Do You Shoot Wide Open? You Might Not Want to, and Here's Why

Do You Shoot Wide Open? You Might Not Want to, and Here's Why

Bokeh, it’s something that we all love, whether we like to admit it or not. It seems like every other client I work with asks me to "make the background blurry" or tells me "I want everything behind me to be out of focus." The obvious solution would be to shoot wide open, but the truth is, having your aperture wide open can actually have a negative impact on the quality of your image.

Focus

The most obvious problem you run into when shooting with a wide open aperture is focus. When your aperture is open really wide, the focal plane is near razor thin which makes properly focusing next to impossible. I shoot most of my portraits at either 50mm or 85mm and if I shoot at f/1.4, getting the correct focus is almost impossible because everything has to fall perfectly into place in order for my image to have the proper focus.

Not only does my model need to stay still, but I can't be moving either. Of course, shooting with a tripod will alleviate any movement on my end, but it is still remarkably hard to achieve proper focus with your lens at its widest aperture. What I have started doing is shooting with my aperture around f/2.8 to make focusing easier while still allowing for a good amount of bokeh in the background. Granted, the background may not be as blown out of focus as you may want, but I like having the piece of mind knowing that my images will be in focus.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration, sometimes referred to as “color fringing,” is defined as: "The material effect produced by the refraction of different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation through slightly different angles, resulting in a failure to focus. It causes colored fringes in the images produced by uncorrected lenses."

Since I’m no scientist, and that definition sounds pretty darn scientific, let's break chromatic aberration down with picture examples instead.

In this first example, there is a really strong purple fringing which is the most common form of chromatic aberration. I shot this image with an 85mm f/1.4 lens and had the aperture wide open at f/1.4. The place to keep an eye out when looking for chromatic aberration is anywhere in your image where there is a lot of contrast. In this example, the crown my model is holding is silver with jewels that are a very dark color. Since the silver is a very light color and the jewels are dark, there is some really noticeable chromatic aberration that shows up right on the edge where the light meets the dark. Here's a closer look.

Another common form of chromatic aberration is called "green fringing." Similar to purple fringing, this creates a green edge across an area of a high contrast in your image. In this example, the fringing isn't quite as noticeable as the purple fringing in the last image, but if you look closely you can see it on the edge of the stripes on her shirt, and along her jaw line.

There are ways to fix chromatic aberration in postproduction, but the easiest way to make sure your image doesn’t have it is to stop your aperture down. By shooting at a higher aperture you are increasing the focal plane which decreases the chance of chromatic aberration. 

Price

Lenses are expensive enough as it is, so adding another zero onto the already sky-high price tag doesn't seem worth it in my opinion. Sure, I have some lenses that are pretty fast, but they’re also third-party lenses that come with a significantly cheaper price tag than the Canon and Nikon lenses of the world. If you are in the market for a cheap, fast lens, I would highly recommend Rokinon or Samyang. The only caveat of shooting with Rokinon glass is that most of their lenses are manual focus except for a 14mm and a 50mm lens for Sony E-mount. Like I said before, I don't mind manually focusing in a lot of situations, but there are other times when that is simply not an option. I get by just fine with a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D lens that I picked up off craigslist for $200. It does get a little funky when I shoot at f/1.8 but when I’m at f/2.8 and higher I couldn't ask for a sharper lens.

Does the Background Add to the Image?

If you answered yes then that’s a great reason not to shoot wide open. There are plenty of times that I want the environment I am in to be a part of the image. If I completely blow out the background then there’s no point in shooting in that location. On the other hand, sometimes you can use an open aperture to your advantage and hide any undesirable distractions from your image like in the example below where there was a gas station directly behind my model and I obviously didn't want that to be a part of my image.

By shooting with a close crop and a pretty wide open aperture I was able to make the ugly, distracting background unrecognizable. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, a lot of clients I work with rely on me to have all of the artistic input. They may not see or be able to comprehend how a background can add to an image, so that is when I tend to shoot a little more open. I just make sure to be a little more careful not to shoot completely wide open to secure proper focus.

Exception to the Rules

Like all things in life, there are exceptions to the rules, and to be honest, they’re really more guidelines than rules. Sometimes an image can be a little out of focus and still be good. For instance, a little while back I purchased the Rokinon AF 50mm f/1.4 FE for my Sony a7 II. It was actually delivered in the middle of a shoot, so when it arrived I threw it on my camera, opened the aperture to f/1.4 (because why not), and went to town.

