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Understanding Depth of Field for Beginners

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Understanding depth of field in photography.
You may have heard the term depth of field (DoF), but if you are new to photography you may not yet be taking advantage of how DoF can enhance your photos. A basic definition of depth of field is: the zone of acceptable sharpness within a photo that will appear in focus. In every picture there is a certain area of your image in front of, and behind the subject that will appear in focus.

This zone will vary from photo to photo. Some images may have very small zones of focus which is called shallow depth of field. Others may have a very large zone of focus which is called deepdepth of field. Three main factors that will affect how you control thedepth of field of your images are: aperture (f-stop), distance from the subject to the camera, and focal length of the lens on your camera. Here are some explanations and answers to other common questions concerningdepth of field.

How does aperture control depth of field?

Aperture refers to the access given to light from the lens to the camera sensors. The size of your aperture (the diameter of the hole through which light enters the camera) controls the amount of light entering your lens. Using the aperture (f-stop) of your lens is the simplest way to control your depth of field as you set up your shot.

Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallow (small) depth of field
Small aperture = Larger f-number = Deeper (larger) depth of field

It may be easier to remember this simple concept: The lower your f-number, the smaller your depth of field. Likewise, the higher your f-number, the larger your depth of field. For example, using a setting of f/2.8 will produce a very shallow depth of field while f/11 will produce a deeper DoF.

The image on the left was captured at 250th of a second at F5.0 which resulted in a very shallow depth of field,

The image on the left was captured at 250th of a second at f/5.0 which resulted in a very shallow depth of field.  Because of this the background is out of focus allowing the subject to stand out. The image on the right was captured at 1/5th of a second at f/32 which created a deep depth of field and a sharper background.

How does distance control depth of field?

The closer your subject is to the camera, the shallower your depth of field becomes. Therefore, moving further away from your subject will deepen your depth of field.

How does the focal length of a lens control depth of field?

Focal Length refers to the capability of a lens to magnify the image of a distant subject. This can get complicated, but the simple answer is that the longer you set your focal length the shallower the depth of field. Example: Your subject is 10 meters (33 feet) away, using a focal length of 50mm at f/4; your depth of field range would be from 7.5 -14.7 meters (24.6-48 feet) for a total DOF of 7.2 meters (23.6 feet). If you zoom into 100mm from the same spot, the depth of field changes to 9.2-10.9m (30.1-35.8′) for a total of 1.7m (5.7′) of depth of field. But if you move to 20m (66′) away from your subject using the 100mm lens, your depth of field is almost the same as it would be at 10 meters using a 50mm lens.

Image of a swan hiding in the tall grass captured from about 5 meters with 300 mm focal length created a DOF only about 5cm.

This image of a swan hiding in the tall foliage was captured from about 5m (16′)  with a 300mm focal length lens. This combination of focal length and distance created a depth of field of approximately 5cm (2″).

What if I just have a point and shoot camera, or don’t know how to change those settings?

Even with a point and shoot camera, there are ways to control your depth of field. In the Scene Modes menu, look for a symbol of a human head, which is the setting for portraits. This will give you a narrow depth of field. In the same menu there is also a mountain symbol, which is a setting for landscapes, which will give you a deeper depth of field.

If you are a beginner with a DSLR there are some simple ways you can control depth of field and still use and automatic shooting mode. By choosing Aperture Priority mode you can set your aperture to get the depth of field that you want, and the camera will automatically set the shutter speed.

Can I set the depth of field exactly for each situation?

Yes, but because changing your aperture affects your shutter speed, the result may not meet the needs of your image. For instance, if you are trying to increase your depth of field by reducing aperture size you will also need to increase (slow down) your shutter speed which could make your image blurry. Understanding how all these settings work together can increase your control over depth of field.

Is depth of field equally distributed in front and back of my focus point?

No, it’s usually about one third in front and two thirds behind your focal point, but as your focal length increases it becomes more equal.

How will understanding depth of field improve my images?

Managing depth of field is one of the most important tools at your disposal, because having tack sharp images is one of the most important factors to getting that great shot. Knowing how to make the parts of your image you want sharp and the parts you want to be out of focus, is a great artistic tool to create great images.

