Talking about Depth of Field in Photography

Critical focus can be achieved for only one plane in front of the camera, and all objects in this plane will be sharp. In addition, there will be an area just in front of and behind this plane that will appear reasonably sharp (according to the standards of sharpness required for the particular photograph and the degree of enlargement of the negative). This total region of adequate focus represents the depth of field.

For some images, such as landscapes, a large DOF may be appropriate, while for others, such as portraits, a small DOF may be more effective.

The DOF is determined by the subject distance (that is, the distance to the plane that is perfectly in focus), the lens focal length, and the lens f-number (relative aperture). Except at close-up distances, DOF is approximately determined by the subject magnification and the lens f-number. For a given f-number, increasing the magnification, either by moving closer to the subject or using a lens of greater focal length, decreases the DOF; decreasing magnification increases DOF. For a given subject magnification, increasing the f-number (decreasing the aperture diameter) increases the DOF; decreasing f-number decreases DOF.

When focus is set to the hyperfocal distance, the DOF extends from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity, and is the largest DOF possible for a given f-number.

The advent of digital technology in photography has provided additional means of controlling the extent of image sharpness; some methods allow DOF that would be impossible with traditional techniques, and some allow the DOF to be determined after the image is made.

Shallow depth of field
A macro photograph with very shallow depth of field.
Effect of aperture on blur and DOF. The points in focus (2) project points onto the image plane (5), but points at different distances (1 and 3) project blurred images, or circles of confusion. Decreasing the aperture size (4) reduces the size of the blur circles for points not in the focused plane, so that the blurring is imperceptible, and all points are within the DOF.Contents

Apparent sharpness

Precise focus is possible at only one distance; at that distance, a point object will produce a point image. At any other distance, a point object is defocused, and will produce a blur spot shaped like the aperture, which for the purpose of analysis is usually assumed to be circular. When this circular spot is sufficiently small, it is indistinguishable from a point, and appears to be in focus; it is rendered as “acceptably sharp”. The diameter of the circle increases with distance from the point of focus; the largest circle that is indistinguishable from a point is known as the acceptable circle of confusion, or informally, simply as the circle of confusion. The acceptable circle of confusion is influenced by visual acuity, viewing conditions, and the amount by which the image is enlarged (Ray 2000, 52–53). The increase of the circle diameter with defocus is gradual, so the limits of depth of field are not hard boundaries between sharp and unsharp.

Several other factors, such as subject matter, movement, and the distance of the subject from the camera, also influence when a given defocus becomes noticeable.

The area within the depth of field appears sharp, while the areas in front of and beyond the depth of field appear blurry. For a 35 mm motion picture, the image area on the negative is roughly 22 mm by 16 mm (0.87 in by 0.63 in). The limit of tolerable error is usually set at 0.05 mm (0.002 in) diameter. For 16 mm film, where the image area is smaller, the tolerance is stricter, 0.025 mm (0.001 in). Standard depth-of-field tables are constructed on this basis, although generally 35 mm productions set it at 0.025 mm (0.001 in). Note that the acceptable circle of confusion values for these formats are different because of the relative amount of magnification each format will need in order to be projected on a full-sized movie screen.

(A table for 35 mm still photography would be somewhat different since more of the film is used for each image and the amount of enlargement is usually much less.)

A 35 mm lens set to f/11. The depth-of-field scale (top) indicates that a subject which is anywhere between 1 and 2 meters in front of the camera will be rendered acceptably sharp. If the aperture were set to f/22 instead, everything from 0.7 meters to infinity would appear to be in focus.The image format size also will affect the depth of field. The larger the format size, the longer a lens will need to be to capture the same framing as a smaller format. In motion pictures, for example, a frame with a 12 degree horizontal field of view will require a 50 mm lens on 16 mm film, a 100 mm lens on 35 mm film, and a 250 mm lens on 65 mm film. Conversely, using the same focal length lens with each of these formats will yield a progressively wider image as the film format gets larger: a 50 mm lens has a horizontal field of view of 12 degrees on 16 mm film, 23.6 degrees on 35 mm film, and 55.6 degrees on 65 mm film. What this all means is that because the larger formats require longer lenses than the smaller ones, they will accordingly have a smaller depth of field. Therefore, compensations in exposure, framing, or subject distance need to be made in order to make one format look like it was filmed in another format. f/22 f/8 f/4 f/2.8 Above: DOF at various apertures ——————————

