Understanding depth of field


• Pebbles •
Depth of field helps the background lose distinguishing features which makes the subject stand out.

It is an important artistic tool.

Depth of field (DoF) provides a way to isolate the subject from the background. Sharpness inside the DoF is of critical importance to our image. The blur outside the DOF helps divert the eye to the sharp subject. So how does DoF work?

Depth of field defined…

The depth of field (DoF) is an easy concept to remember. The DoF is the sharp part of a picture. It is defined by the out of focus parts of the picture on either side of it. A lens can only focus at one point. It is at that point that the image is sharpest. However, on either side of the sharp point is a zone where, to the naked eye, the sharpness is still good enough to be convincing.

The eye can distinguish sharp detail inside the DoF and we want to ensure our subject is in that zone. However, we also want to compose our picture so the unimportant parts of the picture are out of focus. To achieve these things we need to know how to control the DoF. In fact there are three ways to control it…

  • Change the size of the Aperture.
  • Change the focal length
  • the distance of the subject from the lens

As the aperture changes size so does the zone of sharpness we call the DoF. As we open up the aperture wide the DoF gets shallow. As we make our aperture smaller the DoF gets wider and eventually we get sharpness all through to the horizon. Similarly changes to the distance from the subject affects DoF. If I walk away from a subject (and do not change the aperture) the depth of field gets wider (and visa versa). Focal length changes affect the DoF in a similar way.

A Simple Guide to Depth of Field

In this video Dylan Bennett provides the best explanation I have seen on why the DoF changes with the three factors I mentioned above. He uses a simple explanation and some great diagrams to show what is involved.

Dylan Bennett  External link - opens new tab/page

Just to clear up a point…

The analogy that Dylan Bennett uses, “toothpaste squeezed in a tube”, works well for most people learning the idea of DoF. What really causes the DoF to elongate is related to something called the Circle of Confusion (CoC). For more detail you can see information in: “Definition: Circle of Confusion”.

The CoC projected onto the sensor is (notionally) a tiny point of light representing one point of light from the subject. When that part of the subject is in focus the CoC is very small and individually indistinguishable from those around it. Like this it’s a sharp representation of the subject point of light. However, at a point outside the DoF an individual point of light can no longer be represented by a sharp point on the sensor and begins to blend with points around it. It has lost its sharpness. This is because the lens focuses points outside the DoF slightly before the sensor or slightly after it.

Diagram showing various sizes of Circles of Confusion (CoC).

Diagram showing various sizes of Circles of Confusion (CoC) on the sensor sized according to the focus (not to scale). Only CoCs projected from within the Depth of Field are sharp. Our eyes cannot perceive them well as they form sharp points. Ones projected from outside the depth of field are unsharp to our eyes.

Here is the reason why the DoF widens as the aperture gets smaller. When the aperture is small the angle of light that can pass through it from the subject is also small. As a result the CoC for each point of light is relatively small. This is because it can only originate from a small angle of light.

A very small aperture means that the circles of confusion are never big enough for our eye to see. This allows the lens to focus at infinity (say f11 and smaller). When the aperture is wide open the reverse is true. The circles of confusion can be much bigger. Only those rays that the lens will naturally focus will be sharp (a shallow depth of field).

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

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