An Exercise For You to Practice Depth of Field Without Going Outside

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Many photographers, especially when starting out, have a difficult time understanding depth of field. I also hear quite often that photographers are waiting for nice weather to get out and shoot. So, here’s a fun exercise you can do at home, in any weather, that will help you understand the finer aspects of depth of field.

Depth of field is determined by which aperture you choose, what focal length you’re using, and the distance between the camera and the subject. In this example, we’ll explore depth of field using a 100mm lens.

To set up

Find between one and three small objects you can photograph. I found three sports water bottles with balls on the top to shoot. Next, you need some studio space. A patio door or very wide window works well.

Your next step is to set up your object, or objects, in front of the window and to place your camera in position. The object and camera should be parallel to the window.

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This is how I set up my camera and objects.

I put the first ball, the soccer ball, about 12 inches in front of the cabinet. Then I put the second ball, the baseball, about 24 inches in front of that. I put the third object, the basketball, 24 inches in front of the next object, and finally I set my camera about two feet in front of the last object.

You’ll need to play a little bit to see what works best for you. It will vary depending on the size of the object you are shooting, and the focal length you are using. You want to be able to focus on all three objects, and take a photo of them without moving your camera, so play for a minute. Focus on the first object and make sure you can see all three objects in the frame. Then focus on the second and make sure you can still see them all. Lastly, do it with the third one, too.

Set your camera on either aperture priority or manual exposure, and use the widest aperture you have. I chose f/2.8. Your lens might not have that aperture available, if so f/4 or f/4.5 will be just fine.

Shoot wide opened focusing on each object in turn

Now, without changing anything but your focus, take a photo of each of the three objects.

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This photo was shot at f/2.8 while focused on the object closest to the camera, the basketball. Notice the narrow depth of field, in other words, how blurry the background is.

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This was also shot at f/2.8, but this time, I focused on the middle object, the baseball. Notice that it is blurry in front and in back.

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This photo was also shot at f/2.8, but I focused on the soccer ball. I did not change camera position nor did I change lenses. Notice the depth of field, but also notice the change in perspective. Can you see that more of the cabinet is in the photograph?

Next shoot with a small aperture

Now, let’s try something a little different. Instead of shooting at your widest f-stop, shoot at your smallest, which means a higher number, like f/32 or f/16.

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Here is the same situation. The camera hasn’t moved, but the aperture is now at f/32. The focus is on the basketball, but look how much is sharp.

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Look closely. The aperture is still at f/32, but the focus has changed to the baseball. Notice the basketball is more out of focus, but the soccer ball in the back looks pretty sharp.

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Above is the third example. The focus is on the soccer ball.

You can practice each of these things with different f/stops to see the difference between f/4, f/8, f/11, f/16 and f/32. Each choice will change the depth of field.

Change the distance to the subject

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In the above photograph, I moved the camera closer to the baseball and shot at f/2.8. Practice isolating the elements and see what happens. Notice how the baseball really stands out, and look at the background. By isolating the baseball with a very narrow depth of field, the background becomes really out of focus. This tool is very helpful to clean up backgrounds.

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Then I changed my focus to the soccer ball. The aperture is still at f/2.8. What do you notice about the background?

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In the shot above the soccer ball is still in the original position, about a foot away from the cabinet. Notice how sharp the background is – this was shot at f/32.

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Now, notice how we start to lose detail in the cabinet behind. This image above was shot at f/11.

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Finally, by shooting at f/2.8, and without moving the position of the soccer ball or the background, the background has become more out of focus and less distracting.

Take some times and practice this at home. So what you’ve learned here is a great way to practice depth of field at home–even on a rainy day! So take out your camera, find some small objects to shoot and start practicing.

Please share in the comments below how controlling the depth of field could impact how you shoot. What did you learn by doing this exercise?

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Vickie Lewis is a National Geographic shooter who is known as a heartfelt photographer who loves telling stories with photographs. She’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has taken over 150 portraits for People Magazine. Vickie loves sharing her passion for photography with others in her writing and workshops. You can sign up for her free Crash Course on photography and follow her on Instagram.

  • Gail

    Nice practice advice! Raining here today so I’m going to do this exercise! Thanks! 🙂

  • Maria R

    Great article! I will definitely try this out. Makes a whole lot of difference in your pics. Thanks!

  • Trey McNabb

    Thanks Vickie! That’s one of the best examples of DoF I’ve seen. The pictures with the different settings make it really easy to follow and understand.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    That is a great way to experiment and learn. I suggest that it works even better if you have a few more objects, especially if they have words on them; and a final trick is to lay a tape measure in the picture. Here are a couple I took at f3.2 and f8 at the same focus point, amongst a whole series with different aperture and focus points. The words clearly show what is in focus, and the tape measure gives a real idea of how depth of field changes with aperture, and with the focus point changed.

  • what a great way of teaching the depth of fields..

    Please include some more such things which can be done inside home. One of the best articles on this site.

  • Leyden

    Thanks for the article Vickie. I’ve tried to get a ‘foreground’ of low hanging tree branches in a landscape of mountains or canyons with f/5.6 [or sometimes f/4 ] but the branch is never out of focus [enough], maybe I need to be closer to the branch [usually impossible]? Wish list if for f/1.x

  • Vickie Lewis

    Yes, getting closer would help to throw those branches out of focus.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Thank you Gaurav! I am going to be doing a series of articles on how to practice different things at home. Stay tuned! One on shutter speed coming up.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Thanks Bob! This is great! I love that you just went to your cupboard and pulled this out. Very cool! And great idea to add the ruler.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Thanks Trey! Try it and share your results. I’d love to see.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Thanks Maria! Mystery solved. Let me see what you do.

  • Vickie Lewis

    Great Gail! Thanks for sharing.

  • KC

    This is great, Vickie. I’m “old school” (as in up there in years). A DOF calculator on a smartphone is a great thing. There’s online one’s too. It’s a handy tool for people to people to get a sense of the math of all this. Put in your lens, distance, and f:/stop, and you’ll get some practical numbers. After a bit, you get a sense of how a lens is going to react. It’s unfortunate that most lenses don’t have markings anymore, but an app will do nicely.

    There’s a bit of a trend out there that you absolutely must have some lens with some f:/stop near or below 1 to get a limited DOF. That’s not necessarily true. It’s all about numbers. You may get that 1″ DOF wide open, with a lens you already have, just not at the distance and focal length you’d expect.

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