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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

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Depth of field is just one of the areas in photography you should be using to make your images more interesting and powerful.  These range from very basic ideas of composition, to very complex methods of post-production editing.

One of the most basic, and greatest tools you have at your disposal is this depth of field (DoF).  This is to do with how you capture a scene. It involves your camera settings, composition, your location and your choice of lenses.

Depth of field is an easy concept to understand and use, so there is no reason why you can’t start using it effectively today. Chances are you have already started using depth of field photography, you just don’t know it.

Black and white photograph of 4 birds perched on a bar, one in flight. Depth of field photography.

What Is Depth of Field

Depth of field is basically how much of your scene is in focus. That’s it. A more complicated idea is that Depth of Field is the distance between the closest objects in focus and the farthest point of focus.

Consider this, you are out photographing a beautiful landscape where you want to be able to see the whole scene for what it is. Here, you would use a deep depth of field, as it will keep your foreground and background in focus.

Now, you are walking around a city, trying to capture portraits of people. You want to cut out the distracting background, so you use a shallow depth of field. Here, your foreground is in focus but the background is not.

Your aperture of f/stop is what indicates your depth of field. If you don’t know about aperture, then you need to read this post first. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field and vice versa. The diagram below explains this.

Diagram explaining depth of field and aperture sizes.

The smaller the depth of field, the smaller the area of focus will be. This focal area can be anywhere in your image. You can use it to put the background, the middle ground or the foreground in focus. The choice is yours.

A small aperture such as f/1.2 while photographing a face can put the eyes in focus, but keep the nose and ears blurry. Using the same f/stop, you can focus on the nose, which will blur the eyes.

Close up portrait of a brown animal. Depth of field photography.

Your DoF also changes with your distance while photographing a subject. Moving farther away from a subject will make your depth of field wider, moving closer will make it shallower.

This is because the background and the foreground effectively become closer when compared to the distance between you and the subject.

Shallow Depth of Field

A shallow depth of field comes from using a large aperture. Anything between f/1.4 and f/4 will give you a shallow depth of field. This is a great way to separate your foreground from its background.

Maybe the background is uninteresting, distracting attention from your subject. You can even use depth of field to single out a point of interest in an otherwise busy scene.

Mysterious and atmospheric low angle photo of an oncoming train. Depth of field photography.

Wide Depth of Field

A wide depth of field is created using a small aperture. Anything between f/8 and f/22 would be giving you a wide DoF. This is how you would capture a scene where both the foreground and background are interesting.

Perfect for landscapes and city scenes.

Brightly coloured night photography of a cityscape with pink and white light trails and clouds. Depth of field photography.

What Happens When You Change Your Aperture

Remember the light triangle? If you don’t, here is a quick recap. When you enter a scene and set your camera to capture a perfect exposure, you need to reevaluate your settings if you decide to change your aperture.

Let’s say you are photographing at the settings ISO 100, f/16 and 1/125, and you decide you want a shallower depth of field.  You need to move your aperture from f/16 to f/2.8, which means you have just added five stops of light. This light needs to be taken out of your scene, otherwise, it will overexpose the image.

The ISO is at it’s darkest, so we only have the shutter speed to play with. We need to take those five stops out, which we do by changing the shutter speed to 1/4000.

Diagram of the exposure triangle to understand correct exposure for depth of field photography.

When to Use Depth of Field

Consider the following two photographs. The first capture was with a wide depth of field using a wide aperture, such as f/16. As you can see everything is in focus. Both the foreground and the background have the same amount of focus, and thus, attention.

The photographer wants to show you the entirety of the scene. All of it is interesting. The mountain in the background gives a great focal point, and the foreground gives you a leading line with that crack.

A bright mountainous landscape on a cloudy day - depth of field photography.

The second image is very different. Here the photographer used a shallow depth of field, using a shallow aperture such as f/1.8. Only the foreground is in focus.

This choice is down to the photographer, as they wanted to push the focus on the flowers in the foreground. The background is still there, and it gives the scene a presence as you can still get a sense of where the image was taken.

The blurry background doesn’t distract attention from the foreground.

A dreamy moody landscape photo with daisies in the foreground and blurred background, photographed using shallow depth of field.

How to Use Depth of Field Creatively

Using a Wide and Shallow Depth of Field Together

One interesting way to show a scene is to find a way to use both a wide and shallow depth of field together. This can be best done by using another photograph.

This has been a trend of late, especially with photographers holding a historical image over the modern live version of a setting. Or consider the photograph below.

The photographer used their mobile to capture a wide depth of field, and then photographed using a shallow depth of field. Interesting.

A hand holding a smartphone to naturally frame a night street photo - using a Wide and Shallow Depth of Field Together

High-Quality Bokeh

Bokeh has been a trend on its own for the last few years. It means ‘blur’ in Japanese, and photographers use it to blur the background lights. It does add an interesting background to an image, but be careful not to overuse it. The background can become more interesting than the foreground.

This image was made possible using a very shallow depth of field, f/1.8.

A light bulb in the foreground with beautiful bokeh background. depth of field photography.

Placing the Focus on the Middle Ground

Instead of focusing on the foreground or the background, you can focus somewhere between. Your focal area should be where you want to take the viewer’s attention to. So your focus should be on that point, no matter where it is.

As you can tell, this image is more interesting because of the shallow depth of field. It wouldn’t be as interesting if the whole scene was in focus. Also, the photographer used movement to pinpoint the police officer, not just a shallow aperture.

A street scene showing blurry traffic with a traffic warden between the moving cars. depth of field photography.

Background as a Focal Point

There are images that I really love, and that is because of an unconventional focal point. Here, most photographers would have focused on the footsteps in the foreground, and left the sea blurry.

However, this photographer chose the opposite, which broke my initial focus. You can use this technique to your advantage, turning that everyday landscape into something way more interesting.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer originally from the West Midlands (go Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) currently based in Budapest. There isn't much photography he hasn't tried, but his favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy in there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto