The Inherent Property of Photography

It’s about time for me to continue something I started long time ago. It’s time to talk a little bit more about the visual language – primarily in photography.

But first: I want to thank everyone who has participated in the last rounds of discussion about the dialectic tension between craftsmanship and vision. Of course it’s not a new discussion. It has been an ongoing discourse as long as mankind has expressed him- or herself through the arts, and it’s a debate that surely will never end. Still, I find it kind of amazing that the two camps often seem to stick to their grounds, and never the twain shall meet. I am surprised about the fact that some think that technical knowledge is about rules, for instance, when it really is about possibilities. I am even more amazed when some think technique comes down to camera brands, or what lenses you use. Whatever camera you are using has absolutely nothing to do with it. Technique is about how you use whatever camera you have to express whatever your vision is.

This post will actually be about technique – so forgive me those of you who aren’t interested in photography or at least the craft of photography. I am not going to talk about how to get a perfect exposure or any technique for technique’s sake, though. Because that is something modern cameras are more than capable enough to take care of themselves, at least 90 per cent of the time. No, I want to talk about how you can affect your visual expression by technical tweaking. Some time ago I wrote the post The Essential Property of Photography. It was about the most distinctive element of the photographic language that relates to the shutter of the camera. Today I want to focus on the aperture. The element of the photographic language related to the aperture is a less specific property of photography than that of the shutter. The visual result of using the aperture creatively, photography has to share with videos and films. Even the eye function the same way, although we hardly recognize it ourselves because of the eye’s enormous capability to adjust. Nevertheless when aperture was launched with the first cameras it introduced a visual element that hadn’t really been seen in the arts before: That of limited depth of field. And that’s what I want to talk a little bit about today.

We all know that a combination of shutter speed and aperture together ensure a correct exposure whether it’s on a digital sensor or on film. And as I said, this is something the camera is good at. Basically. But the aperture has a much more profound role to play in terms of visual language. It determents the depth of field of any photograph. It can make everything from close-up to infinity seem sharp or it can make the focus only a couple of inches wide and knock everything else out of focus. How can we use that creatively? Fundamentally in two ways. By reducing the depth of field we can make the viewer focus on the main subject or we can create an illusion of three-dimensional depth in the photograph.

The fact that a picture in itself is two-dimensional gives rise to special challenges in order to transform the perception of three-dimensional depth onto the flat surface. Depth is simply missing in any picture. It’s not a new challenge and it’s something painters through time have dealt with in various ways. Among other means they have used perspective to bring out a feeling of depth. The ancient Egyptions rendered a man at the far end of a row of marching soldiers as large as the man closest to the observer, and thus really didn’t create much feeling of depth. The old Chinese did the same on their rice paper paintings, but they were still able to create a feeling of depth. They always placed near object down in the left corner and faraway objects in the upper right corner of the frame. So even if a mountain in the foreground and a mountain in the background were rendered at the same size, the painting would still be perceived as being three-dimensional. Eventually painters, particularly in Europe, started to utilized convergence of parallel lines and diminution of object size to create a feeling of depth. And during the Renaissance they even went to extremes, by exaggerating the effects of convergence and diminution.

With the use of limited depth of field it’s possible to create another sensation of depth. The eye can only focus on one plane at a time. Objects in front of or behind this plane appear more blurred the farther away they are from it. As a result, contrasts between sharpness and blur, creates an impression of depth. This is something we can use creatively in our photographic language. A shallow depth of field will at the same time make the eye stay on whatever is focused and this it’s a great way to clean up an otherwise messy or chaotic background.

Most people know that the use of a wide angel lens results in more depth of field than the use of a telephoto lens. But it’s not quite true. What really matters is the scale of the object rendered. If you move in with a wide angel lens so that the object is rendered at the same scale on the image sensor as with a longer lens, the depth of field will be the same with the same aperture, albeit the perspective will be completely different. With this in mind it should also make sense that a camera with a small sensor, give rise to more depth field compared to one with a larger picture frame. As a matter of fact most point-and-shoot cameras have so small sensors that it’s virtually impossible to effectively limit the depth of field. That is why so many photographers chose a so-called full-framed camera, simply to have more options to play with (among other qualities). So to summarize: The only two factors that affect the depth of field are scale and size of the aperture. Use it wisely in your visual expression!

