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This is a somewhat theoretical question.

Suppose I first take a photo of a subject using a full frame sensor DSLR, with a given lens (say 50mm prime lens at f/3.5).

Now suppose I exchange the camera for an APS-C sensor DSLR (with a 1.6× crop factor). I keep the same lens (same focal length, same aperture) and I step back a few meters in order to maintain the field of view (at least keep the same magnification of the subject). I now take a second photo.

Clearly depth of field will have increased between the two photos. But what about background blur (for example, trees at infinity)? Will I have the same amount of background blur, or will that have changed?

I have read somewhere that background blur depends on the physical aperture size. In this case the physical aperture (physical focal length divided by f/stop) stays the same. But should this number be taken in relation to the sensor size? In which case with the smaller APS-C sensor, the physical aperture will be relatively bigger, which would mean more background blur. This would be rather counter-intuitive as we usually consider it to be more difficult to get background blur on an APS-C camera.

Please give the reasoning behind the answer. I would answer the question myself using this background blur calculator but I can't manage to get it to run on my computer.

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    I think this quesiton is really covered in this one: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/3986/… – rfusca Jan 30 '11 at 17:04
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    @rfusca: I'm not sure I agree. This is a specific question about a generic concept, and I think warrants being treated separately than the other, which is much more general in concept, yet more specific about camera models. Interesting question, by the way -- same size circle of confusion on a smaller sensor yielding more of the frame versus the steps backward you take which may or may not (I honestly don't know, and look forward to reading the answers) counteract that, especially with the closer-to-infinity focus that results. Curious! – lindes Jan 30 '11 at 17:43
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    You stepped back and re-focus, this means a longer focusing distance, increasing DOF. If you stepped back but did not refocus, the DOF will be the same, however of course, your subject will be out of focus. Think about it, if your lens does nothing, moving the entire camera back and forth will never change the DOF. The moment your lens re-focus, the focusing distance is different. – Gapton Dec 15 '11 at 7:58
  • " I keep the same lens (same focal length, same aperture) and I step back a few meters in order to maintain the field of view..." When you use the same focal length on a different size sensor you alter the field of view. When you then step back to make the subject roughly the same size, you don't change the field of view back to what you had before, you just change the distance to the background. – Michael C Jan 28 '18 at 17:15
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    @lindes If both images are to be viewed at the same display size, the image from the smaller sensor must be enlarged more than the image from the larger sensor, thus the CoC will also need to be smaller for the image from the smaller sensor. Ultimately CoC is based on percentage of frame size - typically the measure of the diagonal. If a sensor is half as tall and half as wide, the CoC used must also be half that used by the larger sensor to get the same angular size after it has been enlarged twice as much to be viewed at the same specific display size. – Michael C Jan 28 '18 at 17:20
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It depends on how large your "infinite" distance really is. When you move back from the subject to maintain the same magnification, the relative distance to a background object becomes smaller, so it'll be less blurry.

Just for example, let's assume you start with the subject 10 feet away, and the "infinite" distance background is really 100 feet away. When you switch to the APS-C camera, you back up to 15 or 16 feet (depending on camera brand). In the first case, the trees were 10 times farther away than the subject (and focus point). In the second case, the subject is at 15 feet and the background at 115, so the background is less than 8 times as far away as the focus point.

If your "infinite" distance really is a lot larger, this effect can become too small to care much about though. If you start out with a background 10000 times farther away than the subject, then move so it's only 9999 times farther away, the difference will probably be so small you won't be able to see or even measure it.

4

Background blur depends on your depth of field. Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image (wikipedia). Thin depth of field allows you to isolate your subject: the subject is in focus, and the background is blurred. Depth of field depends on several factors:

  1. Lens focal length (35mm, 200mm, 50mm)
  2. Lens Aperture (f1.8, f5.6, f8)
  3. Sensor size (APS-C, 35mm, medium format, large format)
  4. Subject distance and the ratio of subject distance to background distance

With (1), the longer the focal length, the thinner the DOF. With (2), the larger the aperture (smaller number) the thinner the DOF With (3), the larger the sensor, the thinner the DOF.*** With (4), the closer the subject, the thinner the DOF.

