Create Eye-catching Photos Using Depth of Field

By: B.L. Hill


There are lots descriptions of this effect that go into great detail, giving all sorts of formulas and diagrams. While these are very useful to more advanced photographers, the purpose of this article is to introduce you to the subject and to get you trying things out for yourself to increase your understanding and ability to use this effect to best advantage.

What is Depth of Field and why should you learn about it?

Depth of field refers to the distance in front of and behind the subject (focal point) of the photo that remain in 'acceptable' focus.

Have you ever seen a photo of a flower for example where the flower was in clear focus while the background was out of focus? It really made that flower the focus of attention as your eye is not distracted by details of the background. This is an example of using a shallow depth of field to enhance a photograph. A shallow depth of field means that only objects within a small distance range are in focus.

Now think of the landscape photos you may have taken. How much of the photo was in focus? Odds are most if not all of the photo was in focus. This is usually what we want in a landscape photo and is an example of a deep depth of field.

What causes the changes in depth of field?

Basically, changes in any one or a combination of the following affect the depth of field :
the aperture size
distance to the subject
film/sensor size (some say focal length of the lens is the third factor)

Aperture (the opening through which the light passes) size is controlled on SLR (single lens reflex) cameras by adjusting the f-stop. The lower the f-stop, the wider the aperture and the shallower the depth of field. The higher the f-stop, the smaller the aperture, the deeper the depth of field. In digital cameras (non-SLR, also called compact digital cameras) there is no f-stop control as such. Most compact digital cameras have a setting for portrait or close-up/macro and one for landscape. These settings change the aperture size and thus the depth of field.

All other things being equal, the farther away you are from your subject the greater the depth of field. When you are taking a close-up photo (assuming your camera has manual focus) you will have to pay close attention to proper focus as the depth of the area that will be in focus is much less.

The third item mentioned above is film or sensor size. Digital cameras use sensors to capture the image. These sensors are very small, for example ¼ inch. Film, on the other hand is much larger. The most common size is 35 mm or about 1 ¼ inches. The smaller the media used to capture the image, the greater the depth of field. Generally speaking, digital cameras have less of a range of depth of field than do cameras that use film.

What is the easiest way to change the depth of field?

The easiest adjustment to make the change the depth of field is to change the aperture size.

If you have a compact digital camera you may find it difficult to create a photo with the subject in clear focus and the background really out of focus due to the small sensor size and the relative lack of aperture control. Try taking photos of the same subject using the portrait mode and the landscape mode and see what sort of difference you can achieve.

If, however, you have an SLR camera you can experiment by changing the f-stop and seeing the difference in the area that is in focus. If you have a through the lens view finder, your lens probably has a ‘preview’ button that stops the lens down allowing you to see the effect as you look through the view finder. Note that when you change the f-stop the amount of light reaching the film or sensor changes. You will have to adjust the shutter speed to compensate for this – the faster the shutter speed (higher the number) the less light with reach the film.

The best way to get a feel for depth of field is to take photos with various combinations of f-stops and shutter speeds. Remember to note what combinations you used so when you view the results you can match cause and effect.

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B.L Hill has been taking photographs for over forty years using a variety of equipment and media. For more articles and some great ebooks visit the Photography Tips website.

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