It’s a little soft at f/1.4, but the image I came up with was one that both my model and l were really happy with, even though the focus isn’t technically correct, and the image itself isn’t really all that sharp.

Conclusion

I can’t tell you how you should or shouldn't use the tools you have in your kit, but I can hopefully help you use them to their fullest potential. Do I shoot wide open from time to time? Sure I do, but it's a rare occasion because I would rather have an image that is in focus than one that has beautiful bokeh and a soft subject. 

What do you think? Should you push your lenses to the limit and shoot wide open, or should you take advantage a sharper image and stop down a little? The bottom line is that your style is your style, and I am in no way trying to get you to change that. All I want you to do is understand that there are ways to achieve a similar style without compromising image quality in the process.

Log in or register to post comments
37 Comments
Alexander Petrenko's picture

"It is still remarkably hard to achieve proper focus with your lens at its widest aperture" - what camera do you use?

Michael Kormos's picture

Canon :-)

Matthew Thomas's picture

You should switch to mirrorless Michael, join the dark side ;)

I'm sure you've seen that fancy eye focus tech Sony has, join the party Michael, do it :P

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

This is a bit like going to the confessional on a Saturday afternoon. I bought my fast lenses (three of them are f/1.4) for a totally different reason. I like shooting available light shots, especially after sunset, and was really just trying to hose down the need to boost ISO levels to the point where digital noise became a problem.

It was later, while using them, that I found myself attracted to the use of bokeh - like the folk who photograph themselves with an ikon like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower blurred to extinction in the background of their selfie stick images, when I photograph my wife I like her to be the subject matter of the photo, and bokeh often helps to rid the background of distracting material.

That said - I was apprehensive when I began to read your article. Too often, these articles fill with "rules" and castigate those recalcitrants who want to strike out in a different direction. I was delighted to find you have done no such thing, and instead, you have shared a wealth of sensible technical information, which will enable the reader to make much better and more informed choices. As to the right lens. As to the "spend" needed to do the job. As to when or whether, and if so how much, bokeh is a "good thing".

And to answer the question you put in your closing paragraph - I rarely push to fully wide open, except to grab a shot which would otherwise be weakened by digital noise at uncomfortably high ISO readings. Probably usually wider with portraits, but for more general work, I prefer a less pronounced bokeh - or perhaps none at all. With portraits, I am happy with a limited DOF and a softening of less significant features - but that becomes harder if it's a portrait of the bride, and detail of her dress is important too. With something like the nave of a cathedral, there are generally zones that are best softened - before or both before & after the main field of interest - and a prime target that demands tack sharp. As you yourself recognise, there is no "one size fits all". But anyone shooting wide will be much better informed after reading your article, and better placed to make appropriate choices. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Usman Dawood's picture

I've never found shooting wide open to be a problem when it came to focus. This is with both mirrorless and DSLRs, Is it really that challenging?

Geoff Adler's picture

Hey Usman! Are you shooting handheld or on a tripod? I feel like this article is speaking only about fast primes and zooms on a large MP full frame where depth of focus is so thin that autofocus struggles to act as the shooter intends. Personally I have had this issue and so I stop down just a bit to tighten up, bump the ISO a little and increase shutter speed to help compensate for my body movements—the last part helps a lot when the lens is longer and not equipped with image stabilization.

Usman Dawood's picture

Hey Geoff, great to see you on here :).

Portraits I tend to shoot handheld generally with an A7RII or 5DSR. I do ensure all of my lenses have been calibrated to the camera as soon as I buy them. The widest I shoot is F1.4 and the A7RII does have built in IBIS which has been useful. I do tend to shoot slow and not many shots so maybe it's cause I'm just taking time on each one. Also, having a mirrorless camera tends to help with focus accuracy and eye detection and so on.

I just didn't know this to be such a major issue, yes I do have some shots which can be a little off but looking back the number of images missed is actually very low.

David Mawson's picture

>> I've never found shooting wide open to be a problem when it came to focus.

Most people who say this about shooting portraits on a DSLR simply suffer from "IKEA Effect" and can't tell their pictures are out of focus. Most DSLR focus systems aren't accurate for a close f1.2 shot with a standard lens, and even those that are often need micro-adjustment for individual lenses...