At f/32, the background is distracting. At f/5.6, the flowers are isolated from the background. At f/2.8, the cat is isolated from the background. Above: Selective focus

Effect of lens aperture

For a given subject framing and camera position, the DOF is controlled by the lens aperture diameter, which is usually specified as the f-number, the ratio of lens focal length to aperture diameter. Reducing the aperture diameter (increasing the f-number) increases the DOF; however, it also reduces the amount of light transmitted, and increases diffraction, placing a practical limit on the extent to which DOF can be increased by reducing the aperture diameter.

Motion pictures make only limited use of this control; to produce a consistent image quality from shot to shot, cinematographers usually choose a single aperture setting for interiors and another for exteriors, and adjust exposure through the use of camera filters or light levels. Aperture settings are adjusted more frequently in still photography, where variations in depth of field are used to produce a variety of special effects.

Obtaining maximum DOF

Lens DOF scales

Many lenses for small- and medium-format cameras include scales that indicate the DOF for a given focus distance and f-number; the 35 mm lens in the image above is typical. That lens includes distance scales in feet and meters; when a marked distance is set opposite the large white index mark, the focus is set to that distance. The DOF scale below the distance scales includes markings on either side of the index that correspond to f-numbers; when the lens is set to a given f-number, the DOF extends between the distances that align with the f-number markings.

Zone focusing

When the 35 mm lens above is set to f/11 and focused at approximately 1.4 m, the DOF (a “zone” of acceptable sharpness) extends from 1 m to 2 m. Conversely, the required focus and f-number can be determined from the desired DOF limits by locating the near and far DOF limits on the lens distance scale and setting focus so that the index mark is centered between the near and far distances; the required f-number is determined by finding the markings on the DOF scale that are closest to the near and far distances. For the 35 mm lens above, if it were desired for the DOF to extend from 1 m to 2 m, focus would be set to approximately 1.4 m and the aperture set to f/11. The DOF limits can be determined from a scene by focusing on the farthest object to be within the DOF and noting the distance on the lens distance scale, and repeating the process for the nearest object to be within the DOF. If the near and far distances fall outside the largest f-number markings on the DOF scale, the desired DOF cannot be obtained; for example, with the 35 mm lens above, it is not possible to have the DOF extend from 0.7 m to infinity.

Some distance scales have markings for only a few distances; for example, the 35 mm lens above shows only 3 ft and 5 ft on its upper scale. Using other distances for DOF limits requires visual interpolation between marked distances; because the distance scale is nonlinear, accurate interpolation can be difficult. In most cases, English and metric distance markings are not coincident, so using both scales to note focused distances can sometimes lessen the need for interpolation. Many autofocus lenses have smaller distance and DOF scales and fewer markings than do comparable manual-focus lenses, so that determining focus and f-number from the scales on an autofocus lens may be more difficult than with a comparable manual-focus lens. In most cases, using the lens DOF scales on an autofocus lens requires that the lens or camera body be set to manual focus.

On a view camera, the focus and f-number can be obtained by measuring the focus spread and performing simple calculations; the procedure is described in more detail in the section Focus and f-number from DOF limits. Some view cameras include DOF calculators that indicate focus and f-number without the need for any calculations by the photographer (Ray 2002, 230–231).

Hyperfocal distance

The hyperfocal distance is the nearest focus distance at which the DOF extends to infinity; focusing the camera at the hyperfocal distance results in the largest possible depth of field for a given f-number (Ray 2000, 55). Focusing beyond the hyperfocal distance does not increase the far DOF (which already extends to infinity), but it does decrease the DOF in front of the subject, decreasing the total DOF. Some photographers consider this wasting DOF; however, see The object field method below for a rationale for doing so. If the lens includes a DOF scale, the hyperfocal distance can be set by aligning the infinity mark on the distance scale with the mark on the DOF scale corresponding to the f-number to which the lens is set. For example, with the 35 mm lens shown above set to f/11, aligning the infinity mark with the ‘11’ to the left of the index mark on the DOF scale would set the focus to the hyperfocal distance. Focusing on the hyperfocal distance is a special case of zone focusing in which the far limit of DOF is at infinity.

