Forums and Facebook groups are full of someday want-to-be professional photographers and an extremely common question they ask as beginners is “How do I get that blurry background in my photographs?” The blurry background, or bokeh, is an effect accomplished by knowing how to create a shallow depth of field. It is a compositional tool used in many genres of photography such as portraits, flowers/nature, and products. A quick word of caution, overuse of any one compositional tool can create a portfolio that is, well… boring. So don’t rely only on “blur” to create memorable images. Check out our blog post on Composition Basics here.
While bokeh creates a pretty effect for many images, some genres require crisper focus throughout and blur is not desirable. Landscape, night photography, and some types of street photography are examples where a wider depth of field is common. To accomplish this wider depth of field, hyperfocal distance is often used. (You can read about Hyperfocal distance in next month's blog, but it is recommended you first have a solid understanding of basic depth of field and factors that affect it as discussed in this post).
What is Depth of Field?
Simply put, depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in an image that are in acceptably sharp focus. In some photographs, everything seems to be in focus throughout and in some photographs the foreground or background, or both, may have blur. This is achieved by manipulating the factors that affect depth of field.
Depth of field is calculated using the lens’ focal length, distance to the subject, the acceptable “circle of confusion” size, and the aperture setting of the lens. Thus by changing one or more of these factors, different depths of field can be created. Let’s investigate the effects of each factor on the depth of field, starting with shallow depth of field.
How does one get shallow depth of field?
Shallow depth of field, also called a small or narrow depth of field, means that only a part of the image is in focus. Most often this is accomplished by using a wide aperture (small f/stop number) on the lens and shooting in aperture priority or manual mode. If a lens has the ability to shoot at f/2 at its most open setting, the resulting depth of field will be small or narrow. If that same lens was set at f/22 and its position and the subject/background positions are not changed, the result will be a much deeper or wider depth of field.
In these images above, the only factor that was changed was the aperture, or f/stop. Notice in the first image shot at f/32 there is more of the image, from front to back, in focus. The main flower and the flowers behind it are more defined and the bars on the iron door can be seen. In the second image, the aperture setting was changed to f/5 so much less of the image is in focus. There is more blur behind the main flower in this image and the bars on the iron door are completely out of focus, so much so, they almost disappear into the background. This is one advantage of a blurry background; to get rid of distractions behind the subject.
Shallower depth of field can also be accomplished with longer focal length lenses or by changing relative positions of the camera, the subject, and the background. A photo taken in close range will have a much smaller depth of field. Moving the camera closer to the subject and moving the subject farther from the background will increase blur in the background and make the depth of field narrower. For example, a portrait photographer will want to put some distance between the person/subject and the background to get the desired blur effect. A flower photographer might use a longer focal length lens to get a smaller depth of field and blur behind the bloom.
The images below demonstrate this effect. In the first image, I was much farther away from the flower arrangement which produces a wider depth of field. Some of the background, like the door behind the flower arrangement, were already somewhat blurred, but most of the flowers in the arrangement are in focus. In the second image, I have moved closer. There is a narrower depth of field. At this very close range, the background is fully blurred.
A camera can only get precise focus at one exact distance from the lens. Everything in front of or behind that distance will be blurred. The blur “spot” will be shaped like the aperture of the lens, thus almost a circle. If these spots, or circles, are small enough they are almost indistinguishable from a point of light and they appear to still be in focus. When this happens we have acceptable sharpness or acceptable “circle of confusion.” The “circle of confusion” size is related to a camera’s sensor size, and is a complicated concept that could be a whole article in and of itself. Any blur one can see in a final photograph is simply the blur spot as it registered on the camera sensor, only enlarged (on your screen or in print). How big this blur can get without being noticeable, is the acceptable "circle of confusion" size.
The take-away here, is that even the most crisp looking landscape image one has ever seen actually has areas that are out of focus or blurred, it’s just the blur is so minimal one’s eyes can’t tell unless the image is magnified or the viewer gets closer. The mechanisms of the camera and the way light bends as it enters the lens makes it impossible to have an image that is totally in focus from edge to edge at every given distance.
How depth of field and the “circle of confusion” changes from a crop camera to a full frame isn’t something most photographers will need to know. If one plans to make super-sized prints or enlargements, then it might be beneficial to know the sensor size and "circle of confusion" calculation in relation to the anticipated print size. More important for most photographers to understand are the effects of a specific camera body and lens combination on depth of field. Most photographers would not change camera bodies to achieve the depth of field they want when they can change position, lenses, or settings instead.
