About the Inflation in Depth of Field

We live in a world where everything gets smaller. Small is modern. Small is progress. Even smartphones can take better pictures nowadays than much bigger cameras did – not that long ago. But are those pictures really better? We see huge improvements in resolution, color rendition, and sensitivity. I wouldn’t want to miss those. But we also lost a lot. A different kind of quality: out of focus. In other words: we lost our ability to truly focus and to apply razor-sharp focus in a very selective way. Shallow depth of field is what we lost. We lost it because of the small sensors.

Earlier generations of photographers had their own problems. The opposite problems, in a way. With their relatively big plate cameras they had to use very small apertures to achieve some decent depth of field, for example in landscape photography. Combine the small apertures with the low sensitivity of their plates, they required very long exposure times. The tripod industry must have been much happier back then. Even portraits, where a shallow depth of field is desired, presented a challenge and required long exposures. Can you imagine standing completely still for 30 s?

Then came the film. Sensitivity increased and resolution was on the rise, which enabled smaller and smaller “sensors”. Ultimately, the 35 mm format became by far the most popular. The origins of the 35 mm film, however, are in cinematography. 35 mm film was first introduced in 1893 by William Dickson. In film cameras, the film strip moves vertically and the perforation on both sides enables transport through the camera. The width of the film material is 35 mm, but the actual frame size is narrower due to the perforation and the need for an audio track. Common frame sizes are 22 mm x 18 mm and 22 mm x 16 mm. The idea to use the same film material for still photography came from the need to determine the correct exposure for a film set by using the same material and developing process as used for the moving pictures. For still photography, the film was moved sideways, which led to a frame size of 24 mm x 36 mm. We refer to this as the 135 film format. In German, it is called “Kleinbildformat” (small frame format). Oskar Barnack, a German from Brandenburg, presented the first prototype of a still photo camera using 35 mm film in 1913. Starting in 1924 is was produced and introduced to the market as the Leica I in 1925. Oskar Barnack is the inventor of the 35 mm photo camera. In 9 years we can celebrate its 100th anniversary!

The popularity of the 35 mm camera stems from it being a pretty good compromise between the pros and cons of the smaller and larger formats. Over the decades, maybe our expectations of photographs were shaped by the 35 mm format. Some argue that 35 mm photography is the closest reflection of the way we see the world.

After many decades of relative stability, digital photography has disrupted a lot. Most changes are very positive. It’s just that those small sensors are bad. Even though the larger formats exist, they are far from being the most popular format that 35 mm once was. The so called “small frame photography” is only accessible to a small group of photographers. The vast majority shoots with much smaller sensors. The problem is an inflation in the depth of field. Too much focus. When everything is in focus, nothing has the focus. It’s the same in business. If all Projects have a high priority, no project has priority. A good strategy not only provides focus on one or few goals, it also spells out the initiatives that will not get attention. That’s the only way to achieve things under the constraint of limited resources. “Out of focus”, hence, is much more important than we think. Out of focus is beautiful. Out of focus is quality. Out of focus itself has a quality. In photography we call this Bokeh. Of course focus is important, the sharper the better. But it’s the interplay between focus and lack thereof that gives us the freedom to express ourselves. It’s like vanilla ice cream with hot raspberries. Each individually is relatively boring. The power is in the combination if the two.

The real problem with inflation in depth of field is that, slowly, over time, we can get used to it. It happened to me. For over 15 years now I have been shooting with a 14.8 mm x 22.2 mm sensor, when the 24 mm x 36 mm format was supposed to be the smallest. To make matters worse, we often shoot with zoom lenses. Because we are lazy. Zoom lenses typically have smaller maximum apertures. What does that mean? Even more depth of field. Zoom lenses are like fast food. They are convenient and they make us lazy. We live healthier when we cook at home.

As far as I’m concerned: I have had it. 15 years on the wrong path are enough. My next camera will have a 35 mm sensor. I will invest in the best prime lenses I can afford. This I promise. I will go through life with open eyes. My camera too. Wide open! Out of focus is cool again.

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I’m not alone in this. The voices that call for larger sensors are getting louder. Maybe the 35 mm format can do it again in the 21st century and become #1. That would be a real renaissance!