Are you looking to understand depth of field?
It’s a tough concept to grasp, but–once you’ve read this article–I guarantee that you’ll be a depth of field master.
And once you have a firm grasp on depth of field, it’ll allow you to really enhance and improve your images.
Are you ready?
Let’s get started.
What Is Depth of Field?
First things first:
What actually is depth of field?
Well, depth of field refers to the amount of the scene that’s actually sharp.
In other words, if you take a photo of a person in front of a tree…
Is the person’s face sharp?
How about the tree behind them?
Depending on the depth of field, you might end up with just the person being sharp, or just the tree being sharp, or both the person and the tree being sharp.
That’s what depth of field is all about.
Note that the depth of field is essentially a distance, starting at the point at which the scene becomes sharp, and finishing at the point where the scene becomes soft.
Now let’s talk about different extreme depth of fied examples, and how photographers generally refer to depth of field:
Shallow Versus Deep Depth of Field
When you have a very narrow depth of field, it’s called shallow depth of field.
It produces an effect like this, because so little of the scene is actually in focus:
(After all, the depth of field is very thin!)
But if you have a very deep depth of field, then your scene will be rendered sharp throughout.
You’ll have a sharp foreground, a sharp midground, and a sharp background.
For instance, this image has a very deep depth of field:
Notice how everything is sharp? That’s the result that a deep depth of field will supply.
So, as you can see, by using different depth of fields, you can create different effects.
You can use a shallow depth of field for an artistic, soft-focus vibe.
Or you can use a deep depth of field for a sweeping landscape image.
(More on these effects later.)
How do you actually control the depth of field?
How do you tell your camera to create a deep depth of field or a shallow depth of field?
It all has to do with something called aperture.
What Is Aperture?
Aperture refers to a diaphragm in your lens, which opens and closes depending on your camera settings.
In particular, you have the opportunity to dial an f-stop into your camera.
And, based on the f-stop, your lens’s aperture will widen or narrow.
(Aperture is basically a little hole, getting bigger or smaller depending on the f-stop.)
Now, f-stop is written like this:
f/1.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, etc. The different f-stop values vary from lens to lens, but most lenses span from around f/4 to f/22.
Here’s how the f-stops correspond to apertures:
The smaller the f-stop, the wider the aperture.
So if you have an f-stop of f/1.8, you’ll end up with a very wide aperture.
And if you have an f-stop of f/16, you’ll have a very narrow aperture.
You can control the f-stop. And the f-stop controls aperture.
But what does aperture have to do with depth of field?
That’s what this next section is all about.
How Does Aperture Affect Depth of Field?
The aperture directly controls depth of field.
A narrow aperture results in a deep depth of field.
And a wide aperture results in a narrow depth of field.
So if you dial in a narrow aperture–say, with a corresponding f-stop of f/16–you’ll end up with a photo like this, where the scene is sharp throughout:
And if you dial in a wide aperture–with a corresponding f-stop of f/1.8–you’ll end up with a photo like this, where the scene is barely sharp at all:
To control depth of field, you set your camera’s f-stop.
By setting a low f-stop, you produce a narrow depth of field effect.
And by setting a high f-stop, you produce a deep depth of field effect.
Other Factors Affecting Depth of Field
While aperture does directly control depth of field, there are other factors that matter.
And in this section, I’ll go over each of them in detail.
The relationship between focal length and depth of field is simple:
The longer your lens, the shallower the depth of field.
So if you shoot with a wide-angle, 12mm lens, you’ll end up with a huge depth of field. Even if you use a relatively wide aperture.
But if you shoot with an ultra-long, super-telephoto, 600mm lens, you’ll end up with a very shallow depth of field. Even if you use a relatively narrow aperture.
That’s why it’s far easier to capture a sweeping, deep depth of field landscape image with a wide-angle lens (compared to a telephoto lens).
Distance From Subject
The farther you are from the subject, the deeper the depth of field.
In other words:
If you take a photo of a subject very close to your lens, you’ll end up with a shallow depth of field (all else being equal).
But if you take a few steps back, so that the subject is farther away…
Then you’ll end up with a deeper depth of field.
This is why macro photographers work with very limited depth of field; with such close subjects, their lens only renders a sliver of the image in focus.
Maximizing Depth of Field With the Hyperfocal Distance
The hyperfocal distance refers to the point at which you can focus your lens so that you get the maximum amount of depth of field.
It takes into account what you discovered in the previous section:
That distance from the subject affects depth of field.
What the hyperfocal distance is doing is giving you the point of focus at which you will be able to get as much of the scene sharp as possible.
Now, most photographers don’t need to pay much attention to hyperfocal distance, because their goal isn’t to get the entire scene sharp from front to back.
But landscape photographers do often have that goal, which means that it’s important that landscape shooters be able to determine the hyperfocal distance when out in the field.
There are charts you can use to calculate the hyperfocal distance.
But I’d recommend just using this simple rule:
Identify the nearest object in the scene you want to be perfectly sharp.
Estimate the distance between your camera and that object.