Example: If you have a 200mm lens, at say, f2.8, on a 35mm full frame sensor, and the subject is near you (2-3m), you can blur the background quite a lot.
Inversely, if you have a 35mm lens, at f8, on a cropped dslr (APS-C), and the subject is 6m from you, the background won't really be blurred out.

*** I am not absolutely sure if this is correct in theory, but in practice, with the same setup on APS-C sensor and Full Frame, the FF picture has shallower DOF.

Read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depth_of_field

  • I forgot: if the background is farther away from the subject, it will be blurrier, and vice-versa. – JoséNunoFerreira Jan 30 '11 at 16:53
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    I have found it: fcalc.net/online – JoséNunoFerreira Jan 30 '11 at 19:42
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    Whenever you talk about factors affecting depth of field it's essential to state what you're keeping the same in the comparison and what you are allowing to differ. For me it makes sense to keep the angle of view and subject distance the same (so that you getting as close to the same photo in each case). If you were comparing a DSLR and compact, you wouldn't use a 10mm lens on the DSLR just because the compact has a 10mm lens. You'd use one that gives the same angle of view. So when you change focal length to maintain angle of view, DOF changes with sensor size. – Matt Grum Jan 30 '11 at 20:56
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    I would tend to disagree with the initial statement "Background blur depends on depth of field". DOF alone does not determine background blur, as can be seen here on the photos here (identical DOF but different background blur): bobatkins.com/photography/technical/bokeh_background_blur.html – Laurent Jan 30 '11 at 22:59
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    Actually if you look here: bobatkins.com/photography/technical/bokeh.html and scroll down to the table, for the first 3 cases, DOF increases and at the same time background blur increases. So the 2 are quite independant really. – Laurent Jan 30 '11 at 23:05
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In theory, you will have exactly the same background blur in both cases. In practice, this only works if the background is very far (a lot further than your subject) as pointed out by Jerry Coffin. If this condition is not met, then the APS-C body will give you slightly less background blur.

The easiest way to understand this is to model a background light as a point source at infinity, which will be rendered as a “bokeh disc” on the image. The level of background blur can be measured by the ratio of the diameter of this disc to the total frame size. This ratio happens to be the same as the ratio between the diameter of the entrance pupil and the size of the field of view at the distance the lens is focused at.

Below is my crappy schematic. Hope this makes things clearer. ray-tracing schematic Consider that the image you get is just a scaled down version of what you have in the plane of focus. The beam in red is the beam of light coming from the point source and going through the entrance pupil. The stuff I labeled “bokeh disc” is where this beam intersects the plane of focus. It has exactly the same diameter as the entrance pupil, provided the source is far enough, and it is the object-side counterpart of the bokeh disc. The actual bokeh disc lives in image space, and is the image of the disc drawn here.


Edit: The approach I use here relies on object-side parameters only: the field of view and the diameter of the entrance pupil. This choice often makes calculations of blur (including depth of field) way simpler than the conventional approaches involving the sensor format, the focal length and the f-number: these “dark side” parameters are not needed once the object-side parameters are known.

For those unfamiliar with this “outside the box” way of thinking, I highly recommend the article Depth of Field Outside the Box, by Richard F. Lyon. Even though that article deals primarily with the issue of depth of field, the approach is very general and can be very easily applied to computing background blur.

