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Quick Primer: Depth of Field and other cool stuff

One of the questions I heard often when I was in the photo business was, "How can I get the subjects of my photos to "pop" off the picture like yours do?" The secret is a little understood concept in photography called "depth of field."


Let's look at my "butterfly" pictures below.  There are several things in common about these photos (all taken at different times).

  1. The background is out of focus in each one.

  2. While the backgrounds are all out of focus the butterflies are all tack-sharp.  Look at the one Monarch butterfly picture (profile) where the foreground wing is slightly out of focus, yet the head and body (plus the back wing) are all tack sharp.  The depth of field in this photo could probably be measured in quarter inch increments and is extremely shallow (see below).

  3. The camera perspective on each one is photographed at "butterfly" level.


So, how did I shoot these pictures to achieve these four qualities?



Butterfly 1
IMG_6569 lite.jpg
Butterfly 2

First, a quick definition of "depth-of-field."  Simply stated, depth of field is everything that is in-focus, in front of and behind your focus point.


Wikipedia says: depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image.


I shot each of these photos with a zoom lens on my (SLR) Canon camera "zoomed in" to the telephoto range of the zoom (around 200mm, as opposed to wide angle which would have been around 28mm).  Almost all cameras have zoom lenses - even less expensive point-and-shoot cameras.  A telephoto lens (or a zoom lens "zoomed in" to telephoto) achieves that creamy, out of focus background that makes the butterflies "pop" out of the picture.  


You can also achieve that look with a wide aperture setting on your lens (f3.5 or even smaller).  On point-and-shoot or SLR cameras find your "A" (aperture) setting and manually set it to a wider aperture (smaller f-number).  


By the way, if you want to learn more about that creamy soft background look, and how to achieve it, search on the Internet the term "bokeh" and you can learn a lot about depth of field.  Here's a link to one particularly interesting YouTube video I found on the subject (


In photography, we like to say that a "shallow depth of field" is a photo where the foreground and the background are out-of-focus, and the subject is the only thing that is in focus in the photo.  A "long depth of field" (usually achieved with a wide-angle lens or a high f-stop like f16 or f22) is where virtually everything in the photo is in-focus (the subject and everything in front and behind the subject).


I also shot these photos with a high shutter speed (1/250 of a second or faster) to "stop the action."  The butterflies were always moving.


Lastly, I got down on my knees and shot each photo at "butterfly" level.  A mistake I see often in photos my customers bring me is what I call "lazy" photographs.  Everything is taken standing at eye-level.  I see this often with pictures of children, with the camera position always looking down on the child (who is naturally shorter than an adult).  To get great pictures of butterflies or children, you often need to change your camera perspective.

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