The Importance of 'Enough' Depth of Field in Wildlife Photography

The Importance of ‘Enough’ Depth of Field in Wildlife Photography

A Guest Post by Wildlife Photographer Elliot Hook

Depth of field is often discussed when reading about wildlife photography, usually with the emphasis on ensuring that a small enough depth of field is used to guarantee that the background is thrown out of focus to give emphasis to the subject. However, it is important to ensure that the depth of field you obtain is still large enough to render the entire subject in sharp focus – what good is an image that has a beautifully soft, distraction free background, if the subject itself is not in focus.

A red kite taken at a falconry centre, at 150 mm, f/5.6, from approx. 1m. Notice the softness of the tip of the beak and feathers on the top of its head, even though the eyes are pin sharp.

Depth of field is controlled by a number of factors (aperture, focal length and distance to the subject) and to a beginner reading about wildlife photography, the overarching message will often be ‘the larger the aperture the better’ to achieve the classic wildlife shot with the soft background. Without an understanding of the depth of field that your camera and lens combination will achieve in a given situation, it may mean that you come back from a day of photography with a set of images that are disappointing when viewed on a large screen.

I am writing this from personal experience. My appreciation of aperture used to be limited to knowing that I needed to select the largest aperture possible to ensure I achieve the ‘most out-of-focus’ background. Also, increasing the aperture would often be my first port of call to remedy slower shutter speeds (as opposed to considering the ISO level) meaning that I would often find myself shooting at f/5.6 on my 300 mm zoom lens (not even considering the sharpness performance of the lens when used wide open – a subject for a whole other article).

Last year, I spent the day at Donna Nook, in Lincolnshire, UK, photographing grey seals. Little did I realise that when using an Olympus DSLR (2x crop factor due to the small sensor size), a focal length of 300 mm, and an aperture of f/5.6 to photograph a seal that was approximately 5 metres away, the resulting depth of field would be less than 5 cm. Considering the size of a grey seal, even if I managed to get my focal point spot on the eyes, there was no chance that the tip of the nose would be in focus, let alone the rest of the seal’s head. After what I thought was a fantastic day shooting, taking in excess of 500 photos, the number of images that I was actually happy with was fewer than 5!

It was after this experience that I found online depth of field calculators (apps also available for android and iOS users) that would calculate the depth of field for your camera, given a set of basic parameters – camera type, focal length, aperture and distance to the subject. Often used to calculate hyper-focal distances for landscape photography, the calculators can be incredibly useful for shooting wildlife too – it became evident to me that depending on how close the subject is, I could end up with a depth of field of less than 1 cm!

The blue tit, taken at 300 mm, f/10, from approx. 3 m. Bird and perch sharp throughout, with a diffuse background.

To put my new found knowledge to the test, I started trying to take photographs of blue tits in my back garden. I had set up a perch at a distance of approximately 3 m from where I was sat. Using a focal length of 300 mm, I found that I needed an aperture of around f/10 to ensure a depth of field of approximately 4 cm. After some waiting, I managed to capture the shot I had been waiting for, a perfectly sharp blue tit, on a perch with a beautifully soft background, all using an aperture of f/10 – smaller than most tutorials for wildlife photography recommend.

This has fundamentally changed the way I think about my camera settings. I no longer plump for f/5.6 but always think about the magnitude of the depth of field I want to achieve for any given subject and adjust my aperture accordingly, with the confidence that I will still get the soft background I am after, but with a pin sharp subject that gives the resulting image even more impact.

Elliot Hook is an amateur wildlife and landscape photographer who never stops learning. He can be found at

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Some Older Comments

  • Ruwan September 19, 2013 11:18 pm

    Thanks alot for the article, I always used to keep a bigger apeture to lower the ISO n increase the shutter to freez wildlife shots but ends up dissapointed with partly blurred images, Guess it's time to change strategies.

  • Rennis K March 7, 2013 05:56 am

    Great article and I've had the same issue in the past with miscalculating the DOF for wildlife. I downloaded one of the DOF calculators (for Droid) and am eager to get started using it.

    Thanks for the info & suggestion.

  • EmyB January 13, 2012 12:51 pm

    This is the most helpful article I have ever read on DPS! Thankyou so much for this. I am also a sucker for "wide open is always best" so this has really helped me.

    It also makes me feel a lot better about not being able to afford a 70-200 2.8!! :p I am looking at getting the 70-300mm canon zoom and was SOO worried that I wouldn't be able to get good background separation with it. This has really put my fears to rest, thankyou!

