(Last updated on July 7th, 2022)
You may have heard the term depth of field when learning about photography. This is an important term to understand as it directly affects the composition and style of your photos. If you are unsure what it means but want to know more, you are in luck!
I have created a comprehensive beginner’s guide on depth of field photography. In this guide, we will look at the definition of depth of field and how it applies to photography. We will then look at various photographic examples and consider the factors that allow you to control the depth of field.
- Explaining Depth of Field in Photography
- Examples of Photos With Different Depths of Field
- Why Does Depth of Field Matter in Photography?
- How to Control Depth of Field in Your Photos
- Common Types of Photography and Their Depth of Field
- Frequently Asked Questions
Explaining Depth of Field in Photography
Depth of Field – A Simple Definition
“Depth of field equates to the distance between all objects (the closest and furthest away) that are in focus/sharp in a photo”
In other words, when you use your camera and focus on a specific subject (your pet dog, for example) there is actually a zone where your lens is focusing. This zone represents the depth of field. This includes both in front and behind the subject you have focused on. We have created a simple diagram to illustrate this below:
As I will explain below, by adjusting your camera settings, positioning, and equipment, you can affect that zone and create a shallower or deeper/wider depth of field.
Depth of field photography is simply a term used to describe the process and phenomenon. There isn’t a specific type of depth of field photo. Instead, as you will see in this guide, depth of field can be used in different ways to create different effects.
Examples of Photos With Different Depths of Field
I find the best way to learn a photographic term, is to look at sample photos. I have hand-picked four of my own photos that demonstrate different depths of field, and how it affects the composition.
Example 1 – A Gobbling Turkey
I took this photo while visiting a farm in Cornwall. I wanted the emphasis to be on the turkey, and to outline its bizarre facial features.
I was relatively close to the turkey, and thus an aperture of f/6.3 was enough. As you can see, the turkey is completely in focus, while the background is not. This demonstrates a shallow depth of field which in this situation works to emphasize the main subject i.e. the turkey.
Example 2 – A Railway in Cornwall
Continuing my Cornwall road trip and I stumbled upon this railway line on a hiking trail. I wanted to create a photo with the railway track as the emphasis, but still show it within its beautiful surroundings.
As I was further away from the scene and I wanted to get more in focus, I used a smaller aperture of f/8. This means that everything from the front of the railway line to the trees in the background is in focus. As a result, this demonstrates a wide depth of field.
Example 3 – A Statue in Chatsworth Gardens
Even if you have a central subject, you can use depth of field to focus on a single part of the subject. This is a photo from Chatsworth Gardens in the Peak District in England. I wanted to emphasize the statue, and in particular its facial features.
As a result, I used a large aperture of f/3.5. This created an incredibly shallow depth of field. The result is that the background, and much of the shadow are out of focus. Only the face of the larger statue is in focus which helps direct your eye here.
Example 4 – Norwegian Fjords
My last example demonstrates a wider depth of field for landscape photos. In this shot, I climbed a hiking trail to get an epic view of the fjord and cruise ship in Olden, Norway. I wanted to show all the detail – the ship, the mountains, and the trees.
As a result, I used a smaller aperture of f/8. The result is a larger depth of field that gets virtually everything in focus. This is often the desired effect for landscape shots as I explain below.
Why Does Depth of Field Matter in Photography?
Now that you understand the definition of depth of field, you must understand why it matters. Does it matter how much of your subject is in focus? Of course!
Depth of field is a key component of photography. How you use depth of field can completely transform an image. It can give subjects an entirely different meaning, place emphasis on different objects, and give more or less detail as required.
Two prominent areas where depth of field matters is when photographing subjects and landscapes.
When photographing a single subject, you ideally want the emphasis to be on that subject. For example, in portrait photography, the emphasis is typically the person, not their surroundings.
Depth of field helps place emphasis on a subject. A shallower depth of field means less of the photo is in focus. You can use this to your advantage to make sure that only the subject is in focus.
The example below is a beautiful portrait photo. It has a shallow depth of field. As a result, only the lady is in focus. We can see her clearly, but the background is out of focus. This creates a pleasing effect and makes the lady the central focal point of the photo. Furthermore, the background doesn’t provide any distraction.
Therefore, we can see that depth of field is a useful tool for creating emphasis. This can be used in many ways and is the primary way that we create artistic photos.
In contrast, depth of field can also be used to place the emphasis on the entire photo. Sometimes, we don’t have a single photographic subject. In compositions like this, we don’t want a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field here could reduce the impact of the entire scene.
This is primarily true in landscape photography. In this type of photography, we want to show epic sweeping vistas and landscapes. We want the user to take in every last detail. We want them to drink in the details and feel the enormity of what they are seeing. A wide depth of field helps achieve this.
