In Defense of Depth

By John Kennerdell

From Russian Noir by Jason Eskenazi

If there’s a single received idea that fires up the imagination of my young photographer friends these days, it’s that for “professional looking” photographs they should buy fast lenses and then use them at their widest apertures. I’ve begun hearing them criticize slower lenses and smaller sensors for their lack of “depth of field control.” That term once meant something more subtle—we’ll come to that in a moment—but now it seems to have become merely shorthand for “Right, let’s see how shallow this thing can focus.” It’s all about blur, baby, blur.

Consider the irony here. For most its history, among the greatest technical challenges of photography was obtaining even adequate depth of field. From extreme lens movements to big lights, tiny apertures, long exposures, and multiple flash pops, photographers bent over backwards simply to get enough of their subject into focus. So why aren’t more of us welcoming the ease with which we can do it today?

One answer might be that most enthusiasts coming into photography since the start of the digital era did so via small-sensor cameras. To them, larger sensors with their greater focal lengths produce the exotic shallow-focus look they associate with “serious” photography. The problem begins when razor-thin focus becomes a gimmick or a crutch, a cliché, a contrivance, a visual tic, a distracting and annoying…sorry, I’ve been looking at way too much student work this week.

Don’t get me wrong. Selective focus has always been among photography’s most valuable techniques. Even apart from its usefulness in isolating subjects, there is a beauty to the plane of focus that belongs to photography alone, and many of us have gone through a fascination with it.

But if the current hobbyist obsession seems to regard minimal depth of field as a hallmark of a memorable image, some of us relics from the film age might argue pretty much the opposite. The richest photos—the ones we return to again and again, seeing more each time—most often work in layers. They show more rather than less, taking in the full spatial depth of our world rather than just one razor-thin slice of it.

Reality check
Open almost any book of photos by the real masters and mainly you’ll see the use of mid to small apertures and ample depth of field. By way of semi-random example here are the first six names I see on the bookshelf next to me: Brassaï, Werner Bischof, Eugene Atget, Joel Meyerowitz, Ryuji Miyamoto, and William Allard. A diverse list, to be sure, but think about it: if they share one skill, it’s a keen sense of composition in all three dimensions.

We could name any number of famous examples, but one that has been particularly well documented is Sam Abell’s remarkable photo of a cattle branding. As Alex Webb reportedly said of this image, “This is what we’re all trying to do.” And just what’s that? In this short video on the making of the photo, Sam describes it as “to create a layered, deep, complex, complicated photograph that doesn’t look complex or complicated.” That’s not a requirement for a great photo, of course, but it does represent a kind of gold standard for many of the very best photographers throughout the history of the medium. And, pretty obviously, it’s usually not achieved with a lens anywhere near wide open.

Colin Firth by Dan Winters. Perfect d.o.f. control.

Portraits, someone says? Take another look at the enduring ones. A few off the top of my head: Sander’s pastry chef*, Penn’s Cocteau, Karsh’s Audrey Hepburn, Avedon’s Ezra Pound, Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, and Steve Jobs by Albert Watson. You’ll see less shallow focus than subtle control of focus. Everything that the eye wants to be sharp, is. Everything else tends to be less so, but in a way that looks effortless and natural, never calling attention to itself. (In fact I’d hold that no aspect of good technique ever does, but then maybe I’m a relic that way too.)

The decisive millimeter
Now there is one problem, or let’s call it a challenge, when you no longer have masses of blur to hide behind. The deeper the focus, the greater the compositional demands. Not only do you have to press the button at exactly the right moment, but your camera needs to be in exactly the right place when you do. Arranging all those in-focus elements into coherent form makes for a real-time, four-dimensional exercise in which millimeters (or at least inches) can make all the difference between no shot, good shot, and great shot. But that’s another topic in itself.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to step on any toes. If your idea of photographic fun is ultra-fast lenses and gnat’s eyelashes of sharpness against fields of gloriously abstract blur, go for it. As millions have evidently discovered in the past few years alone, it’s an easy way to make images that can be very pleasing in their own fashion. Just don’t be surprised if some day you look back on all that shallow-focus work and find yourself wishing you’d paid more attention to the third dimension. And don’t ask me whose old photos I was looking at when I first began to realize that for myself.


*OK, this one has less depth of field than I recalled. But then he was working with a very big plate and a very long lens. And note the care he’s taken despite that to keep every bit of the chef and his mixing bowl in focus—now that’s “DOF control.”

John Kennerdell, an American who has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for most of his adult life, writes several posts a year for TOP. His website is Indochina Photoelectric. More of his writings for us can be found through the Categories list in the right-hand sidebar.

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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.

Featured [partialComment by Elisabeth: “I’m a daily reader of TOP and this has to be one of my favorite articles from the last several months. I like a good super-shallow DOF image as much as anyone, but the experience for me often feels like tasting a piece of candy—a sense of instant gratification that lasts only as long as I’m looking at the photo. I never feel a desire to go back and look at such photos again and again, nor do I learn much from them. They are often beautiful to look at, but rarely reveal anything beyond the first (often only) layer. A lasting image for me is one that has those many layers of content that Sam Abell referred to, and I’m most impressed by photographers who manage to use all three dimensions well, placing multiple elements perfectly within the frame and using the entire 2D space so well that the image feels larger and more content-rich than it would seem it has a right to. I am particularly in awe of street photographers who regularly compose such images on the fly—masterfully choosing the precise moment to capture chaotic, moving elements both near and far and at all points within the frame (even the corners and edges) in such a way that everything seems perfectly placed in the telling of a larger story.” [For the rest of Elisabeth’s comment, please see the Comments section. —Ed.]