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Depth of Field: The Essential Guide (+ Tips)

Depth of field: the essential guide

You may have heard the term depth of field (DoF), but what actually is it, and why does it matter for photographers?

Regardless of your skill level or the type of camera you possess, comprehending depth of field is essential to expanding your photographic horizons. It applies to every aspect of photography, from macro close-ups to sweeping panoramas, and it holds the potential to set you free creatively so you can capture stunningly artistic images.

In this article, I share all of the DoF fundamentals – along with some advanced tips and tricks – including:

  • A simple definition of depth of field
  • Why it really matters in photography (and why it’s a concept you must understand)
  • The factors affecting DoF in your photos
  • How to adjust the DoF for insanely artistic results
  • Plenty of depth of field examples

Ready to master this powerful concept and level up your shots? Let’s dive right in.

What is depth of field in photography?

The depth of field is the zone within a photo that appears acceptably sharp and in focus.

In every picture, there is a point of focus – the spot where you actually focus your lens. But there is also an area both in front of and behind your point of focus that also appears sharp, and that area corresponds to the depth of field.

Depth of field in photography

The size of this zone of sharpness will vary from photo to photo depending on different factors, such as your lens’s aperture setting and distance to the subject. So by adjusting your camera settings and your composition, you can determine the amount of your image that turns out sharp and the amount that ends up blurry.

Deep vs shallow depth of field: What’s the difference?

Images that have a very large zone of acceptable sharpness are said to have a deep depth of field. Deep DoF photos tend to be sharp from front to back; it’s a popular look in landscape photography, where you often want to show every little detail from the scene.

This next photo is an example of a deep DoF shot. Notice how the areas close to the lens and the areas off in the distance look reasonably sharp.

Depth of field in photography

On the other hand, some images have very small zones of focus, which is known as shallow depth of field. A shallow DoF photo is generally immediately recognizable because the subject will look tack-sharp while the background is rendered as a smooth, creamy blur:

Person in the grass with a shallow depth of field effect

This effect is especially popular in portraiture; photographers use it to draw attention to their subject while preventing background distractions. But you’ll also see shallow DoF macro photography, street photography, photojournalism, and more.

Deep depth of field examples

Here are a few solid examples of photos featuring a deep DoF. As you can see, the scenes are consistently sharp from the nearest foreground element to the most distant background element. Note the way that the crisp details help draw you into the frame:

Depth of field in photography
Depth of field in photography
swans on a lake with a deep depth of field
Depth of field in photography

Shallow depth of field examples

Now let’s take a look at a few shallow depth of field examples. Pay careful attention to the way the shallow DoF helps emphasize the main subject in each shot:

Depth of field in photography
flower with a shallow depth of field effect
Depth of field in photography
bridge stretching off with a shallow depth of field

Why is DoF important?

The zone of sharpness is a key artistic component of each photo. Whether your image has a shallow DoF or a deep DoF can make a huge difference to how the shot is perceived and can often make or break the composition.

For instance, if you’re photographing a portrait subject with a distracting background, failure to produce a shallow depth of field will often result in a very snapshot-esque, mediocre photo. The subject won’t stand out, and the image’s impact will be lost.

Depth of field in photography

On the other hand, if you’re photographing a landscape with a beautiful foreground, a stunning midground, and a jaw-dropping background, failure to use a deep depth of field will prevent the viewer from appreciating the entire scene.

So at the end of the day, depth of field matters. Learn to control it, and your photos will immediately improve.

Factors affecting DoF

There are three main factors that determine the depth of field in a photo. They are:

  1. The lens’s aperture setting (f-stop)
  2. The distance between your lens and your subject
  3. The focal length of the lens

By understanding these variables and how they work, you can learn to produce a deep or shallow depth of field at will.

1. Aperture (f-stop)

Aperture refers to a hole in your lens through which light enters the camera. The larger the hole, the shallower the depth of field.

You may be familiar with f-stop values, which look like this: f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, etc. The smallest f-numbers correspond to the widest apertures and therefore the shallowest DoFs. And the larger f-numbers correspond to the narrowest apertures and therefore the deepest DoFs.

