Design, Photography, & Fashion

Learn About Depth of Field in Photography: The Ultimate Guide

Written by MasterClass

Dec 15, 2018 • 9 min read

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When you’re shooting an image, you’re also telling a story to the viewer. It’s your job to tell them where they should be looking, and directing their attention to the photo’s key elements. There are a number of tools you can use to tell the “story” of your image. One of those tools is depth of field (dof).

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What Is Depth of Field in Photography?

In simplest terms, depth of field is how much of your image is in focus. In more technical terms, depth of field is the distance in an image where objects appear “acceptably in focus” or have a level of “acceptable sharpness.”

Why Use Depth of Field in Photography?

Controlling the amount of the photo that is in focus is one of the photographer’s best tools to help draw the viewer’s eye where you want it. For example, landscapes are typically shot so that everything is in focus, so photographers will shoot at small lens apertures (e.g. f11 or f16).

However, you can create layering in your image by having only part of the photo in focus. If you have some foreground objects out of focus (for example, some leaves), they will give your image depth; the viewer will really feel like they’re looking through those leaves at your main subject. To achieve this effect, shoot at a wider lens aperture (e.g. f/2.8 or f1.4).

Photograph of flowers with a blurry background

What Factors Affect Depth of Field?

A few different factors affect depth of field in digital photography, regardless of whether you’re using a DSLR camera or a smartphone. These factors are: focal length, aperture, camera-subject distance, and sensor size.

As you come to understand these factors, and the camera settings that control them, you’ll be able to manipulate this photographic effect to increase depth of field, improve image quality, toggle between sharp focus and soft focus, and generally bring more variety to your photographic portfolio.

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How Does Focal Length Affect Depth of Field?

The focal length of a camera lens contributes to depth of field: a longer focal length corresponds to a shallower depth of field and a shorter focal length corresponding to a longer depth of field.

Generally, a wide angle lens has a deeper depth of field than telephoto lenses, which can offer an impressive focus distance but are sometimes more limited in options. A zoom lens, on the other hand, offers multiple focus distances, and can thus perform a wide array of photographic tasks.
In photography, the letter “f” stands for focal length of the lens. A large f means the lens allows one to choose a focal point far in the distance. Focal length is crucial in measuring the next component in depth of field photography: the aperture.

Learn more about focal length in our complete guide here.

How Does Aperture Affect Depth of Field?

Being able to understand how aperture affects the relationship of a subject to its background is one of the first steps to becoming a better photographer.
Aperture is how big the opening is that lets light in, expressed in F-stops. F-stops are counterintuitive, because the larger the number, the smaller the opening. So a small f equals a large aperture.
For example, f2.8 allows twice as much light into the camera as f4, and 16 times as much light as f11. Aperture affects the depth of field: larger openings create a shallower depth of field, while smaller openings make more of the image in focus.

F-stop numbers are not uniform across all photography equipment, and can depend on the type of camera you have. Most photographers who have photographed with a Nikon or Canon camera will however be familiar with some common f-stops on the aperture scale:

  • f/1.4 (a very large aperture to let in as much light as possible)
  • f/2.0 (lets in half as much light as f/1.4)
  • f/2.8 (lets in half as much light as f/2.0)
  • f/4.0
  • f/5.6
  • f/8.0
  • f/11.0
  • f/16.0
  • f/22.0
  • f/32.0 (the smallest standard aperture, lets in almost no light)

Remember that every f-stop number represents an aperture setting in relation to the lens’s maximum aperture. The larger the value of the f-stop number’s denominator, the less light will reach the camera sensor.

Learn more about aperture in our complete guide here.

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How Does Camera-Subject Distance Affect Depth of Field?

Camera-subject distance is the distance between your camera and your subject. The shorter the camera-subject distance—or, in other words, the closer you are to your subject—the shorter the depth of field.

Envision you have eight feet of space in front of you, before you hit a wall. If your subject is flush against the wall and your camera is eight feet away, the depth of field is zero (and the desired effect won’t show in your image). Now imagine your subject moves to within a foot of the camera. Suddenly, the depth of field has grown, and the effect will render in your image.

How Does Sensor Size Affect Depth of Field?

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Camera sensor size is the final important factor in depth of field. If the other factors are the same—aperture, focal length, camera-subject distance—a larger sensor will have a shallower depth of field. In general, cameras with smaller sensors have larger depths of field.

Sensor sizes vary between models of cameras; cameras with full-frame sensors have a lot of surface area whereas cameras with the newer APS-C sensors have smaller surface areas. Sensor size is an important factor when it comes to selecting a camera to use, since it directly impacts the quality of your photos (and thus, your creative expression).

Does Shutter Speed Affect Depth of Field?

One factor that doesn’t affect depth of field? Shutter speed.

While changing your shutter speed may result in a different effect on your depth of field, what’s actually happening is your aperture is changing to balance the new amount of light.

