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What Every Photographer Should Know About Depth of Field and Exposure

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Read Time: 12 min

Go further into the fundamentals of photography by taking an in-depth look at the concepts of exposure and depth of field in this easy-to-follow course. 

Jump to straight to a chapter to get started:

What You'll Learn

  • How to understand ISO and the noise implications
  • How to balance shutter speed and motion for the correct exposure
  • How depth of field works and how to control depth of field
  • How to understand your camera's sensor
  • How to photograph landscapes, indoor group shots, and portraits
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1. Introduction

1.1 Welcome to the Course 

Watch video lesson (3 mins) ↗

Here, I'll set out what you can expect to cover in the next two hours and how you can action those in the real world. You won't need anything in particular to learn from this course, but having a camera to hand will help if you want to follow along with any of the lessons where we look at specific settings.

"All of these things are tools to use and not rules to be strictly followed."

2. Exposure

2.1 Exposure Review

Watch video lesson (14 mins) ↗

First, let's review some basic exposure control concepts.

  • The amount of light information a camera can capture is limited by Dynamic Range
  • Exposure is all about recording a quantity of light that captures the detail of your subject or scene
  • Aperture, shutter speed (or exposure time), and ISO are all things that can affect your exposure
  • Too high an exposure can blow out details to the point they're irrecoverable

Understanding how each of the options available to you will impact the light in your photograph is essential to controlling your exposure.

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2.2 ISO and Noise

Watch video lesson (2 mins) ↗

You now know that bumping up ISO causes an increase in noise in your image. In this lesson, we explore ISO and noise to find out whether it's actually a bad thing, and what the limits of your camera are when it comes to noise.

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2.3 Shutter Speed and Motion

Watch video lesson (13 mins) ↗

To try to get sharp images, freezing motion will almost always be a major factor. Like just about everything else in non-studio photography, it can be a juggling act. In this lesson we look at balancing shutter speed and motion, to give you a better understanding of how to prioritize these concepts to get the right exposure for every photographic situation. Plus, I'll give you some tips on how to position yourself properly, to best stabilize your image. 

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2.4 Aperture and Depth of Field

Watch video lesson (4 mins) ↗

What is aperture? Let's answer that in this lesson. Aperture and Depth of Field (DOF) are more complex concepts than they might seem at first glance, so we'll take a look at some of those complexities, as well as what exactly Aperture and DOF are at their core.

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3. Depth of Field

3.1 How Depth of Field Works

Watch video lesson (8 mins) ↗

One of the key concepts when it comes to understanding Depth of Field is something called the 'circle of confusion.' In this lesson I'll explain to you what that is and how what we perceive as sharp can differ depending on the person viewing.

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3.2 Hyperfocal Distance

Watch video lesson (3 mins) ↗

Understanding hyperfocal distance - a distance beyond which all objects can be brought into acceptable focus - can help you get a maximum depth of field. This is essential when shooting things like landscapes, that often require an incredibly long depth of field. This lesson is a quick but comprehensive explanation of Hyperfocal Distance.

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3.3 Calculating Depth of Field: Part 1

Watch video lesson (10 mins) ↗

Although there are tools to help you calculate depth of field, you'll have a much better understanding of how the concepts work together if you learn a few calculations. We know that math isn't always appealing, but I'll help you build your own DoF calculator with a simple spreadsheet.

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You'll need to know the maximum circle of confusion size for your camera. The formula for calculating hyperfocal distance is: hyperfocal = focal length squared, divided by aperture, times circle of confusion.
 
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To help you create your spreadsheet calculator, I'll go through the formula and calculations you'll need to set up in order to make it all work properly.

creating a dof calculator in a spreadsheet creating a dof calculator in a spreadsheet creating a dof calculator in a spreadsheet

Once we've got you set up, all you'll need to do in future is put in your values: focal length, aperture, and circle of confusion and everything will be worked out for you.

3.4 Calculating Depth of Field: Part 2

Watch video lesson (10 mins) ↗

In this lesson, we'll build on what you've done in the previous part, this time adding to your spreadsheet to make it calculate the near point and far point depth of field. By the end of the lesson, you'll have a spreadsheet that is completely adjustable and gives you very precise values, and because it's on a Google doc you can access it from anywhere.

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3.5 Depth of Field and Subject Distance

Watch video lesson (5 mins) ↗

Subject distance is one of the main things to affect your depth of field. Here, I'll explain how the depth of field and the distance to your subject, are related. I'll also go back to the depth of field calculator you created in the previous lessons, and apply that to this lesson.

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3.6 Depth of Field and Focal Length

Watch video lesson (5 mins) ↗

There's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding depth of field and focal length, so in this lesson I'll help you to better understand the relationship between these areas of photography. As well as considering focal length and settings, I'll also show you how the distance from your subject can impact your depth of field.

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3.7 Sensor Size and Depth of Field

Watch video lesson (6 mins) ↗

We explore the relationship between sensor size and depth of field in this lesson. It's an easier concept to understand than some of the other aspects of photography, but you'll get the most out of this if you've already watched the previous lessons. So far, we've talked about focal length but not equivalent focal length, which you'll need to be familiar with if you use a crop sensor, so I'll go into this here too.