In other words:

Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallow (small) DoF
Small aperture = Large f-number = Deep (large) DoF

Adjusting the aperture (f-stop) of your lens is the simplest way to control your depth of field while setting up your shot.

woman in front of leaves with a shallow depth of field and a deep depth of field
The image on the left was captured at f/5, which resulted in a relatively shallow DoF (note the blurred leaves). The image on the right was captured at f/32, which created a deep DoF and a sharper background.

So if you’re photographing a landscape and you want a deep depth of field, just set your aperture to f/11 or so, and you’ll generally get foreground-to-background sharpness. If you’re photographing a portrait and you want a shallow depth of field, set your aperture to f/2.8 and you’ll often get a beautiful blurred background.

2. Distance between your lens and your subject

The closer your subject is to the camera, the shallower your depth of field becomes.

(Note that I’m using the terms “subject” and “point of focus” interchangeably here – if you accidentally focus behind your subject, then the DoF will be completely different.)

So if you get up close and personal when photographing a flower, the depth of field will shrink. And if you take ten steps backward while still focusing your lens on that flower, the depth of field will increase.

Depth of field in photography
When you get very close to a subject, the depth of field shrinks – regardless of your aperture!

Of course, getting closer or farther from your subject isn’t always feasible, plus it’ll change the size of your subject within the frame, so its usefulness can be limited.

3. Focal length

The longer your focal length, the shallower the depth of field.

So if your subject is 33 feet (10 meters) away and your aperture is set to f/4, a focal length of 50mm will give you a depth of field range from around 22-63 feet (6.7-19.2 meters) for a total DoF of 41 feet (12.5 meters).

But if you zoom into 100mm while standing in the same spot, still using an aperture of f/4, the depth of field changes to about 29.5-37.5 feet (9-11.4 meters) for a total DoF of 8 feet (2.4 meters).

If all that sounds a bit technical, feel free to skip over the details. The key concept to understand here is that longer lenses produce shallow depth of field effects, whereas shorter lenses produce deep depth of field effects (assuming that the aperture and the distance from the subject remain the same).

Putting it all together

Aperture, distance to your subject, and focal length together determine your depth of field.

In other words, these three factors can combine to produce a very extreme depth of field effect, or they can cancel each other out.

For instance, if you shoot at f/2.8 and you get close to your subject and you use a telephoto lens, you’ll achieve an ultra-shallow depth of field. But if you get close to your subject while using a wide-angle lens, the two factors will generally cancel out, resulting in a medium depth of field.

swan hiding in the tall grass
This image of a swan hiding in the tall foliage was captured from about 16 feet (5 meters) at 300mm. This combination of focal length and distance created a depth of field of approximately 2 inches (5 centimeters), which is why the foreground and background appear so blurry.

How to work with depth of field: a step-by-step approach

While knowing the theory is great, it’s important to also understand how to apply depth of field when out shooting. Here’s my quick step-by-step approach to achieving the precise DoF effect you’re after:

Step 1: Set your camera to Aperture Priority or Manual mode

Most cameras only offer two modes where you can easily control the aperture and therefore the depth of field: Aperture Priority mode and Manual mode.

So the first order of business is to switch your camera Mode dial over to one of these options.

If you’re a beginner, Aperture Priority mode is probably the better pick – it’ll let you input the aperture, while your camera determines the best shutter speed for a good exposure. If you’re more advanced, Manual mode will let you select the aperture and shutter speed independently for greater creative control.

Step 2: Determine whether you want a deep or narrow depth of field

Carefully observe your scene. Ask yourself: Do I want to blur out the background? Or do I want to keep the entire shot sharp?

Generally speaking, if your background is distracting, it’s best to use a shallow depth of field. But if the background adds to the scene – for instance, it contains beautiful clouds and a stunning mountain range, or it contributes valuable context – then use a deep depth of field.

Depth of field in photography

If you’re aiming for a shallow depth of field look, you generally don’t need to calculate the depth of field precisely. On the other hand, if you want to keep the entire shot sharp, you may want to calculate the hyperfocal distance (see the section on hyperfocal distance below) to determine the best point of focus.

