Depth of Field

"Depth of field", also known as "depth of focus" is how much distance, in front of and behind the spot on which you actually focus, is still in focus. In fact, there is not a particular point at which suddenly things go out of focus. If you're focused on something four feet away from you, something four feet and two inches away may not be in perfect focus, but the difference may be too small to notice. Something 30 feet away, on the other hand, may be so out of focus as to be unrecognizable.

Four factors influence depth of field: aperture (i.e. lens diameter), lens size, distance ratios, and print size. We'll look at all four of these factors below.


Depth of Field as a Function of Aperture

In the following illustration we're looking at the light rays reflecting off a single point. It might be the head of a pin. Light rays reflect in many directions, some of which are caught by the camera's lens. those rays are bent such that they begin to converge. They converge at one point then diverge again.

When the focus ring on a camera lens is adjusted, the distance from the lens to the film is changing. That's all that's happening. If the distance from the lens to the film coincides with the point where all the rays of light have converged, that pin head is "in focus". But imagine that the lens-to-film distance is a bit shorter (or longer) than that. The light is not perfectly converged. Instead of creating a point of light, the rays create a blurry circle of light. This is called a "circle of confusion". The size of the circle varies in two ways. First, the further it is from the optimal focus point, the bigger it is. Second, the bigger the area that is collecting light, the bigger the circle is. A lens with a really big diameter will be bending light at steeper angles than a lens with a small diameter, so it will create bigger circles.

When you select a smaller f/stop on your lens (which has a bigger number), you are restricting the diameter of the lens that will gather light. Move your mouse over the illustration below to see what it looks like "stopped down". Notice that since the light is coming from a narrower angle, the circle of confusion is smaller.

In this illustration I show two separate film planes in order to show both the in-focus and an out-of-focus position. In your camera, the film plane remains constant but the lens moves. The light rays from a more distant object will come into focus closer to the lens than the rays from a closer object. When you turn the focusing ring, the lens moves forward or back, changing the distance between lens and film. For the purpose of this illustration it was much easier to show two film planes, but what I should have done in order to illustrate the out-of-focus position was to redraw the illustration with the lens moved toward the film, thereby making the cone reach a point behind the (fixed) film plane. But that would have required drawing lots more light rays, which would have been confusing. This illustration is optically accurate, even if it takes some liberties with what's going on in your camera.

Remember that in our illustration we're looking at a single point of light. Most things you photograph have many points of light, all of them right next to each other. Imagine having a bunch of pin heads all right next to each other, and having them not in focus. The circles will all overlap, creating a big blur. That's what you see through your camera.


Depth of Field as a Function of Lens Size

Put simply, the longer the lens, the less depth of field at a given f/stop. I am not a mathematician and cannot explain the physics of it, but I can show you some examples.

This photo was taken with a 27mm lens on a Nikon D70 camera at f/4.5 at 1/80 sec. The focus was on the 'P' of 'Parkin'.
This photo was taken with a 55mm lens on the same camera, also at f/4.5 at 1/80 sec, with the same focus and from the same position as the previous photo.

This is a crop of the first photo to represent the same field of view as the second photo.

Notice how much more depth of field this image has than the one above. The weeds at the bottom are fairly sharp, and you can see much more detail in the distant trees.

Longer lenses tend to have larger f/stop numbers (indicating smaller openings) than smaller lenses. For example, the 560mm lens pictured below, on an 8x10 view camera, in spite of its enormous size, opens up only to f/11. It will stop down all the way to f/128 though!

This lens on this camera will produce about the same field of view as a 73mm lens would on a 35mm camera. But while that 73mm lens on the small camera would get quite good depth of field at f/11, this lens might have to stop down to f/90 for an equivalent appearance.

Most modern digital cameras are exactly the opposite. While the negative on the camera to the left is 8 by 10 inches, or 203 by 254mm, many digital cameras have image sensors that measure 6.6 by 8.8mm. (By comparison, a 35mm camera's negative is 24 by 36mm.) So, to produce an image with the same field of view as this view camera or a 35mm camera with a 73mm lens, a common digital camera would require a 19mm lens. Look again at the "No Parkin" photographs and you can imagine that with a 19mm lens you'd pretty much have sharp focus all the way from the sign to the distant trees, even at a fairly open f/stop.

*** This just in ***

The relationship between depth of field and lens size is not so simple. See this link for Michael Reichmann's demonstration of how depth of field is NOT a function of lens size. The difference between my tests and theirs is that they are moving the camera to maintain subject size, while I cropped the image (in the darkroom, as it were) to produce the same subject size. Note that in order to maintain subject size, Reichmann had to change camera positions, which means he changed distance ratios (see below). I would conclude from the combination of his and my tests that increased distance ratio decreases depth of field exactly proportionatly with reducing lens size increasing it. In other words, these two characteristics cancel each other out.


Depth of Field as a Function of Distance Ratios

This one's pretty easy to illustrate. In the composite image below, the horizontal things are supposed to represent yards of distance.

From where the guy's standing, the dog is about 5 yards away and the sign is about 8 yards. The woman is only a yard from the dog and four yards from the sign. I've said before, I'm no mathematician, and I don't want to get bogged down with numbers here. If you like numbers, you can work out the ratios for yourself.

The point is that if she focuses on the dog, the sign's probably going to be out of focus, even at a small f/stop, but if the guy focuses on the dog, the sign may well be in focus, especially at a small f/stop. Why? Because the dog is relatively close to the sign from where the guy is, but the dog is way away from the sign from where the woman is. Even though the dog and sign haven't moved. Get it?


Depth of Field as a Function of Print Size

 

These tape measure graphics come from another Web site discussion of depth of field which covers some points I have not covered and covers some of the same information in a different way.

Camera manufacturers and many discussions about depth of field would have you believe that there is an absolute numeric fact about what's in focus and what's not. I've seen formulae for calculating what is and what is not in focus for a particular lens at a particular f/stop and distance. Well, it just ain't so!

First off, some people are more particular than others. In the image to the right, I may feel that the '7' is in acceptable focus but you may not consider that the '6' is.

Secondly, as an image is enlarged it gets softer. Even something that's in very sharp focus when small may appear soft when enlarged, and the less sharp it is to begin with, the worse it will look when enlarged. In the small image at the upper left, the front edge of the tape measure all the way past the '7' may be acceptably sharp. On the close-up on the lower left, even the '5' is slightly soft, and the '6' is noticably so.

If you make it large enough, nothing is in focus.

The formulas and guides on lens barrels are a good starting place, but in the end, you have to use your own eyes. How large are you printing, and how critical are you?

The lenses of many SLR cameras have 'depth-of-field preview' buttons. SLR cameras generally keep the apertures wide open regardless what f/stop you have specified until the moment the shutter is released. They do this to facilitate framing and focusing the image. The depth-of-field preview button manually stops down the lens to the setting you have selected so that you can see, through the viewfinder, what your depth of field will be. Of course it is very difficult to see well enough through a viewfinder whether the '6' on the tape measure is in satisfactory focus for the 16x20 inch print you plan to make.

Click here for a discussion of depth of field in the context of a particular photograph.


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