Using Depth of Field as a Compositional Tool

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There are many written and unwritten “rules” in Photography. Mostly, they are guidelines, I am not sure that there are rules about any art form, but some guidelines help us out. You have probably heard of the rule of thirds as it relates to composition. You have heard about the golden mean for composition, but have you thought about how depth of field affects your composition?

In a scene like this, you want all the trees in focus, a deep depth of field is necessary

In a scene like this, you want all the trees in focus, a deep depth of field is necessary

Composition is one of the easiest techniques to use to improve your images, it is also one of the most overlooked. You may never think about it, but perhaps you really should. Your composition can make a mediocre image strong, just by moving your camera.

Composition has been used by painters for hundreds of years. Many of our current composition tools come from the art world. The master painters worked out how people look at a painting and put a system together that would cause people to stare into their paintings. They used techniques like leading lines, S-curves, symmetry and pattern, repetition and other techniques, to make their paintings more dramatic and compelling. Something they also used was perspective. Perspective gave a three dimensional feel to the painting and made a two dimensional scene seem three dimensional. Leonardo da Vinci mastered this technique and used it to great effect in some of his masterpieces, most notably, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. In some ways, Leonardo used depth of field to compose his paintings.

A deep depth of field emphasises the large vista of the scene

A deep depth of field emphasizes the large vista of the scene

1. What is depth of field?

Depth of field is the transition from sharp focus to soft, out of focus areas in the image. The zone of sharp focus, and how much is in focus, is known as the depth of field. You will hear photographers speak of a shallow depth of field or a deep depth of field. The latter means that most or all of the image is in sharp focus. A shallow depth of field means that a small portion of the image is in focus.

How does this work? If you are photographing a landscape scene, you will likely want all of that scene to be in sharp focus. This is called a deep depth of field, and means that the whole scene is in focus. This is good for some forms of photography. At other times you will want only a small portion of your overall image to be in focus. For example, in a close up shot of a flower, you will want the flower to be in focus and everything else to be softly out of focus, this is called a shallow depth of field.

In a city scene, a deep depth of field is good as you want everything in focus.

In a city scene, a deep depth of field is good as you want everything in focus.

2. How does depth of field impact your image?

You have seen images where the one part of the flower is in super sharp focus and the rest is soft and blurry. Some portrait shots also look like this, the person is in sharp focus and the background is out of focus. Why would you want to do that?

The biggest reason is that your eye will naturally go to whatever is in focus in a photograph. So, if you are shooting a wedding and you have a photo of the bride and groom, but they are out of focus and the people behind them are in focus, where do you think viewers will look? They will look at the people behind the couple of course. We assume that if something is out of focus, that we aren’t supposed to look at it. So you can use shallow depth of field to force your viewer to look at your subject. Make sure that whatever your subject is (flower, rock, insect, bride etc) that it is sharp and in focus. If the rest of the image is out of focus, that part of the image will stand out and people will immediately look there.

Everything in focus makes this scene compelling

Everything in focus makes this scene compelling

3. How do I get a shallow depth of field?

Depth of field is determined by the aperture setting on your camera. Your aperture setting is called the F-Stop. Technically speaking, the F-Stop is the focal ratio of the lens. It is the ratio of the lens’s focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil. Technical, I know, but not critical.

What is critical is that you need to know how the “F” number works. The basic rule of thumb is as follows, the lower the number (i.e. f/2.8, f/4) the shallower the depth of field or only a small amount of your image will be in focus. If you have a higher number (i.e. f/8, f11) the more of your image will be in focus. So if you want the look of having a small part of your image in focus then use an F-Stop of 2.8 or 4.  If you have a lens that goes down to f/2.8 or even f/4 give this a try:

  • Set your camera in manual mode
  • Put your camera on a tripod so that it will be easy to take the shots without moving the camera
  • Focus on a flower or something that will be perfectly still
  • Compose your image, get in as close as you can
  • Set your aperture to f/2.8 and take a shot
  • Then set your aperture to f/4, take a second shot,
  • Then f/5.6 and take a third shot
  • Then two final images, one at f/8 and one at f/11
  • Adjust the shutter speed accordingly to make sure you expose them all correctly

Now take a look at the images, what you will notice is that the f/2.8 image will have a small part of the image in focus, the f/8 and f/11 images will have most of the scene in focus.  This now becomes a compositional choice. You can decide on every image what should be in focus and what can be blurred.

Shallow depth of field isolates the grass and makes it the focal point

Shallow depth of field isolates the grass and makes it the focal point

4. How is this a compositional tool?

As a photographer you have the ability to determine what you want people to look at. By using a shallow depth of field and having only part of the scene in focus, you will make sure that there is no doubt about what the subject is and where you want your viewers to look. A deep depth of field is also important in some images. In landscape photography, you will want a deep depth of field, a shallow depth of field in a landscape image might be confusing. Use your depth of field to determine where you want your viewers to look. Once again, with lots of practice and seeing the results, depth of field will be come an invaluable compositional tool.

I find that the most well known “rules” of composition are a good place to start. Once I have a scene set up, I then think about what I want to be in focus and what I want out of focus, or more precisely, what is my subject or focal point. From there I look at exposure, light, etc., and then I make the image. For me, depth of field has become an important creative tool that I use as often as I can to define my subject. Let me know what you think? Do you use depth of field as a compositional tool or not? If not, will you try it out? Let me know your comments below.