The object field method

Traditional depth-of-field formulas and tables assume equal circles of confusion for near and far objects. Some authors, such as Merklinger (1992), have suggested that distant objects often need to be much sharper to be clearly recognizable, whereas closer objects, being larger on the film, do not need to be so sharp. The loss of detail in distant objects may be particularly noticeable with extreme enlargements. Achieving this additional sharpness in distant objects usually requires focusing beyond the hyperfocal distance, sometimes almost at infinity. For example, if photographing a cityscape with a traffic bollard in the foreground, this approach, termed the object field method by Merklinger, would recommend focusing very close to infinity, and stopping down to make the bollard sharp enough. With this approach, foreground objects cannot always be made perfectly sharp, but the loss of sharpness in near objects may be acceptable if recognizability of distant objects is paramount.

Moritz von Rohr also used an object field method, but unlike Merklinger, he used the conventional criterion of a maximum circle of confusion diameter in the image plane, leading to unequal front and rear depths of field.

Limited DOF: selective focus

Depth of field can be anywhere from a fraction of a millimeter to virtually infinite. In some cases, such as landscapes, it may be desirable to have the entire image in focus, and a large DOF is appropriate. In other cases, artistic considerations may dictate that only a part of the image be in focus, emphasizing the subject while de-emphasizing the background, perhaps giving only a suggestion of the environment (Langford 1973, 81). For example, a common technique in melodramas and horror films is a closeup of a person's face, with someone just behind that person visible but out of focus. A portrait or closeup still photograph might use a small DOF to isolate the subject from a distracting background. The use of limited DOF to emphasize one part of an image is known as selective focus or differential focus.

Although a small DOF implies that other parts of the image will be unsharp, it does not, by itself, determine how unsharp those parts will be. The amount of background (or foreground) blur depends on the distance from the plane of focus, so if a background is close to the subject, it may be difficult to blur sufficiently even with a small DOF. In practice, the lens f-number is usually adjusted until the background or foreground is acceptably blurred, often without direct concern for the DOF.

Sometimes, however, it is desirable to have the entire subject sharp while ensuring that the background is sufficiently unsharp. When the distance between subject and background is fixed, as is the case with many scenes, the DOF and the amount of background blur are not independent. Although it is not always possible to achieve both the desired subject sharpness and the desired background unsharpness, several techniques can be used to increase the separation of subject and background.

For a given scene and subject magnification, the background blur increases with lens focal length. If it is not important that background objects be unrecognizable, background de-emphasis can be increased by using a lens of longer focal length and increasing the subject distance to maintain the same magnification. This technique requires that sufficient space in front of the subject be available; moreover, the perspective of the scene changes because of the different camera position, and this may or may not be acceptable.

The situation is not as simple if it is important that a background object, such as a sign, be unrecognizable. The magnification of background objects also increases with focal length, so with the technique just described, there is little change in the recognizability of background objects. However, a lens of longer focal length may still be of some help; because of the narrower angle of view, a slight change of camera position may suffice to eliminate the distracting object from the field of view.

Although tilt and swing are normally used to maximize the part of the image that is within the DOF, they also can be used, in combination with a small f-number, to give selective focus to a plane that isn't perpendicular to the lens axis. With this technique, it is possible to have objects at greatly different distances from the camera in sharp focus and yet have a very shallow DOF. The effect can be interesting because it differs from what most viewers are accustomed to seeing.

Near: far distribution

The DOF beyond the subject is always greater than the DOF in front of the subject. When the subject is at the hyperfocal distance or beyond, the far DOF is infinite; as the subject distance decreases, near:far DOF ratio increases, approaching unity at high magnification. The oft-cited “rule” that 1/3 of the DOF is in front of the subject and 2/3 is beyond is true only when the subject distance is 1/3 the hyperfocal distance.

DOF vs. format size

To a first approximation, DOF is inversely proportional to format size. More precisely, if photographs with the same final-image size are taken in two different camera formats at the same subject distance with the same field of view and f-number, the DOF is, to a first approximation, inversely proportional to the format size. Strictly speaking, this is true only when the subject distance is large in comparison with the focal length and small in comparison with the hyperfocal distance, for both formats, but it nonetheless is generally useful for comparing results obtained from different formats.

