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How-to's

Release your inner artist: Break the "P" barrier

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg)


Keywords: basics, modes, iso, shutter, aperture, exposure, depth_of_field, settings

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Depth Of Field

You might be asking yourself exactly why any of this matters. What difference does it make if the lens opening is small or large? How does this affect anything? The answer to that is something called “depth of field.” Remember our mention of "different appearances" in the final image? This is one of those effects.

Depth of field is the area that remains in focus in front of and behind the distance you have set your lens to focus at. A lens only focuses on one set distance. You can see this distance on the focus ring of your lens. The aperture you set affects this depth of field:

 

  • The lower the f/stop, the larger the opening in the lens, and the LESS depth of field you have.
  • The higher the f/stop, the smaller the opening in the lens, and the MORE depth of field you have.

 

This is very crucial to making photos look the way you want them to. By controlling your aperture through Aperture Priority mode, you control what parts of your image are in or out of focus.

It might be counter-intuitive, but you don’t necessarily want everything to always be in focus in a photo. It depends on the subject matter. You generally want the main subject matter of your photo to be in sharp focus, and you want other items that may distract from your subject to be out of focus.

For example, if you are taking a portrait photo, you want to have the background be less in focus. If the background is in focus, it distracts from the portrait. In this case you want to open up the lens as wide as possible to get narrow depth of field, and keeping only the person in focus and the center of attention.

Nikon 135mm DC lens - Aperture f/16

Figure 3. Taken with the Nikon 135mm DC lens. Stopped down to f/16, there is a large depth of field. The background and the subject are competing with each other for attention. The background is just a yard plant.
Click on the image for larger view.

Nikon 135mm DC lens sample photo - Aperture f/2

Figure 4. Using the same lens and basic position. The aperture is opened up to f/2, and the depth of field is shallow. The background changes to a smooth blur, and the focus of attention is put on the subject directly. Note that even the rear shoulder is no longer in focus.
Click on the image for larger view.

Conversely, if you are taking a landscape photo, you often want to have much more of the image in focus, as the entire location is what you want to present as the focal point of the image. In this case, you stop down the lens to a smaller aperture to increase your depth of field, giving you more areas of the image that is in focus.

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 landscape

Figure 5. This landscape image was taken with a Tokina 11-16mm at f/2.8. It has very shallow depth of field. The rocks at the bottom of the image are in focus, but the rest of it is not.
Click on the image for larger view.

Tokina 11-16mm f/16 landscape

Figure 6. Using the same lens, focus, and basic position. However, the lens is stopped down to f/16. The depth of field is made larger, and more of the image is now in focus.
Click on the image for larger view.

f/2.8 landscape

Figure 7. A different landscape photo, using f/2.8. This time, a shallower depth of field is used to focus on this particular branch, and the foreground and background intentionally appear out of focus. There are no hard and fast rules; it all depends on how you want your photo to appear.
Click on the image for larger view.

Different lens types will have different depth of fields. A wide-angle lens will usually have more depth of field than a telephoto lens, and some macro lenses have very small depth of fields, as little as a few millimeters. Depth of field is one of the reasons you would choose one lens over another in a given situation.  Generally, wide-angle lenses are good for landscape photos, and telephoto lenses are better for portraits.

Between the two extremes of having very shallow depth of field and very large depth of field, there are other choices that might look better to you as well; all dependent on how you want your image to look. Each situation presents different challenges to you in creating the most compelling image.

(24 Votes )
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Originally written on April 30, 2015

Last updated on July 9, 2015

Jon Nadelberg Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg)

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

Foster City, USA
Basic, 205 posts

14 comments

David H Dennis (davidhdennis) on May 21, 2016

If lighting conditions are changing, aperture or shutter priority mode may not be the best way to proceed, because the camera may need to adjust exposure past the boundaries you have set. I almost always take pictures of things happening in front of me for which I may not have time to precisely prepare. The bird is about to take off! The girl gives me an enchanting smile! Those moments may be over if I have to hesitate to correct exposure. So I like using program mode with creative control. Nikon DSLRs have a rotary control in back of the camera on the top right side. If you are in program mode, you can rotate that control left to increase the aperture and decrease the shutter speed, or right for the reverse. So if I want to maximize depth of field, as when I am shooting butterflies or other insects, I rotate the knob left. If I want to increase depth of field, as in separating out people or tree branches from the background, I move the knob right. In the mean time, if I'm suddenly shooting in a bright place form a dim one or vice versa, the camera will automatically override me if my settings would make things totally out of whack. Of course there are times when you absolutely need to force aperture or shutter speed to a specific value. For example, I use f/2.8 lenses. When shooting video, I need a wide depth of field range so I can shoot with manual focus. Otherwise the autofocus constantly switches, making horrible looking video. So I force aperture to f/5.6-8 using Aperture Priority. The really important thing, I believe, is to understand your camera and the impacts of various apertures and shutter speeds on focus. I really like the pictures the writer of this article took that show those effects very well. Hope that was of interest.

