What is Depth of Field (DOF)?
According to Dictionary.com DOF is,
“the range of distances along the axis of an optical instrument, usually a camera lens, through which an object will produce a relatively distinct image.” 1
Viewing 2 almost identical images (below paragraph) you can see a demonstration of two very different DOFs. In the top image, moving left to right, you can see that most of the planks in the fence are relatively sharp and in focus throughout the photo. This would be considered a large DOF. In the bottom image only the very center of the image appears to be in focus. The fence planks to the left and right of center are out of focus, creating a shallow DOF. Each image is also labeled with it’s respective aperture (f-stop).
In not-so-technical terms DOF is everything that is considered to be “in-focus” or sharp in a captured image or photograph. Consider the two black & white images below…
So what’s going on inside the camera and lens to create these two separate images?
First, we need to quickly understand what aperture means. Without going off on a technical tangent here we know that as a rule of thumb, aperture is determined by how wide the iris of the camera lens opens when the shutter button is pressed (see black and white figure below). Larger apertures (think larger opening, more light) create shallower depths of field; inversely, smaller apertures (think smaller opening, less light) create deeper depths of field. A large aperture where the iris is open very wide might be f-1.2 or f-1.4. An example of a very small aperture might be f-222.
The primary difference between these two wood fence images is the aperture (f-stop) at which the camera lens is set. Even if we didn’t have the metadata at our fingertips that would tell us the exact aperture that was selected for each photo, we could still hypothesize that the top image was captured at a small aperture (small f-stop), perhaps f-11 or f-15. The bottom image was likely captured at a large aperture (large f-stop), perhaps f-2.0.
Predicting DOF. DOF can be calculated based on three primary factors (and one secondary factor): focal length of lens (50 mm, for example), aperture or f-stop (f 2.0, for example) and subject distance (distance between camera lens and subject). The secondary factor affecting DOF is your camera; different digital cameras have different sensors and components which affect DOF. If you would like to calculate DOF for your camera and lens combination you can easily do so by imputing the three primary factors mentioned above here on the fantastic online DOF calculator graciously provided by Don Fleming of Dofmaster.com3.
Using Don’s DOF calculator I compared two of my favorite lens/camera combinations: the Canon 5D Mark ii + 50 mm prime lens with the Canon 40D + 50 mm prime lens. The factors I used were 50 mm focal length, 2.0 f-stop and 10 ft subject distance. The results:
|Canon Camera||Lens Focal Length (mm)||F-Stop (Aperture)||Subject Distance (ft)||Calculated Depth of Field (ft)|
|5D Mark ii||50||2.0||10||1.45|
The differences in DOF from these two examples are significant: 0.14 (ft) [1.45 – 0.91 = 0.14 ft], which is approximately 6-7 inches in difference. I’d rather not cover too much detail here on why and how this works, primarily because I don’t pretend to be an expert in how camera sensors work or in mathematics. For the purposes of this article you only need to know that every digital camera is different and it might be worthwhile for you to bookmark the DOF calculator link for future reference.
So why do we care about DOF?
DOF and blurring created in any image is subjective and will vary from one photographer to another. Where art and science collide there can be no one rule that is never broken. In many cases photographers simply photograph a subject or event in a way that they choose to interpret it, regardless of whether another person may like the image that is captured. My rule (in general) is for the foreground to be in focus and background to blur. However there are always exceptions and the rule of universal appeal supersedes everything else; Can I answer “yes” to the question, “does the image have a general appeal about it and is it pleasing to view? Hopefully so.
1. Modern Language Association (MLA): “depth of field.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 14 Oct. 2009. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/depth of field>.
2. University of Victoria. http://web.uvic.ca/ail/techniques/phototechniques.html
3. Depth of Field Master. http://dofmaster.com
Wikipedia defines bokeh as,
“a photographic term referring to the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image produced by a camera lens using a shallow depth of field. Essentially, bokeh is an aesthetic and qualitative measure of light distortion in the out-of-focus areas of an image, and is primarily caused by lens aberrations and aperture shape.”
Wikipedia goes on to explain that bokeh is taken from a Japanese word (boke), which can be interpreted as “blur” or “haze”.
In short, I just wanted to create a lead-in to the topic I’ll be writing about in the next week: Depth of Field (DOF). In a way, bokeh is the “Yin” to DOF’s “Yang”, if you will. Or perhaps bokeh could be considered the boundary that delineates where DOF begins.
At any rate, the photo above shows a flower in the foreground that is the focal point of the image. Most of the image that remains is a blurred background or bokeh. The photo is from a Zilker Botanical Garden wedding I photographed earlier this year here in Austin. More on the topic of Depth of Field in the coming days…
This week I’ve decided to add a segment to my blog with photo tips for my fellow wedding photographers out there. I love perusing other websites and photographer’s blogs for tips and information to improve my photography, and now it’s my turn to give a little back.
This weeks subject is Safe Shutter Speeds for Weddings. I frequently recruit new photographers who want to learn about wedding photography and who assist me at weddings where a 2nd shooter is not requested by the bride and groom. A pattern I’ve noticed recently among my shooters is the use of low shutter speeds in order to make up for “low light” or slow lenses.
Sometimes when photographers are shooting indoors or in areas with low light we are tempted to drop our shutter speeds to super low settings like 1/20s or 1/30s to compensate for the low light situation. These low speeds work when shooting landscapes (think: Ansel Adams) from a tripod, but when handholding our camera anything below 1/60s tends to create a blurring effect from camera shake.
And even if the photographer is able to mount the camera on a tripod for the shot and the subject is moving (even slow movement) there will still be blurring of the subject at shutter speeds below 1/60s. Of course there are always exceptions (think: nighttime light trail effect), but for weddings this would be rarely utilized.
Ultimately, none of us really wants to have to use a slow shutter speed like 1/20s or 1/30s when we’re hand holding a camera; so some other options to compensate for low light situations can be increasing your camera’s ISO setting or increasing the aperture (lower f-stop) to allow more light to strike the sensor. And if all else fails, bring out your external flash, which you’ll be using a lot anyway at most weddings!