In the below example, we can see an amazing mountain landscape from the Austrian Alps. It looks sublime! If you look at the photo, everything is in focus. This includes the snow-covered trees in the foreground, the jagged slopes of the mountains, and the wispy clouds in the sky.
A wider depth of field here is preferable to get all of that awe-inspiring detail. Therefore, we can also say that depth of field is important for detail and showing a wider array of subjects in a single photo.
How to Control Depth of Field in Your Photos
We know what depth of field is. Also, we know why it is important in photography. But what affects the depth of field and how can you control it? This phenomenon has many contributing factors including aperture, subject distance, focal length, and sensor size.
The aperture is the hole in your lens that light is let through to hit your camera sensor. You can make the aperture larger or smaller. Aperture is denoted in f-stop values such as f/2.8, f/3.5, f/4, f/8, and f/11.
A small f-stop number, such as f/2.8 relates to a wide aperture. In contrast, a large f-stop number, such as f/11 relates to a narrow aperture.
There is a direct correlation between aperture and depth of field.
- A wide aperture = a shallower depth of field
- A narrow aperture = a wider/deeper depth of field
Using the aperture is the simplest and quickest way to alter the depth of field. If you want a shallower depth of field (and less in focus), use a larger aperture value. Alternatively, if you want a deeper depth of field (and more in focus), use a smaller aperture value.
The below photo demonstrates this. This portrait uses a relatively wide aperture (probably of f/4 or larger). As a result, it has a shallow depth of field – only the woman’s face is in focus. If this photo was taken with a narrow aperture (of f/8 for example), her body and shoulders would also be in focus due to the deeper depth of field.
Distance Between the Subject and Camera
The next important factor is the distance between your subject and camera. Like aperture, there is a simple rule, and a direct correlation.
- Closer to your subject = shallower depth of field
- Further from your subject = wider/deeper depth of field
There is an easy way to test this theory. Try taking a photo of an object such as a flower closeup (at the minimum focusing distance of your lens. You will notice that it is virtually impossible to get the entire flower in focus. This is because of the above rule. There is also a useful Depth of Field Simulator that you can use to show this correlation too.
Bearing this in mind, another simple way that you can control the depth of field is by your positioning. Movement is vital in photography and it can add another layer of control to your compositions as opposed to simply relying on your camera settings.
If you want to focus on a smaller part of your subject or the scene, move closer to it. Alternatively, if you want a detailed photo with lots in focus, move further away.
Lens Focal Length
Similar to distance between the subject and camera is the lens focal length. It is important to distinguish the difference, however, as focal length and subject distance affect composition in different ways.
The simple rule to remember for focal length is:
- Shorter focal length = wider/deeper depth of field
- Longer focal length = shallower depth of field
For example, I have a Canon EOS M50 Mark II with an 18-55mm multi-zoom lens. If I stood 10 meters from a subject and took a photo at f/6.3 at a focal length of 18mm, it would have a relatively deep depth of field. However, if I stood in the same position, and took the same photo at f/6.3 and a focal length of 55mm, it would have a shallower depth of field.
If you have a zoom lens, try this, and see the difference it makes! Also, I advise looking at the difference in your composition if you physically move closer to a subject, or if you simply use a longer focal length.
Lastly, the sensor size in your camera also affects the depth of field. This is not as important, but it is still something to consider.
The sensor is what forms the digital image in your camera. It is light sensitive and there are three common types of sensor. I have created a simple table below that shows the different sensor types, and an example of the variance in depth of field.
|Sensor Type||Crop Factor||Physical Focal Length||Effective Focal Length||Aperture||Depth of Field|
|Full Frame (35mm)||1.0||120mm||120mm||f/9||0.92m|
|Micro Four Thirds||2.0||60mm||120mm||f/9||1.91m|
Controlling Depth of Field Photography
We have looked at the different factors that affect depth of field photography. However, it is vital to remember that the depth of field is affected by a combination of ALL of these factors.
If you want to control the depth of field, you must be able to think of all the factors. Simply adjusting one factor such as the aperture may not yield the results you want. Instead, you must learn to look at the relationship between each factor, and how they contribute as a whole to affect the depth of field of the photo you are taking.
This takes time, but as you get used to it, you will easily be able to change the depth of field and create beautiful photos.
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Common Types of Photography and Their Depth of Field
To finish, I have created a list of the popular types of photography. With each type, I have given an example, and info on how depth of field is commonly used.
The sole purpose of portrait photography is to emphasize your subject. If I am taking a photo of my cat, I don’t want the emphasis to be on the sofa it is sitting on!
This is why in portrait photos; a shallow depth of field is usually preferable. However, the level of shallowness depends on what you want to achieve.
