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By now you should be pretty comfortable with the understanding that wider apertures yield shallower depth of field. But think about this. This is kind of our fortune cookie moment here. If a tree in the forest is out of focus because of shallow depth of field and no one is around to see it, is it actually out of focus? Here is what I'm taking about and why this is relevant. Things in the background appear softer when you're using a wide aperture but if there isn't anything in the background or if what's in the background is really small, then you're not really going to be able to tell that you're shooting with shallow depth of field, now are you? Usually the point of shooting with shallow depth of field is to blur the background out to bring more attention to your subject.
But if there is nothing in your background, it won't really matter what aperture you are at because you won't be able to see that anything in the frame is defocused. So when you're trying to achieve shallow depth of field you need to think a lot about camera position and focal length. As you've seen, this sense of depth in your scene changes as you move your camera closer to and farther away from your subject. You can choose the camera position and focal length that make your background appear closer or farther. If you're trying to achieve an image with shallow depth of field, you'll be better served by standing farther from your subject and using a more telephoto lens, because background objects will be rendered larger than when you use a wide angle lens and stand close to your subject.
If the background is larger, defocusing of the background will be more obvious. Here is an example. Here is a shot taken while standing fairly close to the subject using a wide-angle lens. Yes, the background is a little soft but this image doesn't have that shallow depth of field that makes the background appear really thrown into blurriness. Here I moved back and zoomed into a longer focal length and frames to make the background larger. This image looks like it has shallower depth of field. In fact the amount of softening in the background in both images is identical, but because the mountain appears closer, it's easier to see that it's out of focus.
If you'd like to see a more detailed discussion of this example and watch while I actually take these shots, check out the Foundations of Photography: Exposure course, more specifically Chapter 5, movie 6.
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