Checking your profile, you have a 6D, which has probably the least accurate focus system of any fullframe camera still in production and will definite miss critical focus a lot if you try narrow dof work with most lenses. That applies even with the centre spot - the problem is that the 6D has the older focus feedback system and therefore sloppy lens element control.

(Model Mayhem is full of proudly displayed missed focus shots...)

Usman Dawood's picture

Hey David, thank you for the reply.
I did own the Canon 6D at one point but I never actually used it, not even once. I had it gathering dust until I sold it to buy a Zeiss 135mm lol. I've never actually shot at f1.2 either so there is that, the lowest I ever shoot is at f1.4 or F2 on a 135mm. Also, mirrorless cameras focus from the sensor making them far more accurate than DSLRs as far as I'm aware. Coupled with the inbuilt IBIS is useful.

I do pixel peep allot and I have looked back through a number of images and the only ones where I'm seeing images missing focus is with the Zeiss due to it being manual focus. Even down to F1.4 I haven't been able to find allot of images missing focus and I look all the way at eye lashes and retinas lol. I'm not trying to suggest I'm perfect or that I some amazing focusing person, I just didn't think or realise this was such an issue.

Maybe it's because I don't shoot a lot of portraits, or because I'm quite slow at shooting portraits and take time per shot.

David Mawson's picture

>> I did own the Canon 6D at one point but I never actually used it

It's a great camera - nice to use, lovely tonality - but it lacks the precise focus control of the 5Diii. Look up an article called "Autofocus realities" on lensrentals.com if you are really interested.

>> Also, mirrorless cameras focus from the sensor making them far more accurate than DSLRs as far as I'm aware.

I wouldn't say "far more accurate" - a pro DSLR like a 5Diii will nail focus extremely well with a lens it has been adjusted for. What is true is that a mirrorless will have very accurate focus with a cheaper focusing system and that the system won't need tweaking for difficult lenses.

Shidqi AR's picture

I don't feel convinced since what you're showcasing as the "bad" and "good" examples are all wide open.
You should've equally add an example of the narrow aperture shots You took.

David Mawson's picture

This is silly. Do you really need to see a shot taken at a narrower aperture to see that the same lens will have greater dof and less aberration???

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Narrow aperture shots can suffer by being on the other side of the lens's "sweet spot". Which of course is also something to watch for, with shots at full aperture - sharper is likely to be further in.

Bruce Bull's picture

What use is a razor sharp image if you're just going to plasticize their skin like the above photos?

jeremy thomas's picture

Personally, for me it depends on what the scene is giving me. I have a nifty 50 and that's horrible shooting wide open from a distance, up close it works alright. I now have a tamron 24-70 2.8 and I will shoot wide open with it sometimes. If it's super bright outside and i need to use HSS then I shoot wide. Most of the time i don't thought.

Bert Nase's picture

What is the reason to buy fast glass??

Marc Stowe's picture

I think another thing worth considering is print size. Shooting a 50mm 1.4 wide open looks awesome on an iPhone screen but if you're doing a 30" wall portrait that back eye being out of focus can be distracting. Obviously, this also depends on your market or client.

Anonymous's picture

Something the article doesn't mention is camera to subject distance. The greater the distance, the wider the DOF. At 5-15 feet and f/1.4, DOF is really thin. Further out, it gets wider. Match the lens to the situation.

Matt Rennells's picture

Comment deleted because I felt it was too snarky.

Mark James's picture

With modern cameras having eye tracking focus it is easy to keep that one thing sharp, but wide open on fast glass like my Leica Nocticron almost always leaves too much of the face out of focus, so unless I'm forced to shoot wide open because of light, I rarely do.

Phuoc Le's picture

Agreed, i have to disgard more photos when i shoot at 1.4 or even 1.8

Norbert Tukora's picture

"if I shoot at f/1.4, getting the correct focus is almost impossible"
Please don't write an article about your lack for skill using fast primes. They are not for everyone...

Title:
"Do You Shoot Wide Open? You Might Not Want to, and Here's Why"
Conclusion:
"The bottom line is that your style is your style, and I am in no way trying to get you to change that."
Oh yes you are, with that title!!!

Anonymous's picture

"Might Not Want to" Reading is fundamental.

Norbert Tukora's picture

I didn't miss that part, don't worry.

