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Understanding Depth of Field – A Beginner’s Guide

Depth of field (DoF) is one of the most important concepts in photography. Understanding what DoF is, and knowing what factors affect it, are things all photographers should master. Many photographers know that you can control DoF by adjusting aperture. But did you know that DoF is influenced by other factors too? In this article, I want to explain in simple terms what depth of field is and talk about the ways you can control it.


What is Depth of Field?

Depth of field is the distance between the closest and farthest objects in a photo that appears acceptably sharp. Now your camera can only focus sharply at one point. But the transition from sharp to unsharp is gradual, and the term ‘acceptably sharp’ is a loose one! Without getting too technical, how you will be viewing the image, and at what size you will be looking at it are factors that contribute to how acceptably sharp an image is. It also depends on how good your vision is!

Scientifically, it is based on something called the circle of confusion. This involves more physics than I’m going to get into here! Spencer talks about it in his article “Hyperfocal Distance Explained.” So check that out for more of the technical details if you are so inclined.

In these two sketches, I have tried to illustrate what is meant by a narrow and large DoF. In a photograph with a narrow DoF, only a small slice of the image is in focus. Conversely, with a large DoF, much more of the scene is sharp.


DoF sketch

Video Demonstration

Although this article has a lot of real-world example photos, if you’re the type of person who prefers to learn via video demonstrations, we have filmed a complete depth of field tutorial that you may find useful. You can watch it here:


Photo Demonstration

Now let’s show some example photos of how to change depth of field for a given scene. Before everything else, I wanted to show you the setup I used to take the sample images in this article. Hopefully, this will give you a bit more insight into the photos and a better feel for the distances between the objects I was shooting. To change the camera-subject distance, I moved my tripod closer/farther away from the props. All of the test images were shot with the same camera, a Nikon D500.


Setup

Aperture

Aperture is the opening in your lens that lets light pass through to the sensor. Think of it as a pupil for your lens. It dilates to let more light in, and contracts to restrict light when it is bright. Aperture is probably the first thing most photographers think of when they want to adjust the depth of field.


Aperture Terminology

Large apertures, which correlate to small f-stop numbers, produce a very shallow depth of field. On the other hand, small apertures, or large f-stop numbers, produce images with a large depth of field.

Sunset Cape Neddick, Maine

Captured with a NIKON D800 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 24mm, ISO 200, 8/10s, f/22.0 This image has a large DoF. I focused on the rocks about 5m ahead of me. The foreground rocks and the distant clouds are all in focus.