To maintain the same field of view, the lens focal lengths must be in proportion to the format sizes. Assuming, for purposes of comparison, that the 4×5 format is four times the size of 35 mm format, if a 4×5 camera used a 300 mm lens, a 35 mm camera would need a 75 mm lens for the same field of view. For the same f-number, the image made with the 35 mm camera would have four times the DOF of the image made with the 4×5 camera.

In many cases, the DOF is fixed by the requirements of the desired image. For a given DOF and field of view, the required f-number is proportional to the format size. For example, if a 35 mm camera required f/11, a 4×5 camera would require f/45 to give the same DOF. For the same ISO speed, the exposure time on the 4×5 would be sixteen times as long; if the 35 camera required 1/250 second, the 4×5 camera would require 1/15 second. The longer exposure time with the larger camera might result in motion blur, especially with windy conditions, a moving subject, or an unsteady camera. Adjusting the f-number to the camera format is equivalent to maintaining the same absolute aperture diameter.

The greater DOF with the smaller format can be either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the desired effect. For the same amount of foreground and background blur, a small-format camera requires a smaller f-number and allows a shorter exposure time than a large-format camera; however, many point-and-shoot digital cameras cannot provide a very shallow DOF. For example, a point-and-shoot digital camera with a 1/1.8″ sensor (7.18 mm × 5.32 mm) at a normal focal length and f/2.8 has the same DOF as a 35 mm camera with a normal lens at f/13.

Camera movements and DOF

When the lens axis is perpendicular to the image plane, as is normally the case, the plane of focus (POF) is parallel to the image plane, and the DOF extends between parallel planes on either side of the POF. When the lens axis is not perpendicular to the image plane, the POF is no longer parallel to the image plane; the ability to rotate the POF is known as the Scheimpflug principle. Rotation of the POF is accomplished with camera movements (tilt, a rotation of the lens about a horizontal axis, or swing, a rotation about a vertical axis). Tilt and swing are available on most view cameras, and are also available with specific lenses on some small- and medium-format cameras.

When the POF is rotated, the near and far limits of DOF are no longer parallel; the DOF becomes wedge-shaped, with the apex of the wedge nearest the camera (Merklinger 1993, 31–32). With tilt, the height of the DOF increases with distance from the camera; with swing, the width of the DOF increases with distance.

In some cases, rotating the POF can better fit the DOF to the scene, and achieve the required sharpness at a smaller f-number. Alternatively, rotating the POF, in combination with a small f-number, can minimize the part of an image that is within the DOF.

Practical complications

The distance scales on most medium- and small-format lenses indicate distance from the camera's image plane. Most DOF formulas, including those in this article, use the object distance s from the lens's object nodal plane, which often is not easy to locate. Moreover, for many zoom lenses and internal-focusing non-zoom lenses, the location of the object nodal plane, as well as focal length, changes with subject distance. When the subject distance is large in comparison with the lens focal length, the exact location of the object nodal plane is not critical; the distance is essentially the same whether measured from the front of the lens, the image plane, or the actual nodal plane. The same is not true for close-up photography; at unity magnification, a slight error in the location of the object nodal plane can result in a DOF error greater than the errors from any approximations in the DOF equations.

The asymmetrical lens formulas require knowledge of the pupil magnification, which usually is not specified for medium- and small-format lenses. The pupil magnification can be estimated by looking into the front and rear of the lens and measuring the diameters of the apparent apertures, and computing the ratio (rear diameter divided by front diameter).[8] However, for many zoom lenses and internal-focusing non-zoom lenses, the pupil magnification changes with subject distance, and several measurements may be required.


