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Using a Wide Depth of Field for Sharp Images

Controlling aperture to make your shots sharp from foreground to background

By David Fleet

depth of field

Image Copyright: David Fleet

Using a wide depth of field is a really important technique when you want a shot to be crisp and clear throughout. It's one of the fundamental tools in your arsenal for producing stunning, pin-sharp photos.

It's especially crucial for landscape photographers like me. Capturing the wide arc of an open mountain range, or the vast expanse of a windswept beach is one of the ultimate photographic challenges.

But to do so really effectively you have to get used to using a narrow depth of field. It allows you to reproduce all the little details in a scene, from foreground objects all the way to infinity, with satisfying clarity.


The Key Bit - Aperture


The most important part of creating a wide depth of field in your photographs is to select a small aperture setting. Don't let the term 'small' confuse you though: Smaller aperture settings correspond to a higher F numbers! So f/22 is is very small and f/2.8 is very large.

The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field. When you know you want a certain shot to be nice and clear throughout, try using apertures of around f/11 - f/22.

With respect to the workings of your camera, 'aperture' refers to the the hole in the lens which admits light on to the sensor. With a small aperture, your camera lets in a narrower, more focused band of light, which results in a larger proportion of your image being in focus.

Thus, this is a great approach for wide, scenic shots. Rather than sacrificing detail or content, you can ensure that as much of the scenery in front of you is preserved in your final image.

depth of field

An aperture of f/18 kept this image sharp from frint to back.


Balancing Exposure With ISO


As you probably know, the aperture controls both depth of field and exposure. But it's not alone in determining exposure, forming a 'triangle' with ISO and shutter speed.

So, before you snap away with a wide depth of field setting, you'll need to make a secondary adjustment to compensate for the fact that the camera is letting in less light through the aperture.

You have two options: you can either increase your ISO or decrease your shutter speed (or combine both). Let's look at ISO. ISO measurements - also known as ASA indicators on film camera - refer to the digital sensor's or film's sensitivity to light.

The higher the ISO, or ASA, the more quickly the sensor/film is able to gather light and form an image. So, for example, a setting of ISO 200 will gather light twice as fast as ISO 100.

So, because your aperture setting has been adjusted to limit the amount of light reaching your sensor, the ISO can now be readjusted to compensate, by increasing the speed at which the image is formed.

But...there's a side effect of to this step! Higher ISO levels, so useful for low-light photography, increase the grain/'noise' on an image. Every camera is different in this regard, so get a feel for the top ISO speed limit for producing acceptable image quality on yours.

Once both the ISO and aperture have been adjusted, your camera will be able to capture a greater depth of field, while still catching enough light to produce the correct exposure!

depth of field

Image Copyright: David Fleet


Balancing Exposure With Shutter Speed


An alternative to changing your ISO speed is to adjust the shutter speed. By changing the shutter speed you are effectively altering the length of time for which the camera's shutter is left open.

So, like changing the aperture, this changes the amount of light that the sensor collects. It's the other part of the 'exposure triangle', and like ISO comes in very handy in low light.

But it's also pretty useful when you need a wide depth of field! A slower shutter speed enables you to easily stick to a narrow aperture, by giving the camera longer to gather the light it needs for a well exposed image.

But...again - there's a side effect! Slow shutter speeds make it difficult for cameras to freeze movement. This movement also can include camera shake: the small movements of your hands when taking a picture.

So you may wish to experiment with combinations of all 3 points of the exposure triangle when seeking a wide depth of field. Try using faster ISO speeds just enough to make camera-shake avoidable when you slow the shutter speed, without impacting image quality unnacceptably.

depth of field

(Above image: 10 second exposure)

depth of field

(Above image: 10 second exposure)

Slow shutter speeds can create some cool effects, in addition to just making a wide depth of field possible. Check out this article on long exposure photos.


The Best Solution...? Triopods


tripods for digital cameras

My tripod buying guide...

Using shutter speed and ISO in combination is essential when you are working to a fixed aperture setting. But, especially for landscape photography where the subject is static, there is a solution that helps preserve top-notch image quality and sharpness in all situations...tripods!

I am always looking to ensure maximum quality in my images, so I very rarely choose to increase the ISO setting and allow noise into my images. Consequently, I'm left with having to use slower shutter speeds, which in turn makes the use of tripods imperative.

This has a secondary benefit: it allows you to capture the still parts of a scene clearly, whilst recording moving areas, like sea or grass in the wind, more dynamically. (Tutorial on long exposure photos here)




Whether hand-holding or making use of a tripod, it's possible to manually fine tune aperture, ISO and shutter speed to create a well exposed shot with a wide depth of field.

The steps above lay-out a simple approach for photographing those broad, expansive views that take your breath away, with everything in sharp focus.

Now you can start creating those amazing pictures that will have people gazing into them with delight, picking out all the stunning details and textures.

The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

Where Next?

What is Aperture

Taking Sharp Photos

What is Shutter Speed

Return from Using a Wide Depth of Field to Digital Photography Basics

Return from Using a Wide Depth of Field to Photography Art Cafe

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