  • In other words, the diameter of the “bokeh” disc is pupil_diameter × magnification. – Edgar Bonet Dec 16 '11 at 19:14
  • Doesn't changing the sensor size (and the resulting change in angle of view) alter the magnification when images from both sensors are viewed at the same display size? If the entrance pupil is the same size but the angle of view is narrower, won't the "bokeh" disc be a larger percentage of the total frame (and this blurrier)? Ultimately magnification includes the enlargement ratio between the film/sensor size and the display size. So if the pupil size remains constant (same focal length and f-number) but the magnification is increased (enlarging an image from a smaller sensor to the same size) – Michael C Jan 28 '18 at 17:40
  • (cont.), then the diameter of the "bokeh" disc increases and the image taken using the smaller sensor is blurrier (if the point source of light is truly at infinity - but it usually isn't). – Michael C Jan 28 '18 at 17:41
  • @MichaelClark: 1. In the conditions of the question (same FoV at the plane of focus), it would alter the subject-to-sensor image magnification, but not the subject-to-displayed image magnification. 2. No. – Edgar Bonet Jan 28 '18 at 18:23
  • The question is incorrect when it asserts that one can use the same focal length lens on a different size sensor and get the same angle of view. You have to change one or the other (focal length or AoV). – Michael C Jan 28 '18 at 18:26
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Yes, bokeh is actually proportional to the physical width of the lens opening.

Say you focus on a near-field object at a finite distance = Z and have a camera/lens combo that gives you a field of view (FOV) with angular half-width = Q degrees. If you define bokeh as the ratio of the diameter of the blur circle B (blurred image of a background point at infinity) to the width of the image frame W, then

                     bokeh   =   B / W    ~    R / ( Z  * tanQ )

where R is the radius of the lens opening - ie half the diameter (Note: In the above equation, Z should technically be Z - F, where F is the lens focal length, but you can usually ignore the F when looking at a far-away object).

So if you have two cameras, a large DSLR and a small point-and-shoot, both with the same angular FOV (ie, lenses are same 35mm-equivalent), then the camera with the larger diameter lens will give you more bokeh. This is independent of the camera sensor size.

  • The question above assumes the same lens on both cameras used at a different subject distance to make the near subject the same size. Can you modify your answer to accommodate the assumption in the question? – Michael C Jan 29 '18 at 17:59
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Depth of field depends on two factors: distance to subject and physical aperture size (calculated by the focal length divided by the f-number). Depth of field increases as you move farther from your subject and decreases as you increase the physical aperture size. The sensor size does not directly affect bokeh as the image projected by the lens does not change when it is used on a different sensor format; different sensor formats simply use different portions of the image circle. Larger sensors enable shallower depth of field because a longer focal length is required to achieve the same field of view, and a longer focal length results in a larger physical aperture and therefore shallower depth of field.

As such, the same lens at the same f-stop at the same focusing distance on two different sensor formats will not affect the degree of background blur. It is the adjustments necessitated by the different sensor formats (decreased distance to subject or increased focal length on full frame relative to APS-C) that produces the difference in depth of field.

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    It's also the increased enlargement needed to view the image from the smaller sensor at the same display size as the image from the larger sensor. Thus the circle of confusion used to calculate the DoF for images from the smaller sensor must be smaller so that it has the same angular size as the CoC used for images from the larger sensor after both are enlarged by differing amounts to be viewed at the same size. – Michael C Jan 28 '18 at 17:09
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A lot has been said in the previous answers, and I just want to add a visual comparison of the specific lens settings you talk about in your question. Like said before, the amount of background blur is also dependent on the subject size. This plot is for a head and shoulders portrait.

Comparison graph http://files.johannesvanginkel.nl/se_plot.JPG

As can be seen the FF camera will have more background blur, however their values converge in the end.

Image source: http://howmuchblur.com/#compare-1x-50mm-f3.5-and-1.6x-50mm-f3.5-on-a-0.9m-wide-subject

Here you can also set another subject size if you want.

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"How does background blur (bokeh) relate to sensor size?"

Short answer: A larger sensor has a larger circle of confusion, an important consideration in calculating the depth of field (DOF), and thus causes a larger aperture (bigger opening) to have a sufficiently shallow DOF so as to allow the blurring of point sources (small lights) in the background; creating an effect which is often (incorrectly) called bokeh.

There is little difference, which I detail later, given appropriate adjustments to maintain similar framing.

Bokeh is a blur that can also occur in the foreground and need not be restricted to distant light bulbs though some restrict the usage of that term to only those conditions. It is easier to judge the quality of bokeh by looking at points of light in the background and seeing if they look like round smooth disks, the background isn't the only location where bokeh occurs.

