Depth of Field

In the world of photography there are several techniques that are very helpful. One of them is depth of field. While I was starting to get this typed up, I thought to myself “What better way to show people depth of field than with a row of cheap beers? It is spring break, after all!”

I’ve heard some people say that they just want to shoot and not worry about tricks and that the images should speak for themselves. While this argument is true, it makes sense in our tech savvy world (where everyone is now a photographer) to try to make our craft better so we can stand out in the ever-growing crowd of shooters out there. Even if you don’t want your work to stand out, the reason for creating images with a shallow depth of field will become obvious shortly.

To understand depth of field more clearly I’ve set this up on my table to show you what I mean. Here we have seven cans of PBR. I focused on the closest one to make a point. OK, lets dive in…

This group of  images were all shot with my Canon 5DmkII and a 50mm f1.2 lens, on a tri-pod. The first is shot at a depth of field of f1.2. You’ll notice that the only thing in focus here is the focal plane that the “P” of Pabst is in. It’s about 1/8th of an inch, pretty small. You’ll also notice that the last can in the line-up is so out of focus it’s almost not recognizable, except for the colors. While you may not think this is important, it is, and I’ll explain why in a moment. Let’s move on to the next shot.


This second shot looks a bit different, the first can is in full focus and you are able to read most of it. This was shot at f2.8, which is the pro standard for zoom lenses these days. Next…..


This third picture was shot at f4.0. You can see that the second can is still mostly out of focus and the one on the other end is completely out, but it is getting closer! Hang in there with me…


Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. This was shot at f5.6. You can see now that the first and second can are in pretty clear focus, and the others are still out. The last can is starting to be in focus now, but still pretty out. Let’s keep going. I promise there is a reason for all this…


This next shot is at f8.0. You’ll notice the last can is getting pretty close now, but still isn’t “in” yet. The first, second third, and fourth are close to good, though! Moving on…


This is shot at f11. You can definitely tell that the last can is, indeed, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. By now I’m salivating over seven cans of PBR, they are cold and fresh. Mmm. Next…


This is the last shot in the sequence. It is shot at f16, which almost no “pro” shooter ever goes to unless it’s for something special. The last can of PBR is not quite in fous, but it’s a ton better than it was.


Now, let’s talk about why. Why is it so important to know depth of field? If you are ever shooting people the way these cans are lined up, you better understand depth of field. Consider this – If you have a group of people in a line and you shoot them with your camera set at 1.2, the person you’ve focused on will be in focus, but the rest of the group will be out. Now, rarely will you need to go to f16 to get them all in focus, I just set this up this way to prove a point. Understand that I shot this with the first can about 15 inches from the front of my lens. The effect would be different if I were to shoot this with about ten feet to the first can. When you are shooting portraits it is hugely important to know what your focal length is, or you will have eyes out of focus and useless images. This has happened to me and there is nothing you can do to salvage it. Look at the work of some of the more prominent wedding and portrait photographers of our day. (Chris Orwig comes to mind for me, go to his portraits page to see what I mean.) If they are taking a portrait of someone, their eyes will be in focus, but most of the rest of them will be out in a creative, soft way. Mastering techniques like this are what separates the great from the good photographers.

PLEASE don’t get the impression that you need to spend $4000 on a camera/lens setup to get these effects. I know for a fact that this can be achieved with a kit that costs under $500. I’ve got a post about that coming soon…

I hope this helps you with understanding depth of field and please ask me questions regarding this or any other topic you’ve seen here. I really love to help people.

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