  • Darryl Kerney July 30, 2011 09:27 am

    Good Article. I've been learning about the very same thing lately, having upgraded from a Fuji S602Z to my new beloved Nikon D7000. Your article drove home the reason I had so much trouble with the Fuji, (good camera, not so good operator was the problem, expecting too much from it) I ended up with way too many blurry poorly focused shots, now I'm understanding why. I mistakenly blamed the camera sometimes because I didn't realize how small the DOF was when zooming in and using F/2.8 in order to get a quick enough shutter speed in lower light scenes. The D7000 is amazing me now, even at ISO 4000 it's much better than the S602Z is at ISO 400. Im also using the Android app DoF Calc which is very good, AND, I bought a Bosch laser distance measurement tool to eliminate guessing distances, works up 200 ft.
    I highly recommend a DOF calculator, play around with it and see the relationship between focal length, subject distance, aperature and DOF. It has really "opened My eyes" !

  • Pat July 15, 2011 11:18 am

    Nice write-up with a conclusion that I recently came to. My 70-300mm seemed to be focusing poorly when photographing birds in flight. Playing around with ISO's and opening up my F-stops drove me nuts. I thought my lens was having focusing (mechanical) issues. I have gone back to my old settings at F:8 and ISO 200. F:11 is so much sharper then F:8 I discovered so I have been using that setting more often now.

  • Saurabh July 13, 2011 08:08 pm

    @ coldwaterjohn

    Thanks for the advice. :)

  • ChiFlow July 13, 2011 07:17 am

    Thanks for a great article - I'm off to Mana Pools (in Zimbabwe) to shoot wildlife in the next couple of days so spent the week setting up my 7D. Then spent some time trying out the settings and DOF with my various lenses. Never know about this side of things at all - was always a bit of hit and miss - now i know why...

    Thank you again :-)

  • coldwaterjohn July 10, 2011 06:14 pm

    Try taking a series of shots with a different aperture setting for each, of the same subject, and then compare the results.
    It is generally lens-dependent whether the smallest aperture will provide the sharpest image in actual fact. In the case of very many lenses, a stop or two short of smallest will provide the sharper image. By doing this it may give you a greater understanding of the link between aperture and depth of field for your particular camera and lens. You will possibly require a tripod, depending on light conditions and the film speed you set for the experiment.

  • Saurabh July 10, 2011 01:25 pm

    This article is exactly what I was looking for.
    First of all, thanks for this article.

    I have a Panasonic FZ18.
    What would be the sharpest F-stop at full 18X zoom, if the subject is 40 or 50 feet away ?

  • Shobhit July 10, 2011 05:12 am

    Thanks Greg for your advice... :)

  • Greg July 9, 2011 09:21 am

    @Shobhit From what I just observed on your blog, you're rocking that D3000 and 18-55mm kit lens!! Great shots!

  • Greg July 9, 2011 09:13 am

    @Shobhit - you're impression about the lens is correct. If you're going to shell out money for better kit, then get a better lens first before you upgrade the camera - if you stick with Nikon DX format, then you'll just need to get a camera body if you want to upgrade your camera in the future anyway. Stick a telephoto zoom (like the 70-300mm Sigma I have) on the front of your D3000 and you'll get nice small DoF at higher f-numbers because of the nature of telephotos. Go to a camera shop with your D3000 and test out some lens (you don't have to buy them) and see what the difference is. Just because you have an entry level dSLR doesn't mean you're stuck with entry level lenses. (sorry for the rambling post but I think I'm still under the influence ;) )

  • Shobhit July 9, 2011 05:04 am

    In addition I'd like to ask what are the basic Camera and lens requirement to click such pictures. As I said I am a beginner, I am considering to upgrade from my Nikon D3000 and 18-55mm. I could never take such DOF with the D3000 kit.

  • Shobhit July 9, 2011 04:51 am

    Good Article.

    Being a started this gives good learning. I was always under the impression that its the lens that would help achieving good shallow DOF. but there is a lot to learn...

  • Hamish July 9, 2011 04:05 am

    Nice, relevant article. It does not mention the distance between the subject and the background - which greatly affects the bokeh - and therefore apeture. I would also like to see the same discussion relevant to higher-quality lenses - the 70mm - 200mm f2.8 - and my fave Nikon 135mm DC f1.2. this latter I use wide open for pets (faces), focused on the eye - intentionally throwing nose and ears out of focus - can be a comedic look - but I do understand we are talking about wildlife here.

  • Michel July 9, 2011 12:15 am

    @JOB85: thanks!

