What Do I Need to Know About Depth of Field

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Several years ago, I decided it was time to step up my photography skills.  One of the first things I noticed when I started really studying my photos was that I didn’t have that creamy, soft, out of focus background that many pros were achieving.  It was time to learn a little about depth of field.

Man with no bokeh
A before pic - notice that the background is very busy. How much better would this have looked if my subject popped from the background? Well - it would have been especially awesome if he was smiling, but I digress...

My Subjects Just Didn't >POP<

My photos, taken on my camera’s auto setting, were all nicely focused and sharp from the front to the back of the image, and I had some basic posing knowledge, so my people looked pretty good.  However, I noticed that the subjects in my photos didn’t pop and stand out how I wanted them to when the background was sharply focused.

EXPLAINING BOKEH

This creamy background is known as bokeh.  Pronounced “bow-kuh” in English, the original word is pronounced “bow-kah-shee” in Japanese and means “blur.”   Go ahead, check it out.  I’ll wait while you click HERE. 

Here's what the word BOKEH looks like in Japanese... Except it's pronounced Bokashi. We shortened it.

Back?  Good.  We’ve clearly shortened the word to Bokeh, and you will hear that term thrown around aplenty in photography circles.  Bokeh is a lovely element in photography, and the sooner you learn how to achieve it, the faster you will see your photos jump to the next level!

Depth of Field Flower
Now that's some bokeh! See how the flower just pops!?

EXPLAINING DEPTH OF FIELD

The best way to achieve beautiful bokeh is to understand how Depth of Field works.

First, understand that depth of field is the amount of space from front to back (not side to side) in your image that will be in focus.

Next, know that your subject needs to fall within that space to be in focus.

Finally, know that depth of field can be a tiny amount of space that stays in focus (narrow depth of field) or a considerable amount of space (wide depth of field).  Anything outside of that area will be out of focus in front of or behind your subject.

When looking at a scene with your naked eye, your amazing eyeballs will automatically focus on everything from nearby to far away.  However, in photography, we can control that amount of focus through the creative use of depth of field.  When used properly, creating bokeh through depth of field can add some real pop to your images.

Depth of Field Illustration

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Before we talk about how your camera settings, equipment, and setup work to create depth of field, you must know how to use your camera on the manual setting.  If you need a refresher, click on over to Your Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode.

Great!  Ready!  Now let’s talk about the three ways you can affect the range or amount of depth of field.  This range can be a tiny space from front to back or a long one.

1 – Aperture

The basic rule here is that the larger your aperture (smaller #), the smaller your depth of field.  If you are looking for a considerable depth of field, you want that aperture stopped down quite a bit (larger #).

2 – Physical Distance From Subject and Background

Standing close to your subject will decrease your depth of field.  Moving further away will increase it.  The same rule holds with how close the subject is to the background.  If you want your background to be outside of the depth of field, our best bet is to get your subject away from the background.  Don’t be afraid to have plenty of space there.

3 – Focal Length

Using a wide lens will give you a greater depth of field (think 50mm or smaller – standing close to your subject).  A longer lens (think 200mm – standing far back and zooming in) will shrink your depth of field.

All three of these factors can work together to adjust your depth of field and focal range.  I’ve created this handy reference chart that you can clip and keep in your camera bag to glance at as you go.

Depth of Field - Field Guide

In conclusion, balancing these three factors is not unlike shooting in manual.  You will need to practice adjusting these three things together to get the bokeh you want.  Plenty of practice will give you the feel for the range of depth of field you’ll have with each adjustment. 

The very best way to learn how these all work together and how to make quick adjustments on the fly is to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!  Don’t be afraid to use your pet or a toy or any stable object to practice how each of these factors work.

If you have any questions, please comment below!  I’m happy to help!

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2 Comments

  1. Great post! One of these days when I can actually afford to get a camera your tips are going to come in soooo handy! Do you ever do tutorials on taking pics with an iphone?

    • I have not done any iPhone tutorials, but that’s a great idea! I’ll see what I can come up with. What iPhone do you have, Clarissa?

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