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Composition: depth of field

There is a lot of talk about blurred backgrounds and how to blur the background. What people are actually talking about is Depth of Field (DoF).

Depth of field is one of the first compositional elements that a beginner photographer should master. In fact, getting a handle on depth of field is more urgent than learning about the other compositional techniques. These techniques include subject placement and deciding what to include or exclude from an image.

What is depth of field (DoF)?

Unlike our eyes, a lens can focus on only one distance at a time. Although an area around the in focus subject appears sharp, the focus falls off and gradually becomes blurry.

Put simply, depth of field is the sharpness in the image in front of and behind the subject. Or, to be technically accurate, it is the distance between the furthest and nearest points that are in acceptable focus. This is the area of focus.

As the use of the word depth implies, we have deep (or wide) depth of field and shallow (or narrow) depth of field.

Let’s start at the deep end.

Deep (wide) depth of field

Landscape photographers generally use a deep depth of field. In other words, they want front to back sharpness in their images – both the foreground and the background are as in focus as possible. Imagine what a blurry mountain would look like in the distance – it would just be a big solid lump.

Shallow (narrow) depth of field

When photographers want a blurred background, they don’t want the background to be in sharp focus. So, they want a shallow depth of field. This is particularly popular with portrait photographers. A blurred background makes the subject really stand out in the image as it separates them from the background.

Also, by blurring the background you eliminate distractions and the viewer is automatically drawn to the sharpest element in the image, the subject.

Blurred background created with a long focal length and wide aperture

A girl in a field seems like an appropriate photo to use when discussing depth of field….
Nikon D810 camera settings: f6.3, 70 – 200mm lens at a focal length of 190mm.

What affects depth of field (DoF)?

When taking a photo, to increase or decrease the area that is in focus, you need to know what controls depth of field: aperture and magnification. Therefore there are 4 ways that you can adjust depth of field through aperture and magnification:

  1. aperture
  2. distance
  3. lens focal length
  4. camera sensor

Let’s take a closer look at these four methods.

1. Aperture – the most well known factor affecting DoF

If you shoot “wide open”, in other words with a small f-number such as f1.8, f2.8 or f4. You will have a shallow depth of field. In fact at f1.8 your depth of field will be so shallow that, if you were standing close enough to your subject, their eyes could be sharp, while the tip of their nose and their ears aren’t.

Conversely, if you “stop down” (reduce the size of the aperture) to larger f-numbers such as f11, f16 and f22, you will have a deep depth of field.

Read more about aperture here: The Exposure Triangle – what role does Aperture play?

2. Distance between photographer and subject

The area of focus either side of your subject is a proportion of the distance between you and your subject. This is roughly 1/3 of the distance in front of your subject and 2/3 of the distance behind your subject.

In other words, if your subject is 2 metres from you and 6 metres from the background, the background will be more blurred than if your subject was 2 metres from the background.

Or, put another way – here’s a quick “sketch” to demonstrate. The underlined area = the area of focus

Photographer – – Subject – – Background

Photographer – – Subject – – – – – – Background

For a detailed tutorial, with examples, on using distance to control depth of field read:  The easy way to a beautifully blurry background

Wide aperture to create shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is not just for creating a blurred background. Sometimes the subject is in the background and we want to blur the foreground to separate the subject from the foreground. So, we use a shallow depth of field to blur the foreground.
Nikon D810 camera settings: f4, 70 – 200mm lens at a focal length of 75mm. Foreground was about 2 – 3 metres from me and the elephant was about 8 – 10 metres back from the foreground.

3. Lens focal length affects depth of field

When we talk about the focal length of a lens, we’re talking about the ability of the lens to magnify. Magnification affects depth of field.

So, if you’re shooting at 200mm there is considerably more magnification than if you are shooting at 55mm. Therefore the background will be blurred more when using a focal length of 200mm.

This is another reason why landscape photographers shoot with wide angle lenses.

Deep depth of field created with a medium aperture and short focal length

Photographed in a small living room. I was about 2 metres from the parents and wanted all the subjects to be in focus..
Nikon D810 Camera settings: f8, 24 – 70mm lens at a focal length of 58mm.

4. Camera sensor and depth of field

Remember that magnification affects depth of field, so the size of your camera’s sensor plays a role in depth of field when comparing full frame sensors and crop sensors ONLY when you’re trying to take exactly the same photo with both cameras. It all comes down to field of view.

A camera with a crop sensor has a smaller field of view –  it takes in less of a scene. A full frame camera has a larger sensor, so has a larger field of view and takes in more of a scene than a crop frame. To fill the frame with a full frame sensor you need to get closer than you would with a crop sensor camera.

Because you have to get closer to the subject, you reduce the distance between you and the subject, so you get a shallower depth of field. OR you zoom in, so change the focal length of the lens, and as a result get a shallower depth of field. Because of magnification.

REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: You can achieve exactly the same depth of field with both types of sensors where neither you nor your subject move. You just have to change the camera settings (lens focal length and aperture).

Summary of how to get a blurred background (or foreground):

So, there you have it. If you want a blurred background, you can:

  • Increase aperture (smaller f-number)
  • Move your subject away from the background
  • Use a longer focal length
  • Use a full frame DSLR camera and either zoom in or get closer

Summary of how to get front to back sharpness:

If you want a deeper depth of field, in other words, more front to back sharpness, do the reverse:

  • Decrease aperture (higher f-number)
  • Get your subject closer to the background
  • Use a shorter focal length
  • Use a DSLR camera with a crop sensor (or a compact camera)

If you’re still fuzzy about depth of field and blurry backgrounds, you can be sure that many others are struggling too. Please share your questions and/or struggles below and we’ll give you some help.

If this tutorial has helped you to understand depth of field, share that too – we love good news!

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