80 thoughts on “The Inherent Property of Photography

  1. First, I want to say that this photo is arresting. The technical lesson is one that I will bookmark and read again. Depth of field has always fascinated me. Thank you SO much for your generous, thorough and excellent post!

  2. I do so love this frog. 🙂 Though I am not a photographer, I’ve long had the yearning to learn how. I bet I have some visual artistic talents residing inside. Though most of this post sounded foreign to me thank you for it. I am reminded of something I really want to learn: The visual language (I love those words).

    Have a great night.

      1. Could you imagine if they taught that in schools?… that would be so cool! Oh, and emotional language I think would be a good class for school too. 🙂

  3. I never really thought how much drawing/painting had in common with photography as far as deliberately blurring the background, making it cooler, hazier to bring attention to the subject. I do all of that without thinking about it or analyzing it anymore in my painting. Thank you for another great post! Z

      1. Good morning!
        What a wonderful quote to start my day! You are right, and I have realized that my art is like breathing, and many times I stay in the ‘zen’ place while painting. This past week has been difficult to stay focused (my show is in three weeks) The excavator resumed gobbling away the mangroves on Monday. It has made me almost physically sick. (Thanks for your comment!) Though nothing will restore that section of the river, I am hopeful that I can find a way to open the municipality’s eyes. Z

  4. I’ll keep in mind this article while at the moment nothing I can do with the apperture since I am using point-and-shoot camera. But I am planning to buy a DSLR camera though to go more advance in photography.

    Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

  5. “Help! Call 911…I’m being held hostage” says the little froggie. Great shot! Interesting article too, even if I can not claim to be a ‘real’ photographer.

  6. Interesting article…aperture, although so basic to the camera, is my favorite tool that can transform an average image into a compelling one…thanks for the reminder and the mutual appreciation!

  7. I started with 5″ x 4″ sheet film field cameras and even with super wide angle lenses had to fight with slow film speed (25iso) and shallow depth of field. Now with small sensors I fight to restrict my depth of field. Not complaining just illustrating how things have changed over my life time and how we all need to adapt in our creative thinking.

  8. This was a great shot…. Fascinated me. As always you shared such a beautiful and important points about photography… I always take notes and also I’ll remember and listen to you in my photography life. Thank you so much dear Otto, have a nice day, with my love, nia

  9. Glad for the continuation of an earlier topic Otto! In digital photography I need to be more aware of my settings when composing in camera. Carrying a point and shoot for those quick moments we don’t think about settings very much. Thankfully there are software programs that allow us to refine a decent image into an artful one. So, this brings us back to learning the basics and being thoughtful of what we are photographing and what are we saying about the scene or person we have captured. 🙂

  10. I wish I had a proper camera to practice all of your great advice and technique in photography. And, although I like the frog’s photo, the poor thing looks as if he’s trying to escape. 🙂

  11. Absolutely love the frog! This was a very interesting and educational post for me, I have never seen the explanation put so well for a laymen as myself. As always, so appreciate your posts Otto!

  12. I like this photo and the focus on the one foot! Awesome and thanks for the insights! Since I got a new macro lens for xmas, I’ve been experimenting much more with the aperture, shutter speed and exposure settings. It’s taking a lot of practice, but I am trying to use aperture wisely.

  13. Nice explanation in very simple and refined way…
    In 3 D view, basically we have a set of different objects(with some distance in between), which runs perpendicular to our vision and the distance in between the object will define the degree of this, third dimension.(As in my view and knowledge)….
    But on photo frame if we want to get this 3 dimension view, I think we need to focus first on the primary object, with a combination of other secondary objects in priorities. Finally set a mix setting of camera(Like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO etc…) on the basis of these priorities.
    Sir, may I get some of your views on how we get a 3D view on photo frame?…
    It would be very nice for me.

    1. What you are asking for could fill a whole book. There are so many ways we can create an illusion of 3-D in a flat picture. As mentioned in the post here, one is by using perspective by converging lines, like the straight road that continues into infinite onto a vanishing point on the horizon. And then by the use of blur as explained here, too. In addition you can use contrast between light and dark, where darker is closer and lighter gives an impression of being farther away, like in a foggy day. You can use light and shadow for instance to modulate a landscape. You can use overlapping elements, showing one is in front of the other. You can use scale, a man in front of a cathedral for instance. These are the main ways of create a feeling of 3D.