Step 3: Adjust your aperture, distance to the subject, and focal length

Now that you know the depth of field effect you’re after, it’s time to make the relevant changes to your composition and/or camera settings.

If your goal is a shallow depth of field effect, use a longer lens (if possible) and set it to its widest possible aperture. Then get as close as you can to your subject – without ruining your composition – and take your shot.

Depth of field in photography

If your goal is to achieve a deep depth of field effect, use a wide-angle lens (if possible) and get as far back from your subject as you can without sacrificing the composition. Then dial in a narrow aperture – often f/8 or beyond is ideal, though see the next section on hyperfocal distance if you’re not sure what’s best – focus about a third of the way into the scene, and take your shot.

(Quick tip: When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, you’re generally seeing a preview of the image at your lens’s widest aperture. But many cameras offer a depth of field preview button; press this, and you can preview the actual depth of field in real-time before hitting the shutter button. Check your manual to see if it’s an option on your camera!)

Step 4: Check to make sure you got the depth of field right

After you’ve taken an image, especially when you’re just starting out, I highly recommend you check your camera’s LCD to ensure you’ve nailed the depth of field.

Take a quick look at the image in playback mode. If your goal is to keep the entire shot sharp, magnify the photo to check the nearest foreground object and the most distant background object, just to be sure everything looks good.

If you notice an error, you can always reshoot before the light changes.

Hyperfocal distance: how to get everything in focus

The hyperfocal distance is a special point of focus in your scene. It’s the distance for a given aperture and focal length that allows you to maximize the depth of field.

Specifically, when you focus at the hyperfocal distance, your depth of field will extend from half your point of focus all the way to infinity.

As you can imagine, this is useful when you want to keep the entire scene sharp; you just dial in your preferred aperture, then set your point of focus at the hyperfocal distance.

road stretching off into fog
An image like this one – with a clear foreground and a distant background – can benefit from focusing at the hyperfocal distance.

But how do you determine the hyperfocal distance when out in the field? You have a few options. First, you can use a hyperfocal distance calculator like the one offered by PhotoPills, which will let you dial in your focal length and your selected aperture, then spit out the hyperfocal distance.

Alternatively, you can focus about a third of the way into the scene, which is a good rule of thumb and will generally offer solid results, assuming you’ve used a relatively narrow aperture (f/8 or beyond is good) and a wide-angle lens.

Doing precise DoF calculations: charts, calculators, and apps

Most photographers don’t need to gauge depth of field exactly while out shooting, so doing quick estimates or using easy rules of thumb works fine, especially if you check your LCD afterward.

But you may find yourself in a situation where DoF matters a great deal – for instance, if you’re a landscape photographer dealing with a very deep scene, you’re a macro photographer shooting at extreme magnifications, or you’re a product photographer and you don’t have the opportunity to reshoot if you mess up.

In such cases, I’d recommend turning to some type of DoF “helper.” You have a few options:

  1. Depth of field charts. These show you DoF ranges across different apertures and lens-to-subject distances. You can print them off and laminate them if you want a physical copy, but you’ll need a different chart for each lens focal length, which can get frustrating if you’re using multiple primes or even a single zoom.
  2. Depth of field calculators. These let you input your focal length, your distance to the subject, and your aperture, then they’ll give you your DoF range. They’re very flexible, but you’ll need to keep one handy on your phone. They’re also less helpful than charts (because a chart lets you see how your depth of field changes as you make small adjustments to aperture and subject distance).
  3. Depth of field apps. There are many free and paid DoF apps, most of which offer a combination of the above two DoF helpers. For instance, PhotoPills offers both a calculator and a chart (plus, the chart is adjustable – you can dial in your focal length and it’ll immediately recalculate your DoF ranges). And PhotoPills includes other helpful photography aids, such as sunrise/sunset times and directions, hyperfocal distance charts and calculators, and more. Of course, you need to carry your phone with you at all times, but this is still the preferred solution of most landscape photographers.
depth of field chart
The DoF chart offered by PhotoPills.