Anonymous's picture

Well, that's a relief. :-)

David Mawson's picture

So your "skill" includes the ability to reduce chromatic aberrations in whatever lens you are using? Impressive!

Kirk Darling's picture

It was good that you mentioned the background as something to contemplate rather than merely obliterate. Many times photographers shooting wide open concentrate on the subject and stop seeing the background at all--not noticing that the subject might still be fading tonally into the background, or that big bright OOF blobs are actually distracting attention from the subject. Even though background objects are out of focus, they still affect the subject.

Bryan Clarke's picture

I think this is a very subjective topic that is more a case of know your equipment and it's limitations (chromatic aberration and DOF) and know your limitations as a photographer... I use the 85 f/1.2 and it's attached to my 5D almost all the time. I rarely go above f/2.0 because (1) that's not my style, and (2) it's not the reason I acquired such a fast lense. As a portrait photographer, it is *usually* well within your power to adapt the location you are shooting in, too close with a 1.2 aperture and you have only a few mm DOF - but that comes back to knowing the limitations.

Rob Mynard's picture

Sounds a bit like bad technique combined with cheap primes (there's a reason those Samyangs are cheap and it's not just the focus motors). I'm currently shooting the Nikon 105mm f/1.4 and with (humbly) decent technique, getting correct focus is far from impossible and with modern lens coatings chromatic aberration and purple fringing are virtually non-existent (I do remember back when I used the Nikon 85mm f/1.8D that purple fringing was everywhere).

Colin Johnson's picture

Ahum, the biggest issue with shooting portraits wide open is razor-thin depth of field.
If your subject is not 100% perpendicular to the sensor (both eyes facing towards you) then you risk having one eye in focus and the other not.

One learns through experience to shoot portraits stopped down to F2.8 or even as much as F4 rather than wide open...

Yogendra Singh's picture

I shoot with Nikon D3s 70-200 VR2 at 2.8 all the time, without flash mostly and I get tack sharp images. Canon outputs softer images even with flash.

Yogendra Singh's picture

Jeff switch Nikon or Sony, they deliver sharp images. Nikon's auto focus may be the best wide open.

N A's picture

I use 2.8 zooms as I typically shoot indoor events. Lousy light, lack of mobility and limited ability to use flash (stage performance, etc) usually means there's not much choice but to shoot wide open.

It's also hard to get decent subject isolation in a throng of people without long FLs and shallow DOF.

If you live in a cluttered urban area, as I do, complementary outdoor backgrounds are few and far between. Nuking the background generally improves the quality of the photo.

The only thing that irks me is quarter body or head shots with one eye out of focus. I'll shoot 135-200mm @ 5.6+ when possible but if the bg sucks, it's probably going to be 2.8 - 4 and just live with one eye and ears oof.

If my residence was in a beautiful location I'd be happy to shoot f/11 all day. Since I don't, I put my lens' capabilities to the best use I can.

So... "don't shoot wide open" is good advice - under the right circumstances.

Oh yeah, shooting wide open means I never have to clean my sensors ;)

Scarlett Kettwich's picture

I am colorblind. I know photoshop has settings for us colorblind folk, but neither setting suits my type of colorblindness. I will never be able to see purple hazing or green hazing. Any other colorblind photographers have some tips?

Dominic Crowther's picture

Great article! I've recently started shooting at f2.8-f4 on my 85 and 35mms and find i get alot more keepers than i did at lower apertures. That said f1.8 is really nice when you get the focus right. It just depends on the situation and how lucky you feel!

Sammy Yousef's picture

Thank goodness I am unlikely to ever do this professionally. I can't stand shots where one eye is in focus. I like a decent amount of depth of field. Give me Yousuf Karsh over images that don't just separate the subject from the background but also the subjects in focus eyes from their out of focus ears.

For what I shoot, most of the time, when the light allows, I'm happy to use consumer glass. I have primes that shoot at f/1.8 and a 70-200 2.8 and I know how to use them to good effect, but most of the time f/8 is where I live.

Miguel Anton Teotico's picture

your photos shot wide open look pretty darn amazing to me. your nitpicking comments about chromatic aberation, color fringing and lack of sharpness are only really noticeable if you do pixelpeeping... something i guarantee majority of your viewers will never do. btw, today's mirrorless cameras have reliable eye-af which makes shooting wide open effortless