DOF and Duh!


Taking photographs is not all that difficult these days. The “Auto” mode with most cameras takes all the guesswork out of photography. And sure, you will always get an image, but is it the best that you can get? Unfortunately no. A for Auto will give you A for Average images. One feature in great photographs is the Depth Of Field, known as DOF.

What’s DOF? Quite simply, it is Depth Of Field, and mastery of DOF really is the second rule of photography in my opinion. Before you ask, the first rule is to walk several meters closer to the subject to fill the frame!

The Depth Of Field seen in any picture can often make or break the entire photograph, and knowing how to manipulate the depth of field improves your photography instantly!

Depth of Field really refers to the zone of “sharpness” (or being in acceptable focus) from foreground items to background items. This is different from what the eye sees, as the eye can instantly focus on near and far objects, giving the brain the impression that everything in your field of vision is in sharp focus. The camera electronics cannot do this, no matter how smart they are.

The first concept to remember is “1/3rd forwards and 2/3rds back.” This is an oversimplification, but ‘works’ very well. Again this is from the law of optical physics, but means that the DOF, from foreground to background in your photograph can be measured, and from the point of maximum focus in the photo, extends towards you by one third and extends away from the focus point by two thirds.

For those of you with SLR’s, especially the older manual focus SLR’s, you will even find a series of marks on the focusing ring of the lens to indicate the Depth of Field that is possible with that lens.

For each focal length of lens, the DOF possible is altered by the Aperture. The rule here is simple – the higher the Aperture number, the greater the DOF and the lower the Aperture number, the shorter the DOF. In very simple terms, for any given lens, you get greater front to back sharpness with f22 and you get very short front to back sharpness at f4.

For example, using a 24 mm focal length lens focused on an object 2 meters away – if you select f22, the DOF runs from just over 0.5 meter to 5 meters (4.5 meters total), but if you select f11 it only runs from 1 m to 4 m (3 m total) and if you choose f5.6 the Depth of Field is only from 1.5 m to 3 m (1.5 m total).

On the other hand, using a longer 135 mm focal length lens focused at the same point 2 meters away, you get the following Depths of Field – at f22 it runs from 1.9 m to 2.2 m (0.3 m) and at f5.6 it is 1.95 m to 2.1 m (a total of 0.15 m).

These figures may look confusing at first, but by mastering the concept, you end up with mastery of the DOF and how this can ‘sharpen up’ your photographs.

Analysis of all these initially confusing numbers shows the higher the Aperture number, the greater the DOF; the smaller the Aperture number the smaller the DOF; plus the longer the lens, the shorter the DOF, the shorter the lens, the longer the DOF (just remember the ‘opposites’ – the longer gives shorter).

Now to apply this formula – when shooting a landscape for example, where you want great detail from the foreground, right the way through to the mountains five kilometers away, then use a short lens (24 mm is ideal) set at f22 and focused on a point about 2 km away. You are now shooting like Ansel Adams

On the other hand, when shooting a portrait like Richard Avedon, where you only want to have the eyes and mouth in sharp focus you would use a longer lens (and here the 135 is ideal) and a smaller Aperture number of around f5.6 to f4 and focus directly on the eyes to give that ultra short Depth of Field required.

There you go, now a master of DOF.