Why You Should Be Using the Forgotten Apertures Between Wide Open and Front-to-Back Focus

Why You Should Be Using the Forgotten Apertures Between Wide Open and Front-to-Back Focus

Photographers — myself included — love using wide-open apertures of fast glass. If we need something more in focus than that can offer, we'll use around the sweet spot of the lens, or from f/8 to f/11. But what about all the apertures in between?

Us photographers and videographers can't help but coo and froth over bokeh and lenses with extra-wide maximum apertures. Anything faster than f/1.8 has our interest piqued and our wallets primed. In a similar vein, the sharpness of lenses at their sweet spots of ordinarily around f/8 through to f/11 has us peeping at pixels and showing 100% crops to our envious contemporaries. Whether this has an impact on the selection of aperture photographers gravitate towards is hard to prove, but I believe it might.

When many photographers dream up an image, they tend to go one of two ways: either it's a narrow depth of field, or everything is in focus. So, the lens is set to either wide open or at an aperture where everything will be in focus, front to back. It is often the case that these two extremes are the most desirable, and this article isn't to say you ought not to use them. However, what it is contesting is the disregard for the apertures between the two, because they have value! 

Blurry, but Not Blurry-Blurry

I recently wrote in an article one of my favorite nuggets of wisdom I have received as a photographer, and it was many years ago now: what you blur out of an image is as important as what is in focus. At first, it didn't make much sense to me; if I'm blurring out something, it's unimportant to my image. That is completely incorrect. What you blur out can frame and accentuate your subject, or it can distract and detract from it. What's blurred out can set mood and atmosphere, or it can be completely at odds with the image's motif. In my portraiture, this is often true. I can give a good and intentional example.

Back at the start of the year before the world collapsed in on itself like a dying star, I got to shoot one of my favorite bands, KALEO, for Euphoria Magazine. For our last section of the shoot, we made our way up to the rooftop of the Warner Music building in London. The light was great, and I knew I wanted to capture front-man JJ Julius Son back-lit and with some strong atmosphere, so with my 90mm, I went wide open to f/2.8.

JJ Julius Son of KALEO, shot for Euphoria Magazine. Full frame, 90mm, f/2.8.

What was behind Son was not relevant to my image, and I wanted the depth of field to be as narrow as possible. However, my next shot was to be a step or two back to capture not only what his stylist had put him in, but London rooftops below too, to give the shot a sense of place. However, I didn't want the skyline to be as in focus as my subject; Son's outfit was fairly busy and gray, so I didn't want the background to be distracting or start to consume him. Similarly, however, f/2.8 again would result in the buildings all returning to soft, curved shapes, which would have lost the location completely.

JJ Julius Son of KALEO, shot for Euphoria Magazine. Full frame, 90mm, f/6.3.

So I experimented with a few apertures between wide open and f/11 to get just the right amount of softness to the background without losing the rooftop feel we were lucky enough to have. Creative control, however, is not the only benefit of these middling apertures that are so commonly ignored.

It's All in the Details

Coming from a macro photography background, I learned something quickly: the closer you are, the less is in focus. Yes, you can focus stack when you're shooting products or insects that have chosen to be very kind to you. However, the principle is not exclusive to macro and happens in just about every genre. Many landscape photographers take multiple images to blend the focuses in post so that their foreground interest and their background are both nice and sharp. However, I will use portraiture to give another example of how those middle apertures can be useful.

If, like me, you like close-up portraits, you'll know you have to ensure you get tack-sharp focus on the subject's eyes. However, if you're shooting at f/2/8, f/1.4, or any of those portrait favorites, you'll also know this comes at a price. That price is what's in focus of your subject. No one is too bothered generally if the tip of the nose isn't perfectly sharp, but if you start to lose details in the skin and features, it can strip away the impact and intimacy of your portrait. Sometimes, that's desirable, and you want that dreamy feel to your image, like below:

Ryan Beatty, shot for FAULT Magazine. Full frame, 90mm, f/2.8.

However, other images on my moodboard weren't dreamy, and I didn't want to lose so much detail. I still wanted a softness at and past the ears, but I didn't want to sacrifice skin texture and anything off the focal plane of the eyes. In this case, I only needed to go to around f/4.5 to achieve the depth I was after.

Ryan Beatty, shot for FAULT Magazine. Full frame, 75mm, f/4.5.

If I had used f/8 or f/11, the whole frame would have been perfectly in focus and a bit bland. When everything is in focus, regardless of if you want it to be or not, the image can lack depth and look flat, coming off similar to a camera phone's image.

Bokeh Isn't Elusive

One of the biggest misconceptions with which aperture you choose is the quality of the bokeh. I won't enter into the debate on why the aperture doesn't dictate the quality of the bokeh, but instead, offer this advice: the longer the focal length, the more bokeh you're going to get, and it isn't exclusive to shooting wide open. I remember the day I first became fully aware of this. I couldn't afford a 70-200mm f/2.8, and so, I bought a second-hand 70-200mm f/4. I remember being far less excited when I received the lens because of that underwhelming widest aperture, but I quickly learned an important lesson: at 200mm, you get great bokeh even at f/4 and slightly above too. You don't need to go all the way down to f/1.2 to get strong subject separation and very blurry out-of-focus areas.

Not only can I pinpoint the day I became aware of this, but I also have the exact image that educated me! It's not a brilliant image, but it taught me more than almost any other image. I had not long had the 70-200mm with the disappointing widest aperture, and I had decided to go for a wander on a freezing cold winter morning. A horse was beautifully lit in the new day's light, and the trees in the background were twinkling. I took a shot at 200mm and f/4.