Learn more about shutter speed in our complete guide here.

How to Add Depth of Field to Your Photos On a DSLR in 4 Steps

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The best way to learn how to get depth of field is to play with your camera’s settings and take different shots. Here’s how to figure out depth of field on a DSLR.

  1. Find something to photograph (any small object will work just fine) and put it pretty close to your camera.
  2. Put your camera in Aperture Priority mode, open up your aperture as wide as possible (ideally f/2.8 or wider), and focus on the object.
  3. Take a picture, then close your aperture down a bit more (say, f5.6) and shoot another photo. Lastly, close your aperture down even further (say, f16) and take one more photo.
  4. Now look at all three photos and you’ll see how with a smaller aperture (higher number f-stop) you get more of the photo in focus.
An iphone taking a picture of a group of people farther away

How to Add Depth of Field to Your Photos on an iPhone in 6 Steps

Starting with iPhone 7 Plus and iOS 10.1, any iPhone with a dual camera can take photos with depth of field similar to a DSLR.

  1. Open your Camera app.
  2. Swipe to “Portrait Mode.”
  3. Lock in your subject.
  4. Follow any directions on the screen.
  5. Once the “depth effect” sign appears, lock in your focus on your subject again. Adjust the brightness to your desired effect, then hit the shutter.
  6. Be sure to keep your iPhone steady when using this mode (or consider using a tripod), as the process takes a little longer than a regular photo. If you phone moves, the resulting image may be blurry.

How to Decrease Depth of Field in Your Photos

Let’s say that you want to create a shallow depth-of-field effect in your photos, where you single out one aspect of the photo to be in focus. Typically this would be your foreground subject, with the background somewhat blurred. To create a shallow depth of field on a DSLR, you will want to:

  1. Use a wider aperture. The more light you let in, the easier it is to create that shallow depth of field.
  2. Use a telephoto lens to photograph an object that is relatively close. The increased focal length (larger f number) of a telephoto lens presents more opportunities to a photographer. While some amateurs believe that such lenses are only used to photograph distant objects with a uniformly sharp focus, they can actually be used to create a fantastic shallow depth effect in close-up portraits.
  3. Physically get closer to your subject. If you don’t own a telephoto lens, that’s no problem. By getting physically closer to the object you are photographing, you can enjoy all the advantages that a longer lens would otherwise provide—including the ability to focus in a way that produces a shallow depth of field.

What Is the Circle of Confusion?

The circle of confusion is an important element when you’re determining depth of field.
Photographers refer to a two-dimensional plane of focus in which objects will appear in the sharpest degree of focus; this plane lies within the depth of field.

  • The circle of confusion refers to the aperture values in which your lens is able to focus.
  • This circle of confusion is also the degree of tolerance that the human eye has before it distinguishes between an out-of-focus object and an in-focus object. In other words, while an image may not actually be perfectly in focus, it appears in focus because the human eye can’t actually distinguish between something that is slightly out of focus and something that is perfectly in focus.

Bokeh photography demonstrates the most obvious example of the circle of confusion in action (see below for an example of a bokeh photo).

6 Examples of Depth of Field in Photography

Macro photograph of a bumblebee on flower
  • Macro. Macro photography is when you take photos of very small things in a larger-than-life size. So, for example, a large photo of an insect. In macro photography, you’re going to use a very shallow depth of field. Try an aperture of f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6. You’ll also want to your camera-subject distance to be very small. You’ll also want a longer focal length and for your focus point to be very close to your camera. Learn more about macro photography in our complete guide here.
Road leading to snowy mountain
  • Deep. A large or deep depth of field will put a longer distance into focus. Landscape photography is a good example of a large or deep depth of field. In order to achieve a large or deep depth of field, you want a smaller aperture, which means the larger F-stops, i.e. a maximum aperture of f/22. Additionally, you’ll need a shorter focal length and to be further away from your subject.
A woman behind branch of tree
  • Shallow. A shallow depth of field is good for focusing on an option that closer to your camera. For example, a close up of bee hovering over a flower would require a shallow depth of field. In order to achieve a shallow depth of field, you want a large aperture, which means the smaller F-stops, i.e. f/2.8. Go with a longer focal length and stand relatively close to your subject.
Trees in forest with fog
  • Landscape. Because landscapes have a very large depth of field—you want basically everything to be in focus—you want a smaller aperture. As you know, that means larger F-stops. Try f/22 and adjust from there. You’ll need a shorter focal length and to be far away from your subject. Learn more about landscape photography here.
Close up on a cat's eyes
  • Close-up. For a close-up photograph, you want a shallow depth of field. That means a larger aperture or smaller F-stop. It also means a longer focal length and that your camera-subject distance needs to be short.
Bokeh image of hearts

Want to Become a Better Photographer?

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her first online class, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.

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