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on October 19, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

Art is in the eye of the beholder. I can't really speak to how to make something more artistic.

victor benedicto (benedicto) on August 11, 2015

HI. nice technical informative article. Maybe to get to the artistic side of photography, can you add some tips on how to make a foto artistic. Thanks. ( just signed up.)

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on May 13, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

That is all this is about. When I got my first camera, it was pretty much all manual. Manual focus, you had to set shutter speed and aperture. It was a Minolta SRT 202 (long since stolen, but I have a SRT 101 now. Fifty years old and still works!). You can't understand what to do in photography unless you turn off program mode, or worse some of these automatic modes, and set the camera yourself. The problem is the cameras are becoming so good, that they really know how to take pictures. Other than changing lenses, there is little difference between an SLR and a point and shoot. The simplest DSLR, say a D3100, can do so very much more. And people are always asking about "Why does my picture not look right." Of course most people reading this are going to know, but a lot, even those looking at this site and others, aren't going to know. I think it is important that articles like this, while very basic, are put out there so that people can understand the things that at one time were part and parcel of just using a camera. If I got a new camera today, I would have no clue how to move forward, nor would I understand what is going on with it. That is simply not any good. We have automated ourselves into helplessness. We should never forget that everyone has to learn, and that no one comes by photography with an innate understanding of how it works. It is not intuitive, but on the other hand it doesn't take a college class to learn. Just a few pointers and a bit of thought.

Mindaugas Pangonis (Hugatree) on May 12, 2015

Great simple article! Back to basics and encourages to think instead of leaving it all to robot within the camera :)

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 10, 2015

Thank you, Jon. You've made this very clear. I appreciate your time. Not sure how I got off-course, but you've helped immensely. (I had used spot to meter various areas. Perhaps I should let the camera have a go at it, and compare the mode using aperture or shutter priority.) Thanks again. You write very clearly and concisely. –Jan

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on May 9, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

If you put your camera in manual mode then the camera does not set the exposure, you do. However, the camera still has a light meter on it, and will recommend what it thinks is the proper exposure based on the metering type. It will report back this information in the meter display in the viewfinder and other displays for your camera. So, yes, it has no direct effect because in manual mode it is not setting your exposure. However, it is telling you what it thinks is the proper exposure, which is information you can either use or ignore. What it is going to tell you is based on whether you have chosen spot, center-weighted, or matrix metering modes. If you want to expose your image, you can do one of three things, use the camera light meter, an off camera light meter, or take a guess based on things like the sunny 16 rule. From that information, you can then make whatever changes you want based on the conditions at the time, and what you wish your photograph to look like. None of these metering types affect your image in manual mode, because the camera is not setting your exposure. The only effect these modes then have is in telling you what it thinks would be the proper exposure. I hope that makes sense.

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 9, 2015

Sorry. You answer my query here: "Manual mode. You choose both the shutter speed and aperture. In this mode, the camera may give you some feedback as to whether it thinks you are exposing the image correctly, but it takes no other action."

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 9, 2015

Aha. I think I've lost the dispute. Darrell Young, in his "Master the Nikon D810” book, refers to manual mode in Chapter 8. Thanks.

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 9, 2015

Thank you for your article. Perhaps you could help to settle a dispute? I shoot in RAW manual mode —now using a D810. An older and more experienced photographer than I, by several decades, states that using matrix, center-weighted, spot, or the highlight-weighted metering has no effect when shooting in manual mode. Is he correct? (If you referred to this in your article, I missed it. I apologize.)

User on May 7, 2015

Very good article. I typically shoot in manual mode (Nikon D5100), but I have experimented with the Aperture and Shutter priority settings on occasions. I get some awesome results in any of these modes. This article will encourage me to experiment more with A and P modes.

Owen De (rjpg) on May 4, 2015

As a new "Nikonian" I thought this article was very helpful. Will be using all of these techniques.

User on May 3, 2015

Easy information to understand and useful no matter what level of photographer you are.

User on May 3, 2015

Great information. I just got a D3300 a few months ago and have been experimenting with the modes other than auto. This article will help to transition beyond auto

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