Depth of Field: A Visual Lesson

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Depth of Field: A Visual Lesson

In today’s post I am sharing visual examples of various depth of field using Russian Matryoshka Nesting Dolls. With these examples you can better see what happens at different apertures and using different focus points when shooting with a shallow depth of field (DOF).

A few details:

  • These images are unedited, except for the text at the bottom of the image with the settings, and a sharpen for web Photoshop action from MCP Fusion.
  • These photos were taken with the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds OM-D EM-5 Camera and a Panasonic 25mm 1.4 Lens.  This effective focal length of a 25mm (in 35mm terms) is 50mm, as this cameras has a sensor with a crop factor of 2x.  So…in English for those starting out, it is the same focal length as a 50mm on a full-frame body, such as my Canon 5D MKIII. Due to the crop factor the depth of field is not quite as shallow as it could be on my Canon.  But as you will see here, you can still get a great idea of how these numbers impact the photo.
  • This idea came to me at night.  There was no natural light and as such I either needed a high ISO, which would add grain, or a long exposure time.  Since I wanted to adjust aperture for this display, and since I could use the floor as a “tripod” I opted to shoot every image at ISO200 with longer exposures.

Focus point changing – all dolls on the same plane:

When you shoot wide open, the lowest number your lens will go (in this case 1.4), you have a very narrow area of your image that will be in focus.  As you can see below, the dolls are in focus in the first image, as I focused on the eyes of the doll on the left.  All of the dolls were on the exact same plane in this set-up. Note how the background falls out of focus and creates a nice blur. Also note that the foreground closest to my camera starts to gain light blur too. This is called shallow depth of field.



With the exact same set-up, and all the same settings on the camera, I now focused on the chain in the background.  The dolls are now blurry but the chair, wall and blinds are in focus.


Dolls staggered – focus points changing:

For the next set of images, I staggered the dolls a few inches apart and at a diagonal so you could see the impact.  To start I focused on the doll on the left.  I put the focus point directly on her eyes while at a f/stop of 1.4.  You can see the chair blurred out again, but additionally all dolls except the one on the left are blurry.  The further back the doll, the more blurry she became.

Now, I moved the focus to the second doll in from the left. You can see that the front doll and other three dolls further back are blurry.


Now I focused on the center doll. Again you can see how the front two (left) and the back two (right) plus the background are all blurry.



And next, the 4th one.  You can see that the first few dolls are blurred.  But, unlike the others, now that we are focusing further away from the camera, another situation comes into play.  The closer you are to your subject the shallower the DOF.  The further away you are, the larger the focus area.  As a result, even though I focused on the 4th one, the 3rd and 5th are still partially in focus.  I would not say they are sharp, but they are not a big blur either.



Now the 5th doll…the really tiny one. Same concept as in the 4th one, the depth of field has lengthened.  If you like pure numbers, you can get DOF charts online.  I’m a more visual learner and teacher, so not as “mathematic” as the chart might be. While looking at this one, observe how crisp the carpet is surrounding that 5th doll.


Last up, with the dolls staggered, you can see we focused on the chair.  Just as in the shot where dolls were on the same plane, the staggered dolls are still blurry.

Ready to move on? Next, changing DOF:

So far all the images photographed at f/1.4.  Now let’s change that a bit. In the upcoming images, the focus point remained on the 1st doll’s eyes. The two changes are the aperture (f/stop) and the speed.  Why change the speed?  If I didn’t the exposure would be off.

To start, here is the image at f/1.4 – focus on the left doll.

Next I switched to an f/stop of 2.0.  It is pretty close to the shot above, but the 2nd doll is slowly getting a little more in focus.

aperture of 2.8


The next photo is at an aperture of 2.8. The 2nd doll is getting a little more in focus…  But not quite.  Keep in mind, the focus point is on the 1st doll.

aperture of 2.8

Here’s an aperture of 4.0.  Now, while looking at this, start picturing  yourself taking a photo of a family or larger group of people. If they are on the same plane, you might be able to use 2.8 or 4.0, but if the group is larger or staggered  on many planes, you can see what would happen.  Look on the right side at the dolls.

aperture of 4.0


For the sake of speed, we are gonna skip some “stops.” The next one shown is at f/6.3. That 2nd doll is pretty close to being in focus now.

Jumping to f/11, shown next, you can see how the whole family of dolls is nearly in focus. Imagine a large family or group…  This might be perfect.  If you are starting out you may wonder, “why would I ever shoot at 2.8 if I know I can get better focus at f/11?”  Here’s why… If you want to separate your subject from the background, it is very hard to do stopped down at higher numbered f/stops like 11.  See how the chair is pretty clear too?  It lacks that popping quality of the foreground coming away from the background .


aperture of f/11


Sometimes you need to chose what is most important. Picking the aperture, the speed, and/or the ISO. This is why shooting in one of the manual modes or semi-auto modes is important, versus AUTO, where the camera decides.  Additionally, if you shoot wider open (like 1.4, 2.0, etc) you let more light in.  So for a low light situation, you will need to up your ISO to let light in (which can lead to grain) or you will need to decrease speed (which can lead to motion blur).  Look below at the settings. Since this was a low light scenario, and I wanted to use ISO200 so grain did not enter in, I had to use a 20 second exposure to shoot at f16. If these dolls were real people or if I was handholding, I could not have achieved this in natural light and have the subjects sharp. Not a chance!

aperture of f16


A tripod can be useful for long exposures like this (or the floor in this case). But if people are in the shot, not dolls or an unmovable object, you will need to shoot with a wider aperture and likely at a higher ISO too. See our Back to Basics series to learn more about how ISO, Aperture, and Speed all create ” the exposure triangle.  I hope this visual look at apertures was helpful.




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Depth of Field: A Visual Lesson