Ultimately, the DoF aid you choose depends on your preferences – so feel free to try each option out and see which one you like best!

When to use a shallow depth of field

A shallow depth of field will make your subject stand out from the background. Here are a few situations when a shallow DoF often makes sense:

  • In portrait photography when you want to emphasize your subject’s features
  • In wildlife photography when you want the animal to stand out
  • In sports photography when you want to bring attention to the athlete
  • In macro photography when you want to focus the viewer on a flower, plant, or insect
  • In event and street photography when you want to isolate an individual in a chaotic environment

Note that using a wide aperture will also increase the amount of light hitting your sensor, which will in turn let you boost the shutter speed. This is a major benefit if you’re shooting in low light or you need ultra-fast shutter speeds to freeze the action.

American goldfinch on a sunflower
Here, I used a shallow depth of field effect to make the bird separate from the background.

When to use a deep depth of field

A deep DoF provides context, highlights small details, makes scenes appear more lifelike, and – when combined with certain composition techniques – increases depth. Here are some situations when a deep depth of field is best:

  • In landscape photography when you want to lead the viewer from foreground to midground to background, or you want to emphasize both interesting foreground features and stunning background features
  • In macro photography when you’re working at high magnifications, but you want to keep your entire main subject sharp
  • In street photography when you want to emphasize the busyness and chaos of a city
  • In architectural photography when you want to show off an entire building
  • In real estate photography when you want to highlight an entire interior
road stretching off into autumn trees
A landscape shot like this one often requires a deep depth of field; thanks to the f/16 aperture, the road, the fallen leaves, and the distant trees all remain sharp, and the viewer feels like they could walk into the scene.

5 tips for the best DoF results

In this section, I share a few techniques to help you really take advantage of image DoF. Some of the advice is more advanced, but if you’re looking to give your photos a boost, it can make a big difference.

1. Feel free to do depth of field “bracketing”

When it comes to capturing the perfect shot, depth of field plays a crucial role in determining the overall look and feel of your images. However, there are instances where you might find yourself torn between using a shallow or deep DoF, and that’s where the technique of DoF “bracketing” comes into play.

The idea is to test out different aperture settings and evaluate the results afterward. Start by framing up your composition, then vary the aperture settings to capture shots with different DoF effects.

Depth of field in photography

That way, you can evaluate the shots afterward and decide which works best. It’s also a great learning experience that’ll help you understand how to better apply depth of field in the future!

By the way, it’s important to recognize that there isn’t always a single “best” DoF for a particular scene. Some subjects look great no matter how you shoot them! So if you can’t decide which version you prefer, you don’t need to stress; perhaps all of your files look great.

2. Spend time analyzing the depth of field in your favorite photos

Professional photographers are DoF masters, and you can learn a lot from their approach. Therefore, to elevate your own skills, I encourage you to spend time simply looking at the work of others.

Begin by carefully selecting a handful of photographers whose work resonates with you. Immerse yourself in their portfolios, taking the time to truly absorb each shot. Pay especially close attention to their deliberate DoF choices. Observe where the zone of sharpness starts and ends. Ask yourself: How does the photographer’s use of depth of field improve the photo? What effect does it have? How would changing the DoF change the shot?

As you analyze these images, try to discern the subtle nuances of depth of field. Notice how a shallow DoF can isolate a subject from its surroundings, drawing attention and creating a sense of intimacy. Observe how a deep DoF can reveal intricate details throughout the frame, allowing the viewer to explore every corner of the scene.

And then try to apply the knowledge you gained to your own shots!

3. If you can’t get the depth of field you need, try focus stacking

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, capturing the entire subject or scene in sharp focus isn’t possible. This is a common problem when photographing landscapes with prominent foreground elements positioned close to the lens, or when dealing with high-magnification shots of products or still-life subjects.

Fortunately, there is a solution that can help you achieve your desired depth of field: focus stacking.

