Photography Basics – Depth-of-Field (DOF) [Part VI]

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In Part I, II and III we dealt with basics of Exposure, how to achieve optimum exposure for various scenarios, and how to achieve optimum exposure using Filters, respectively.

Part-IV was a precursor to understanding Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. In Part V, we understood the basics of Aperture and its importance in photography.

In this part, let us understand how we can use the Aperture settings to achieve required Depth of Field (DOF) in an image.

Depth of Field (DOF)

Depth of Field refers to nearest to the farthest object that is acceptably sharp in an image.

As we understand that image is a 2-dimensional representation of a 3-dimensional medium (width, height and depth).

Just take a look at the scene right in front of you. You can see the objects in their 3-dimensional format. Isn’t it? You can see from few inches in front of you to the farthest object which might be few feet or meters away.

How much can you see from immediate foreground to the background sharply? If you see everything sharply, then your eye has Deep Depth of Field. Which means everything from foreground to background is in clear focus.

Try this now. Bring your thumb as close as possible to your eyes. Concentrate on thumb only, now what do you see?

Do you see only thumb in clear focus and rest blurred? If so, then your eye has Shallow Depth of Field. This means, only one object is in clear focus and rest of the scene falls out of focus.

Let us examine how we can achieve the shallow or deep DOF in photography.

Factors Affecting Depth of Field

There are several factors that affect how much DOF one can achieve. They are:

  • Aperture (f-stop)
  • Camera-to-Subject distance
  • Subject-to-Background distance
  • Len’s Focal Length
  • Sensor Size (Full-size or Cropped sensor)
  • Circle of Confusion Criterion

For now, let us consider only the Aperture and its effect on Depth of Field. We will consider all other factors along with Aperture to illustrate how they affect Depth of Field in a dedicated article.

Shallow Depth of Field (DOF)

An image is said to have shallow DOF when only a small portion of the image (generally main subject of interest) is in sharp focus, but rest of the scene is out of focus.

Shallow DOF yields to aesthetically pleasing images due to the bokeh effect produced by out-of-focus areas. It is extensively used in Macro, Portrait and Wildlife Photography especially in Bird photography.

Shallow DOF can be achieved with larger aperture values (smaller denominator values) like f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc. It’s that simple! Provided all other factors are taken care of. But there are some exceptions, which you can see in the below photographs!

Below are some photographs where I have used Shallow Depth of Field.

Nature Photography Simplified. Shallow Depth of Field. Dove In Flight

An example of Shallow Depth of Field, where the main subject of interest (Dove) is in sharp focus and the rest of the scene is blurred.
Aperture setting: f/4

Nature Photography Simplified. Shallow Depth of Field. Sparrow perched on a tree branch.

Another example of use of Shallow Depth of Field to make the subject (sparrow) stand out in the frame. The bokeh effect of the background makes the photograph aesthetically pleasing.
Aperture Setting: f/4

Nature Photography Simplified. Shallow Depth of Field. Backlit flower.

Another example of use of Shallow Depth of Field combined with back lighting makes this bud glow.
I have chosen the Aperture setting of f/9 to get end to end sharpness in the bud while throwing everything else out of focus!
This was possible due to the fact that I was using a full frame sensor with 400mm lens and was only few feet away from the subject.
Aperture Setting: f/9

Nature Photography Simplified. Shallow Depth of Field. Cedar Waxwing Perching On A Tree Branch

In this photograph, the Cedar Waxwing and the branch it is perching on, are in perfect focus and the rest of the scene is out of focus.
More depth of field might have brought the background branches in focus which could have potentially ruined this image.
Aperture Setting: f/2.8

Nature Photography Simplified. Shallow Depth of Field. Tulip Garden in Holland, USA

This is a very different example of usage of Shallow Depth of Field in the Landscape photography.
A normal tendency for this kind of scene is to consider deep DOF. However, I decided to go for shallow DOF bringing only one kind of Tulips in focus and rest of the Tulips slightly out of focus.
Aperture Setting: f/8

Deep Depth of Field (DOF)

An image is said to have deep DOF when the image is in sharp focus from foreground to background.

Deep DOF is much widely used in Landscape Photography where it is usually necessary to show the entire landscape in sharp focus. However, sometimes keeping only portion of the landscape image in sharp focus yields wonderful image (Tulip garden image).

Deep DOF can be achieved with smaller aperture values (bigger denominator values) like f/9, f/11, f/16, f/22, etc. Here again, we need to take care of all other factors. But there are some exceptions, which you can see in the below photographs!

Below are some photographs where I have used Deep Depth of Field.

Nature Photography Simplified. Deep Depth of Field. Red Car In Fall Foliage In Agate Falls Road Upper Peninsula Michigan

A natural scene that demands for a deep DOF. The road that serves as the leading line in the photograph runs from foreground to the distant background. It is necessary to keep everything in focus.
Aperture Setting: f/9
Note that I am using a middle aperture value f/9 as opposed to general belief of using a very small aperture. But there is something called hyper-focal distance and also diffraction to consider!

