Depth of Field

A few of you have asked me about the blur I (try to) get in most of my photos. That’s called Depth of Field. Small depth of field is what I dig, where only a relatively small area is in focus and either the foreground or background (or both) is blurred, making for a more pleasing overall look (usually).

I use a DSLR with a removable lens and all that shibazz (yes, I made that word up) but these principals apply to your point and shoot camera too if it has a manual mode.

How To Get Great Depth of Field:

1. Set your camera to a low # f-stop.
Thank you, good night! OK, that’s not all, but this is THE KEY. Usually 2.8 will do it, but I have a lens that goes down to 1.8 and it’s CRAZY. I shot this photo with that lens and was able to get one eye in focus and one eye out. (Pssst! F-stop is how wide the camera shutter will open! The smaller the number, the more open the shutter is during the shot).

2. Force your focus.
Some people don’t pay enough attention to the little squares all over the viewer. They are your friend. If you can’t get what you want in focus, get the squares to light up in the right area with your finger on the trigger and ready to shoot, then slowly move the camera to where you want the shot framed and finish compressing the button. Keep playing with your camera till you understand how its focus settings work. Really, this is sooooo key! And when you have the f-stop set so low, it is *hard* to get the camera to focus. It takes patience and practice, dudes.

Really, that’s it! Play around. Let me see what you come up with!

Oh and also. When you don’t have time to set all the manual settings, go for the portrait setting. It usually looks like the weirdly bobbed lady. It is meant to automatically put small depth of field (DOF or DoF) into photos for you. Totally helps in a pinch.

Bonus tip! When that blurred section makes a pleasing pattern, it is called “bokeh.

This article has 25 comments

  1. zipper

    good post.

  2. Aimee Greeblemonkey

    Great tip Kathy, thanks!

  3. SeattleOtaku

    Just picked up a 50mm f/1.4, though capture it with the zooms on occasion too (when shooting in Aperture-priority mode). Likely less Photoshop cheating in the future. Yay bokeh! 🙂

  4. daisybones

    Excellent! I keep meaning to bug my husband for a tutorial on this but have failed to get one out of him:)

    I am the queen of auto portrait mode:) Very excited to learn to exert control!

  5. sassymoll

    For a beginning photographer, do you have any suggestions for a good point and shoot? (I know many photographers think there is no such thing, but until I start taking serious pictures, I can’t really justify the cost of a DSLR, as much as I want one.) Thanks! Great pictures, by the way!

  6. Aimee Greeblemonkey

    Then you should be able to control the f-stops. F-stops come in numbers like 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8… start playing around with stuff till you see numbers like that moving.

    OR!!! here is a CRAZY IDEA!!! There is this thing, it’s called the *instruction manual.* Now DON’T BE SCARED!!! It won’t hurt you, I promise. Look up how to manipulate the Manual mode. 🙂

  7. sassymoll

    Thanks, Aimee! Very helpful, I’m printing it out now…

  8. Kathy

    I’m a film girl (yes we still exist!), and I have a close-up filter that attaches to a lens that gives great bokeh, especially since the lens it fits on is f5.6.

  9. Andie

    you definitely explain this better than I can to people. When I try to explain it, people give me that whole look like I have three heads.

    and there is a bokeh filter? Hmmm

    Aimee- do you shoot nikon or canon? i want to say you’ve mentioned before you’re a nikon user.

  10. Aimee Greeblemonkey

    Andi, in my film days I was Nikon all the way. When I started to go digital I had a 2 Nikons, but I hated their menu system and switched to Canon. I have had three Canon’s now, currently a Canon Rebel XT and a Canon 40D. I am definitely pro-Canon now, but Nikons are awesome too. Can’t go wrong with either.

  11. Mandy

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve had a hard time switching from black and white manual to digital, where you are really more often concerned with colour. I am also trying to learn photoshop to “fix” my SOOC shots.

    I have decided my biggest problem is shooting a shallow depth of field with moving subjects (my 3 year old and 6 months old). I am more frustrated than not, but at least with digital, I can shoot as many frames as I want (before my kids put up a huge fuss).

    Anyway, part of photography is having a good eye too, and I love your style!

  12. J at

    I don’t know if my little digital camera has this, but I’m going to go outside right now and find out! Thanks for the tip!

  13. Aimee Greeblemonkey

    Mandy – yes, that is true! Little whirling dervishes can be VERY hard to catch when you have the f-stop set to a low number.

    Also, as a few have alluded to and a friend just pointed out in email, sometimes it is impossible to go really low with the f-stop because of the limitations of the kit lenses that come with some DSLRs. Just an FYI!

  14. everettq

    I was a darkroom photography wiz in college and then *poof* forgot it all once I didn’t have a darkroom anymore.

    Now I have this DSLR and I just stare blindly at all of the functions. This just might reawaken that dormant part of my brain so I can get off of the “auto” feature.


  15. emma

    Does any one have manual cameras any more?! I have a Pentax K1000 that I love, but it weighs a ton so I usually throw my digital (almost all) automatic camera in my bag. Or I use my phone. 🙂

  16. Ashmystir

    Thanks for the tips Aimee…now we’ll BOTH able to put quality pics on Flickr. Ha. Ha.

  17. Claire

    Better SLR lenses have markings on them to help you determine DoF (the range in front and behind the point of focus that also appears to be in focus) without using charts. The markings are a symmetric arrangement of F-stops. When you move the focal ring next to these markings, you can see what the DoF will be depending on the f-stop you choose.

    If you don’t have these markings (or feel like dealing with charts), it’s helpful to know that though Depth of Field varies with focal length, f-stop, and distance to subject, the DoF range remains from 1/3 in front of your focus setting to 2/3 behind it. E.g., you could set your focus to 5 feet and have DoF from 4 ft. to 7 ft. given the proper focal length and f-stop.

  18. Heather B.

    My 50 is f/1.4. At first I was nervous because I had to give up my first born to purchase it but then I realized that I loved it way too much, so it was all good.

  19. Miss Britt

    OK, I have a point and shoot and I was told that the “f stop” thing was basically not going to happen for me.

    Where do you control the f-stop on a point and shoot? I thought I was pretty familiar with my menu functions, etc. – but I’m not seeing anything like that ANYwhere.

  20. Anna

    Thanks for the information, I always love reading more about how photographers use their cameras.

  21. Aimee Greeblemonkey

    Miss Britt, do you have a manual mode? If you don’t have a manual mode, then you don’t have a point & shoot with f-stop control.


    Check out this post I did a while back!

    Top 10 Things to Think About When Buying a Digital Point & Shoot Camera

    And great tips, everyone – keep em coming!

  22. Miss Britt

    I do have a manual mode!

  23. Anonymous

    great tips, thanks!

  24. June

    Great post and great conversation. I recently jumped into the DSLR arena and bought a Nikon D40x. I got a 18mm-200mm lens because I was used to not having to change lenses and wanted to feel “at home” to get started. I’m quite happy with its flexibility, but the one thing it ain’t got is a low f-stop. The lowest it goes is 3.5 – I’m guessing when my pocketbook recovers I’ll start picking up a few specific fixed lenses…like one with a real low f/stop. 🙂

  25. Jodi

    Thanks for this. I’m such an “accidental” photographer. My husband commented on one of mine the other day, “That’s really good! How did you get that depth of field?” Me: *shrugged shoulders*

    Maybe now I can do it on purpose!

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