Depth of field in photography

Focus stacking is a technique that involves capturing a series of shots, each with a slightly different point of focus, and blending them together in post-processing. That way, you can extend the zone of sharpness throughout the image and overcome any DoF limitations. (Note that some editing software, such as Lightroom, doesn’t offer stacking capabilities, but other programs – such as Photoshop – provide the tools needed to quickly align and merge your stacked files.)

When focusing stacking, it’s crucial to maintain compositional consistency across all shots. Some photographers do get solid results from handholding, but I highly recommend using a sturdy tripod, at least at first. Over time, you can start experimenting with alternative approaches.

4. Make sure your shallow DoF photos have an anchor point

Shallow depth of field can result in breathtakingly artistic photographs. However, you shouldn’t just widen your aperture and shoot with abandon; instead, you need to consider your compositions carefully – otherwise, the viewer will get overwhelmed by the blur and will start to feel lost.

In particular, I recommend including an anchor point in each shot.

An anchor serves as a focal point within the frame; it should be a clear, solid area that is sharp and in perfect focus. It could be a glistening droplet delicately perched on a flower petal, the piercing gaze of a subject’s eyes in a portrait, or even a meticulously captured logo in a product photograph. The specifics aren’t important – what matters is that it provides a sort of island for the viewer to lock on amid the background blur.

Depth of field in photography

By the way, if you’re struggling to create photos with anchor points, it could be a sign that the lens’s aperture is a little too wide. Try subtly narrowing the aperture and see if the photos improve!

5. Work on your manual focusing skills

When it comes to mastering the art of depth of field, manual focus skills can make a huge difference. You see, by focusing manually, you can gain precise control over your DoF window (whether shallow or deep).

Depth of field in photography

Embracing manual focus may seem difficult at first, but it really is a skill worth acquiring. In shallow depth of field photography, manual focus allows you to set the sharpness window exactly where you want it, ensuring critical focus on specific elements within your frame. (Imagine delicately highlighting the intricate details of a flower petal with pinpoint accuracy.)

And in deep DoF photography, you can use manual focus to ensure your lens is focusing at the hyperfocal distance, which will in turn ensure that both the foreground and background elements are sufficiently sharp.

Don’t worry if manual focus is uncharted territory for you. It’s easier than you might think, so even if you’re intimidated, take the time to test it out and see how you feel. Also, bear in mind that you won’t need to use it all the time – it’s just a good tool to have in your back pocket for those times you’re struggling to get the desired results through autofocusing.

Depth of field: final words

And there you have it! Now that we’ve delved into the captivating world of depth of field, you’re ready to unleash your creative potential and take your photography to new heights.

Remember, DoF isn’t just some technical mumbo-jumbo reserved for the pros – it’s a fundamental concept that anyone with a camera can use. Whether you’re capturing intimate portraits, vibrant street scenes, or breathtaking landscapes, mastery of depth of field can help transform your shots from snapshots into artistic masterpieces.

So grab your camera and enjoy some photography. Experiment with different aperture settings, play with focal points, and see what you can create. Embrace the power of DoF to draw attention, evoke emotions, and tell compelling stories.

Now over to you:

What questions do you have about depth of field? What DoF do you most often use in your photos? After reading this article, do you plan to change your approach? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Depth of field FAQ

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

No. Depth of field is usually about one-third in front and two-thirds behind your point of focus, though as your focal length increases, the DoF distribution does become more equal.

How will understanding depth of field improve my images?

Keeping your images sharp is an essential skill, and knowing how to make parts of your images sharp and parts out of focus is a key artistic tool for creating stunning results.

How can I set the depth of field precisely for each photo?

You can use a depth of field chart, calculator, or app to determine your exact depth of field given a particular focal length.

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

Yes. You must use a concept called the hyperfocal distance; when you focus at this point, you’ll maximize depth of field and generally keep all of your image sharp.

What is bokeh?

Bokeh means “blur” in Japanese. A strong bokeh effect is produced in the out-of-focus areas of your image (i.e., in areas beyond the depth of field). For the best bokeh, you’ll need an ultra-shallow depth of field, though you can also maximize bokeh quality in other ways, such as by increasing the distance between the subject and the background.

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Bruce Wunderlich
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

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