The term bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke (暈け or ボケ), which means "blur" or "haze", or boke-aji (ボケ味), the "blur quality". [Note: It has nothing to do with tiny lights or background vs. foreground, it is the quality of the blurring outside of the depth of field. Conversely, focus is the sharpness within the depth of field, particularly at the focal point].

Now aren't you glad that was the short version.

Image taken using a Nikon 200.0 mm f/2.0 on a Nikon D700, arguably one of the better bokeh producing lenses for photography. Credit: Dustin Diaz.

Rohe family at the Powell St. BART station

License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Finding a less expensive lens is easy and many like these lenses: Hexanon AR 135/3.2, Pentacon 135/2.8, Rokkor 135/2.8, Trioplan 100/2.8, Vivitar 135/2.8, the fact is that the bokeh produced by any of those is more (politely) creative as opposed to quality and you'll need an adapter along with cropping if using a large sensor. A small sensor and an inexpensive lens can produce pleasing results for some (many?).

The mark of so-called perfect bokeh is that point sources will produce round saucers without any rings or aberrations on the disk and gradual falloff at the edge. The disks should be round from edge to edge of the image frame with a spherical lens.

Zeiss Master Prime

While anamorphic lenses produce characteristic oval bokeh.

Cooke anamorphic


Let's define a few things before we get into a much longer explanation.

  • Background: The area behind the subject of the image.

  • Foreground: The area in front of the subject of the image.

  • Blur: To cause imperfection of vision, to make indistinct or hazy, to obscure. The antonym of sharpen.

  • Bokeh: The quality of the blurring of the out of focus areas of the image outside of the depth of field when the lens is correctly focused on the subject.

  • Circle of confusion: In idealized ray optics rays are assumed to converge to a point when perfectly focused, the shape of a defocus blur spot from a lens with a circular aperture is a hard-edged circle of light. A more general blur spot has soft edges due to diffraction and aberrations (Stokseth 1969, paywall; Merklinger 1992, accessible), and may be non-circular due to the aperture shape.

    Recognizing that real lenses do not focus all rays perfectly under even the best conditions, the term circle of least confusion is often used for the smallest blur spot a lens can make (Ray 2002, 89), for example by picking a best focus position that makes a good compromise between the varying effective focal lengths of different lens zones due to spherical or other aberrations.

    The term circle of confusion is applied more generally, to the size of the out-of-focus spot to which a lens images an object point. It relates to 1. visual acuity, 2. viewing conditions, and 3. enlargement from the original image to the final image. In photography, the circle of confusion (CoC) is used to mathematically determine the depth of field, the part of an image that is acceptably sharp.

  • Depth of field: The distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. Although a lens can precisely focus at only one distance at a time, the decrease in sharpness is gradual on each side of the focused distance, so that within the DOF, the unsharpness is imperceptible under normal viewing conditions.

  • Sensor size:

    • Photography: In photography the sensor size is measured based upon the width of film or the active area of a digital sensor. The name 35 mm originates with the total width of the 135 film, the perforated cartridge film which was the primary medium of the format prior to the invention of the full frame DSLR. The term 135 format remains in use. In digital photography, the format has come to be known as full frame. While the actual size of the usable area of photographic 35 mm film is 24w×36h mm the 35 millimeters refers to the dimension 24 mm plus the sprocket holes (used to advance the film).

    • Video: Sensor sizes are expressed in inches notation because at the time of the popularization of digital image sensors they were used to replace video camera tubes. The common 1" circular video camera tubes had a rectangular photo sensitive area about 16 mm diagonal, so a digital sensor with a 16 mm diagonal size was a 1" video tube equivalent. The name of a 1" digital sensor should more accurately be read as "one inch video camera tube equivalent" sensor. Current digital image sensor size descriptors are the video camera tube equivalency size, not the actual size of the sensor. For example, a 1" sensor has a diagonal measurement of 16 mm.

  • Subject: The object that you intend to capture an image of, not necessarily everything that appears in frame, certainly not Photo Bombers, and often not objects appearing in the extreme fore and backgrounds; thus the use of bokeh or DOF to defocus objects which are not the subject.

