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Depth of Field explained

| November 5, 2009 | 9 Comments
Depth of Field is one of the well guarded creative secrets of the professional art photographers. It is often used to create stunning landscapes, perfect portraits, dreamy abstracts, and deliver impact to otherwise dull images. Check out why DOF is one of the most powerful weapons in a creative photographer’s arsenal.

What is Depth of Field ?

Depth of Field - Shallow vs Deep

Depth of Field - Shallow vs Deep

Depth of Field (DOF) is the term used to describe the areas before and beyond the point of focus that appear sharp. Although the lens can precisely focus only at one distance, the degradation in sharpness in the areas in front and rear of the focused distance is too subtle to be visible to the human eye. It is the area around the subject of focus that look sharp that we say that they are within DOF.

Depending on various factors depth of field can be small or large.

Small (shallow) depth of field means basically that only a small portion of the area around subject will appear sharp, while everything else will appear fuzzy (top example).

Large depth of field means that most of the image area will appear sharp, regardless of the chosen subject to focus on (bottom example).

Why is depth of field so important ?
Controlling the DOF gives the photographer creative freedom do control which areas of the photo should be in sharp focus, and which shall be blurred (out of focus). Although it does not sound like a big deal, it is a powerful tool when composing an image. Ever heard the expression less is more ? This is especially true in portraits.

Deer after a good meal

Deer after a good meal

If you examine deer portrait to the left you will notice that while the deer is in sharp focus, the background is blurred, to make sure that it does not distract the viewer. This is one of the ways a photographer can emphasize the subject by making it visually stand out.

In the following section is the pictogram describing how this photo was taken. The main point was to use shallow DOF to make sure that the background is out of focus. This will often be the case for most portraits.

Landscapes usually follow exactly the opposite rule, and try to maximize DOF as much as possible. This will ensure that the beauty of the environment is captured in all its glory.

How to control depth of field ?

These are the key factors that regulate the depth of field:

  1. Subject placing
  2. Lens focal length
  3. Lens aperture (f-stop)
  4. Sensor size on your digital camera

All of those components work together towards obtaining the creative effect the photographer tries to achieve. So, how do specific components impact DOF ?

DOF Distance setup

DOF Distance setup

Subject placing – basically, a rule of thumb is, the closer your main subject is to your lens and further it is from its background, the smaller the chance that both of them will be within the same DOF. You can use this rule if you want to visually separate your subject from the background and make it stand out.

Lens focal length – generally speaking, the rule here is that lens with longer the focal length have shallower depth of field, and vice versa. Although this rule is most used with digital cameras that use interchangeable lens, such as dSLRs, and some prosumer models, users with digital compact cameras can too benefit from this rule. How ? Simply put, if your digital compact camera has ANY optical zoom (the more the better), make sure that you zoom all the way in when taking a photo.

Lens aperture – if you do not know what aperture (f-number) is, please check out our article about aperture first. In terms of depth of field, note that increasing the aperture (lowering f/nr) lowers the DOF. So, the same lens at aperture of f/2,8 has much shallower depth of field then at f/11. For the cameras that do not allow control over aperture such as compacts, putting the camera in portrait mode (for taking portraits of people), will increase the aperture, resulting in shallower DOF. Also if you want larger DOF, put the camera in the mode for photographing landscapes.

Sensor size – various cameras come with different sensor sizes. We will not discuss all sensor sizes, as it would draw focus from the article. Suffice to say, assuming we use the same lens on cameras with different sensor size (e.g. dSLRs with APS-C and full frame sensors), the camera with smaller sensor will experience larger depth of field.

To summarize:
If you are a digital SLR user and want:

  • large DOF (all sharp) – use lens with smaller focal length (wide angle lens (18mm) to normal (50mm)), set to small apertures (e.g. f/11-f/32)
  • shallow DOF (blur background) – use longer focal length lens (telephoto welcome (75mm and over)) set to wide aperture (e.g. f/2.8-f/5.6), and make sure there is sufficient dista
    nce
    between your main subject and its background.