Getting the right DOF for your shot can make the difference

Getting the right depth of field for your shot can make all the difference.

When should I use a shallow depth of field?

Using a shallow depth of field is a good way to make your subject stand out from its background and is great for portrait photography. Shallow DoF can also be useful in wildlife photography, where you want the subject to stand out from its surroundings. This is also useful because many wildlife photo opportunities are low light situations, and increasing your aperture size will give you more light. Shallow depth of field is also effective for sports photography where many times you want to separate the athlete from the background to bring attention to them. The result of this should also help give you a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

This image captured at 300mm focal length and F/ produced a very shallow DOF. Because of this very shallow DOF it is important to set your focal point on the eye. Notice how the bird appears to pop out from the background.

This image captured at 300mm focal length and f/5.6 produced a very shallow depth of field. Because of this, it is important to set your focal point on the subject’s eye. Notice how the bird pops out from the background.

When should I use deeper depth of field?

In landscape photography it is important to get as much of your scene in focus as possible. By using a wide angle lens and a small aperture you will be able maximize your depth of field to get your scene in focus.

In this landscape captured at 50mm at F/16 Focus point was set at 8 meters which made everything from 4 meters to infinity in focus

This landscape was captured with a 50mm focal length at f/16. The focus point was set at 8 meters, which made everything from 4 meters to infinity in focus.

How can you determine depth of field?

There are several on-line sites that will provide depth of field charts for your camera and lenses. Also, there are a number of apps available for smart phone users that can calculate it for you while you’re in the field. Most cameras have a DoF preview button which will give you a preview as you look through the eye piece. (This is probably the easiest and most under-utilized method.) Using this button may cause your image to appear darker as you view it through the eye piece, but not to worry. Your image will be properly exposed as long as you have the correct exposure settings.

Can depth of field be adjusted to get everything in focus?

Yes, using what is called the hyperfocal distance. When you are focused at the hyperfocal distance, your depth of field will extend from half the distance to your focal point to infinity. Use a DOF calculator to find your hyperfocal distance. If you don’t have a DoF calculator, a good rule of thumb is to focus a third of the way into the scene. Using an aperture of about f/11 or higher with a wide angle lens will maximize your depth of field.

What about depth of field in macro photography?

Because most macro images are produced in low light and with a longer focal length, the depth of field is often very shallow. Adjust your lens to the smallest aperture that the light will allow. It may also be necessary to increase your ISO to allow you to properly expose the image and to maximize your depth of field. Still, in many macro images your DoF may be very minute. With this very narrow focus it becomes necessary to use a tripod, because even the slightest movement of the camera will move your macro subject outside your depth of field.

120 mm Marco at F8 still is a very shallow DOF with the lens only 15 cm from the focal point on the front flower.

This 120 mm macro even at f/8 still has a very shallow depth of field.

What is bokeh?

Bokeh (boh-ke) comes from the Japanese word meaning blur. This effect is produced by the out-of-focus areas in your image that are beyond the depth of field. Bokeh commonly refers to the pleasing circle shapes caused by the shape of the lens aperture. Usually created when shooting with your aperture wide open, such as f/2.8, bokeh can also be created with smaller apertures if the background is distant enough.

Bokeh in this image caused by the distance from the subject to the background which fell well beyond the DOF

Bokeh in this image was created by the distance of the subject to the background, which fell well beyond the depth of field.

To summarize controlling depth of field:

Increase depth of field

  • Narrow your aperture (larger f-number)
  • Move farther from the subject
  • Shorten focal length

Decrease depth of field

  • Widen your aperture (smaller f-number)
  • Move closer to the subject
  • Lengthen your focal length

Take control of your depth of field. Understanding how these adjustments control your it will greatly improve your photography. What questions do you have about depth of field? Please share your photos and comments.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Rob P

    Just to clarify a few points. Aperture is not actually “the diameter of the hole through which light enters the camera” – it’s the ratio of the focal length of the lens divided by the diameter. When you change the aperture by 1 stop, you are doubling or cutting in half the AREA of the hole, not the diameter of the of the whole. Yes, that means using Pi (eek, math!)

    So the f-number is an expression of that area. For example, f/1.4 on my Nikon 50mm lens…. The diameter if I measure it is just about 36mm. And the 50mm is the focal length. So 50/36 = 1.389 (um, let’s call it 1.4 and be friends).

