Aperture and Depth of Field – A Simple Comparison

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When I teach photography to beginners, I try to use clear visual examples to help make a point. So, when I’m in the field, I’m often thinking about how I can use an image to help explain concepts… either here on my blog, or in future eBooks. Here’s an example.

The technical explanation for adjusting aperture settings is pretty basic… the wider it gets, the narrower your depth of field. But, many students have a hard time visualizing the idea of depth of field. So, during a recent trip to Oregon, I took two photographs in a lovely, open field. This flower called attention to it’s tiny self with a burst of color. For the first shot, I used an aperture of 3.5 (f/3.5). Notice how soft the background looks. Only the flower itself and a few blades of grass are in focus.

Tom McCall Wilderness Area, Columbia River Gorge - Oregon, USA.

Now take a look at this next photograph. I took this shot at f/16. This is a much narrower aperture, and the result is obvious. The depth of field is much wider. Now, you can see lots of leaves and grass in the background, and there’s a lot of brown as well. All those details are distractions – calling for your attention and pulling it away from the flower. You may also notice that I’ve lost some of the sharp details on the flower itself. That’s part of the trade-off when you are working with a narrow depth of field. I love the effect – but  you may wish to choose an aperture in between f/3.5 and f/16 two to get a little more sharpness on  your flower, and a little less softness in your background. (Or, you could stack images in Photoshop if you want to have your cake and eat it too!) The choice is yours!

Tom McCall Wilderness Area, Columbia River Gorge - Oregon, USA.

In this case, I prefer a wider aperture – and the resulting narrow depth of field. The soft background leaves the image feeling very soft and dreamy – and it serves to eliminate a lot of distracting elements.

Of course, the discussion of aperture and depth of field is a whole heck-of-a-lot broader than this – but these two photographs make a great jumping-off point for a detailed discussion of basic concepts. Heck – maybe you’ll see these shots in one of our eBooks someday! 😉

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About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.