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Visit with Jim – Depth of Field (DoF)

Through a Vernal Silica Looking Glass

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”  Friedrich Nietzsche 

The Art of Depth of Field: A Macro photographers paradise

In the vast realm of photography, few concepts are as important as depth of field (DoF). It is the creative spine of a photograph, lending depth, and giving life to a two-dimensional medium. Understanding and manipulating depth of field can greatly elevate the aesthetic and emotional impact of a photograph, thus playing a key role in the story that the photographer intends to tell.  Landscape photographers may be dealing with feet, yards, and beyond for depth of field. In my realm of macro photography, it is less than inches. The Photograph above Through a Vernal Silica Looking Glass has the focal plane below the surface of the glass and in front of the back of the glass. The plane intentionally sits at the level of the front most air bubble in the glass to create a focal point. The surfaces of the glass were not relevant and did not need to be seen.

Importantly this is only one dimension of three key levers of light control we have as photographers. This is hard for people to wrap their heads around as our mobile phones automatically calculate ‘the best’ exposure and remove your artistic vision from the equation. You also have shutter speed (how quickly the lens opens and closes) and ISO or film speed (how quickly the camera’s film or surface can gather light). Learning to manage all three gets you pretty far. Then understanding the lens capabilities is another level.

                      “Learn the Rules Like a Pro, so you can break like an artist.” Pablo Picasso

MUrano Glass Gold #5
Defining Depth of Field

In the photograph Murano Glass Gold #5 to the left, the surface of the shattered cullet of glass is the most interesting part of the object. Also tilting the glass lends a sense of depth to the surface as the right hand side fades into blur.

Simply put, depth of field refers to the area within a photograph that appears sharp and in focus. It stretches from the closest point to the camera that is in sharp focus to the furthest point that also appears clearly focused. Beyond these points, the scene becomes progressively blurrier, offering a sense of depth and dimension to the photo. This is important for me as a photographer and you as an observer.  My intention can be to have a DoF that compels your eye to look at a specific area that is in focus or encourage your eye to look throughout the image where everything is in focus. 

A third option, which is not DoF, per se, is intentional camera motion (ICM) which has nearly everything out of focus due to the artist moving the camera.

Interestingly, our eyes tend to deceive us a bit here. For example when we are driving or out in an open space, we tend to think that everything is in focus, barring the need for glasses.   There is science to describe an amazing illusion that our eyes and brain play upon us. The eye is rapidly scanning the environment and the brain is very often interpolating and filling in recall of details rather than us actually seeing the details in focus.  In the diagram below f/22 is the smallest aperture. My lense will go to f/32 and there are lenses that go to f/45 and beyond. I would enjoy using that lens.

CREDIT: University of Rochester
Aperture: The Heart of Depth of Field

The heart of depth of field is the camera’s aperture – the hole within the lens through which light travels into the camera body. Aperture is measured in ‘f-stops’, and its size is inversely proportional to the f-stop number. Therefore, a smaller f-stop number like f/1.8 signifies a large aperture, and a larger f-stop number such as f/16 indicates a small aperture and f/32 even smaller. .

The size of the aperture directly affects the depth of field: a large aperture (small f-stop number) creates a shallow depth of field, blurring the background and focusing on the subject, ideal for portraits or macro photography. This lets the most amount of light in, but with such a narrow DoF, it can be torture to stay in focus.  ANY movement can move the object out of focus. Conversely, a small aperture (large f-stop number) generates a deep depth of field, making both the foreground and background appear in focus, which is perfect for landscape photography.  The trade off here is the steep loss in light gathering capabilities. 

The Role of Focal Length and Distance

The lens’s focal length and the distance between the camera and the subject also influence depth of field. A longer lens (higher focal length) will decrease depth of field while a wider lens (lower focal length) increases it. Similarly, the closer the subject is to the camera, the shallower the depth of field, and vice versa.

Creative Control and Depth of Field

Understanding depth of field grants photographers creative control over their images. For instance, using a shallow depth of field can isolate a subject against a blurred background, drawing the viewer’s attention directly to the subject. This is often seen in portraiture,

product photography, and macro photography. On the other hand, a deep depth of field can be used to maintain sharpness throughout the scene, from the foreground to the background, a technique frequently employed in landscape and architectural photography. In the image Synchronized Swimmers, a votive candle holder had water from our kitchen tap flowing briskly into the glass. The depth of field is narrow. You can see where the transition is from focused to blurred bubbles on the surface of the water. This allowed me to increase light gathering capability which allows me to let the shutter open and close quickly to capture the movement of the water and air.

Depth of Field: The Storyteller’s Tool

Depth of field is more than a technical specification – it’s a storytelling tool. It allows photographers to guide the viewer’s gaze, to highlight or obscure, to suggest emotion, to create tension, or to offer relief. The blurred backdrop of a shallow depth of field can create a dreamy, romantic, or intimate feel. The sharp detail of a deep depth of field can convey a sense of awe, scale, or abundance.

In conclusion, depth of field is a potent tool in the photographer’s toolkit, and mastering it can take your photography to a new level of artistry. It’s all about understanding how aperture, focal length, and distance from the subject interact to create a desired depth of field. As you experiment and practice, you’ll develop an intuitive sense for how to use depth of field to tell your story through the lens. 

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Brene Brown

Join me in a fireside chat via Zoom in the evening to discuss any aspect of my artwork.  To qualify, and join a video conversation send your contact information here and let me know what you would want to talk about.  The selected participants will receive a 25% discount on any of my unlimited edition pieces of art.  I will personally sign the piece at printing.  Even more, the gallery is offering this purchase risk free for you. Free shipping, Free return, and no questions asked if you are unhappy with the art work.  You can keep the print for 30 days to enjoy the selection in your home or office. This risk free offer does not apply to metal, acrylic and other specialized media prints.





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