A full frame camera sensor will create a shallower depth of field when adjustments are made to keep the same field of view (remember a 50mm lens on a crop camera will only “see” the field of view of approximately an 80mm on a full frame – see our blog article on focal lengths here for clarification). Otherwise, this formula shows that depth of field is unaffected by sensor size if aperture, focal length, and distances are kept constant.
How do you get wider depth of field?
Wide or deep depth of field results in a much larger area (front to back) of the image being in focus. Basically by doing the opposite of any of the above, one can accomplish a wider depth of field. Using a shorter focal length (for example switching from an 85mm to a 50mm) or setting a larger aperture (from f/5.6 to f/11) will increase the size of the depth of field and make it deeper. The next set of images show the results of changing the focal length.
I remained stationary, but used the zoom on my lens to change the focal length from 18mm to 400mm (these images were also cropped to fit together). The shorter focal length in the first image creates a wider depth of field. The iron door is clear and the door knob appears mostly focused. In the middle image, the depth of field is narrowing. By the time I zoomed all the way in for the last image, the depth of field has become much more narrow and the only part that is really in focus is the solitary flower.
Changing the distance between camera and subject will also change the depth of field. If the subject is placed closer to the camera the depth of field is smaller. When you want to blur the background the subject should be closer to the camera, but keep some space between the subject and the background. If the subject is placed closer to the background, and the camera is moved farther away, the depth of field will be wider. In the example above, if I had remained in position after the third image and had moved the flower arrangement farther away from me (moving the subject farther from the camera), then the depth of field would have gotten wider again.
How is shallow depth of field used as a compositional tool?
In portrait photography, shallow depth of field creates that soft bokeh or blurry background behind the person (and sometimes in front of the person as well). The blur can give a photo a moody look or be used to create a dreamy, mysterious, or romantic “feel.” Additionally, the blur is sometimes used for an abstract effect.
The selective blur creates dimension and reduces distractions from the background. Since our eyes are drawn to and gravitate towards areas in focus, creating a composition where only some of the image is in focus allows the viewer to be guided to the subject. In portrait photography it is considered an important standard practice that the most crisp focus point be on the eyes.
Blur in the foreground can also remove distractions that are in front of the subject, like fencing around a cage, allowing the focus to be on what is beyond. In this image below, the wire fencing on the bird enclosure "disappears" and I am able to shoot "though it" even though my lens was several feet on the other side and the lens glass far too large to put between the wires.
Shallow depth of field is most often used in the genres of portrait, nature, travel, and to some extent street photography. With street photography, too much blur will take the subject out of context and the story behind the image can be lost.
How is wide depth of field used as a compositional tool?
Wide depth of field is desirable for landscape photography especially. This is where understanding hyperfocal distance becomes important.
Hyperfocal distance, in a nutshell, is the point in the foreground that is the closest point the camera can focus while still having acceptably sharp image quality throughout the rest of the image to “infinity” (which is the background or horizon in most images) In other words, it is the point of focus that will yield the greatest depth of field.
The hyperfocal distance point does not create an equal amount of focus in front of and behind the focus point. Typically, 1/3rd of the range of focus will be in front of the point and 2/3rds will be behind that point.
For a detailed look at hyperfocal distance and how to make calculations in the field, check out our hyperfocal distance blog next month.
There are hyperfocal distance charts and apps (like DoF Table, Digital DoF, and PhotoPills) that can provide a good starting point for reference, but they are not always accurate and they are one-size-fits-all, not taking into account the actual scene. Some lenses also include markings on the side of the lens barrel that give you these calculations, but the easiest method is using the approximation method of “double the distance.”
How do I use “double the distance?”
A very simplistic way to achieve equal sharpness in the foreground and background is to use a method called “double the distance.” Find the closest object or element in your composition and determine (approximately – exact accuracy is not necessary) how far away it is from the camera sensor (not the end of the lens). Then double that distance and focus at that point. For example, in the image below, if the closest rock that needs to be in focus is 10 feet away, then make the focus point 20 feet away (where the water ripples are). Use a small aperture (large f/number). Use live view if available on the camera and use it zoomed in. This method does require some practice at estimating distances, but can be quite effective and efficient once one gets the hang of it.
Keep in mind that depth of field increases with smaller apertures, so if the closest object is not in focus at a certain aperture, then one may have to adjust the aperture. For example, if the camera is set up using a 35mm lens and the closest object that needs to be in focus is 8 feet away (focus point 16 feet away) and f/8 is not working, increase the f/stop to f/11 or f/16 to bring the focus closer (increased depth of field). Other adjustments may then be required to shutter speed and ISO, so an understanding of the exposure triangle is also essential to achieving the desired outcome.
Image by strikers on Pixabay.
What is the take-away?
