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Improve photo composition using depth of field

Updated on November 14, 2015
Shallow depth of field
Shallow depth of field | Source

Photo projects

Book on special landscape projects that will make you a better photographer.

If you are an aspiring amateur photographer who is trying to get your photos noticed, or just want people to say WOW when they look at your best shots, there are a few things that you can do that makes your shots stand out from snapshots and the everyday photo takers. One of the most important is understanding depth of field and using it to make photos that look taken by a pro.

If you want your shots to stand out and you want people to love your work, understand Depth of field is part of composition of your photos and learning to use it will make your shots great.

What is depth of field

A simple definition of depth of field is, how much of the depth of your photo is in focus. Objects that are outside of the depth of field, that are closer or farther from the camera are blurred and out of focus. Depending on the setting on your camera, the amount of depth of field, the part in clear focus, can be from a fraction of an inch, to as far as you can see.

When I started to figure it out

How you control the depth of field of your shots will show the viewer that you are a photographer, not just someone with a camera. The first time I realized I was starting to figure it out and that I was becoming a photographer was when I tried to get some prints made of some portraits I shot, and they made me sign a form that I took the shots and was not trying to get them to print professional photos that were taken by a professional photographer. It kinda ticked me off and made me feel good at the same time.

Why do I care about depth of field

The main reason to understand depth of field is to be able to get the viewer of your photos, to know exactly what you are trying to get them to see. Every photo that you take, you take because you see something that you like, and you want to be able to share it.

One of the big differences between shots that look taken by a pro and shots that look taken by the average person with a camera is depth of field. If the whole shot is in crisp focus, and it is a shot of a crowd of people, or a shot of a place the shooter thought was cool, but you have no idea who the subject of the shot is, it’s just a crowd, or just a place.

. If you have one person in the crowd in focus and the rest of the people are not, or you have one part of the shot in focus and the rest is not, the viewers eyes go right to the subject you want them to see and the shot is far more interesting, and all the focus is on the subject.

The reason you should be making pictures is to tell a story. The goal is to be able to tell the story to someone who isn’t there with you, with one shot. Look at the photos you have taken. What is the first thing in the shot that you look at? Is it what you want the focus of the shot to be? If you weren’t taking the shot, would you know what the subject is and what the photographer is trying to pass on to you?

Depth of field

Dragonfly on Leaf

A very shallow depth of field gives results I want
A very shallow depth of field gives results I want | Source

North of Bryce Canyon

Here is a great example of two shot that were taken with the whole shot in focus, to capture the full effect. From the rocks and trees in the foreground, all the way to the snow covered peak in the back. The mountains in back in the top photo are 64 miles away. Without the trees in the foreground, both shot would not be nearly as interesting.

The combination of the small aperture, the wide angle lens and the distance from the lens all added to get the shot in focus, and made it what I feel is a very cool shot.

The point of your focus is also important. Don't focus on the farthest part of the shot. It's best to focus about 1/3 of the way into the shot or less as a general rule. I have found that maybe a bit less is better to give your foreground elements crisper focus.

Just North of Bryce canyon national park
Just North of Bryce canyon national park | Source

Bee on a board

This photo is exactly the opposite of the shot above. It was taken with a long zoom in macro mode and the aperture was near max of the lens. If you look close, you can see that the depth of field is very shallow. The focus is sharp on the head of the bee and the piece of wood next to the bee.

If you look at the stinger part of the bee, it is out of focus. The distance from the front to the back of the bee is less than an inch. This technique makes the viewer focus only on what I want them to focus on, and nothing else takes away from the shot

bee on board
bee on board | Source

How can you use depth of field to get your results

There are three things that affect the depth of field in your shots.

  • The focal length of the lens you are using. A wide angle lens has a much deeper depth of field. Almost everything within view of the lens will be in focus with a wide angle lens.

  • How far you are from the subjects in your shot. This is true for all lenses. You can see this effect with how your eyes focus. Hold a pencil about about 6 inches in front of your face, and focus on the pencil. You will notice in your peripheral vision that the rest of the things you can see around the pencil and behind it are not in focus. If you move it to arms length, the objects behind are still out of sharp focus, but not as much. If you put it out to 10 feet, everything is in focus.

  • The aperture of your lens is the third thing, and the most important for controlling your depth of field, because it’s the easiest to change, and has the greatest effect. When you combine all three, you get the most effect from it.

Real life example

Here are a couple of shots I took just to show how much difference you can make very easily. I took the following to shots within a minute of each other, the first shot was with the lens at f22 aperture, the second shot was taken with the lens at f4 aperture.

You can see that the small aperture, the bigger F number, really keeps a lot more of the surroundings in focus, whereas the second shot with the bigger aperture, the smaller F number blurs out most of the surroundings and you focus on the fairy only.

The bottom shot I took with my iphone, just as a comparison. Phone camera's and most point and shoot camera's go for the middle of the road to give the best possible shots in all situations, and it makes a good snapshot. Most people using a phone are only trying to take snapshots.

You can take some good shots with a phone camera, but you can't get very creative. The key is to get in close so only your main subject is in the shot, or take the shot with a background that is not distracting from the subject.


Iphone shot


What is aperture?

To get the benefits from controlling the aperture of the lens, you need to have a camera that will allow you to control it with aperture priority, or full manual controls. Aperture is one of the hardest concepts in photography to grasp. Aperture is measuring the opening of the shutter of the lens. The big aperture lets in more light, the small aperture lets in less light.

A small aperture, the bigger number will make your depth of field bigger. A big aperture, the smaller number will make your depth of field shallower.

As you make the aperture smaller, you will need to decrease the shutter speed to allow more time for the light to get to the sensor of the camera.

One more example

Here is another great example of using depth of field for a better shot. The background adds some interest to the shot because of the contrast with the sky, but it doesn't take away from the shot, and you know exactly what the subject of the shot is.


How to use aperture

Basically just remember, to get more of the shot in focus, close the aperture, use a bigger F number setting. To get less in focus, open it up by using a smaller f number. A wide angle lens with a big f number will have a long depth of field whereas a zoomed out telephoto lens with a small f number, will have a very small depth of field. Hopefully that makes sense to you.

Setting the lens to the max aperture or the minimum aperture is not what you want to do most of the time, the lens does not perform at it's best at either extreme. You can find your lenses sweet spot by experimenting with it. Most lenses will be best somewhere in the middle of the range of that particular lens. F11 to F16 for a small aperture, and F 4 to F5.6 for a large aperture. The sweet spot for the lens will be different depending on the aperture range of the lens.

Using aperture priority on your camera will allow you to set the aperture you want, big or small, and the camera will select the proper shutter speed to go with that aperture in the lighting conditions that you have. If the shutter speed is to slow, you will likely have a blurry shot, so you need to pay attention to it. Make sure if you're doing a hand held shot that you have at least 1/30. Try to get in the 1/60 range if you can.

If the shutter speed is not fast enough for the shot you want, you can up the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to make the shot you want.

Go out and make pictures and practice this with real situations that you can create, you will get it and it will make sense and make you a better photographer when you see what different settings do and how they affect the look of your shots.

Good video explanation

Other good photo articles

Manual settings for you digital SLR. This article is about how to set the settings on your SLR camera to make the best photos of the opportunities you have. Learn the main guidelines to think about before you push the shutter release.

Take better pictures by doing projects. This gives you several ideas for projects to do that will help you improve your photography by helping you to see things differently than people that are not photographers.


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    • louisxfourie profile image

      Louis Fourie 

      6 years ago from Johannesburg, South Africa

      Good hub, I am going to use the video training, thanks.


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