Depth of field: What do I need to know?

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1. What is depth of field?

The depth of field in an image is the distance between the parts that appear in focus.

When there's a big distance between the things that look crisp and sharp, it's known as a wide or deep depth of field. When there's a short distance the depth of field is shallow or narrow.

The ability to use depth of field creatively is one of the most useful tools in a photographer's skill set. This guide is for beginners in self-shooting, especially those who intend to do further stills and video training with the BBC Academy.

2. How is depth of field used in storytelling?

The depth of field in a shot has an impact on the story you're telling. Look at the slideshow to see how.

A shallow depth of field has been used to draw attention to the subject, garden designer Mark Lane. The background (Geffrye Museum Garden) is blurred to create a pleasing artistic effect.

Gardeners' World

BBC/Glenn Dearing

A deeper depth of field is used in this portrait of Jane Hill in the London BBC newsroom. The field isn't so deep that the newsroom's pin-sharp, distracting from the subject. But it's clear enough to show where Jane works, which is part of the story.

BBC News 24

BBC/Jude Edginton

A wide shot with a deeper depth of field showing the context in which junior doctors are operating. Here the background is pin-sharp, as well as the subject in the foreground.

Junior Doctors

BBC

In this documentary shot, a deep depth of field is necessary to clearly show what's happening as a ‘coasteering’ man jumps into the sea on the coast of Northern Ireland.

Coast Lives

BBCNI

A deep depth of field is used to keep the background in fairly good focus as well as the subject in the foreground. This is because the background is rather lovely – too good to miss. It contributes to the story.

Earth's Natural Wonders

BBC/Mairead Maclean

3. What do the terms mean?

Click on the image below and then click on the words to find out more.

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4. What factors affect depth of field?

Depth of field is determined by a range of factors, including the size of the focal length, aperture and sensor. Click on Choose to find out more.

Focal length

The distance over which a lens bends light into the principal focal point

A long

Focal length

makes a shallow depth of field

You can use a long lens to create a shallow depth of field, but be aware this will also restrict your field of view.

Aperture

The hole in a camera that lets in light, also known as an iris

A large

Aperture

makes a shallow depth of field

You can use a large aperture to create a shallow depth of field, but be aware this will also increase exposure.

Sensor

The part of a digital camera that corresponds to the film in a film camera

A large

Sensor

makes a shallow depth of field

You can use a camera with a large sensor to create a shallow depth of field, but be aware that you'll need to take extra care with focus.

5. How do I create a narrow depth of field?

Producer and director Sam Bailey demonstrates how to use space, zoom and aperture (or iris) to create a shallow, or narrow, depth of field.