… and if you are a digital compact user:

  • large DOFzoom all the way out, set camera to landscape preset, to maximize effect
  • shallow DOFzoom all the way in, set camera to portraits preset, and make sure there is sufficient distance between your main subject and its background.

Handy DOF Tools

There are more and more tools and gadgets available to help photographers and enthusiasts alike. We have browsed a web to check out if there are any that are handy with helping calculate DOF. This is what we have stumbled upon:

1. There is an excellent online calculator for calculating the DOF:
DOF Master’s Depth-of-Field Calculator – just input your camera, lens, and other parameters and it calculates the nearest point in focus, the furthest and hyperfocal distance. Only remark is that you have to have Internet access in order to use it. But it’s cool.

DOF Calculator

DOF Calculator

2. If you prefer more hands on, and a tool you can take with you, be sure to check out ExpoAperture, Depth of Field Guide Combo Pack from ExpoImaging.

3. If you are one of the lucky iPhone users, be sure to check out iFotobacus application.

How to creatively use depth of field ?
There are numerous ways to creatively use depth of field, limited only by your imagination. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Create sensual flower macros (soft focus=shallow DOF)
2. Razor sharp landscapes (large DOF – use hyperfocal distance)
3. Take a photo of a person just slightly out of focus
4. Practice portraits until you get the hang of it

Pink flower macro

Pink flower macro

Mljet the Stunning

Mljet the Stunning

Python

Python

Bee on a flower

Bee on a flower

Go out there and experiment. And let us know how it went ;-). Post comments and share your experiences with others.

More resources on DOF

Photographic Mulishot Techniques

Photographic Mulishot Techniques

Exposure Workshop

Exposure Workshop

If you would like to know more about depth of field, and some of the techniques how to extend it (i.e. through multiple exposure) we suggest to check out the following books:
1. Photographic Multishot Techniques: High Dynamic Range, Super-Resolution, Extended Depth of Field, Stitching

2. Exposure Photo Workshop: Develop Your Digital Photography Talent


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Category: Beginners Photography, Photography Lessons

About the Author (Author Profile)

Alan Graf is the editor and founder of Digital Photography Student. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and is also editor of CRO-Wallpapers.com – a Croatian wallpaper archive, and his own photo gallery at http://www.alangraf.com.

Comments (9)

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  1. Great post! This is an area I am coming to terms with the fact that I need to know more technically. Esp about how to work out the working distance from the lens and then the actual physical distance of DOF you have with a certain lens/aperture combination.

  2. Grunf says:

    Thx lensaddiction for your comment. Assuming that you know what is the DOF for your lens/aperture combination (on some prime lens you can read it from the lens itself, or you obtain it otherwise), a good rule of thumb is that the sharp focus is retained within 1/3 DOF distance ahead of focused subject, and 2/3 DOF distance behind it.

  3. […] I have used Pentax K-7 with 50mm f/2.8 macro lens, set to f/4.0 for maximum sharpness with still shallow depth of field, and manual focus. I have also used live-view for composing the shot, and micro-managing focus. The […]

  4. […] 1. You get a chance to see how your actual photo will look like – as much as I am aware that some pros might not agree, live view is as close as you will get to seeing the actual photo as possible, without pressing the shutter button. Some dSLR camera’s viewfinders do not offer 100% coverage. That means that the fence, or the reflector, that you tried so hard to keep just out of the picture, might still end up there. On the other hand, live view is pretty much, what you see is what you get, with the exception of depth of field. […]

  5. […] a more detailed guide, please check our Depth of Field Explained […]

  6. […] easy to get all involved in the technical aspects of a photography, such as aperture, shutter, ISO, depth of field, etc without even realizing that the most important aspect of photography is slipping away: […]

  7. […] Learn more about Aperture Priority mode. What is Aperture, and how does it affect photos. What is depth of field (DOF) and how to use it creatively to separate your subject from background. Aperture Priority mode […]

  8. […] used creative modes among digital photography enthusiasts, since it provides a direct control over depth of field (DOF), which is one of the most important compositional elements to consider when making a photo. […]

  9. whoah this blog is fantastic i really like reading yor articles.
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