Understanding Depth of Field and How it Can Improve Your Travel Photography

 

Perhaps one of the oldes tricks in the book that can make your pictures stand head and shoulders above the rest or get lost in oblivion is using depth of field to focus the picture- and the eyes of the viewer- on what you want to mark as important. Take the picture of the flower below as an example ( which is available in full size, by the way,  as a wallpaper in MaiTravelSite’s Facebook Page) I took in Chiang Mai some time ago.

depth of field

I wanted to take a picture of it in such a way that nothing else disturbed the viewer from looking at what I wanted him/ her to. The solution? As I could not move the temple behind it  on one side and the green foliage on the other was too to be able to focus appropriately with my camera I used depth of field to blur the background and make the flower the star of the shot. I set the aperture at a large aperture (small f-stop number) which I think was around 1/ 1.8 with my fast and cheap Nikon 50 mm f1.8 lens, adjusted everything there is to adjust and shot. The result is what you see.

So what is depth of field? Simply put depth of field is what determines what is focused and what not in a picture. The extent as to which you can use this concept is also determined by your camera- compact cameras do not have much flexibility  but some do have a Macro mode to take pictures of close-ups which you can use to blur the background when taking portraits. Another trick is to stand far from the object and zoom in to focus on it. By pressing the button half way you will lock the focus and can then move the camera slightly to showcase more of the background for that blurry effect. SLR cameras, on the other hand, have different lenses which allow all the flexibility you’ll need. The best ones, of course, will come at a price (consider these tips for buying a lens for travel photography).

This is my explanation on what depth of field is and how you can use it to take better pictures without going into too much detail. However,  to help you understand this better  I have asked the same question to fellow travel bloggers and experienced professional photographers who were happy to answer this question: Daniel Shah, Daniel Nahabedian, Dave Boskill and Bethany Savlon.

What is depth of field and how can it be used to improve travel photography?

Daniel Shah says:

“When I was studying photography I had no idea about depth of field. But I learnt it from time to time with practice and got the real concept when I started teaching photography. Depth of field is the sharpness of the distance between your subject and its background/foreground.

You need to adjust it according the the frame you have in your mind. If you want things to appear sharp behind your subject that are existing between your subject and its background, you need smaller aperture number. And the more you increase the number, the sharper it gets”

Daniel Shah is a traveler, blogger and photograper based in Pakistan. Read about his trips across the Gilgit Batistan area and more in his blog www.iexplorepakistan.com or join his Facebook Page with over 11,000 fans!

understanding depth of field

In this picture I used a large aperture to keep the soldier in focus but the background blurry. I wanted you, the viewer, to focus on his face, not the background.

Daniel Nahabedian responds:

“Depth of field is the distance between the closest and farthest object in a photo that appear sharp. To put it more easily, it’s how much in your picture is blurred and how much is in focus. It is very important for starting photographers to understand how it works.

You can control depth of field by increasing or decreasing your aperture. The wider your aperture (smaller numbers like f/1.8 or f/2.8), the shallower your depth of field will be. This means that the object you are focusing on will be sharp while the foreground and background will be blurry/soft.

Also, the smaller your aperture (bigger numbers like f/11 or f/22), the sharper everything in the scene will be.

So when taking portraits, you will probably need a shallow depth of field so that the face (eyes) are sharp and the background is blurry to avoid distraction. When taking landscape shots, it’s better to use a tripod and shoot with the smallest aperture possible (usually f/22) to get everything in the scene as sharp as possible from the closest flowers to the distant mountains.”

Daniel Nahabedian is a professional photographer who spends a good portion of his time exploring remote locations looking for the ultimate shot. You’ve probably seen several of his photos if you’re an avid user of Stumble Upon, otherwise you can see examples of his work in his photoblog www.canvas-of-light.com

understanding depth of field

Everything in this picture is focused: the soldiers up front, the one in the distance, and the temple in the background. This was achieved with a small aperture= large f-stop number. In this picture I wanted to give you, the viewer, a general perspective of what was going on.

Bethany Savlon comments:

“Depth of field in the most simplest terms is the range of sharpness in your image. Using a larger aperture (2.8 or below) will create a smaller depth of field in your photo. This is great when you want to isolate a subject (think portrait or a single flower in a field) and have the rest of your image fall into a slight blur. It makes the subject stand out in the viewer’s eyes.

When shooting a landscape you may want to use a larger depth of field so that more parts of your image are in focus. To do this you would use a smaller aperture (f11 or higher). Using an aperture of 5.6 or above is a good bet when shooting a group photo because it will ensure that everyone’s faces will be in focus. The larger the group – the smaller the aperture you need to use.

Remember that the aperture (f/stop) you choose controls the range of sharpness in your photo.

Lower f -stop number (f/1.8) = larger aperture = shallow depth of field
Higher f-stop number (f/22) = smaller aperture = greater depth of field”

Bethany is a professional photographer who is traveling around the world with her partner Randy, a professional journalist. Check their photos and read about their trips in their popular blog www.beersandbeans.com.

depth of field and travel photography

It took me several shots to accomplish the desired outcome when taking this picture in the Golden Triangle. I could have blurred the golden Buddha completely but I wanted viewers to be able to see it there without stealing the attention from the elephant Buddha. I thus blurred it slightly using depth of field.

Dave Bouskill replies:

“Depth of field is really just the distance between the closest object and furthest object in a photo that appear to be sharp. There are 2 types of DOF.

Shallow: where the foreground or background are very out of focus compared to the subject.

Deep: where the background, foreground and subject are all in sharp focus together.

DOF can be used in many ways. the most common is to use a “Shallow” DOF when you want to separate out the subject from the foreground or background. This is accomplished by using either a very wide open aperture like F1.2-2.8 or increasing the distance between the subject and the background/foreground.

Tips:

When shooting portraits or close ups try to use a shallow DOF to make them stand out from the background. This will keep distractions out of focus and allow the viewer to focus on the subject. This also comes in handy when shooting flowers or any other Macro shots.

When shooting landscapes try to make sure to have a deep DOF. You want as much of that beauty in focus as you can. I usually accomplish this by shooting all of my landscape shots at F11 or above.”

Dave represents half of one of the most popular travel blogs in the web, www.theplanetd.com. Together with Debra they travel the world not only to see but to experience, learn and show what cultures of the world can teach us all. Dave was recently requested by Olympus cameras to become part of their test team.

Without a doubt it takes time to be able to use depth of field comfortably and to accomplish desired effects. The great advantage even novice photographers have nowadays is that you don’t have to wait to develop a film to be able to see if you succeeded on your intention. With digital cameras you can immediately check what you did and, if not pleased, shoot again after making some adjustments! Imagine the cost involved during the learning curve when digital cameras did not exist. Ahh, the good old days…

Has this article helped you understand depth of field? Is depth of field something you use regularly when taking pictures when traveling? Got any questions? Share your opinion below, and this post too if you think others might find it helpful!

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