focal depth

Depth of focus

Depth of focus is a lens optics concept that measures the tolerance of placement of the image plane (the film plane in a camera) in relation to the lens. In a camera, depth of focus indicates the tolerance of the film's displacement within the camera, and is therefor sometimes referred to as "lens-to-film tolerance."

Depth of focus vs depth of field

While the phrase depth of focus was historically used, and is sometimes still used, to mean depth of field, in modern times it is more often reserved for the image-side depth. Depth of field is a measurement of depth of acceptable sharpness in the object space, or subject space.

Depth of focus, however, is a measurement of how much distance exists behind the lens wherein the film plane will remain sharply in focus. It can be viewed as the flip side of depth of field, occurring on the opposite side of the lens.

Where depth of field often can be measured in macroscopic units such as meters and feet, depth of focus is typically measured in microscopic units such as fractions of a millimeter or thousandths of an inch.

The same factors that determine depth of field also determine depth of focus, but these factors can have different effects than they have in depth of field. Both depth of field and depth of focus increase with smaller apertures. For distant subjects (beyond macro range), depth of focus is relatively insensitive to focal length and subject distance, for a fixed f-number. In the macro region, depth of focus increases with longer focal length or closer subject distance, while depth of field decreases.

Determining factors

In small-format cameras, the smaller circle of confusion limit yields a proportionately smaller depth of focus. In motion picture cameras, different lens mount and camera gate combinations have exact flange focal depth measurements to which lenses are calibrated.

The choice to place gels or other filters behind the lens becomes a much more critical decision when dealing with smaller formats. Placement of items behind the lens will alter the optics pathway, shifting the focal plane. Therefore, often this insertion must be done in concert with stopping down the lens in order to compensate enough to make any shift negligible given a greater depth of focus. It is often advised in 35 mm motion picture filming not to use filters behind the lens if the lens is wider than 25 mm.


A rough formula often used to quickly calculate depth of focus is the product of the focal length times the f-number divided by 1000 (with result in same units as focal length); the formula makes most sense in the case of normal lens (as opposed to wide-angle or telephoto), where the focal length is a representation of the format size. The precise formula for depth of focus is two times the f-number times the circle of confusion times the quantity of one plus the magnification factor. However, the magnification factor depends on the focal length and format size and exact focus the lens is set to, which can be difficult to calculate. Therefore, the first formula is often used as a guideline, as it is much easier to calculate. It relies on the historical convention of circle of confusion limit being equal to focal length divided by 1000, which is deprecated in modern photographic teachings, in favor of format size (for example, along the diagonal) divided by 1000 or 1500.


  • Hart, Douglas C. The Camera Assistant: A Complete Professional Handbook. Newton, MA: Focal Press, 1996.
  • Hummel, Rob (editor). American Cinematographer Manual, 8th edition. Hollywood: ASC Press, 2001.

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