  14. The frog looks like he wants to escape!

    I like the comments on the DOF for APSC size sensors. To me, I find it an advantage using one when it comes to Landscapes and macro shots. With landscapes I can choose f16 and get all the DOF I want where as in a FF camera I would prob need to go to like f22. As far as macro goes I like having the extra reach on my 150mm. It’s great for getting close to some skittish bugs, like butterflies. I feel like I get more bang for my buck!

    Of course APSC are generally not as good in low light due to generally tighter packed photo-sensors. I think it all comes down to using the right tool for the job.

    Awesome post man!

    1. It does to some extent come down to using the right equipment at the right time. But equally important it just using the equipment you have right at any given time – and know its limitations.

      1. Very true. When I first started this photographic adventure I resisted the urge to upgrade for a very long time – to me – just to force myself into limitations. To your point, I think that has helped more than anything I have ever read.

  15. I believe the person with whatever the camera is the most important part of creating a good photo, but I still always want to learn more of the craft. I am a slow learner, but thanks for trying Otto! 😉 By the way, is the frog trying to break out from your house? 😉

  16. Depth of field and the size of aperture. Hmmmm…. I’m still using a simple camera or my iPhone’s camera. Both my husband and daughter use digital cameras. They talk your talk. One day, I will take the initiative to learn more. I promise. However, what you are explaining can be applied to just about any other craft: Food production, for one. It takes technical knowhow to produce consistently good product at a desired quality. Part of achieving the right effect is in the art of it. But to achieve the right quality range and character, it takes tweaking with good technical knowledge. I can say the same for the practice of medicine. We physicians are armed with a lot of knowledge from didactic learning and from experience. But to treat patients effectively, it also takes some art. The art of caring. One’s caring can be mastered to excellence by tweaking the technical stuff too.

  17. Love the frog! I appreciate the explanation too. Though I’m not a photographer, just this week I took pictures that illustrated to me that the camera has to be told to look at things the way I see them for proper depth of field.

  18. Hello, a post that is along the lines of what I am trying to understand in my photo course. I have a question. You write: “If you move in with a wide angel lens so that the object is rendered at the same scale on the image sensor as with a longer lens, the depth of field will be the same with the same aperture, albeit the perspective will be completely different.” Imagine I have a kit lens at 18mm with f/4 and a wide angle lens at 18mm with f/4, can you depict how the perspective would be different? I’d appreciate your insight in how I might understand this better. Thanks so much!

    1. A kit lens of 18 mm and a wide angel of 18 mm would not be any different, and the perspective would thus be the same – if we are talking about the same camera (or more precise the same size of the sensor). If the wide angel is sitting on a DSLR and the other on a point-and-shoot camera, though, there would be a major difference. The latter would be a long telephoto lens and create a compressed perspective if the subject had equal scale in relation to the sizes of the sensors.

  19. Great photo 🙂

    I really enjoy exploring the different effects of the aperture settings especially with my macro lens. I explore it’s potential in non macro settings too 🙂

  20. This brought back a memory from my first photography class. Our teacher asked us to shoot an entire roll of Tri-X film on a subject that was repetitive in nature and shoot each photo at an increasing aperture size. I chose a black wrought iron fence and, sad to say, I was the only person in the class who followed instructions, but it was a lesson I will never forget. It was immediately obvious how aperture size could be used to reveal all the details of a landscape or focus the eye on a single element. Thank you for sharing this important tool – even now, I use the focus function on my iPhone camera to this end – it works at any level.

  21. Omg! What a great photo. I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Did the little guy eventually escape? 🙂

  22. Putting into mechanical practice the aperture of the camera what accommodation is to the eye? Your frog tells one of two possible stories so beautifully and if I could do the same I would be most happy!

  23. Otto, very interesting blog, you could call it an in depth study of photography.
    You are very right about its not what camera we use, its how we use the camera!
    I have done a full circle, I thought my kit lenses were no good (marketing brainwashing) & bought more & more expensive lenses, the honest truth is some of my best shots are with the kit lenses!
    As for depth of field I have been shooting in aperature priority for quite a few years now. (sometimes manual).
    Great picture of the frog..
    Cheers Otto, nice to meet you!

  24. First of all I love the image…second, excellent post. It’s always good to be reminded of some of the “technical” considerations. I think aperture and being able to quickly determine which to use of get your desired depth of field is something every photographer needs to have a good grasp on. For myself I know that everything I set up for an image I, either conciously or sub-consiously always think about which aperture to use to end up with my desired effect.

