Are you struggling getting sharp photos when shooting wide open?
There are several reasons you might choose to take photos with your aperture open as far as it will go, or as it’s affectionately referred to in the photography world, “shooting wide open.” One trademark of a professional portrait is that nice creamy, smooth background that makes your subject seem to pop off the backdrop of your image, or bokeh. One way to achieve this type of bokeh is to shoot with your aperture wide open. Or maybe you’re shooting in a situation where there is not a lot of light, and you need your aperture wide open to get enough light required for a good shot. Whatever your reason is, achieving a sharp photo when shooting wide open is not always easy, and requires skill and practice. These tips will help you understand how to shoot wide open and still get the sharp photos you’re looking for.
Understand Focal Planes and Depth of Field
A focal plane is the plane through the focus perpendicular to the axis of a mirror or lens, where your sharpest focus is attained. Your focal plane will run parallel to your camera’s sensor. In this image below, you can identify the focal plane by the flowers that are in focus. The flowers that are on the same plane as my focal point (the girl) are in focus, while any flowers to her right or left are out of focus.
Your depth of field is the range of distances at which your focus is acceptably sharp. This is essentially how deep or how narrow your focal plane is. When shooting wide open, your depth of field is very shallow, so you will want to have all of your subjects on the same plane to ensure everyone is in focus. In the image below, you can see that the boy on the right is very slightly out of focus. He was standing ever so slightly closer to the camera than the girl, who is tack sharp. Had he been one step to his right, he would have been sharp, too.
In the image below, their faces are on the same focal plane, and both are sharp. This image was shot wide open at f/2.0 with a Canon 135L lens.
Choose Your Own Focus Point
A general rule for getting sharp photos when shooting wide open is to ensure you are selecting your own focus point (instead of letting the camera choose the focus point for you), and this is especially true when shooting wide open. When shooting at a wide open aperture, it is best to toggle your focus point to exactly where you want it, and not to focus and recompose. In many circumstances, focusing and recomposing is fine, but when you are working with such a narrow depth of field, moving your camera after selecting your focal point introduces even more risk of missing focus. The movement of your camera even a hair off the original focal plane can cause you to miss your focus entirely. When choosing your focal point, focus on the eye that is closest to camera.
Once you have set your focus point, you don’t want your camera to move at all. Your depth of field is so shallow when shooting wide open, that even taking a breath could change your focal plane. Be sure you are anchored well! Try leaning on a wall or nearby structure, taking a wide stance with your legs for stability, and anchoring your elbows at your sides. I even hold my breath when releasing the shutter.
Distance From the Subject
Your distance from your subject plays a role in your depth of field, which you can use to your advantage when shooting wide open. The closer you are standing to your subject the less depth of field you will have. The further you are from them, the more depth of field there will be. Use a longer lens to be able to shoot from farther away and still achieve the effects of that shallow depth of field.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
As with any skill, it just takes a lot of practice to get consistent and comfortable shooting wide open. Get your camera out and work at it! Learn the nuances of your specific lenses, experiment with shooting wide open from various distances, and practice poses that place your subjects on the same focal plane.
I will admit it: I am a wide open junkie. When I am shooting personal photos or in low-pressure situations, I tend to shoot with my aperture as wide open as it can get. I love the isolation of my subjects and the creamy bokeh I can achieve when opening up my aperture as wide as it will go, AND I crave the technical challenge of nailing a sharp image with such a narrow focal plane. But, there are times when I simply do not want to risk the chance of missing focus on an important shot. Sometimes, the risk just isn’t worth it.
Keep in mind that how each photographer shoots and the settings they prefer are just that: preferences. There is no “right way.” I love to shoot wide open, but there are times when shooting wide open simply isn’t the best idea. It’s also helpful to really get to know your gear. Every lens has a “sweet spot,” or an aperture at which it tends to have the sharpest focus, and this is usually a couple stops above it’s wide open aperture. Experiment with your gear to find out what works best for you!
Do you love to shoot wide open like I do? What have been some of your biggest obstacles to getting a sharp photo when shooting wide open? Let us know in the comments below!