What Is Depth Of Field In Photography?

Jeff Picoult

By Jeff Picoult

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camera lens aperture close up

Your camera lens might capture the entire scene, but that does not mean every part turns out equally sharp. How you focus your shot can make or break the shoot’s outcome, and that’s why understanding depth of field definition is important. Keep scrolling to learn more! 

What Is Depth Of Field?

Depth of field (DOF) refers to the distance between the nearest and furthest objects in a photograph that looks acceptably sharp. This crucial concept affects how you draw attention to your subject and creates a sense of focus within the frame.

Depth Of Field In Photography

In simple terms, it’s similar to cutting a thin slice through your image; everything within that slice appears sharp while the rest blurs progressively. The thickness of this slice determines your “depth of field.”

A handful of photographers use DOF as an artistic tool to guide the viewer’s eye. 

A shallow DOF, for example, creates a dreamlike, more intimate feel, blurring the background to draw the viewer’s attention directly to the subject in sharp focus. This technique is commonly used in portraiture or product photography and small apertures (e.g., f11). 

On the other hand, a deep DOF keeps certain foreground and background parts sharp using a wider aperture (e.g., f1.4). Landscape photographers benefit the most from this approach, as they must capture the vastness of the scene without compromising crisp details in both near and far elements.

Examples Of Depth Of Field

1. Macro Photography

snail above the frog's head

Suppose you want to photograph a tiny spider on a dew-covered leaf, isolating the spider and its intricate details to create a sense of mystery. In that case, extremely shallow DOF (f/2.8 to f/6) would be ideal, as it ensures only a small area around the spider is sharp. The background leaf and surrounding elements blur significantly.

2. Portrait Photography

Lifestyle Portrait

Let’s say you are a portrait photographer taking a picture of your friend against a busy cityscape backdrop. You are pondering two options: (1) make your friend the center of attention by blurring the cityscape background, or (2) include some environmental context while still keeping your friend sharp.

For option 1, a narrow depth of field (f/1.8 to f/4) creates a strong separation between your friend and the background, drawing all focus to their face and expression. The blurred background becomes almost abstract and visually less distracting.

Regarding option 2, a variable DOF (f/5.6 to f/8) maintains some sharpness in the background, perhaps including a landmark or building that adds context to the portrait’s location. This creates a more balanced image in which both your friend and some of the environment are in great focus.

4 Factors That Affect Your Camera’ Depth Of Field

Focal Length

Longer focal lengths (e.g., telephoto lenses) naturally have a shallower depth of field compared to wider lenses at the same aperture setting. The reason is simple: since the background is compressed, elements appear closer together and intensify the blur at a given aperture.

Focal Length

On the contrary, short but wide focal lengths (like wide-angle lenses) tend to produce a deeper DOF at the same aperture compared to telephoto lenses. Due to the wider field of view, the photo’s elements now seem further apart in the frame, even at close focusing distances.

Focal Length 2

Aperture Choice

The aperture, represented by f-stops (f/1.8, f/4, f/8, etc.), is the opening of the camera lens that controls the amount of light reaching the sensor. A wide aperture (low f-number) lets in more light, while a narrow aperture (high f-number) allows less light in.  

There’s an inverse relationship between DOF and adjustments to aperture:

Aperture Choice

A wider aperture (f/1.4 – f/4) creates a shallower DOF where only a small area around the focus point is sharp. The foreground and background fade almost entirely – ideal for isolating your entire subject with a dreamy, dramatic effect.

A mid-range aperture (f/5.6 – f/8) strikes a good balance between DOF and light gathering: You get a more noticeable area of sharpness around the focus point, with some background blur. This versatile option works great for various photography styles, like portraits with some context (refer to our examples above) or landscape photography with a defined subject.

A narrow aperture (f/11 – f/16 and above) brings in a deeper DOF to put almost everything in focus, from the foreground to the background.

Below are 10 most common aperture values, listed from largest (widest opening) to smallest (narrowest opening): 

1. f/1.4 (widest aperture)

2. f/1.8 (half the light of f/1.4)

3. f/2.0 (half the light of f/1.8)

4. f/2.8 (half the light of f/2.0)

5. f/4.0

6. f/5.6

7. f/8.0

8. f/11

9. f/16

10. f/22

Distance Between The Digital Camera And The Subject

The relationship between DOF and viewing distance is straightforward. 

