by your focal length, the distance to your subject (the object or person you are photographing) and your aperture. There are several mathematical calculations involved in determining exactly what depth of field you can expect, but as my goal is to make this subject a simple and easy to remember as possible, I’m going to forgo those explanations for today. If you have some free time and want to explore this in more depth, I’d recommend checking out an online depth of field calculator.

[REWIND: TIPS ON HOW TO ACHIEVE MASSIVE DEPTH OF FIELD]

Today, though, we’re keeping things simple and to the point. To break this somewhat complex interplay between your camera and light down into simpler concepts, remember:

  • Focal length: Greater focal length = shorter DOF.
    Distance to subject: Greater distance to subject = longer DOF.
    Aperture width: Wider aperture (smaller f number) = shorter DOF.

So, with that in mind and without further ado, let’s take a look at some photos!

Examples of Depth of Field

Here are some real world examples of varying depths of field along with an explanation of how it was achieved.

Distance to subject: approximately 1-2 feet, 200mm @ f8

Distance to subject: approximately 1-2 feet, 200mm @ f8

Here you can see the dragonfly is in focus, but the grass behind is completely out of focus and blurry. I was close when I snapped this photo and was using my telephoto lens to allow me to get really focused in on my subject. This combination of closeness to the subject and use of a zoom lens enabled this level of background separation even though my aperture was at a mid-range setting.

Distance to subject: approximately 2-3 feet, 50mm, f4

Distance to subject: approximately 2-3 feet, 50mm, f4

Here is an example of blurred background using my prime lens. Utilizing a lower aperture and getting close to my subject helped keep the face, snow, and ice sharp, but blurred out the background details that may have distracted from the shot.

Distance to subject: 8-10 feet, 55mm, f9

Distance to subject: 8-10 feet, 55mm, f9

Not only is this an example of “the decisive moment,” it is an example of a larger depth of field. This is achieved by being a bit further from the subject in the photo and by having a smaller aperture opening.

(Remember! Smaller aperture = larger f stop and vice versa.)

In order to see where depth of field begins to blur the background, look toward the upper right of the photo. There we begin to see the legs and feet of people walking past start to go out of focus. I would have preferred a smaller depth of field but this was a “let me test my manual setting really quick” shot of this boy running past me. I was so focused on getting settings nailed down that I didn’t even notice he’d fallen until I checked my screen and by then he was up and gone!

Distance to subject: 3-4 feet, 55mm, f11

Distance to subject: 3-4 feet, 55mm, f11

For good measure, here is another example with even greater depth of field. To capture this waterfall, I stood pretty close to the edge and shot alongside it while focusing midway across. Because I had a mid-range focal length and had my aperture opening pretty small, all the features in the photo are recognizable. You can clearly see the wall in the background and the rest of the waterfall in the foreground.

DOF-1

Distance to subject: approximately 1-2 feet, 200mm, f6.3

Here is an example of how distance and focal length can impact your depth of field. The closer you are to your subject, the more likely you are to blur out the foreground and background of your photo. That probability increases as you increase your focal length by zooming in. I was less than two feet from Mr. Bug here (close enough for him to stare back at me) and had my lens extended all the way. Even though my aperture was set to a mid-range value of f6.3, the fore and backgrounds are pretty blurry, helping the eye focus on the subject in the center of the frame.

From these photos you can clearly see that with minimal effort and a basic understanding of how to control just a single component of your camera, you are able to completely change the texture and appearance of your photos.

DOF-Flowers

Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?

You’ve purchased a camera, you’re out there taking photos, and you’ve made your way to one of the premier resources for all things photography on the web, so I know you want to learn how to create eye-popping photos! With that in mind, here’s an assignment that will help you take your photo taking skills to the next level…

Do this…

Set your camera mode to aperture priority (“A” on Nikon, “Av” on Canon) and work on creating that nice separation from the background. Focus on the ways of doing so that we discussed today.

  • Set your aperture opening a bit wider
  • Play with focal length (zoom in and out)
  • Take the time to step a little bit closer to your subject.

You’ll quickly get the hang of it and be sharing photos that have all your friends praising your photography skills on the social media platform of your choice!

If you’re new to photography, check out the new SLR Lounge Photography 101 DVD – your A-Z guide to photography.

Michael Henson is a St. Louis based photographer obsessed with everything creative. His photography interests span genres from still life to sports. When he’s not running around with his face to the camera or behind a keyboard writing, you can typically find a guitar in his hands or catch him out enjoying life with his family and friends.

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9 Comments

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  1. Basit Zargar

    love it

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  2. Mihai Dan Mustea

    Hi Michael! I’d add also the size of the film/sensor into the equation and we have all the four variables affecting the DOF.
    Thank you and keep doing a great job!

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    • MICHAEL HENSON

      Great point! That’s certainly not a factor that most consider when examining depth of field. Thanks for the reminder and for the kind words!

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  3. Dre Rolle

    Love the detail you put into this article Michael. You did a awesome job breaking DOF down into its simplest points.

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    • MICHAEL HENSON

      Thanks! That was my goal with this…to distill what can be a difficult to understand concept into a few practical steps that anyone can implement. Glad to hear that came across! Thank you!

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  4. MICHAEL HENSON

    Agreed!

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  5. William Emmett

    Depth of field, is one of the subjects I find most people do not even consider when shooting the statues, monuments, and each other when in New Orleans. After learning, and seeing the difference in their shots they actually impress themselves. Some my clients try shooting Street Photography, and they really see a difference in their results, and take the new knowledge home with them. One in particular has had photos published in a national magazine since I showed him how to use DOF in his photos. DOF is one of those things to be aware of when shooting, it can be the difference between a snapshot, or a piece of artwork.

    WE

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  6. Steven Pellegrino

    Nice article & photos Michael.

    I know that waterfall! CityGarden is one of my favorite places to shoot when I’m downtown.

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    • MICHAEL HENSON

      Thanks! City Garden is definitely a picturesque place to visit. Love the downtown area!

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