  • Modulation Transfer Function (MTF) or Spatial Frequency Response (SFR): The relative amplitude response of an imaging system as a function of input spatial frequency. ISO 12233:2017 specifies methods for measuring the resolution and the SFR of electronic still-picture cameras. Line pairs per millimeter (lp/mm) was the most common spatial frequency unit for film, but cycles/pixel (C/P) and line widths/picture height (LW/PH) are more convenient for digital sensors.


Now the we have our definitions out of the way ...

From Wikipedia:

CoC (mm) = viewing distance (cm) / desired final-image resolution (lp/mm) for a 25 cm viewing distance / enlargement / 25

For example, to support a final-image resolution equivalent to 5 lp/mm for a 25 cm viewing distance when the anticipated viewing distance is 50 cm and the anticipated enlargement is 8:

CoC = 50 / 5 / 8 / 25 = 0.05 mm

Since the final-image size is not usually known at the time of taking a photograph, it is common to assume a standard size such as 25 cm width, along with a conventional final-image CoC of 0.2 mm, which is 1/1250 of the image width. Conventions in terms of the diagonal measure are also commonly used. The DoF computed using these conventions will need to be adjusted if the original image is cropped before enlarging to the final image size, or if the size and viewing assumptions are altered.

Using the “Zeiss formula”, the circle of confusion is sometimes calculated as d/1730 where d is the diagonal measure of the original image (the camera format). For full-frame 35 mm format (24 mm × 36 mm, 43 mm diagonal) this comes out to be 0.025 mm. A more widely used CoC is d/1500, or 0.029 mm for full-frame 35 mm format, which corresponds to resolving 5 lines per millimeter on a print of 30 cm diagonal. Values of 0.030 mm and 0.033 mm are also common for full-frame 35 mm format. For practical purposes, d/1730, a final-image CoC of 0.2 mm, and d/1500 give very similar results.

Criteria relating CoC to the lens focal length have also been used. Kodak (1972), 5) recommended 2 minutes of arc (the Snellen criterion of 30 cycles/degree for normal vision) for critical viewing, giving CoC ≈ f /1720, where f is the lens focal length. For a 50 mm lens on full-frame 35 mm format, this gave CoC ≈ 0.0291 mm. This criterion evidently assumed that a final image would be viewed at “perspective-correct” distance (i.e., the angle of view would be the same as that of the original image):

Viewing distance = focal length of taking lens × enlargement

However, images seldom are viewed at the “correct” distance; the viewer usually doesn't know the focal length of the taking lens, and the “correct” distance may be uncomfortably short or long. Consequently, criteria based on lens focal length have generally given way to criteria (such as d/1500) related to the camera format.

This COC value represents the maximum blur spot diameter, measured at the image plane, which looks to be in focus. A spot with a diameter smaller than this COC value will appear as a point of light and, therefore, in focus in the image. Spots with a greater diameter will appear blurry to the observer.

  • Non-symmetry of the DOF:

DOF is not symmetrical. This means that the area of acceptable focus does not have the same linear distance before and after the focal plane. This is because the light from closer objects converges at a greater distance aft of the image plane than the distance that the light from farther objects converges prior to the image plane.

At relatively close distances, the DOF is nearly symmetrical, with about half of the focus area existing before the focus plane and half appearing after. The farther the focal plane moves from the image plane, the larger the shift in symmetry favoring the area beyond the focal plane. Eventually, the lens focuses at the infinity point and the DOF is at its maximum dissymmetry, with the vast majority of the focused area being beyond the plane of focus to infinity. This distance is known as the “hyperfocal distance” and leads us to our next section.

Hyperfocal distance is defined as the distance, when the lens is focused at infinity, where objects from half of this distance to infinity will be in focus for a particular lens. Alternatively, hyperfocal distance may refer to the closest distance that a lens can be focused for a given aperture while objects at a distance (infinity) will remain sharp.

The hyperfocal distance is variable and a function of the aperture, focal length, and aforementioned COC. The smaller you make the lens aperture, the closer to the lens the hyperfocal distance becomes. Hyperfocal distance is used in the calculations used to compute DOF.