In summary, manipulating the depth of field is a compositional tool used by photographers in many genres. It is typically accomplished by changing the aperture of the lens, the lens focal length, or the positioning of the subject and background along with the positioning of the camera.
A shallow depth of field creates a nice blur effect in front of and behind the subject which results in a softer or more abstract feel, whereas, a wide depth of field has crisper focus throughout the image from front to back.
Knowing the calculations or keeping a focus distance chart is not necessary. An understanding of the exposure triangle, and the effects of focal length and aperture settings on your specific camera are essential. Practicing with your camera and lens in different settings is the best way to see the effects on depth of field in practice.
For improved landscape photography, narrow the aperture and use the “double the distance” method to get a wider depth of field. For portraits and flower blossom, put space between the subject and background and use a wider aperture or a longer focal length, or shoot in close range of the subject.
With an understanding of these basics, one will be ready to move on to a more detailed look at hyperfocal distance, or some practice with other compositional tools.
Composition is essentially an art form. It is the way you frame or arrange an image and it is critical to the outcome – whether that image is just good or great! A set of rules for good composition exists, yet it is still at best subjective, and great photographic images break these rules all the time. The best advice is to know the rules, so then you are aware when you are breaking a rule and can decide if that will, in fact, make your image better. Aside from the “rules” there are a couple of general photography guidelines that will also help you. Let’s start with those…
First, know how to properly hold your camera by using the grip with one hand and support under the camera with the other hand. You can have perfect composition and still have blur if you don’t hold your camera correctly. Even better, use a tripod. Many people believe that using a tripod will “mess up” their freedom and limit their creativity. I find the opposite to be true. Using a tripod forces you to slow down and think about positioning (which is critical to several of the composition rules). Where should the tripod go? Closer? Should I lower the height? Should I raise it? Should I rotate the entire set up to shoot from a different side? Should I rotate the camera from landscape to portrait? The worst thing you can do is always shoot in the same mode from the same distances using the same orientation! If your camera has a zoom lens or interchangeable lens system then slowing down also forces you to think about those options. In my experience, I am more apt to play with camera settings when I am on a tripod as well.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” -- Ansel Adams
Second, learn to see what the camera actually sees. Look through the viewfinder (preferable to LCD screen in my opinion). Don’t just look for the subject. Look at everything else. Look for distractions you don’t want to see in the photo like wires, cars, poles, or really bright light sources that could create flares or exposure issues. Good composition emphasizes the subject. If other aspects of the photo compete for attention, then that is not good. Also, remember, that when you look out at the world, your eyes are much more powerful and capable of more impressive color ranges and light ranges than even the most expensive camera sensors. You will not always be able to capture what you see in your camera – and that is okay! Know when to capture the memory instead.
Third, understand the basics of lighting and your camera modes (including the “exposure triangle”). Automatic shooting modes will have a difficult time capturing your “vision” so you will need to know how to use Manual mode, or other modes based on shutter speed and aperture. Read a few articles or tutorials about the best times of day for lighting your specific subject and try to practice during those times (for example, many portrait photographers use the hours just before sunset, known as the golden hour). As a general rule, avoid harsh sunlight which can create large shadows and washed out colors.
Okay, so with those three basics plus your passion for photography, you are ready to learn composition. The elements of composition will not all be present at all time in every shooting scenario, even in controlled studio environments. Use what you have available for each image.
Pay Attention to Form, Patterns, and Textures
What you are photographing has 3 dimensions, yet we are putting it into a 2 dimensional product. Move around your subject so that the form shows clearly. Side light (early morning or later afternoon and evening) provides shadows that help show form. Look for patterns – the row of slats in a picket fence for example. Then look for breaks in the pattern. Patterns appear in many man-made objects and places, but they exist in nature as well. Examine textures of what you are photographing. The material that something is made of will have a texture, whether that be rough or smooth. Nature has textures too, like the bark of a tree. Using forms, patterns, and textures will give your images depth, which is a good thing!
Look for Balance (Symmetry vs. Asymmetry)
A good photographic composition has balance.The image does not feel “weighted” to one side. Portrait photographers balance their photos when they arrange groups of people. Symmetry creates balance because the photograph will have basically the same or very similar scenes on both halves of the image. Asymmetric photos will still have a balance, but the scenes will be of different subjects.The balance is created by the size of objects, their distance, and their color.Darker objects in the front of an image are “heavier” than lighter colored objects in the background. Examine your image, before you snap it, through the viewfinder and check for good balance.
Visually Check for Lines, Curves, and Frames
This is where the most famous photography rule comes into play – The Rule of Thirds. The rule of thirds means to imagine lines dividing the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Then placing important aspects of your subject on those lines and their intersections. However, the Rule of Thirds lines are not the only lines to think about. In landscape photography the horizon is also an important line!
