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Depth of Field: A Simple Explanation

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When I first got into photography, the phrase “depth of field” used to really throw me. It all seemed so backwards to me, “shallow depth of field” and “deep depth of field”. What does all of that mean? If you look it up, you’ll find a lot of pages that get into a lot of really technical details about lenses and optics, but most likely you found this page because you just want to know what “shallow” vs. “deep” means. Here you go:

Shallow depth of field – this means that whatever is in front of your camera’s lens has a small portion that will be in focus. Everything else will be blurry. Imagine a picture of someone in front of trees. The person is in focus, the trees are blurry. That’s shallow depth of field.

Deep depth of field – this means that whatever is in front of your camera’s lens has a large area that’s in focus. So imagine a person in front of trees and both the person and the trees are in focus. That’s deep depth of field.

Here’s how to easily break the terminology down:

The “field” in “depth of field” is everything that your camera is pointing at. ┬áThe “depth” is simply “how much of the stuff my camera is pointing at is in focus?”

Here are a couple of examples. First, shallow depth of field:


An example showing shallow depth of field.

In the photo above, the background elements have been blurred out. The foreground elements are in focus. So in this case, you have a “shallow depth of field” because out of all of the elements in the photo, only the foreground is in focus. The camera only focused a few feet in front of it, which was a small (or shallow) amount.

Here’s an example of deep depth of field:


An example showing deep depth of field.

In the example above, the foreground is in focus, but the background also is (for the most part). This is an example of “deep” depth of field, because the camera was able to focus on both the foreground and a good deal of the background, which was a much larger (or deeper) amount.

Hopefully this cleared things up a bit for you if you were confused. I intentionally didn’t get into all the technical jargon here. I just wanted to explain what the terminology means. If you want to read up a little bit on how you can use f stops to achieve different types of depth of field, check out this post I wrote on the subject.


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