As you move closer to your subject, the depth of focus becomes shallower, meaning the subject looks sharper and more isolated from the background. On the contrary, a further distance at the same aperture will deepen the DOF and allow a larger portion of the scene into acceptable focus.

Camera-Subject Distance

When working with extreme close-up shots in macro photography, even slight changes in focusing distance can significantly alter the DOF. Hence, many professionals consider using stacking techniques to achieve overall sharpness; we will return to it later. 

This issue also applies to street photography to a certain extent; given the candid nature of the captured moments, photographers do not always have control over the distance to their subject. Nevertheless, understanding how distance and DOF work together can help them anticipate the blur effect and use it effectively to frame the subject within the vibrant street scene.

Sensor Size

To clarify, the technical DOF (area of sharpness) remains identical regardless of the sensor size. Nevertheless, the image might appear to have a different DOF due to the sensor size affecting the field of view. 

Sensor Size

Let’s say you and your friend are capturing the exact same flower field with identical camera settings and viewing distances – except you use a full-frame camera and your friend uses an APS-C camera:

  • Due to your larger sensors (meaning the field of view is wider), the picture may appear to have a shallower perceived DOF because the background elements are spread out over a larger area.
  • On the contrary, the background details in your friend’s photograph are compressed into a smaller frame area, resulting in a seemingly deeper DOF. 

Bonus: The Relationship Between Shutter Speed and Depth Of Field Changes

Contrary to popular belief, shutter speed does not directly affect DOF because it controls a different aspect of your image: exposure. Specifically, it controls how long the camera’s sensor remains exposed to light: a fast shutter speed lets in less light, while a slow shutter speed means more light reaches the sensor.

Nevertheless, we must say it does influence your lens aperture, which in turn affects DOF. 

Suppose you were photographing a landscape and wanted a deep DOF to capture everything sharp. In that case, you might choose a narrower aperture (higher f-number) and faster shutter speed (if it’s a bright scene) without affecting the exposure or the DOF you’ve selected with the aperture setting.

2 Extra Tips For Precise Control Of Depth Of Field

Focus Stacking

In traditional photography, a single image has a limited DOF. Depending on your aperture setting, only a specific area around your focus point will be perfectly sharp, and elements closer or farther away will appear progressively more blurred. 

This can pose quite a challenge in situations where you want everything in the scene to be crisp and detailed, such as when photographing tiny insects or intricate details of flower petals. 

But no worries; focus stacking is the solution! As the name suggests, this technique captures sets of images of the same scene, each with a slightly different focus point. 

First, set up your camera; we suggest using a tripod so your camera remains perfectly still throughout the entire image capture process. Switch your lens to manual focus mode to have complete control over the focus point for each image.

Next, take multiple images while systematically adjusting the focus point with each shot. 

You can start focusing on the closest element in the scene and then progressively shift the focus point further back with each image, ensuring some overlap between areas of focus in consecutive shots. The number of pictures needed can vary depending on the depth of the scene.

Last but not least, combine all the captured images using post-processing software (Photoshop or something more specialized). The software will analyze each image’s sharpest areas and merge them into one final composite image where everything appears in clear focus. 

DOF Bracketing

Sometimes referred to as aperture bracketing, DOF bracketing captures multiple images of the same scene with slightly different aperture settings (this is different from focus stacking, which adjusts focus distances).

Let’s say you are photographing a landscape where you want both the foreground wildflowers and the distant mountains to appear sharp. A single image captured at a specific aperture might leave either the foreground or background slightly out of focus. What should you do?

In that case, DOF bracketing allows you to review and assess which aperture setting produced the most desirable balance. The diverse variations of the same scene (with different apertures) also give you more options for post-processing later on.


Whether to choose a deep or shallow depth of field depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your photo. The same scene can be effectively captured with diverse DOF settings – as long as you know how to work the camera lens in your favor! 

If you’re still unsure, feel free to reach out to us!

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Jeff Picoult

Jeff Picoult


Jeff Picoult is a seasoned photographer, who blends artistry and innovation. With a humble approach, he captures moments resonating with depth and emotion, from nature's beauty to the energy of sports.

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