  25. Absolutely great post, you write in a way that makes it really easy for someone who has no experience in photography, WANT to gain experience in photography… thank you for sharing this, as soon as I get my hands on a proper camera (the one I have right now is really awful), you can be sure I’m going to follow your advice 🙂

  26. This is a great lesson, Otto. One that will not soon be forgotten. I hadn’t really thought about the ancient artists and how they gave us a sort of concocted sense of depth of field. I will be looking at those with a new eye.

  27. What an excellent study! Using the lessons learned from painting and perspective certainly helps illustrate depth of field! I’m such a novice, but I have noted how my new camera makes some of these adjustments automatically, and I would like to develop more control of the settings and see what I can learn. You do inspire me to get out and practice! Debra

  28. Otto, first let my say thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment … I appreciate that. Second, I dig the frog.

    On the subject of depth I feel that there is more to the perceived depth of a photograph than the combination of techniques used to create it. It has more I feel to do with the (largely) subconcious interaction between the viewer and the image. The viewer is drawn into some images more than others … while initial capture has some (well, OK the initial) input, it is the vision of the artist and how well they communicate that vision which is paramount. An interesting challenge to photographers specialising in depth and linear separation will be the spread of the so-called ‘light field’ cameras such as the Lytro. While still only in a 1st generation, they have the unique ability to allow the viewer to interact with an image and alter the depth of field … potentially creating a new or undiscoveredinention within the image. It will be up to photographers to stretch our minds to embrace these novel ways of capturing our world.

    Thanks again. Geoff

    1. You are of course completely right about the interaction between the viewer and the image, not only when it comes to perception of depth of field, but pretty much as to any interpretations the viewer will do. But as a photographer we can only try to bring through what we want to tell by the use of the visual language and using the techniques that expresses this language. I can’t force the viewer to see things my way, and certainly don’t want to, either, but I have to shoot and processed a picture according to my vision and what I want to express. The same will be the case for Lytro, but of course the equation changes then, and the new technology will most like develop into something quite different than traditional 2-D photography. Just as today’s photography developed into something different than by then traditional painting, exactly because of new features like aperture and shutter.

  29. What an amazing photo!! Great capture! And thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge of photography. I’ve really enjoyed it – I have so much to learn! My camera is one of the lower level DLSR’s but I always say I work the heck out of it, so I loved this statement of yours: “Whatever camera you are using has absolutely nothing to do with it. Technique is about how you use whatever camera you have to express whatever your vision is.”

  30. An inspiring, beautiful visual language. A language that moves, stirs the emotions, makes you smile and makes you want to create new exciting adventures. Your words are full of rich insights that we all can learn from. Thank you for sharing them. It’s always a joy to read them. Cool post as ever!

  31. You are a great teacher. How beautifully and clearly you have explained it all! Despite not being an expert at technical aspects I could get a lot of valuable points from here. The post reminded me of my Yashica camera which I started using while I was at high school. All the adjustments had to be done manually, so itself it taught me quite a lot about light, exposure etc. I got great results too. I shall try out some of your suggestions next time.

  32. Good for you for reiterating that “Technique is about how you use whatever camera you have to express whatever your vision is.” Of course a certain amount of technical know-how is necessary to control the camera and make it do what you want it to, but how you see—literally and figuratively—a subject is more important. Your readers are welcome to take a look at some of the techniques I’ve found myself using in nature photography:

  33. I feel so lucky to be one of your “students’. I thank you for taking the time to explain technique to us. Your photo of the frog is so powerful that everyone thinks its real! Wow!

    I use a little point and shoot camera and when I was photographing the seagulls fighting over and eating the plastic bag [in my Earth Day post] I didn’t have time to do anything other than whip my camera out of my pocket, point and shoot. But as I was doing it I was thinking -honest truth – what would Otto be doing in this situation? So I ask you is there anything I could’ve done to improve the quality of the photos which aren’t that clear because it was dusk and I had to use the telephoto lens?? When I tried enhancing the photos in iPhoto I couldn’t saturate them as richly as your photos, so I went back to the original.

    1. I am very honoured that you actually thought of me when shooting the seagulls. Thanks for the confidence. As to the question, you may have noted that I commented directly on your blog.

      1. How can we not think of you when you’re such a great teacher? You did comment about the plastic bags on my blog for which I send many thank yous over to you in Norway.

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