    I like to tell students that they should think of the f-number as a fraction, like f over 2 or f over 4. Then it makes sense because f/2 is bigger than f/4 (just as 1/2 is bigger than 1/4). So the bigger “looking” f-number is really a smaller looking f-number.

  • Michael Owens

    Not for me. I don’t want to do math when a simple “hole is bigger, hole is smaller” analogy works just fine.

  • Miriam Poling

    Another great article, Bruce!

  • Amy Baker

    I agree with Michael!

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  • bv

    I personally think of it a different way to try and avoid the confusion. I don’t consider the F-number as the size of the opening, I refer to the size of the cover. Large F number, large cover (low light, concentrated beam reaching far).

    Low number, low cover. wide beam traveling short distance.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Yes, but… it often confuses people to think that a bigger aperture means a smaller f number and vice versa. I prefer to use the terms lower/higher f number – then a lower f number means a shallower depth of field. Like a pond, how deep is the water? Only (f)1.4, so it is shallow, or (f)11 so it is deeper.

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  • Lakshman

    smaller the f number -more light AND Bigger number less light..
    smaller the f number less DOF AND Bigger number more DOF..
    smaller the focal length more DOF AND Bigger the focal length less DOF

    nearer the focusing distance less DOF AND Longer the focusing distance more DOF

  • Ashok

    I agree with you Large number, large cover. Easy to remember & no confusion. Great idea. Thank you.

  • Michael Owens

    Yes. It can confuse, but once you know that big is small in this instance, it’s like flying a plane, up is aftially down.

    It’s just about the brain understanding. Simple in a heartbeat, even for the lamen. In my opinion that is. Each to their own and all that.

  • Maxmilion

    I liked the math made more sense to me. Thank you

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Good point Rob, There is both science and math involved in photograph.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    good points, but there is more to DOF then just F-stops, don’t forget focal length and distance to subject

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Don’t forget you about focal length and distance to subject 🙂

  • I totally understand the “Bokeh” as you described, but the image you showed is erroneous to the description. In the image you showed of not only the out of focus areas but also showed “Circles of Confusion (C of C).” Granted they are both (Bokeh and C of C) created by the same aberration of the lens, but the visual effect is strikingly different. This misunderstanding is rampant among those who use the internet for information, this results in confusing and misunderstood concepts. Please make a more clearer distinction between the two.

  • Michael Owens

    I have to say ‘what the hell are you on about?’, as nothing in that article was confusing or misleading because ‘we use the Internet’.

    I find your attitude towards that sentence as farcical. 99% of amateurs will get their information online. Are you some sort of printed word police?

    Pointless.

  • Oh Michael, I’m devastated by your verbage rage towards me. If you study the image (as I stated) and read the article you will then understand what I was discussing. The distinction between the two effects of the lens aberration is quite clearly visible. But to call “Circles of Confusion” Bokeh is erroneous. The reason being is they are two very distinctly different visuals. If you don’t know the difference between them I would highly suggest you get a book (dated pre 1980) on Photography and read up on the subject of “Circles of Confusion.” In this you’ll have a rewarding cognition of what photography is all about. As far as using the internet … I suggest you find those who have been around photography as long as I have or longer, but we’re getting to be fewer by the day. I would also like to suggest that in the future, you might find a more softer “tone” in your communications to be more beneficial.

  • Michael Owens

    Softer tone? You mean instead of being condescending and forceful?

    Look at yourself, before judging others.

    If what’s written here is of that importance to you, become a contributor here and tell us all your version of photography pre 1980.

    I actually think its YOU who has a problem here, you hate the fact that modernisation has depleted you of your book learnt skills and you abhor the Internet for it.

    I’d call that irony personally.

  • Michael, what is you photographic background?

