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Upon first glance of one of my most prized lenses, the Canon 50mm f/1.2L USM, a bewildered remark typically arises from professionals and hobbyists alike. Though absolutely spectacular photographers in the industry love working with a wide open aperture, there are equally as many who wouldn’t touch anything lower than a f/4.0 with a ten foot pole.
“I’d never shoot as wide as f/1.2” is a common comment I’ve encountered over the years of working as a professional photographer.
Stylistic choices aside, upon further inquiry as to why the response to a f/1.2, f/1.8, or f/ 2.0 f-stop yielded such results the truth came out. There are common misunderstandings of how to use and work with a wide open aperture! If your artistic aesthetic drools over soft, dreamy photographs and creamy bokeh, then you better get ready to play with some low, low, low numbers.
Before we get to the “how”, let’s discuss the “why”. There are several beneficial reasons to shoot with a wide open aperture, aside from simply liking the result.
Depending on the type of photography that you do, you may not always have the option of utilizing an ideal location. Maybe your client is only able to commute to one place? Maybe the location of a shoot that was booked months prior has changed for the worse upon your arrival on site? Or maybe you just have to get a specific photo done pronto and you aren’t able to find a new spot?
Whatever the reason for your woes, a wide open aperture is here to help! With the depth-of-field being so shallow, whatever troubles you about the background can easily melt into a beautiful creamy bokeh. Utilizing an f-stop of f/2.0 or lower helps you work with a less than immaculate location, as the extremely shallow depth of field allows you to mask the flaws.
A shallow depth of field can make for very beautiful detail shots. If you look through current wedding photography trends, you may find that several heavy-hitters in the industry are turning to wide open apertures to capture photographs of the bouquets, rings, and table settings. This is because photographs taken with a large aperture allow all of the focus to lie on the subject, and the background ceases to remain a distraction.
With events such as weddings, where the arrangements can appear cluttered if you only want to focus on one little aspect of the set-up, a shallow depth of field will keep the interest solely on your single subject. Music photography adores wide apertures for the same exact reason. If you want to bring out a detail while photographing behind-the-scenes of a recording session, f/1.2 is wonderful.
With all of the technology available for photo editing, almost anything is possible with the right knowledge. However, rather than spending countless hours in the editing room creating a specific look artificially, why not get it right in the camera?
For those who adore dreamy, ethereal, or soft photographs, a wide aperture will quickly become your most trusted friend. Filmmakers consistently utilize wide open apertures in order to create a soft focus with a shallow depth of field to give the viewer the illusion of a dream-like state. When we dream, it is often hard to clearly and sharply recollect some of those thoughts when we wake. So the idea of soft and not perfectly in focus images came to mind.
We can replicate this using an aperture of f/1.2 easily, especially if you have objects in the foreground which are just as out of focus as the objects in the background.
Possibly one of the most dreaded phrases in photography is “low light”. Two very short, simple words that cause some of the biggest photographer headaches. This is because there isn’t a lot of available light to play with, and as such, getting the right exposure can be hard.
However, if you want to take a well exposed photo in low light, you need a lens with a wide enough aperture to let in more light. Using a lens that goes down to f/1.8, for example, is a great way to let enough light in and make the frame bright. Remember, the aperture is the hole the light passes through in your lens. The wider the aperture, the more light that enters the camera.
Now that we’ve covered some of the “why”, let’s have a nice chat about the “how.” Many of the challenges associated with a wide aperture revolve around the focus and photographing in bright light. From a recent poll I took, here are the primary issues troubling photographers about low f-stops, and some solutions to help you solve them.
With the aperture being the opening that lets light in through the lens, and a wide aperture which lets in a lot of light, one may think that shooting in the bright sunlight is off-limits. The solution to this dilemma is taking advantage of tinted filters that darken your lens, such as a neutral-density (or ND) filter. The purpose (and benefit) of an ND filter is to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. Doing so allows you to utilize a wide aperture that would otherwise produce overexposed pictures.
To quickly refresh you of the basics, when you focus your camera on a subject, it establishes a focal plane. To get your subject in focus, it has to be on the focal plane. Focal planes happen on an x (horizontal) and y (vertical) axis. This means anything along either of those axes will be in focus, and anything not on them will be out of focus.
Simple, right? Well, the difficulty with a wide open aperture is that your focal plane is quite small. As you decrease your aperture number and make the opening wider, the invisible area in front and behind the plane of focus will get smaller and smaller, leaving you with much less wiggle-room. As such, distance from the subject plays a key role in your focus.
When shooting wide open, even the smallest diversion from either of the focal plane axes will cause your subject to be out-of-focus photo. You cannot take a step forward or back without the need to refocus when shooting at a wide aperture. But by keeping this in mind, you can adjust your photography technique to better accommodate the small focal plane.
A trick to help make sure that what you want in focus is indeed sharp, is to use single point autofocus. By default, your camera will probably select either the object that’s closest to the camera or what’s in the center of the frame. By using single point autofocus, you tell the camera exactly where to focus, which is extremely helpful with low aperture numbers. Refer to your camera model’s manual to find how to change the focus setting!
Keeping in mind how the focal plane works, there are several things you can do to ensure your multiple subjects are all in focus. First, try to set up all of your subjects on the same axis. Keep everything you want perfectly in focus the same distance from the camera.
Secondly, the farther away you are from the subject, the easier it is to get the subjects all in focus. If you have a large group of subjects you’d like in focus, move further away from them!
Sharpness is an interesting concept. How sharp a subject appears is a matter of two things: the focus the camera captures and the amount of contrast on your subject. The term “sharpness” is, in fact, an illusion. You see, for an image to be considered sharp, it needs to have contrast. If the there is little contrast in the image, the subject will not look three-dimensional regardless of whether the focus is perfect or not.
Biologically, the way that our eyes work, our vision naturally detects edges to register sharpness, and shadows and highlights in order to record the depth in a subject. This is a very important concept to understand when answering the question of how to make images look sharp.
With this now in your knowledge arsenal, proper lighting aids significantly in making your images look sharp. The other factor in an image being sharp is, of course, the focus. Ensuring that your subject is in focus using the aforementioned techniques, combined with great lighting, will make certain that your images come out sharp.
Now that you know how to take advantage of those low numbers and wide openings, go forth, and create!