How to Get More Depth in Your Photos

by Jon on January 20, 2011

One of things new photographers seem to ask most of all is how they can get more depth in their photos.

What they’re referring to is depth of field, and it’s what happens when the subject of a photo is in focus while everything behind (and sometimes in front) is blurry. Portrait photographers use depth of field to bring attention to their subject, since the background is a lot less distracting when it’s softened and out of focus.

Hookahs lined up at an Abu Dhabi bar (credit: JK).

So if you’re new to this depth of field thing, how can you get the most out of it? That’s what this article is about.

Distance from the background

If your subject is a long way from the background, your camera will have no choice but to let the background fall out of focus while it focuses on the subject. This is especially easy if the subject is a person, since you can bribe them to stand wherever you like. If you have a point-and-shoot or compact camera, which doesn’t have the option for you to mess with the aperture setting, this might be your only option.

Aperture Priority mode

If you have a dSLR you can switch to this semi-auto mode (usually represented by A or Av), which will help you get depth of field effects while the camera does most of the work. Aperture priority means you set the aperture (remember: smaller f-number means smaller depth of field) and the camera handles everything else – setting the appropriate shutter speed, for example – that it needs to get a correctly-exposed shot. Try setting your aperture as low as possible, then shoot some subjects that are far from their backgrounds. You should see the effect immediately. If this is your first tentative step away from full auto, don’t worry – you’ll soon wonder how you ever lived without this mode.

Railroad ties in an abandoned railyard in Seattle (credit: JK).

Fast lenses make it easy…

The faster your lens, the more easy it’ll be to achieve the depth effect, and the more pronounced you can make it. Why? ‘Fast’ means capable of shooting with a wider aperture, which means a shallower or ‘tighter’ depth of field – that means the fall-off between what’s in focus and what’s not will be more extreme. More explanation about ‘fast lenses’ here. Canon’s 50mm f1.8 is a good example: f1.8 is reasonably fast, and for a lens this one’s not expensive by any standards (here’s the Nikon equivalent).

… and zoom lenses do too.

If you have a zoom lens, try shooting your subject from further off, but zoomed right in. At maximum zoom you’ll have a smaller aperture (larger f-stop = larger DoF) but the zoom effect will push the background even further out and you’ll still see the effect. Again, the faster the lens, the more pronounced the effect will be.

Ultimately the best thing you can do is to experiment with whatever lenses you have, and try one or more of the techniques here to see how it affects your photos. Getting more depth in your photography not a difficult thing to do, but once you realize how best to make it happen you’ll immediately see a difference to the photos you take.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Marcel July 14, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Alternatively, wait for this to hit the shelves – then you can focus AFTER you’ve taken the picture!


Jon July 16, 2011 at 9:03 am

Hi Marcel, I read about that too. Really interesting technology – if they can bring it within reach of consumers it’ll definitely change the face of photography. For better or worse – who knows.


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