Most DOF formulas, including those discussed in this article, employ several simplifications:

  1. Paraxial (Gaussian) optics is assumed, and technically, the formulas are valid only for rays that are infinitesimally close to the lens axis. However, Gaussian optics usually is more than adequate for determining DOF, and non-paraxial formulas are sufficiently complex that requiring their use would make determination of DOF impractical in most cases.
  2. Lens aberrations are ignored. Including the effects of aberrations is nearly impossible, because doing so requires knowledge of the specific lens design. Moreover, in well-designed lenses, most aberrations are well corrected, and at least near the optical axis, often are almost negligible when the lens is stopped down 2–3 steps from maximum aperture. Because lenses usually are stopped down at least to this point when DOF is of interest, ignoring aberrations usually is reasonable. Not all aberrations are reduced by stopping down, however, so actual sharpness may be slightly less than predicted by DOF formulas.
  3. Diffraction is ignored. DOF formulas imply that any arbitrary DOF can be achieved by using a sufficiently large f-number. Because of diffraction, however, this isn't quite true. Once a lens is stopped down to where most aberrations are well corrected, stopping down further will decrease sharpness in the center of the field. At the DOF limits, however, further stopping down decreases the size of the defocus blur spot, and the overall sharpness may increase. Consequently, choosing an f-number sometimes involves a tradeoff between center and edge sharpness, although viewers typically prefer uniform sharpness to slightly greater center sharpness. The choice, of course, is subjective, and may depend upon the particular image. Eventually, the defocus blur spot becomes negligibly small, and further stopping down serves only to decrease sharpness even at DOF limits. Typically, diffraction at DOF limits becomes significant only at fairly large f-numbers; because large f-numbers typically require long exposure times, motion blur often causes greater loss of sharpness than does diffraction. Combined defocus and diffraction is discussed in Hansma (1996), Conrad's Depth of Field in Depth (PDF), and Jacobson's Photographic Lenses Tutorial.
  4. Post-capture manipulation of the image is ignored. Sharpening via techniques such as deconvolution or unsharp mask can increase the DOF in the final image, particularly when the original image has a large DOF. Conversely, image noise reduction can reduce the DOF.
  5. For digital capture with color filter array sensors, demosaicing is ignored. Demosaicing alone would normally reduce the DOF, but the demosaicing algorithm used might also include sharpening.
The lens designer cannot restrict analysis to Gaussian optics and cannot ignore lens aberrations. However, the requirements of practical photography are less demanding than those of lens design, and despite the simplifications employed in development of most DOF formulas, these formulas have proven useful in determining camera settings that result in acceptably sharp pictures. It should be recognized that DOF limits are not hard boundaries between sharp and unsharp, and that there is little point in determining DOF limits to a precision of many significant figures.


In semiconductor photolithography applications, depth of field is extremely important as integrated circuit layout features must be printed with high accuracy at extremely small size. The difficulty is that the wafer surface is not perfectly flat, but may vary by several micrometres. Even this small variation causes some distortion in the projected image, and results in unwanted variations in the resulting pattern. As a result photolithography engineers take extreme measures to maximize the optical depth of field of the photolithography equipment. To minimize this distortion further, chip makers like IBM are forced to use chemical mechanical polishing machines to make the wafer surface even flatter before lithographic patterning.

Ophthalmology and optometry

A person may sometimes experience better vision in daylight than at night because of an increased depth of field due to constriction of the pupil (i.e., miosis).

Digital techniques for increasing DOF

At f/11, the DOF in this image of a Wolf spider is very limited. Combining 8 exposures, each taken at f/11, gives good DOF.

Focus stacking

Main article: Focus stacking

Focus stacking is a digital image processing technique which combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a resulting image with a greater depth of field than any of the individual source images. Available programs for multi-shot DOF enhancement include Syncroscopy AutoMontage, PhotoAcute Studio, Helicon Focus and CombineZM.

Getting sufficient depth of field can be particularly challenging in macro photography. The images to the right illustrate the increase in DOF that can be achieved by combining multiple exposures.

Film plane

A film plane is the area inside any camera where the individual frame of film or digital sensor is positioned during exposure, and the focused image is received upon the light-sensitive material. It is sometimes marked on camera body with the 'Φ' symbol where the vertical bar represents the exact location.

Movie cameras often also have small focus hooks where the focus puller can attach one side of a tape measure to quickly gauge the distance to objects that he intends to bring into focus.

Wavefront coding

Main article: Wavefront coding Wavefront coding is a method that convolves rays in such a way to provide an image where fields are in focus simultaneously with all planes out of focus by a constant amount.

Plenoptic cameras

Main article: Plenoptic camera A plenoptic camera uses a microlens array to capture 4D light field information about a scene.

See also

Recommended Reading