Nature Photography Simplified. Deep Depth of Field. Lasalle Canyon Starved Rock State Park

Yet another example of use of deep DOF in landscape photography. The wooden bridge serves as the leading line to give this photograph the much needed depth.
Aperture Setting: f/9
As said in the previous example I have considered the hyper-focal distance.

Nature Photography Simplified. Deep Depth of Field. Crabtree Falls. Blue Ridge Parkway.

Crabtree falls photograph uses the deep DOF for obvious reasons. The waterfalls which acts as the main subject of interest as well as the leading line needs to be in sharp focus throughout.
Aperture Setting: f/22
The choice of a very small aperture value was needed to give a silky smooth effect to the waterfalls.

Simple Experiment to see the effect of Aperture

Try out this simple experiment to see the effect of Aperture on Depth of Field.

  1. Setup the Camera on Tripod or a sturdy surface.
  2. Place the main subject of interest like a flower, vase, or a toy at around 5 to 8 feet from the Camera.
  3. Make sure there is atleast 10 feet distance between the main subject and the background.
  4. Compose the scene as you wish.
  5. Dial the aperture down to the largest f-stop (like f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6).
  6. Focus on the main subject.

Now take photographs with different aperture settings (f-stops) starting from the largest aperture to the smallest aperture.

If you take a look at the photographs you will see the Depth of Field increases as you go from larger aperture values (small f-numbers like f/2.8, f/4) to smaller aperture values (big f-numbers f/16, f/22). But there are some exceptions, which you can see in the below photographs!

To make this experiment more interesting, you can place a foreground object and a background object. In this way, you could see how foreground object and background objects come to focus as you choose smaller aperture values.

In Part VII, we discuss about the Shutter Speed.

Nature Photography Simplified. Understanding Exposure, Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO eBook. Written by Prathap.Buy Printable version of Understanding Exposure (9-Part Series) for $1.99 USD only! Contact prathapdk@gmail.com for payment details.

 

 

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19 Responses to Photography Basics – Depth-of-Field (DOF) [Part VI]

  1. Gopalakrishnan.S May 12, 2014 at 12:23 am #

    Informative post!! Thankyou.

    • Prathap May 12, 2014 at 2:09 am #

      Thank you! Gopalakrishnan.

  2. umut May 12, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    thanks u r great

  3. Shreenivas Yenni May 12, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Very Good Information sir 🙂 it helped me lot 🙂 Tumba chennagi explain madidira 🙂

    DhanyavAdagaLu

    • Prathap May 12, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Thank you! Shreenivas. Nimmellara preeti vishwasa heege irali 🙂

  4. Gerrie Malan May 13, 2014 at 12:44 am #

    Thanks again, Prathap, from South Africa.

  5. Kim May 30, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    Wonderfully written, you have a gift for teaching! Thank you

    • Prathap May 31, 2014 at 4:06 am #

      Thanks a lot for wonderful comment Kim 🙂

  6. johny July 22, 2014 at 8:56 am #

    Thanks for the great one prathap.. I have question… suppose if my subject is near to me and I have 400mm 5.6 do I need to change to f like 8 or 9 to get the sharp and shallow depth of field image. For the same If I stand back couple of feet and change the f to 5.6 to get the same shallow kind of image. Please give your inputs on this..

    • Prathap July 30, 2014 at 12:37 am #

      Dear Johny, Easiest way to know whether you should use f/5.6 or f/8 in a situation that you described, is to see how much frame does the bird cover?
      If bird fills the frame, you might have to go for f/8 to f/11 if your intention is to get the bird in sharp focus. Since the longer focal length tend to have shallower DOF. Note that you might still get a nice Bokeh in the background due to the magnification factor of the telephoto lens like 400mm.
      As you rightly said, you might choose to go back couple of feet and use f/5.6 instead. But note that the composition will change in that case, which is not always desirable.
      It might be confusing at the beginning to understand this concept. You could try this experiment to try out the combination of f-stops with a static subject and you will know it!

  7. Vaishnavi September 11, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    Really great pictures and information. Thanks for sharing the techniques with everyone.

    • Prathap September 15, 2014 at 5:01 am #

      Thank you very much Vaishnavi.

  8. gp reuben March 17, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    finally i found the right teacher, who can make me understand (a great quality of a teacher)

    • Prathap March 29, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

      Thank you so much for your kind words! GP Reuben.

  9. Kishore Kumar January 11, 2017 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks dear Prathap for such a nice and simple methodology to make a totally inexperienced and raw enthusiast like me to understand the fundamentals of dslr photography.
    Hope you would keep your efforts to enlighten people like me .

    • Prathap February 9, 2017 at 8:20 pm #

      Thank you, Kishore. Of course, I do.

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