  • coldwaterjohn July 8, 2011 06:31 pm

    Both my old Leica III (1934) and my M3 (1960) have range of focus markings on the lens barrels. At any particular focus distance, depending on aperture set, markings show you the extent in distance of objects which will be in focus. This allows you to adjust that range to be just in front of or behind the prime object to be focused on, if you wish, by altering the distance to one of the two extremes showing as the range.
    This link shows you the front of the older Leica - the ring markings closest to the body, show distance, whilst those on the barrel are aperture, with the same spreading out on either side of the focus point, with largest aperture closest to the focus point, so giving the smallest depth of field, which can be read off the distance markings at the appropriate aperture settings.
    Clear as mud?
    Unfortunately modern digital cameras do not seem to offer the same facility, but having learned my photography the hard way with entirely manual rangefinder cameras, the principle is well established provided you don't robotically just use point and shoot settings on a modern digital...

  • ratkellar July 8, 2011 01:09 pm

    I was a little happy to read that a professional photographer had a 1% "keeper" rate. Makes my mistakes a little easier to take.
    From a composition statndpoint, I have never understood the need to TOTALLY obscure the background with wildlife. Properly framed, such an extreme is not necessary to keep attention on the subject matter (though wildlife is, by defnition, wild and difficult to shoot sometimes -- that's why I like shooting bighorn sheep -- they will pose for you (if you can find them)!).
    Keeping the subject in focus is still a frequent challenge for me, so I generally use longer exposures than most readers would. This article was excellent for us novices on integrating all the elements that affect DoF.

  • Greg July 7, 2011 09:05 pm

    Having just read this article today, I came across this Osprey this afternoon.

    I had to use a fast shutter speed because it was a bit windy and the camera was shaking, even on a tripod, so I had to use f5.6 for the correct exposure....turned out nicely - the DoF is pretty good at the distance I was from the bird (20m and 9m respectively)

  • Elliot Hook July 7, 2011 08:14 pm

    Thank you all for your comments. I'm glad I'm not alone in taking time to realise this, but once you do, it seems so obvious!

    Just for info, I use this android app ( but there are others, and plenty of websites out there found by a quick google search

  • jop85 July 7, 2011 07:11 pm


  • Michel July 7, 2011 07:00 pm

    Thanks for the article. But is there a site or software to actually calculate the DOF for your lens?

  • Jessica Sweeney July 7, 2011 05:57 pm

    One of my favorite posts from DPS in a while. I think a lot of photographers decide they must always shoot wide open, and then they do their images a great disservice.

  • jop85 July 7, 2011 05:46 pm

    What I don't understand is why camera manufacturers don't include the DOF calculator in their cameras. It would be very easy to implement, they could even add it to older models with a firmware update as all the information needed is already collected by the camera for each shot.

  • George Johnson July 7, 2011 05:34 pm

    Very well put!

    Sadly I too learnt the hard way! I had spent about a year with nothing bigger than 80mm, I finally thought I would splash out and got myself a decent Canon 70-200mm zoom, the first day out I was using it like it was my old 18-80mm and shooting the biggest aperatures I could get and this was an f/4 capable lens. Got home and every thing has a tiny DOF! Took me another 2 or 3 trips out before I started to learn that bigger aperatures on zooms is a big no-no unless it's for specific creative effect.

  • Simon July 7, 2011 03:31 pm

    I take a lot of photos of birds - it's a fun challenge - but in my experience I'm lucky if the subject will stay in place long enough for me to focus on it. Pausing to calculate depth of field just isn't an option.

  • IHSAN July 7, 2011 03:28 pm

    the same applies for macro shots as well. I used reverse lens to capture the face of an ant, and even then not the whole head of the ant was in focus. Photo here:

    I used maximum aperture to throw most of the body of the ant out of focus, but I did not manage to make it so that enough of the head was in focus. even the mandibles went out of focus. I imagine the depth of field was about 1mm for this photo.

    I should have set a smaller aperture and a higher ISO instead so that I can get more of the ant's head in focus.

  • Julian July 7, 2011 03:25 pm

    I've found myself in this same rut of GFTBA or go for the biggest aperture, an acronym that I just made up now, for the exact same reasons and this is a fantastic point to consider. I hope I'll be more aware of the difference aperture has on depth of field.

