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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.