Lines are not always straight. Sometimes they are curved. Think about those beautiful scenic photos with the curving roads through the mountains. The most famous curved line that occurs in nature is the Fibonacci sequence. Some post production editing programs offer overlays of different types of lines and patterns so you can find one that works for your images.
Lines of any type, whether straight or curved lead our eyes. These types of lines are also known as “leading lines.” They force our eyes to move around the image. The curved (or straight) path through the forest leads our eyes through the forest.
When lines converge or surround a subject, they also create what is known as frames. Frames can be man-made, like windows or doorways, or natural like a stone arch or tree trunks. Use the lines and curves in your image to emphasize the subject. If the lines and curves are all over the place, try a different position. Make sure tree trunks are not “growing” out of people’s heads!
Find Opportunities to Use Contrast, Color, and Shapes
Visual contrast can really increase the excitement in your images. Visual contrast can be based in light versus dark (using color or black and white). Look for areas in the image that are light versus those areas that are in shadow. Try experimenting with silhouettes, or a portrait of a person standing at a window. Consider the same for color, or tonal contrast. Are there areas of light color that are in contrast with areas of darker colors? Contrast can also be used with shapes. Clouds, the sun, and the moon, are often photographed as shapes in contrast to their surroundings. Rock formations are also popular shapes that have contrast with their surroundings. Size can also provide visual contrast in an image. Small objects next to larger objects really show scale and can inspire awe!
Check Your Viewpoint
One of the most overlooked ways to improve composition is to simply change your viewpoint. Get down lower! Go up higher! Rotate around for a different angle! Actually getting down on the ground to shoot a small subject or to shoot up at larger objects can provide fascinating new perspectives. This is sometimes called “worm’s eye view.” Getting above and shooting down can do the same! So go higher. This is sometimes called “bird’s eye view.” Drone photography is a very popular new form of changing your viewpoint.
Consider the Space (Negative vs. Filled and Foreground vs. Background)
Look through that viewfinder again. Locate your main subject and then check the background. What is behind it? Is it distracting? Are there telephone wires? Bright colors that compete for attention? Then do the same for the foreground. What is immediately in front of your subject? Does it attract our eyes away from the subject?
Think of the background, foreground, and your subject (mid-ground) in a way similar to the rule of thirds. Only this time instead of using the concept as lines for focusing attention, think of the areas as the three dimensional spaces that they are.
The foreground is the distance from the camera to the subject and the background is the distance from the subject to the vanishing point or horizon. These are not necessarily equal thirds. We want to use these spaces to show the viewer the dimensionality of our image. Photographic prints basically compress the image into 2D so we need our subject to appear 3D. Therefore, the foreground and background should not be completely empty. Something needs to be there, even if the background is indistinguishable because it is blurred out (see Depth of Field next). Whatever we use in the background and foreground should not be distracting, as already discussed above.
Use Appropriate Depth of Field
Depth of Field is a tricky concept because you will have to understand your lens focal lengths and aperture settings. You may need to do some additional reading on these concepts. (See my blog post about Focal Lengths). You will hear photographers talk about shallow or narrow depth of field and deep or greater depth of field. Depth of field is, in a nutshell, how much of your image is in focus.In a landscape scene you would need everything, from front to back, all in focus. This means you want deep or greater depth of field.You will need higher aperture settings to accomplish this. For a portrait, or picture of a single flower, you would want your subject in focus, but everything else to be blurred or softly focused which is shallow depth of field.Lower aperture settings are used to accomplish this.
Depth of field is an important compositional tool because you determine what the viewer will look at by deciding what areas will be in focus.The brain naturally tends to ignore areas that are out of focus and instead attends to the areas that are in focus.Decide which level of depth you need before you shoot and then experiment with different aperture settings.Try using aperture priority mode on your camera and photograph the same person or subject at f/5.6 (or lower if you lens allows), f/11, and f/22 (or its highest setting) and see how the focus range changes.
One final tip… Study the Masters
Most of the compositional elements in photography were developed in the art world of painters. These experts have given us hundreds of years of examples of compositional techniques that make people want to stare a paintings for hours and wait in long lines to see them. They use the same techniques of leading lines, repetition of patterns, symmetry and balance, curves, and contrasts to make their works feel three dimensional and compelling.
Fortunately, composition techniques can be learned! Great composition takes observation, patience, and practice, but most importantly, can be accomplished no matter what level of photographer you are or which equipment you use. That’s the fantastic part of photography, anyone can get a prize winning photo!
Want more Composition Basics? Consider our Text Message Class -- $5 for one month of lessons and hands-on activities.
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