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There's a lot of information here and elsewhere about how things such as aperture, focal length, and subject/focus distance affect Depth of Field (DoF). Most people seem to understand that side of it fairly well.

But even the accepted and overwhelmingly most popular answer ignores viewing conditions at the question self described as "the be-all-end-all question asking: What exactly determines depth of field in a photograph?"

There still seems to be a LOT of confusion about how display conditions such as viewing size, viewing distance, and the assumed visual acuity of the viewer affect how DoF is perceived in an image.

Many people who have no trouble at all understanding how aperture, focal length, and subject/focus distance either struggle with understanding how display conditions also affect the perception of DoF or flatly deny that varying the display conditions of a photo can possibly alter the DoF.

So, how can differing viewing conditions of the same image file result in different depths of field? Why doesn't the DOF stay the same regardless of whether the photo is viewed on a 5" smartphone screen, an 8x10 print, or a large vinyl banner?

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There are many things we do to an image after taking the picture that can affect the Depth of Field (DoF).

  • Any time you crop an image and display the crop at the same size as the original you are altering the Depth of Field because you have increased the enlargement of the captured image.
  • Any time you increase or decrease the display size at the same viewing distance you alter the DoF.
  • Anytime you change the viewing distance of the same photo you alter the DoF.

Understanding what DoF is and what it is not is important here.

In a way, depth-of-field is an illusion. There is only one plane of sharpest focus. Everything in front of or behind the point of focus is out of focus to one degree or another. What we call DoF is the area where things look, to our eyes, like they are in focus. This is based on the ability of the human eye to resolve certain minute differences at a particular distance. If the slightly out-of-focus blur is smaller than our eye's capability to resolve the detail then it appears to be in focus.

When you magnify a portion of an image by making it larger or moving closer to it you allow your eye to see details that before were too close together to be seen by your eyes as separate pieces of the image. There is no magic barrier beyond which everything is equally blurry and inside of which everything is equally in focus!

Since things are gradually blurrier in a photo the further they are from the point of focus, as one gradually increases the magnification at which the image is viewed the perceived depth of field gets shallower as the near and far points where one's eyes can discriminate fine details move closer to the point of focus.

Perhaps a lot of the confusion stems from the unstated assumptions used by many Depth of Field calculators. They make assumptions about viewing size, viewing distance, the viewer's vision, and the size of the image sensor or photographic negative. If most users of DoF tables and calculators are not aware of the assumptions in place it's easy to understand how the idea that DoF is an intrinsic quality of an image apart from viewing conditions has gained so much traction.

For many years during the 20th century the assumptions were an 8x10" print viewed at a distance of 10" by a person with 20/20 vision. Some DOF calculations, such as those used by lens manufacturer Zeiss, assumed the viewer had 20/15 vision! As is stated above, any time any of those variable are changed the perception of DoF in the same image is altered.

In the current environment, most of those assumptions are no longer applicable. We routinely view images at sizes ranging from near postage stamp size on our portable electronics to the various sizes of our computer monitors to large screen televisions viewed from fairly close distances, to billboard sized banners not always viewed at typical billboard sized viewing distances.

When we view them on our computers we even change the DoF depending on whether we choose to view the entire image scaled to fit our screen or whether we choose to view one piece of the image zoomed in to "100%" where each pixel of the image is depicted by a pixel of the screen we are using. If part of a 24 MP image is viewed at 100% on a 23" HD monitor with 1920x1080 resolution that's the equivalent of seeing the entire image displayed at 60x40 inches! If we view a 50 MP image on the same monitor we're looking at a small piece of a 125x83 inch display size of the 50MP image! Since we've more than doubled the amount of enlargement applied to an image viewed from the same distance we've also effectively halved the DoF of the larger resolution image compared to the lower resolution one if they were both shot under the same conditions: sensor size, focal length, aperture, and subject/focus distance.

One online DoF calculator that does allow changes to viewing conditions is found at Cambridge in Color. To get the additional options please click on the "show advanced" button.

For further reading here at Photography.stack exchange, please see:

Why do some people say to use 0.007 mm (approximate pixel size) for the CoC on a Canon 5DM2?
For digital sensors and in terms of imaging medium, is the minimum CoC equal to the size of 1 sensor pixel or 2? And why?
Is it possible to change depth of field in RAW images?
How do depth of field and the circle of confusion relate to pixel size on the sensor?
What is the "Circle of Confusion?"
How do you determine the acceptable Circle of Confusion for a particular photo?
What exactly determines depth of field?
Depth of field clarification
What is aperture, and how does it affect my photographs?
Automatic Depth-of-Field in modern cameras?
Why did manufacturers stop including DOF scales on lenses?
Why I am getting different values for depth of field from calculators vs in-camera DoF preview?
Why is my subject still out of focus when it's inside the range shown by a depth of field calculator?
What does infinity focus mean and when should I use it?

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The camera lens images by receiving light rays from every individual point of a vista and redirecting these rays so each converge to a point on the surface of a digital imaging chip or film. If our desire is a faithful image, each would image as a point with no discernable dimension. Because every lens exhibits unresolved aberrations, thus these point image as circles of light. When we examine a projected image, we see countless circles jumbled together, each with indistinct margins. Thus these spots of light are called “circles of confusion”. What is the permissible maximum diameter of the circle of confusion that still renders an image that is perceived to be sharp?

Under most favorable conditions, a disk viewed from 3000 diameters is seen as a point by the average observer. This works out to 3.4 minutes of ark. This is a small angle. A 1 meter (39.37 inch) disk viewed from 1.3 miles (3,243 meters) fits this description. This basis if far too stringent for photographic purposes because we do not view our images under the most favorable of conditions and the native contrast of our images truncates. More appropriate is a circle 1/50 of an inch in diameter viewed from normal viewing distance of 20 inches. That’s 0.5mm viewed from 500mm.

Now our modern cameras yield miniature images that are unserviceable unless enlarged. If an 8x10 inch or 8x12 inch displayed image is made, the magnification applied is about 8x if the origin is an Fx (full frame) or 12x if from a Dx (APS or compact). In other words, the size of circle as delivered by lens must be super small to grant the capability of enlargement. Now we are talking 1/800 of an inch (0.032mm) on the imaging chip (or film). It gets complicated, intertwined to calculate the permissible size of the circle is the magnification and the viewing distance.

The industry often uses a formula that takes both into account when computing depth of field tables. Most common is a table based on 1/1000 of the focal length of taking lens. Kodak, used 1/1750 for critical work and the Leica standard is 1/1500 of the focal length.

Using the Leica standard and 50mm lens, the goal is a circle size of 0.0333mm. Using the old Kodak standard this works out to a circle size of 0.0286mm. Keep in mind that the span of the depth of field in a finished image is subjective. A few of the factors are: Acuity of vision of the observer. Distance image to observer. Contrast of the image. Illumination of the image. . It is a wonder that depth of field tables and charts can make these predictions.

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