In the above example, an extremely shallow depth of field is used. This means that only the woman’s face is in focus. If you look closely, you can see that her ear, body, and the top of her hair are not in focus. This effect is intentional and the shallow depth of field places the emphasis squarely on her eyes and mouth.
In landscape photography, we generally want to show more detail. The clue is in the name – we want to show the entire landscape, not a single subject.
As a result, landscape photos usually have a wider depth of field in which everything from the foreground to background is in focus.
This is demonstrated perfectly in the below photo. Here, a wide depth of field makes sure that the boathouse, lake, trees, and mountains are all in focus. The effect is quite breath-taking!
If you tried to use a shallow depth of field here, and only focus on the boathouse, for example, the dramatic effect of the photo would be completely lost.
The depth of field used in street photography is varied. This is because it is a type of photography that has many sub-categories.
In this first example, a shallow depth of field is used. This shows a street setting with an elderly gentleman looking at an immense pile of oranges. The shallow depth of field here makes sure that only the foreground is in focus i.e., the gentleman and his oranges.
However, in this second example, a wider depth of field is used. Here we see a gorgeous shot of a bustling alleyway in some city. The wider depth of field means the photo is focused from the front of the alleyway and the beautiful lights, through to the back of the alley where people are walking down the street.
Therefore, we can see that depth of field is adaptive in street photography depending on the setting, subject, and intent.
Depth of field is incredibly important for macro photography. In most instances, you want a shallow depth of field. This is because you want your subject in focus, but not the background.
However, this depends on how close you are to the subject, and how much of it you want in focus. A brilliant example is this below photo of an adorable praying mantis.
Firstly, the depth of field here is incredibly shallow. We can see that because the entire background is out of focus. However, the depth of field has been used cleverly here. An even shallower depth of field has been used so that only the face and hands of the mantis are in focus. I think the effect looks superb!
Therefore, a shallow depth of field is an essential starting point for macro photography. You can then use your positioning and aperture to then affect how much of the subject is in focus.
Sports photography, like street photography can utilize both shallow and wide depths of field.
A shallow depth of field is preferable when photographing single players or action shots. This is because you want the emphasis to be on the participants and what they are doing. The below track and field shot shows this. You can see that a shallow depth of field is used so that the track and athletes are in focus, while the stadium is not.
In contrast, the below photo shows the Lyon Olympic Football Stadium. Here, a wider depth of field is essential. This is so that the atmosphere, immense crowd, and the enormity of the stadium are captured and in focus.
For architecture, a wider depth of field is generally used. This is because you want to show the detail of the building/component you are photographing.
This is evident in real estate photography. In the below interior photo, the entire room is in focus and a wide depth of field is used. This is because the photo is meant to be factual, not artistic. You are not emphasizing a single piece of furniture, but instead showing the dimensions, space, and layout of the room.
A shallow depth of field could be appropriate in architectural photography. This is generally used for artistic architectural shots where single details are outlined.
I hope your head is now packed full of useful depth of field info! As a new photographer, it is important to understand terms such as these. By learning basic terms like depth of field, aperture, and focal length, you can improve your composing skills and help develop your eye for taking quality photos.
I would advise you to not get hung up on the mathematics or numbers behind depth of field. They are not important. What is important, is that you know what depth of field is, and how it affects your photos. Also, put your new knowledge into practice – get out there and experiment with depth of field! All you have to do is head out with your camera and use the above tips.
Frequently Asked Questions
Bokeh is the out of focus parts of an image – typically in the background. These appear as small circles or hexagonal shapes and make photos with a shallow depth of field look professional and pleasing.
This depends entirely on the type of photography, your subject, and intent. A great depth of field should be based on what you want to be in focus in your photo.
Depth of field is affected by the subject distance, focal length of your lens, aperture, and camera sensor. The simplest way to change the depth of field is to use a different aperture and move closer or further away from your subject.
For a shallow depth of field, telephoto lenses with a focal length of 85mm or more work well. In contrast, for a deep depth of field, wide-angle lenses with a focal length of 24mm of less are great.
Typically an aperture f-stop of between f/1.2 to f/5.6 will result in a shallow depth of field (providing the other factors like distance, focal length, and sensor are also suitable).
Paul Skidmore is a freelance photography blogger and writer. He has a life-long passion for travel and photography that spans decades.
Paul took an interest in photography in the late 2000’s when he started solo traveling. His first camera was a Canon PowerShot SX220 HS which accompanied him to destinations like New York, Rome, and the Caribbean.
From these early adventures, Paul’s love of photography blossomed and it turned into a passion. His photographic expeditions have taken him to the corners of the globe including Antarctica, Svalbard, Thailand, Greenland, and Ushuaia.
He also has a love for literature and writing from an early age and used this together with his photography experience to become a freelance writer specializing in photography and travel.