Why I Shoot Portraits Wide Open and You Should Try It Too

Conventional wisdom in studio portrait photography tells us to avoid shooting portraits wide open. But in this video, I will show you why I shoot portraits wide open all the time, and you should try it too.

Photography is one of those artistic pursuits that comes with a ton of baggage in the form of conventional wisdom. And although there are some tried-and-true techniques we should all be familiar with as photographers, these ideas can become stifling to our creativity if we take them as dogma that can’t be challenged. One thing I’ve heard many times is that you should not shoot portraits wide open. Whatever the technical reasons are that people promote this view, in this video I give six reasons why I often shoot wide open when taking portraits. One of my reasons is that you only need one sharp eye to make the portrait work. People often worry if the back of the face or even the nose is soft, but since viewers are drawn towards the eye, that's really the only part of the image that I believe must be in sharp focus. I also talk about the dreamlike effect that shooting wide open gives, as well as how shooting wide open with your subject right against the background can create some excellent results. As always, let me know what you think in the comments below, and I hope you enjoy the video.

Pete Coco's picture

Pete Coco is a portrait photographer and musician based in New York. When not performing as a jazz bassist, Pete can be found in his studio working with a wide range of clients, although is passion is creating unique portraits of other musicians and artists.

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Great video Pete, sharing this with the students.

Thanks, Gary!

While I agree with the video, I would say that if you are shooting in the studio with flash I always aim to have the flash power 4 stops above the ambient light/modelling light to avoid crossed curves and mix light. If you use constant light this isn't a problem, but I personally don't like the quality of light from led.

Or you could just set the camera settings to ignore the ambient light and only have to deal with the flash/strobe light.

I usually do as Reginald suggests and make sure to eliminate the ambient. Sometimes I shut off the lights to avoid any unwanted spill and use a v flat if needed when using continuous wide open.

I think there is a confusion on my use of the term stops, I meant camera stops not flash stops.(I think the use of the term stops by flash manufacture is useless should never be seen as a valid value) Mainly done with shutter speed and iso, but when the lens is wide open you might hit the max sync speed.

This was great Pete, thanks. Another reason I like wide-open is that the ear(s) will soften. If sharp ears are your thing, fine. But for me the detail in a sharp ear is distracting, and not in a good way, so I prefer the approach you’re recommending here.

Thanks, Mark. I prefer the ears soft too, even for a commercial style headshot.

I think it’s common to shoot wide open portraits. it’s nice but if that alone is what carry an image, something is not right. It is a optical effect. I think even my FaceTime calls have that effect now.
I distract me when hands in foreground or arms in the background is blurred out. I would expect clients to think so to.
I hope I am not a bad person because I would mostly stick to f8:)
Headshots with out body parts is fine to shoot wide open. Props, dresses and body parts like hands and arms I don’t think is good to blur out. For the most :)

I haven't watched the video, but I think he was meaning in the studio, where it is more common to do f/5.6 or f/8 or so to make sure everything's in focus, deal with the more powerful lights, etc. Non-studio portraits generally are all wide open (or close) though.

Well I did :)

I don't think shooting wide open with good camera gear is anything like the weird Facetime/iPhone effects. I actually prefer the opposite of what you do - in a head and shoulders headshot I want it more or less sharp throughout the image. You are not a bad person for sticking to f/8 haha - to each his own! Thanks for the comment.

Yes if it’s for clients presentation use I think so to. Actually I think photographers them self appreciate shallow debts of field more then others. It’s fun but not a place to make camp, in my humble opinion.
I find it interesting that Martin Schoeller have made such a journey out of his style of headshots. So I kind of need accept such style. But I still do find the cath light the most interesting part of his setup. I wonder if you remove the catchlight and shallow debt of field - what’s left but some boring images of celebrity’s? Does those two things, particular catchlight and blurry ears make his images masterpieces and good photography? I don’t know. But I suppose at the time he started his style was pretty unique. That’s something to. :)

I shoot medium format... wide open is a solid conventional no go. Shooting at 1/3 - 1/2 stop down from wide open has proven ideal while still getting a similar effect. Glad you enjoy shooting wide open and you've got your process down. I have also seen folks who swear by shooting wide open who do not nail their focus what so ever. Conventional wisdom is there for a reason, to give folks a point of reference for what they need to aim for, informal rules to break once they have their craft nailed down. The photo I've shared is an example of stopping down from wide open. I am still able to achieve much of what you mention in the video without being completely wide open. The adage "just because you can doesn't mean you should" applies to shooting wide open in my book.

Yes, I agree that convention has its place and it's best to learn the rules before you break them. I also will stop down just a bit as well sometimes and shoot at small apertures for portraits too. I like that look as well. Thanks for sharing your photo.

I am no photographer by any means but my experience with big aperture lenses and portrait, in natural light in my case, is that fully open is very pleasing for the ego but not always working for the best final result, I shot a series of portrait while working at a place slightly above eye point and when somebody passing through I'd start entertain a conversation then take some shot with the 85/1.8, from such distance I found out that f1.8 simply won't work, leave alone the chances to miss the focus because of either me or them moving but tip of the nose so blurred that it would gather more attention, as a mistake, than perfectly sharp eyes.

I am not a believer that truth is often in the middle but have to admit that, at least on my kind of shooting, stopping down a tiny tiny bit preserves my ego (forking out the money for an f1.4 needs to fuel your ego) and doesn't make the photo look "wrong".

I am pretty sure the authors portrait are amazing, studio and controlled light is a different thing but I think he brought it to the extreme, simply put fully open doesn't always work but it sure is fun

Thanks, Giovanni. Yes, the vid is geared towards studio portraiture primarily, but I also shoot wide open outdoors as well. You are right that precision is key in this situation otherwise you will have a blurry image. I never really got the ego thing when it comes to fast lenses. I just like creamy bokeh and good quality haha.

I agree, Lee. For headshots, I make sure the face is pretty much in focus because as you suggested it's a tool that serves a purpose and not just an artistic pursuit.

Pete that was inspirational and you made some very interesting points,. As someone who shoots landscapes using 300-500mm wide open I get it although working on the edge seems to have two opposing results, either really good or an epic failure but, always fun.

Thanks Michael, I appreciate that. I think it's very cool that you are shooting landscapes wide open and I agree, it's always fun!