From Wikipedia:

This SE website doesn't seem to support Mathjax

There are four factors that determine DOF:

  1. Circle of confusion (COC)
  2. Aperture of the lens
  3. Lens focal length
  4. Focus distance (distance between lens and subject)

DOF = Far Point – Near Point

DOF, Near and Far Point

DOF simply tells the photographer at what distances before and aft of the focus distance that blurriness will occur. It does not specify how blurry or what “quality” those areas will be. The design of the lens, the design of the diaphragm, and your background define the characteristics of the blur—its intensity, texture, and quality.

The shorter the focal length of your lens is, the longer the DOF.

The longer the focal length of your lens is, the shorter the DOF.

If sensor size does not appear anywhere in these formulas, how does it alter the DOF?

There are several sneaky ways that format size sneaks into the DOF math:

Enlargement factor

Focal Length

Subject-to-camera / focal distance

It's because of the crop factor and the resulting focal length along with the necessary aperture for the light gathering ability of the sensor that gives the greatest affect upon your calculations.

A higher resolution sensor and a better quality lens will produce better bokeh but even a cellphone sized sensor and lens can produce reasonably acceptable bokeh.

Using the same focal length lens on an APS-C and full frame camera at the same subject-to-camera distance produces two different image framings and causes the DOF distance and thickness (depth, of the field) to differ.

Switching lenses or changing subject-to-camera in accordance with the crop factor when switching between an APS-C and full frame camera to maintain identical framing results in a similar DOF. Moving your position to maintain identical framing slightly favors the full frame sensor (for a greater DOF), it's only when changing lenses to match the crop factor and maintain framing that the larger sensor gains a narrower DOF (and not by much).

It's the aperture advantage that makes the full frame sensor a better and more expensive choice both for camera and lenses and often for features (FPS not being one of them, nor size and weight).

Going to a medium sized sensor over a tiny sensor further advantages the larger sensor but bokeh likely isn't the best use case to justify 20x+ times price difference.

The greater number of pixels per dot of light certainly will produce smoother bokeh but so would moving closer with a small sensor camera. You can charge proportionality more for use of more expensive equipment if you make money off of your photos or videos, otherwise a bit of footwork or additional lower cost lenses will save you a lot of money over investing in a larger format system.


Wikipedia section: Foreground and background blur.

Check out this article "Staging Foregrounds" by R.J. Kern on foreground blur, which includes many photos with background and foreground blur.

B&H has a 3 part article on DOF: Depth of Field, Part I: The Basics, Part II: The Math and Part III: The Myths.

Most importantly, "bokeh" isn't simply "background blur" but all blur outside the DOF; even in the foreground. It's that small lights at a distance are easier to judge bokeh quality.

Foreground Bokeh

  • This is a very thorough coverage of the subject of depth of field. It is also nicely illustrated. However, as an answer, it completely misses the point of the question, which is specifically not about depth of field. The question is about the amount of blur of a distant background which, although tangentially related to depth of field, is nevertheless a very different issue. – Edgar Bonet Jan 29 '18 at 9:41
  • Yes. It's a very simple question, and the answer, for a background at infinity (as assumed in the question), is very simply “yes, you will have the same amount of background blur”. – Edgar Bonet Jan 29 '18 at 11:51
  • Within the definition of circle of confusion: "... due to inaccuracies in an imperfect lens" is not correct. It is due to the nature of light and the properties of physics. A perfect lens (as opposed to a perfect pinhole) always has a single focus point. Anything closer or further is blurred in proportion to the distance from the point of focus. Only blur at the exact point of focus is caused by lens imperfections. The rest is caused by the cone of light, even if perfectly projected, not intersecting the imaging plane at the tip of its cone. – Michael C Jan 29 '18 at 18:07
  • I would like to suggest that you post this as an answer to the question: What exactly determines depth of field? – Michael C Jan 29 '18 at 19:22
  • Comments are subject to deletion at any time. And then there is this meta discussion about posting answer as a comment, which is effectively what you have done. – Michael C Jan 29 '18 at 19:48

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