  • Patrick July 7, 2011 12:57 pm

    Thanks for the article - hadn't put too much thought into this before. Using the formulas on, I derived a (relatively) simple formula to approximate depth of field for my Canon EOS 550D - approximately (Ns^2)/(26f^2), where N is the f-stop (aperture), s is the distance to the object (metres) and f is the focal length (also metres, you divide the length in mm by 1000, so 200mm becomes 0.2m). Furthermore, worked out that for my nifty 50mm lens, I can use 15Ns^2, or 0.6Ns^2 for my 55-250mm kit lens at full zoom. Makes things a little easier (assuming I can do the arithmetic in my head).

    Of course, if I had an iPhone, I'd just use an app or a calculator if I HAD to get it right, but at my level of experience depth of field isn't the biggest issue with my photography.

  • Maccas July 7, 2011 11:59 am

    Jeff, re: Red Kite I also like the shot but do find my eye being drawn to the fuzzy beak rather than the eyes so it can reduce the dramatic effect of the photo, particularly with a subject like a bird of prey.

    Keeping all the main subject sharp lets it stand out from the bokeh and focusses attention on the subject - the whole point of defocussing the background in the first place. Unless you are after a blending effect of course!

    I guess this article falls under the " bending the rules to achieve the aim" category

  • scottc July 7, 2011 09:27 am

    Great article, and timely in pointing out another missing aspect from my attempts at wildlife photography.

  • Greg July 7, 2011 09:21 am

    I've made PDFs of the Depths of Field charts for several of my lenses (and charts for Flash guide numbers - terrible memory) and stored them on my eBook reader...very handy!

  • THE aSTIG @ July 7, 2011 08:58 am

    I do car photography for my website

    Probably what I learned in Car Photography I was able to apply when I do wildlife photography as I learned not to use any DOF shallower than f5.6 or f8.0 for quarter shots or you'll end up with parts of the car being blurred. Seems the same types of concepts apply to wildlife.

  • Jeff July 7, 2011 08:09 am

    Great article. I have been getting the DOF needed for my pictures mainly through trial and error. I figured there would be a way to calculate it, but it didn't occur to me there would be apps out there to make it easier. I just tried one out and it really makes life much easier. Thanks for posting this!

  • Shelley Walker July 7, 2011 07:42 am

    I added a link with an image and it that post does not show up?

  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 7, 2011 07:29 am


    Totally agree with you study and analysis - I also like sharp subjects and blurred backgrounds. Like this notrious Kea of New Zealand!

  • redd July 7, 2011 07:11 am

    brill love to share some photos on here how do i do it ?

  • Tyler Ingram July 7, 2011 07:03 am

    Great post! I tend to forget the relationship between Aperture, Distance and Focal length! Though lately without thinking about it, I've been trying to use smaller Apertures with birds in flight shots to hopefully bring out more detail. This now helps back that thinking up

  • Lijo July 7, 2011 06:52 am

    Thanks a lot for this article. This was an eye opener for me. Am a noob in SLR photography and by myself it would have taken ages to figure this out... :)

  • Jill July 7, 2011 06:34 am

    Wow. OMG You just may have solved my Issue! I am one of those ... the biggest setting I could get while quite often shooting at over 10 meters away! I can not wait to try your advice! I always wonder why my shots are not as sharp as I want them. Even when using a tripod. Well wish me luck. I have some bears to take photos of this evening.

  • Jeff July 7, 2011 06:17 am

    I agree, in theory, with your premise, but I don't think the image of the red kite makes a strong enough point as the somewhat "soft" feathers and beak lead the viewer to the bird's eyes and draws them in t the shot. IMHO it is still a good shot with an artistic touch.

    I do appreciate what you have to say and I will consider these points in my photography escapades. Thanks - [ Jeff ]

  • Ken Thomas July 7, 2011 06:06 am

    Good article. I've learned similar lessons, and also learned them the hard way. When starting out with wildlife photography I wanted a low ISO to get a noise-free image, and fast shutter speed to reduce blur. The only way to get those two was with a wide-open aperture, with exactly the same disappointing results as the author.

    Over the last few months I've been experimenting with a new technique for wildlife. When using an Olympus E-5 with a 300mm lens, I set the camera on Manual, set the shutter speed to 320, and the Aperture to 8.0, then I set the ISO to Auto, with a maximum (programmable in the settings) of 1000. My ratio of 'keeper' shots has increased dramatically. Some are a little noisier than I'd like (especially noticeable post-crop) but the E-5 does a good job of keeping that to a minimum, and the rest can usually be addressed in post-processing.

  • Luke July 7, 2011 05:48 am

    Great points to consider, I have also noticed with product type photography that close focus distances typically keep me from getting enough depth of field with larger aperture. I've definitely come to appreciate my newest dSLR and the ability to use higher ISOs without sacrificing as much quality as before.