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3.8 Limits of Depth of Field

Watch video lesson (5 mins) ↗

You might think that by using the smallest aperture possible you'll create the longest depth of field, but there's a problem with this: diffraction. I'll explain diffraction in this lesson, what it is, what it looks like and what the limits of your camera are in relation to it.

Diffraction sets a fundamental resolution limit that is independent of the number of megapixels or size of the sensor. It depends only on the f number of your lens and the wavelength of light being imaged.
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Manual Exposure: How to Use Aperture, Shutter, and ISO.

If you'd like to learn more about exposure settings, like controlling aperture, shutter speed and ISO manually, check out How to Use Aperture, Shutter, and ISO to become more confident when it comes to camera settings. We'll have you mastering exposure in no time at all.

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4. Real-World Examples

4.1 The Great Balancing Act

Watch video lesson (2 mins) ↗

Okay, hopefully you've now got all the theory down, and now you have to make decisions about how to implement that in the real world. Let's take a look at some of the ideas that we'll focus on over the next few lessons, that will help you understand how to balance exposure, DoF, shutter speed and noise in real photography scenarios.

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4.2 Shooting Landscapes and Diffraction

Watch video lesson (13 mins) ↗

In this lesson I'll take you through shooting a landscape and you can learn how to balance the exposure triangle to get maximum depth of field, avoid diffraction, and end up with an awesome landscape photograph.

Remember - diffraction is gradual, so you may see it creeping in at certain f stops, but you may not.

What we want to see with landscape photographs is a nice, sharp background. This means focusing beyond the hyperfocal distance, in order to make something 'critically sharp.' Ideally, you'll want to take a tripod with you to give you options for more stability if you're using longer shutter speeds.

shooting landscapes and diffractionshooting landscapes and diffractionshooting landscapes and diffraction

You'll see that you can get very different results of the same subject, by changing the settings around your exposure triangle.

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4.3 Indoor Group Shots

Watch video lesson (8 mins) ↗

Light can be a real issue when shooting indoors, and closing your aperture to get a deep depth of field only exaggerates the problem. I'll show you how you can make the best of indoor sessions, and how to increase depth of field to make sure everyone in a group is in focus. You'd benefit by having a light meter for your photography, and a speedlight, to get great results from these types of photographs.

The main hurdle for group shots is depth of field, and if the group has children in, shutter speed. You'll notice the differences between a shallow vs deep depth of field in this lesson in particular.
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We'll also look at how the way you set up additional lighting can make a real difference to the final picture.

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4.4 Portraits in Bright Conditions

Watch video lesson (9 mins) ↗

Portrait photos often look better with a shallow depth of field and nice blurry background, but if you're photographing somewhere the light is bright then a wide aperture can be tricky to work with. I'll help you keep things in check in bright conditions, in this lesson. 

setup for portraits in bright conditionssetup for portraits in bright conditionssetup for portraits in bright conditions
Shallow depth of field photography is perfect for portraits, so try to isolate your subject from the background. If you can't keep your aperture open because of naturally bright light, try shooting in a darker area and using a speedlight to light your subject.
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4.5 Capturing Motion

Watch video lesson (10 mins) ↗

Whether you're capturing motion in bright or dark conditions, both can have their challenges. In this lesson I'll take you through everything you need to consider when you're photographing a moving object. Here are some questions you'll need to think about:

  • do you want to freeze all motion?
  • are you going for motion blur?
  • are you shooting in a difficult lighting situation?
  • are you willing to sacrifice some motion blur to get the shot you want?
capturing motioncapturing motioncapturing motion

Do you do your portrait photo editing in Photoshop? If so, you'll love this Photoshop tutorial: 

How to Retouch Skin in Portraits Using Frequency Separation

Then, why not move on to try our free Photoshop Retouching for Beginners course.

5. Conclusion

5.1 Conclusion

Watch video lesson (3 mins) ↗

If you've watched this whole course then you should now have a much better understanding of depth of field and exposure. In this lesson, I'll recap some of the most important things we've learned and how that knowledge can be applied practically, in the real world.

Having this information to hand is the perfect toolkit to help you manage real life tricky situations. We rarely get the absolute perfect set up for photographs, but now you'll be able to look at those issues surrounding depth of field and exposure and make quick, good decisions to get the best possible results.

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If you'd like to make photograph editing a little quicker and easier, why not check out some of the great actions and presets available through Envato Elements, where everything is included in a monthly subscription, so you can use as many as you like!

If you'd like to learn how to get better when it comes to manual focus, then try Prime Lenses for Photography: Why You Might Prefer to Zoom With Your Feet. The lack of flexibility in using a prime lens means you get much better at not relying on the auto focus, while also thinking about your composition and things like tracking focus. Primes tend to have lower apertures available too, so you can get that lovely wide open aperture lighting.

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Get Serious About Digital Photography

If you'd like to get better at making great images then we've got some cool free photography courses for you to check out:

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