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With depth of field, more is not always better

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In the comments, HBG_Dave makes a salient observation:

I’ve always wondered why I like your photographs even though my personal theme has always been maximum sharp focus (not that I get it very often) and I tend to consider any blurring as a flaw. I think it must be because your compositions use the range of focal resolutions to draw the eye into the focal target.

That’s about right. Consider the following:

A honey bee visits an aster (Illinois)

This bee image is one of my least sharp photographs. The focal plane is razor-thin and large parts of the frame are obscured through the haze of an unintentional foreground flower. Yet blurring works in the image’s favor. Extraneous objects in this visually complex environment, when blurred, aren’t competing with our subject. Provided that the narrow sliver of focus falls in just the right plane, the in- and out-of-focus elements combine to draw our eye toward the melding of bee and flower.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Suttkus 1:36 pm 04/23/2013

    I have this argument with my father all the time. He’s constantly complaining that modern movies have such lousy depth of field because, as he would have it, modern film-makers are lazy.

    I was watching the Maltese Falcon recently. It’s a great movie, but I was constantly annoyed by all the depth of field. Humphrey Bogart’s office set was really amazing for it’s day, with a fully realized city outside his window, full of blinking lights and other details, and every single scene in his office (and there are a lot of them), that city is fighting for your attention, struggling to distract you from what Humphrey Bogart is doing and saying. The Maltese Falcon is a great movie, but the insistence on having infinite depth of field in every single scene is enough to drive one to drink! But it’s exactly the sort of thing that dad praises for being “technically perfect”. Gah!

    Not that it can’t be done wrong in the other direction. I’ve seen a couple films where two characters were having a conversation and whenever the other person started speaking, the depth of focus shifted dramatically to move to them. That should never happen! It just pulls you out of the film and insists on reminding you, “You’re watching a movie! Don’t get involved in the story, remember you’re watching a movie!” It also deprives you of the chance to appreciate the silent actor’s response acting, which seems rude to him! Don’t do this, film-makers!

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