What is Depth of Field?

What is depth of field, and why do so many photographers seem to throw that phrase around like a poorly kept secret? When preparing to take a photo, there is a hypothetical area where your subject will remain in focus. The area's length (or depth) is known as your depth of field. Generally, a large depth of field will keep the foreground and background in focus, while a shallow depth of field will result in a blurred background. Below, we've outlined how to optimize your camera settings so that you create the ideal depth of field for your creative needs.      

Adjusting Aperture

Whenever you change to a larger f-number (i.e. f/1.4 to f/2), you make the camera lens' diameter smaller, which also results in a smaller aperture. If the f-number goes up, the depth of field increases as well, which allows more of the background to be in focus. Often, you'll see still life photography with the subject in sharp focus, but the rest of the frame will totally blurred. This pleasing visual effect is also known as "bokeh", and it can be created with a shallow depth of field. Here's the easiest way to remember it: a low f-number equals shallow depth of field, and a high number equals a large depth of field. 

Calculating Distance

Apart from aperture settings, the other variable that can influence depth of field is distance. Photographers should consider how far they are from their subject, because it will affect how much of your image stays in focus. If you're not using a lens with a huge aperture range, one way to create that shallow depth of field is by moving closer to your subject. As a result, more of the image will be blurred, and your subject will be more prominent. 

Common Applications

Typically, you'll see shallow depth of field used in portraits, nature close-ups, and sports photography. If you're looking to emphasize a subject and minimize the background, it might be the perfect solution. Shallow depth of field is also useful in low light situations, because your camera's entrance pupil is larger when you use a lower f-number, so you'll be taking in more light. 

However, not all situations call for a shallow depth of field. For example, landscape photography and other widescreen subjects require the entire scene to be in focus. You'll want to use a larger f-number (i.e. smaller aperture) to increase your depth of field, so that trees and animals in the background are as defined as those in the foreground. Ultimately, there is no right answer when it comes to depth of field, and there are always creative ways to break the rules. Learn the basics, experiment with different apertures and distances, and then use those tools to suit your photography needs. 

Need images for your project? Shutterstock’s impressive collection of more than 70 million images can help! See what our library has to offer.

  • Was this article helpful?

Can’t find what you’re looking for?