Close-ups, Long Lenses and Depth of Field

Slightly Blurry Background Vs. Extremely Blurry Background: Experiment!

by Kerry Drager

When it comes to a choice between a slightly blurred background and an extremely blurry one, it pays to experiment!

The term "Depth of Field" describes the range of sharpness in a scene that has depth (both a foreground and background). One "rule" is that you get more DOF with a small aperture (high f/number) than with a wide aperture (low f/number), but it's not always so simple! With DOF, lens focal length, distance to subject, and other elements also come into play.

In fact, when shooting close-ups with a telephoto lens or a macro lens, it's pretty much impossible to get both a close foreground and a relatively distant background sharp at the same time, even with the use of a high f/number. With the accompanying rural springtime scene, background blurriness - i.e., the amount of it - was the "issue".

In these images, I used a long telephoto lens and focused directly on the close-up fence post. I did want to keep the fence post and some of the wire sharp, so I avoided a super-wide aperture (low f/number). I chose to "compromise" with two images - the same composition but with a high f/number and with a not-so-high f/number. I like both versions! With my D-SLR, I previewed the DOF before shooting ... via Depth of Field Preview. But if your digital camera doesn't have this feature, no problem: You can check the LCD monitor after shooting.

More DOF<br>Spring in the Country 1
More DOF
Spring in the Country 1

© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
More Depth of Field: Spring in the Country 1: overcast light; 300mm lens; f22 at 1/4 sec for less-blurred background; ISO 100; tripod with cable release


Less DOF<br>Spring in the Country 2
Less DOF
Spring in the Country 2

© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
Less Depth of Field: Spring in Country 2: overcast light; 300mm lens; f11 at 1/15th sec for more-blurred background while still keeping fence post and some of wire as sharp as possible; ISO 100; tripod with cable release


Note #1: These two images were shot in my neighbor's field out in the Northern California countryside. I had waited a couple of weeks for the pleasingly soft-and-even light of overcast. It's a good thing I did, but unknown to me, my neighbor had plans of his own for that day: Just hours after I shot this scene, he plowed his field ... so no more wildflowers! :-(

Note #2: Here's a good exercise if DOF doesn't quite make sense: Compose a scene with both a very close foreground and a distant background. Set your focus on the foreground subject. Then, with your camera set on Aperture Priority, shoot three images - one with your lowest f/number, another with your highest f/number, and a third with an f/number in between. Again, for all images, keep the same composition (a tripod is a must), the same focusing point and the same f/number (in Aperture Priority, the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed). With this exercise, DOF will definitely come into clearer focus!


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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
The content manager and course advisor for BetterPhoto.com, Kerry Drager is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography (2011) and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light (2012). In addition, he teaches photography online at BetterPhoto's digital photography school.

Be sure to check out Kerry's Pro BetterPholio website - www.kerrydrager.com.

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also see his Visual Creativity photography blog, and follow Kerry on Facebook.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.