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Pro Photo Rental

Shooting Wide Open - Caution!
By Zac Henderson

Shallow depth of field. That magical look that gets the subject in sharp focus while everything behind the subject completely falls away into a buttery, creamy, silky smooth dream. Shooting with a shallow depth of field has long been reserved for professional photographers and cinematographers that could afford exorbitantly priced cameras and lenses, but with the boom in digital photography and subsequent growth in the sheer number of people with cameras wanting to take cool pictures, this technique is often the first thing new photographers want to apply to their images.

Depth of field is a dangerous subject because it's easy to get lost down the rabbit hole. For the sake of this blog post, we’ll focus on one aspect of shallow depth of field photography: shooting wide open at a lens’ fastest f/stop.

This is going to be the first way to achieve a shallow focus image. Shooting wide open with lenses that have maximum apertures reaching f/2.8, f/1.8, f/1.4, and f/1.2 (or below if you can find them) will dramatically affect depth of field. A lens’ given aperture will, however, effect much more than how much of the scene is in focus. Unfortunately one aspect that many shooters seem to overlook is that using a lens at its widest aperture will inevitably lead to degradation in image quality.

To start with, shooting at a lens’ maximum aperture will always, with VERY FEW exceptions, result in an overall softer image with less contrast than when the lens is stopped down. Basically, even the in-focus parts of the image will be less sharp than when the lens is stopped down. This has to do with light scattering inside the lens. When more light enters the lens it's possible for that light to bounce around inside the barrel and result in less contrast. Think of it like drinking from a firehose.

After that, shooting wide open will worsen any chromatic aberration and blooming characteristics the lens already exhibits. The best example of this I can think of is Canon’s 85mm f/1.2. Don’t get me wrong- this lens is unbelievable. However, shooting at a BLAZING fast f/1.2 will exhibit some extremely severe red/cyan chromatic aberration in highlights and a pretty soft image overall, though center sharpness at f/1.2 is still quite impressive.

There are also situations where wide open shooting might present too little depth of field. For example, portraiture where the subject is turned in a 3/4 view will most likely result in only one eye in focus. Depending on the look you’re going for that might be ok, but generally a portrait will look…off… if one eye is out of focus. This risk is increased with the number of megapixels your camera has. The more resolution in your sensor, the harder your lenses have to work to resolve detail or else detail will be appear soft. A high resolution camera like the Nikon D850, Sony A7R III, or especially the Phase One IQ3 will make these issues much more prominent.

Will shooting at a given lens’ maximum aperture be the end of the world in terms of image quality? Not always. Having the ability to go to 1.2 is great if you need it, but the lens will generally perform better when stopped down to, say, 1.4. Different lenses will have different behaviors when used wide open. It’s important to know about the limitations before going out and using your brand new super fast lens wide open for all of the bokeh glory.

Peruse our site to view a selection of our fast prime lenses to get the shallow DOF and the bokeh of your dreams.

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