Though I don't much care for the shot, the light's great, and the bokeh of the trees is beautiful. At that moment, I realized the relationship between aperture and the focal length was not at all what I believed it to be. In the above scenario, I learned by necessity that f/4 could give me more of the subject in focus and still a beautiful background, but since then, it has become a staple of how I work.

Conclusion

This article was, of course, not for everyone. Many photographers use the entire range of apertures in their work. However, many beginners and enthusiasts suffer the same fate I did, opting for only wide open, or front-to-back focus, and it inhibits both your creative control and your ability to capture subjects exactly how you would like to.

Where do you use the middling apertures between f/2.8 and f/8? What applications have you found most useful? Share them in the comments below.

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16 Comments

Chase Wilson's picture

Shooting wide open is lazy.

Everything can be done as a result of laziness or thoughtful consideration and effort. I don't know anyone's motivations or processes.

No lazier than this comment...

Shooting wide open doesn't work in a wide variety of circumstances.

Raul Arias's picture

Good article. It’s crazy how for some photographers, shooting wide open is the only choice. Shooting wide open with a decent lens makes it kind of easy to get something nice, but the real challenge is to compose well in any situation. Sometimes you need to have more in focus. Now I’m doing a lot of documentary photography and the information you need in the frame a lot of times require you to use 4, 5,6, 8, even 11. And it’s way harder to nail it without composing carefully. Sometimes you want to show something important without distraction and it’s time to go wide open. I think that the message and the idea of the pictures dictate the fstop. Not backwards. That’s one of the reasons that I only use my 1.2 when I have an specific idea, but for the daily basis I hardly go wider than 1.8.

Chase Wilson's picture

I agree. wide open should be a compromise. Not a default.
But, between us girls, the folks who use max-bokeh as a default – are entirely unremarkable. So where's the harm?

During the COVID lockdown I watched some old Perry Mason reruns. Originally shot for a puny, low-resolution CRT, they are surprisingly brilliantly shot which you can see when viewed on today's 60+ inch digital screens.

I was particularly intrigued by the excellent use of selective focus. Almost always you aren't even aware it's there. You just note that the critical component of what's on the screen is accentuated by being in sharp focus vs. the rest which is still "readable," but just softer. It reminds me a lot of some of the points raised here, and shows a real understanding of how selective focus can be used to an optimal level.

One of the things I like about apps like Focos that let you decide on your aperture/focus level after the shot is that they allow you to try different settings as an exercise to see what works best for a particular photo, and why more or less background blur is good or bad. I was shooting some COVID signs at the beach this week and wanted the beach behind it soft. I tried it with DOFs that were deep, just moderate, somewhere in the middle, and pretty shallow. (I didn't want to go completely soft because I wanted the beach to "read.") Generally I preferred the shots where the beach was just moderately focused (similar to Perry Mason, actually), but when a bunch of people started cluttering the scene, I found that pushing the blur more helped save the image. I could use that technique if I were somewhere where there was no let-up in people (i.e., where waiting 10-20 minutes couldn't resolve the issue).

This is a longer-than-typical comment that essentially affirms the article's point that apertures are great things to think thoughtfully about and it's a good thing to re-challenge our own habits every so often. Thanks for the post.

Pradipto WP's picture

I always shoot portrait at f/1.4. But often i feel the background is still bussy and bad. It's blurry, but to me looks not right.

I came to a conclution that if your background is bad, it will look bad, blurry or not. If your background is bad at f/2.8, then f/1.4 won't help much. Bad photo is still a bad photo regardless of the aperture. You still have to work out the background even at f/1.4. Wide aperture is not an excuse to being lazy to make a good composition.

I do not understand why people cannot accept the limitation of technology and work around the same. Just take 2 shots and composite them as you want.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

I've always been of the mindset in my photography to use whatever aperture is needed to get the shot I am looking for, and have NEVER shoehorned myself into taking images with a specific aperture, regardless of the situation or requirements.

If a landscape image requires F13, I'll shoot at F13. If I'm shooting a portrait, I'll usually use an aperture anywhere between F1.4 to F5.6, depending on the background, and how it looks in the image.

Photographers need to understand that just because they may have that prized G Master F1.4 or Canon RF F1.2 piece of glass, it doesn't HAVE to stay wide open!

Charles Mercier's picture

Maybe I'm living in the past and not overly familiar with modern tech, but I thought wide open meant lower quality images especially on the edges.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Well, that still holds true for some glass, but there are lenses out there that have exemplary sharpness right out to the corners, even wide open.

But if one is shooting a portrait, you really only need sharpness in the middle and not the corners, no? :)

Jakub Valovič's picture

Personally, I'm finding that when shooting with selective focus apertures around f/5.6 (with 58mm lens) returns best sense of 3-Dness of the object - depth of field is large enough for the object yet fore and backgroud is still separated enough

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

You know, I noticed the same thing. A while back, I was testing different apertures, did a 3/4 shot of a model with an 85mm @ f8 In the background were some mountain ranges. It looked too 3-D(ish). haha Almost fake looking. Like a bad composite.

Michael Krueger's picture

I rarely shoot at f/1.8 on my nifty 50s, often shoot at f/2.8 because I don't need or want the shallow depth of field but still need to gather enough light.

alan christie's picture

Guilty as charged. And I can tell by the tone of this article that you had a lot of fun having to "work at it", I'm certainly going to do some work on this. Thanks.