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As I have mentioned before, depth of field is the third dimension of composition. With it you guide your viewer to what you think is important. How you use it also affects the message in your photograph. To demonstrate, I've set up a simple still life in the studio. I have connected my camera to the monitor, so that you can see in real time what my camera is seeing. Remember that focal length, aperture, and distance to the subject determines depth of field.
For the demonstration, I'll be using a 100 macro lens and varying the aperture and distance to the subject. I'll be taking several photos. Now you'll see we have a rather unique background here that will come into play later in this movie when we talk about bokeh. For our first shot, I want a great depth of field, so I will be shooting an f/22 from 10 feet away. Everything is sharp in the frame, including the flowers and the background.
Now my aperture is 2.8, and I will take another shot. You can see the background is a little softer this time, but still you can make out the shapes. Here they are, side by side. There is definitely a visible difference, but nothing too significant. Now I've repositioned the camera, so I can show you how distance affects depth of field. I am a foot away from the calla lilies. I will shoot this at f/22.
The flower is in focus, and the green fern is pretty sharp. This time I've changed my aperture to 2.8. This composition sings. All of the soft creamy lines bring you right back to the one thing that is in focus. Even the fern has been reduced to a soft line of green. Now let's compare all four of them. The aperture made less difference in the first set of pictures where the distance between the flowers and camera was 10 feet.
In the second series we are much closer, only a foot away. Because of this you can really see the difference when I changed my aperture from 22 to 2.8. Now keep in mind, I was using a prime lens for this demo. Had I been using a zoom lens, I could have remained in the original position, zoomed in, and achieved a shallower depth of field as well. So remember, it's not just your aperture that affects your depth of field; your focal length and distance from the subject also play a role. And now, the moment you have been waiting for, bokeh.
Bokeh is simply the quality of blur in your photos. Out-of-focus shapes and lines can actually help or hurt the photo. Bokeh is affected by the mechanics of your lens, the lighting, the aperture, and the background and foreground shapes. Let's check it out. Even at 2.8 I can't get rid of this distracting background. Rigid patterns like this play havoc with your bokeh. This really doesn't work for me.
Now we will use this other background and see what we get. Broader shapes create pleasing bokeh that add complexity to the image. Look at the two, side by side. Which one do you prefer? Don't think that bokeh is used only in still-life compositions; look at the beautiful bokeh in this shot of the bear standing in a field. The texture of the grass gradually blurs until it becomes a palette of soft colors.
That bank of color holds the composition of the photograph together. Or this portrait of a girl. I wanted her face to be the center of attention, so I shot with a 200-millimeter lens at f/4. I moved until I was able to place her face so it was surrounded by beautiful creamy color. And do you see the subtle diagonal line that blurred grass makes? It helps to lead you through the frame. Through thoughtful manipulation of the depth of field, I took a simple situation and created a compelling portrait, and you can too.
Just remember to look at all things in front of and behind your subject. Figure out if they help or hurt your photograph. Decide if you want them sharp or out of focus and then adjust your camera accordingly. Controlling your depth of field is yet another powerful tool to help you create more effective photographs.
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