A shallow depth of field isolates the leaves from the soft background

A shallow depth of field isolates the leaves from the soft background

 

 

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Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here. You can also join Barry on a photography workshop in Canada. Click here to find out more.

  • Gianni Manzo

    Doesn’t a shallower DOF give more sense of 3D in a landscape photo ? When you decide to put all in focus or just the foreground ?
    Thanks

  • jumbybird

    Wouldn’t you get a greater sense of perspective in a landscape photo when all is in focus?

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for the question Gianni. I think you could try a landscape image like that but it may be confusing for the person looking at it. The shallow depth of field is used for when you want the viewer to focus on a particular part of the image i.e. a honeybee on a flower. In that case, you want the flower and the bee to be sharp and in focus and the rest of the image softly out of focus. In a landscape image, you want the viewer to see the whole scene, so it is preferable to have everything in focus. Some photographers simulate a “tilt-shift” look in Photoshop and that gives a 3d look, but works in only some cases. Go out and shoot a few examples, some in shallow depth of field and some in deep depth of field, see which image works better for you!

  • Kiril Varbanov

    First of all, I adore the site and all contributions. It’s invaluable place for hobby photographers like me. I don’t own DSLR or mirrorless (yet), so I’m keeping calm with my PAS FujiFilm S4800. I do a lot of shots in order to overcome the inabilities of the camera (and to learn), but in fact this is the fun part!

    Onto your question, example of shallow depth of field (shot in Manual mode) in order to have the dove in focus and the cross as a supplement of the image. The dove was just resting on the church fence, so I lowered the aperture (f/4.8) to have the cross behind blurred. I know this sounds lame to professional photographers, but it kinda felt good when the theory knowledge was used into practice.
    Cheers.

  • barryjbrady

    Nicely done Kiril. This is exactly what photography is about, learning about the theory and then putting it into practice. I know the feeling you have experienced, it is fantastic to be able to create a result that you imagined. Well done and keep on experimenting, that’s the best way to learn about this fantastic art!

  • Susan

    Thanks for the info on DOF. I take a lot of photos of birds and found I had to play with the DOF. When shooting birds as they go for some pray or such, if I focused on the pray I would on get one maybe two good shots in a shallow DOF. The rest were out of focus. So I increased it and was able to get more in focused shots. I went from 6.3 to maybe 9-10 or 11. But i do use the lower end of the DOF. My lens is 150-600 and 5-6.3

  • Jacqueline Derrick

    When you say, “Adjust the shutter speed accordingly to make sure you expose them all correctly” , how do I adjust the shutter speed according to the F-stop. Sorry, I am kind of new at this. I bought an Olympus Pen E-PM1 a little over a year ago and I am still trying to get use to it. … Thank you so much for sharing your post, it is very helpful! I know you must be very busy and to take time to share great information like this really means a lot.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for reading Jacqueline. You will need to be in aperture priority
    mode or manual mode to do this. If you have never shot on these modes,
    take a look at this article below for some guidance. If you have any
    questions, let me know!
    https://digital-photography-school.com/getting-off-auto-manual-aperture-and-shutter-priority-modes-explained/

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Susan, to get great images with shallow depth of field takes lots of practice. The minute your subject moves it can go out of focus. The only suggestion I have here is to practice this technique until it becomes instinctive, but it does take time and can be frustrating especially with insects and birds!

  • tlrhmltn

    Good article, but there is more to depth of field than just adjusting the f-stop. Two other (major) factors that should be put into consideration are:
    1) the length of the lens; and
    2) the distance of the subject from the background (or foreground).
    With longer lenses, the background will look more compressed and creamy than if you were to compare to a shorter focal length and the same f-stop.
    As well, the background will appear more out of focus with a low f-stop when the subject is further away from it, than it would be with the same f-stop and the subject closer to the background.

  • Brian

    Also, learn about the exposure triangle and how Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO all work together. Changing one of them will mean one or both of the other two will need to be changed to get the proper exposure.

    The following DPS article is fantastic and explains it all:

    https://digital-photography-school.com/learning-exposure-in-digital-photography/

  • Thanks tlrhmlton, you are correct. This article was about introducing the concept of depth of field as a composition tool. A later article could cover things like compression and magnification and how that affects the visual design of your image. Thanks for reading!

  • carrie

    Thank you, sir. You made things so much clearer and easier for anyone to understand. You defined DEPTH OF FIELD so well.

  • Thank you for reading and commenting Carrie!!

  • Perspective in an image has more to do with which lens was used that how much is in focus. Your eye will natural gravitate towards the sharp parts so if it’s all sharp it’s harder to define the subject. So you can do that but you need to make sure the subject is defined in other ways like lighting, composition, color, etc.

  • Bernardo

    Depth-of-field

  • chelle

    Love to “play around” with dof. It’s harmless, fun, and helps me learn by doing! Great intro article…thx.

  • Super love this site! Thank you. <3

  • landshark123

    My niece last fall. Nikon 85mm 1.8G at f2.5.

  • Everaldo Leocadio da Silva

    Thanks to help us to understand depth of fiel like a composiotional tool, I am learning to use it, step by step, and I love it.

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