Double that distance, and use that as your point of focus.
(That is, focus at the point that’s double the nearest object that you want sharp.)
That way, you’ll end up with everything you want sharp–or, at least, as much of the scene sharp as possible.
Because it’s important to note that the hyperfocal distance isn’t a magic bullet. If you want a scene that’s sharp throughout, you still have to choose a sufficiently narrow aperture. Otherwise you’ll maximize depth of field, but you won’t end up with enough of it for your scene.
By the way, there will be some situations where, even with a narrow aperture and a perfectly targeted hyperfocal distance, you won’t have enough depth of field for a sharp image.
In such cases, you’ll need to resort to a method called focus bracketing, also known as focus stacking, where you capture several images with different points of focus, then blend them together in post-processing.
Focus stacking allows you to capture traditionally impossible images with relative ease–such as sharp images of macro subjects, or sharp images of very deep landscapes.
Which Is Better: Shallow Depth of Field or Deep Depth of Field?
You’ve been discovering all the key features of depth of field.
But one thing I haven’t yet discussed:
Is it better to use a deep depth of field all the time? What about a shallow depth of field?
When should you take advantage of each of these options?
First of all, just to be clear:
There is no one best depth of field.
Sometimes shallow depth of field is the way forward.
Other times, you’ll want to use deep depth of field for an image that’s sharp throughout.
So don’t get hung up on a specific type of depth of field, and think that it’s the only way to go.
That said, different depths of field are used repeatedly for very specific effects. Because of this, certain genres of photography rely heavily on one type of depth of field over others.
Let’s take a closer look:
Using a Shallow Depth of Field for Artistic Effect
If you use a shallow depth of field, you often end up with a sharp subject but a blurred background, like this:
Certain types of photographers love the shallow depth of field look, because it helps their main subject stand out from the background.
In particular, almost all portrait photographers use wide apertures (in the f/1.4 to f/4 range) to keep the depth of field shallow and the background nicely blurred.
Some macro photographers also use wide apertures, in an effort to produce a “soft focus” effect, like this:
And there are also street photographers, event photographers, wildlife photographers, and more that use shallow depth of field to great effect.
Note that the shallow depth of field look will vary depending on the factors described above.
So the shallowest depth of field will be achieved with a very wide aperture (e.g., f/1.8), a very near subject, and a very long focal length.
Using a Deep Depth of Field for Tack-Sharp Images
A deep depth of field is slightly less common than a shallow depth of field, but there are plenty of photographers that love maintaining perfect sharpness throughout the frame.
Landscape photographers are especially interested in a deep depth of field effect, which is why every serious landscape shooter should be familiar with hyperfocal distance and be able to use it with ease.
Architectural photographers also tend to care about deep depth of field, as do still life photographers and some macro photographers.
While a deep depth of field doesn’t give the same surrealistic, artistic look that’s offered by a shallow depth of field effect, you can use a deep depth of field to suck the viewer into a three-dimensional, realistic scene, one that’s sharp from foreground to background.
Depth of Field Explained: Conclusion
As you now know, depth of field is a simple topic–but one that has a lot of useful consequences.
You can use shallow depth of field effects for wonderfully artistic images.
And you can use deep depth of field effects to render scenes that are tack-sharp throughout the frame.
So, the next time you’re out photographing, make sure you pay careful attention to your depth of field.
That way, you’ll get the best possible results.
Depth of field refers to the amount in your photo that’s actually sharp. In other words: Do you have a sharp subject but a blurry background? If so, your photo possesses a shallow depth of field. Or do you have a sharp subject and a sharp background (i.e., a photo that’s sharp throughout)? Then your photo possesses a deep depth of field.
Depth of field is affected by three key factors. First, the aperture of the lens, with narrower apertures resulting in deeper depth of field, and wider apertures providing shallower depth of field. Second, the distance from your camera to the subject (i.e., to the point of focus), with more distant subjects resulting in deeper depth of field compared to closer subjects. And third, the focal length of your lens, where longer focal lengths result in shallower depth of field and shorter focal lengths result in deeper depth of field.
There is no one best aperture. Instead, different apertures are good for different situations. If you want a shallow depth of field, I recommend an aperture between f/1.4 and f/4; if you want a deep depth of field, I recommend an aperture of f/8 and beyond. However, the results will also depend on other relevant factors, such as the distance from you to your subject, and the focal length of your lens.
You can primarily control the depth of field with your lens’s aperture, which you can set on your camera with a corresponding f-stop. You can also control the depth of field by paying attention to the other factors that matter: The focal length of your lens (with longer lenses providing shallower depth of field) and the distance from you to your subject (that is, the farther away your point of focus, the deeper the depth of field).
No, definitely not! There is no one “best” depth of field; instead, different depth of field effects are good for different types of images. Portrait photographers love a shallow depth of field, because it helps make the main subject stand out (plus it just looks artistic). But landscape photographers obsess over a deep depth of field, because it renders everything sharp and helps suck the viewer straight into the photo.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.