Mess with DoF for a Better Story

The Problem: Every detail is sharp, distracting from the point of the story.

My little sister's (Sarah's) wedding was beautiful, fun, and wonderful mix of her + the groom. She decorated Grandma's old barn for her vows, and to serve as a museum to mill around in after the vows, and to be the site of a traditional barn dance as the sun set for the evening. She played vintage (50+ years old) records on one of the old phonographs, announced transitions from the wedding to eating to dancing with an antique dinner bell, and threw her bouquet from the second-floor balcony of Grandma's house. For her guests, she gave away colored cowbells and bottled up steak rub—a secret recipe of spices from her Texan husband-to-be. It was quite a day with a 1000 stories to tell about it.

Yet, I just shared one story.

My story was about the unconventional aspects of the wedding—unconventional aspects that were a perfect reflection of the bride a groom. However, if I were to share everything about the day without focusing in on a point, it'd be pretty difficult to know where the 1000 stories began or ended. Without an interpretation about what mattered most to me, the telling would be not much more than a confused jumble of details.

The same is true for stories framed by our cameras. For example, in the cowbell photo (above) I focused in on what mattered. Everything else is blurred. In other words, I intentionally messed with the details of all that was within the frame to tell a better story. It doesn't matter that the bells were on a table in front of the barn. It doesn't matter that there was a string of lights on the barn wall. It doesn't matter that folks were milling about inside the barn and that I could see them through the old barn window. What matters is that there were colored cowbells to announce an important wedding on a special day.

Which brings me to a solution to that problem I mentioned above, with a caveat: Sometimes you want every detail sharp and sometimes you don't want anything sharp. The point is to be intentional about rendering your details sharp or blurry in order to tell a better story.

A Solution: Experiment/play with the depth of field in three different ways:

1. Position


What to Do

  • Move away from the subject to put more of the scene in focus.
  • Move closer to the subject to create a shallower depth of field.

TIP 1: This is a great option for cameras without an adjustable aperture (like older iPhones).

TIP 2: When striving for a shallow depth of field, consider moving closer to your subject and moving your subject away from their

2. Aperture


What to Do

  • Open the aperture wide to let in more light and create a shallower depth of field.
  • Close down the aperture to let in less light and put more of the scene in focus.

TIP 1: To adjust the aperture, please refer to your camera's manual. In general however, there are often two options to choose from: Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av) and Manual Mode. Then, it's typically a matter of adjusting the aperture setting with either a dial or menu option. Also, with newer iPhones, you may use Portrait mode to take the photo which allows you to adjust the aperture setting once the photograph has been taken (via software).

TIP 2: I've found that different camera systems are subject to different sorts of flaws (or aberrations). Therefore, it may be best (depending on your lens/camera) to set the aperture within one or two points (or stops) of wide open or stopped down. For example, you may find that f/4 or f/4.5 are better than f/3 and that f/20 or f/18 are better than f/22.

3. Focal Length


What to Do

  • To get more of the scene in focus, go with a shorter focal length (i.e., a wide angle).
  • For less focus and more blur, go with a lens that has a longer focal length.

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