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As the focal length decreases, the depth of field increases as well. Why is this? I'm not so much interested in a physics lesson as I am interested in a simple, down-to-earth explanation.

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Several similar questions have been closed as duplicates of, but that question a) is more about what than why and b) lacks a good answer. – mattdm Oct 2 '11 at 12:46
There are some related technical/why answers here: – mattdm Oct 2 '11 at 12:46
I think you mean the depth of field _de_creases. When something's very close to the lens it's very easy to throw out of focus – depth of field is shallow. When it's far away it's more difficult – depth of field is deep. – jefflovejapan Oct 2 '11 at 12:48
No, I meant the focal length. A lens at 24mm has more depth of field at 200mm. – Daniel T. Oct 2 '11 at 13:10
It's essential to state whether you're changing focal length in isolation, or whether you are also changing the subject distance to compensate for the different angle of view (keeping the subject approximately the same size in the final image) as the answer is different in each case. – Matt Grum Oct 2 '11 at 14:21
up vote 17 down vote accepted

Pretty sure I answered this one before but I cannot find it.

  • As focal-length gets longer, the angle of view gets smaller.
  • With a smaller angle of view, rays forming the image are closer to being parallel.
  • With less variation of angle between rays, light travels more before being sufficiently out of focus.

This is a little oversimplified but I hope it is easy to visualize at least.

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That's a very good intuition into what's going on (which I think is what the questioner was after), and about as succinct as I've ever seen it put! – Matt Grum Oct 2 '11 at 14:23
Thanks, Matt! :) – Itai Oct 2 '11 at 18:20

For this discussion, the aperture should be considered the same, since the variance we're discussing is focal length.

So, a telephoto lens focussed on the same subject from the same distance as a wide angle lens will have shallower depth of a field as a result of higher magnification, but the angle of view between the two images is vastly different as a result. A telephoto lens and a wide angle lens focussed on the same subject with the same angle of view, will have the same depth of field (there is variation but it is negligable).

The difference here? angle of view. So, this is about your distance to the subject, really, not specifically the focal length. Vary the distance to accomodate the differences in focal length and the depth of field remains virtually the same. What does change, though is the foreground and background ratios for it. Wider angles tend to have more of the background in focus and telephotos tend have more of the foreground. The result of this behaviour can create an illusion of shallower depth as the telephoto would magnify the background blur. That's one reason that landscape photographers don't stand way back with a telephoto (haze and other factors would also play a role, probably more significantly).

You can test out my information at various sites that offer a DoF calculator such as DOFMaster for example. For example: for a distance of 10m (@ f/8 ) then 10mm DoF = Infinite and 100mm DoF = 3.08m. Now, move the 100mm lens to 100m (10 times further away) and the 100mm DoF is now equal to infinite. The angle of view of the 100mm lens is now the same as the 10mm lens.

In summary, wide angle lenses do not have more depth of field than telephoto lenses and this is demonstrated by both showing the same DoF for the same angle of view.

You can get some more detailed (and not math oriented) explanations at Cambridge in Colour and Luminous Landscape. The second link has sample images too, kind of handy for visually seeing it.

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