  • Michael Owens

    Usually bokeh.
    /irony

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Hi Robert, Technically you are correct, the circles are caused by the Circle of Confusion, but since they appear in the out-of -focus area of an images most people would consider them as part of the bokeh. I was trying to keep this article simple enough for the beginner photographers to understand. I debated weather to even include bokeh in this article because of the confusion I was afraid it could create.
    Everyone, debating the subject is a good thing, but let’s keep it to a friendly level of engagement please.
    Thanks
    Bruce

  • Bruce, thank you for your much welcomed reply. As I originally stated the Bokeh and “C of C” are created by the same abnormalities of the lens but their visual appearance are distinctly different. There seems to be a general consensus on the internet that both are one and the same and to an optical engineer they are. But, we as artists trying to ply the trade of a Photographic Artist they are very different. My point is that the article was quite succinct but the image wasn’t in step with it. That is all, nothing more.
    I, however, found the attack that was made on me that was without regards to they’re having researched the subject most uncalled for and quite devastating. I have maintained a gentle decorum and will continue to do so.
    Again thank you for welcomed reply.
    Robert

  • Michael Owens

    lol I’m always friendly, banter (or wit) is what keeps us fresh 🙂

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks Michael. I really appreciate all your comments on my articles.

  • Phil

    and distance from subject to background.

  • Michael Owens

    Bokeh usually…

    /irony

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  • Smaller f number = shallower depth/larger f number = greater depth, again smaller f number = wider aperture/larger f number = narrower aperture …and then the adjustment of focal length altogether make the whole thing so complex 🙂 … Thank you for explaining complex things in simple manner which I, a mere photography enthusiast, find very very helpful for my future experiments.

  • Michael Owens

    Usually bokeh.
    /irony

  • will

    i agree, i get really discouraged when i think about math. considering i have a 7th grade level of math at best. i can understand the analogy of bigger hole means more light, smaller hole means less light etc. i get the practical learning, but i would quit photography if i had to work out maths

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  • Hans Heisenberg

    Everything is correct, except the second sentence. Aperture IS the area of the opening, not the ratio between focal length and the diameter. I think after that you are talking about the f-stops, not the aperture. Aperture is the hole, opening in your lens, f-stop is the ratio. F-stop is defined as the ratio you said, not the aperture. This is the reason why people get confused why aperture increases when the f-stop decreases and vice-versa.

  • Harshal Prabhune

    My Prime shot with f1.8

  • Jules

    I was under the impression that my decreasing the aperture (increasing the number, but decreasing the size of the opening I mean) less light would get it, drastically decreasing the amount of light in the image. Wouldn’t this underexpose the image? How do you keep the image bright without damaging it with high ISO to counteract the small aperture?

  • Candace Ann Widner

    Rob…you just made it all come clear to me. I appreciate your analogy.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    To let more light in with a narrower aperture, keep the shutter open longer – that is, if you change from f5.6 at 1/125th second to f16 (-3 stops) instead of 1/125th second, you end up with 1/15th second (+3 stops) shutter speed. So the same quantity of light will reach the sensor inside the camera. Imagine a glass of water from a tap – with the tap wide open, the glass fills rapidly; with the tap open only a little, it takes longer for the same amount of water to fill the glass.

  • love bacon

    I had a photography teacher once make a similar analogy. He said, imagine that you have to fill a bucket of water. If you have a large diameter fire hose, you can fill the bucket quickly. If you have a small garden hose it will take longer but either way you need the same amount of water to fill the bucket. A photograph is like the bucket, but you fill the photograph with light instead of water. The aperture opening is the hose. So a big opening fills the photo with light faster and a small opening fills the photo slower.

    He then said if you fill the bucket/photograph slowly, there will be more detail and deeper DOF and if you fill it quickly there is less detail and shallower DOF.

    That was nice and easy for me to wrap my head around.

    Having been out of photography since film and darkrooms, I did appreciate the clarification/distinction between Bokeh and C o C. It’s worth making that distinction for newbs and people like me who only remember bits and pieces. The real trick is for the person writing the article because they have to figure out a way to make the distinction in a way that’s easy for newbs/me to understand (true for teaching anything really). Thanks to all. I’m excited to get back to making images.

  • Deja Dantzler

    I believe that the meaning of depth of field is the zone of acceptable sharpness within a photo that will appear in focus. In every picture there is a certain area of your image in front of and behind the subject that will appear in focus – Deja Dantzler

  • Great article. Lots of good info and it’s presented in a way that’s great for beginners. I like the math part of it all, but most folks don’t so it works. Love the sample images.

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