Picture This: Depth of Field

A art professor once told me that he believed everyone had the potential to be a great artist. Obviously it comes more naturally to some people, but everyone can learn and improve through practice which is why if you want to take good photos, you can’t give up! Last week we learned about photo editing; this week we’re going to talk about depth of field–another great composition trick to improve your photos!

Depth of Field, or DOF, is really common in photography, so common that I bet you’ve done it a million times and didn’t even realize it! To put it simply, DOF is that magic spot where one object is in focus while everything else is not. This might mean the sharp area of your photo lies in the foreground, the middle, or the background.

A camera points at a horizontal series of three butterflies and the center one is in focus.
Snatched from Wikipedia

Getting that little sweet spot to appear is pretty simple. Essentially, you to have something in at least two layers of the photo (foreground and background) to make it work. The easy part is focusing your camera on one of those two objects and letting the rest fade out. Now, this won’t work if you’re standing five feet away from your foreground object! You need to get close, real close. Try staying withing two feet of your foreground object to make it work, or use the zoom on your camera to get closer if you can’t physically move there.

Tall white, pink, and purple flowers reach high into the sky with an apartment building blurred in the background.
I was actually really close to these flowers, crouched down on the ground. Notice how the majority of the flowers are out of focus as is the tall apartment building in the background. This photo has great DOF.

If you are using a point and shoot camera, focusing on the right object can be a challenge. One thing you can do is steady yourself, center the object you want to be in focus in the view finder or display screen, focus on it, and then carefully pan your camera away from that object until your image has a nice balance of focus and out-of-focus content. This isn’t strictly a rule but it is one that my photos tend to follow: try to keep your focus/out-of-focus ration to 1/3 of the photo. I say this because if you want your focal point to really grab attention, you need to use the negative space to highlight it. So I guess you can consider this part of the Rule of Thirds.

Yellow flowers sit along a blue railing.
DOF photos that focus on the middle ground are really hard to achieve but especially so if you can't select your focal point.

If you are using a DSLR camera (if you’re just joining us, refer here for camera types), setting your focus should be a lot easier. Most DSLRs should have a focal point button that when you look through the viewfinder lights up a bunch of dots or boxes. By using your camera’s selection buttons, you should be able to choose which focal point you want to use and from then on your camera will focus there. This makes DOF photos a million times easier. Point and shoot cameras often optimize their focus finders to make sure nearly everything is in focus, so having a DSLR will make things infinitely easier for you.

A statue of a woman sits on top of a mirrored log.
QoB's photo has a shallow DOF with a beautiful, unique perspective!

Another important part of achieving excellent DOF is to make sure your aperature, or F-stop, is a low number when photographing with a DSLR. You can set this manually on your camera by setting it to Aperture Priority Mode (should be the “A” on your mode dial). This mode allows you to set what aperture you want and anything f/5 or lower should be acceptable for obtaining good DOF effect. (The first photo of flowers was taken at f/2.8, the second photo of flowers was taken at f/4.4.)

In my opinion, good DOF leaves enough definition in the out-of-focus parts that you can still tell what the object is but that’s my personal preference. There is a whole ‘nother composition field dedicated to bokeh, the effect you get when background light turns into pretty spots! But we’ll tackle that one later when we get to night photography.


An ivory statue of a woman stands against a screened window in contemplation.
Dormouse achieved a beautiful patterned DOF with the screen behind this statue.

This week your challenge is to DOF photo using nature as your object. “Nature” is a pretty broad topic that can include plants, rocks, animals, and weather (I’m sure it’s possible, somehow!). Basically, use your creative genius! Also I want to give a special shout out to two fellow photographers who’ve already been using DOF in their photos, whether they knew it or not! QoB took this beautiful photo of a statue for the Icons challenge as did Dormouse with her beautiful statue for the In-Between challenge.

Everyone has been doing a fantastic job and I’m really excited about every single person who participates! If you’re reading this for the first time, feel free to join in! You can follow along and join us on the challenges by posting your photo in the comments. You can also join our Persephone group, Picture This!, where you can post ideas, comments, questions, and tips for other Persephone photographers!

Are you ready? Let’s go take some photos! On your mark, get set, shoot!

*To post photos in the comments, you can use the photo uploader or copy and paste images into the comment section. What you may not know is that when you create an account with Google, you are also creating an account with Picasa Web Albums. To access it, click “photos” on the bar at the top of your screen while in Gmail or if you’re not a Gmail user, go to Google, click on the more tab at the top, select “Photos” and create an account (or just click on the link above). Follow the instructions to upload a photo. When you are done, open the photo and right click to copy it. Then come back to the comments and paste it. Easy-peasy. Let me know if you have trouble with this and I’ll help. Send me a personal message.

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

20 replies on “Picture This: Depth of Field”

This little guy (gal??) caught our eye on a hike; it was crawling out from a plant and happened to have this lovely flower perfectly stuck to its shell! The kids thought it was awesome that the snail had a tattoo. Its from out cannon powershot but I haven’t had a chance to get out with the pentax yet. Soon!

Ok so I just got back from traveling and didn’t have time to edit these at all but I had to share them. The plant one has all these little buds on the edge of the big leaves and those little buds are the baby plants! So cute!! I love the big gaping hole in the middle. Not sure why. The food was my breakfast this morning!!! Hand made corn tortillas with Costa Rican gallo pinto (special rice and beans) and queso fresco (holla at ya cheese bracket) and scrambled eggs! Yummm

Nature in Indiana currently is a lot of brown, so I’ll have to suffice with my dog.  He was mad at me because I was bribing him with treats to pose for pictures.  In this picture his face is saying “give me the damn treat already!!!!”  I tried to do the rule of thirds too, but I think I need to work with a slightly larger DoF because I’d like all of his face to be in focus.  Still trying to figure out all the buttons to make it work :-p


As cliche as this sounds I bought a book in the Dummies series for my camera (Dummies for Canon T1i) and it was the best purchase I’ve ever made for the camera. I was shooting in manual inside of a week. I took a class soon after reading through most of the book, and realized I already knew almost everything he was teaching because of this book. I still reference it on occasion.

A art professor once told me that he believed everyone had the potential to be a great artist. Obviously it comes more naturally to some people, but everyone can learn and improve through practice which is why if you want to take good photos, you can’t give up!

This makes me feel good. I love art, and love doing art type stuff, like drawing and taking photos, but I’ve never been able to cultivate my artistic side and always kind of thought I was bad at it. Now I feel more validated that I can do it myself and yeah…. I might suck, but at least it will get better! LOL!

When I was in art school, everyone had to take drawing classes. Even the photo students. Many of them came into the classes convinced that they could not draw, but by the end of their second semester of drawing instruction they were all drawing pretty well. The technical end of art is a skill set, just like the skills you use to do math, or analyze literature. It’s ok to not know how it to do it well when you start, because you need to learn it. Everyone who is good now, learned the hows of art sometime in their past. This sort of thing needs to be said more often.

I did not know P-Mag had a photo challenge! This excites me. Almost all my photos end up with a shallow depth of field. I use analog cameras and my favorite one has no flash. Even with 400 film, if I want to hand hold my camera in anything less than very bright sunlight that means tiny f stops ahoy! I have a roll I’ve been meaning to finish too.

Aw, thanks for the shout out! The magical EXIF data tells me that photo was f5.6, so in and around a reasonably low setting.

For contrast+illustrative purposes, this photo was taken with a different lens at f1.8, so narrower DOF. (Photo chosen solely to appeal to known Persephone demographics:)  – please to ignore wonky lines, I’m known for them).

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