How to Photograph with Wide Apertures


A few days ago, I was shooting in front of a group of photographers (ummm, yeah…that’s as totally as intimidating as it sounds) and someone asked a question about shooting with a wide aperture and recomposing a photo. This occurred when I explained I was shooting the bride at f/1.2 with my 50mm lens. Generally speaking, I’m a huge fan of recomposing my shot in-camera because I don’t like to crop in post. If I can frame it the way I want it at point of capture, I don’t find it necessary to work twice as much later. However, when a photographer shoots wide open (specifically wider than a f/2.0), the propensity to take an out-of-focus photo increases greatly.

When I was shooting with the Canon 5D and the Canon 5DMII (you can see all the photo gear I use on this post), the nine-point focusing system forced me to focus and recompose my shot quite often. I use back-button focusing, so I’ll focus on what I want to (in the example below, it’s the bride’s eye), then shift my camera to compose the photo the way I want it. This process has been made so much easier with the Canon 5DMIII’s 61-point focusing systems (you can read my Canon 5DMIII review here). Yes, I gained 52 more focal points within the camera system…and then I died.

85mm f/1.2 1/400 320 ISO

Regardless of the focusing system you’re working with, the key is to remember focal planes exists on an x (horizontal) and y (vertical) axis. This means anything along either of those axises will be in focus, and vice versa. When I worked with a 9-point focusing system, I had to focus/recompose a lot more than with a 61-point system, but the most important thing to note was when I focused my camera, I could only move my camera horizontally (left/right) or vertically (up/down) from the original point of focus.

50mm f/2.0 1/2000 160 ISO

When shooting wide open, your movements must be precise because even the smallest diversion from these axises with yield an out-of-focus photo. You cannot move at a diagonal or take even the smallest step forward or back without the need to refocus. This is how I consistently get focused shots shooting wide open. I hope this offers insight into how I work, but if you have questions, holler back in the comment box and I’ll respond.

If you’d like to see a demonstration of me using and shooting with wide apertures, you can check out this VIDEO.

Happy Tuesday!

**Edited to Add**
@Ashlee: Back button focus isn’t anything tricky…instead of metering and focusing by pressing on the shutter, I focus with my back button then press the shutter to shoot. I shoot in one shot mode and, yes, you can still choose your focal point.
@Melody: I don’t have a preferred aperture for shooting group formals, but if there’s decent light and they are standing in a straight line, f/5.6 is a good place to start. In really tough lighting situations, I wouldn’t shoot a group any wider than f/4.5 for fear of making some people blurry, especially at the edge of the frame if it’s a wide angle lens. I’d defer to increasing my ISO or using off-camera flash before shooting too wide.
@Julie: Yes!! I aways select my focal point (closest to the subject’s eye) then recompose if necessary. This means I’m rotating my focal point every time I shoot…it’s now second nature to me.
@Kristin: I don’t have a starting focal point…I rotate it for every shot. If you wanted the bride’s face in the top, right third of the frame, turn the camera vertically, find the closest focal point to her eye, then shift your camera left/right to frame your photo.
@Frank: My meter is set to evaluative, but–honestly–I gauge it using my LCD screen. I expose for skin and always try to find complimentary light…if I have these two elements, exposure is relatively straight forward from there using my LCD screen. 🙂
@Stephanie: Always focus on the eyes! 🙂
@Cairith: I don’t think about cropping for prints {too much} while shooting because it’ll get in the way of what I’m seeing IN the moment. I always leave room around the main subject, but I don’t stress about because if worse comes to worse, I can educate my clients about matting the photo for a frame…or printing it really large! 🙂
@Colin: The key to remember in my example is that it’s applicable to my photographic specialty: weddings. Using your example, if I was to place a groom on a third story building and a bride on the first story, I wouldn’t be shooting at a f/1.2 (just due to the simple nature of things, there are too many mitigating factors to account for). However, if I had a bride a groom who both stood at 6-feet tall, I could theoretically place them shoulder to shoulder, focus on an eye, stand 6-8 feet away, and the photo would be focused. I’m not saying I would do that on a normal basis, but I’ve done it before and with practice, you’ll soon find how to find the sweet spot.
@Allie: I can’t say for sure why your lens is producing soft images, but be sure to get it calibrated if it’s under warranty. It also may be the type of lens you’re using as well as what you are trying to shoot.
@Alexis: Just to clarify: I don’t normally shoot wide open if both or more than one of the subjects is looking at me. I’ve discovered I can shoot wide open when I’m focused on one person in the frame, or I’m standing at a distance and both subjects are looking away from my camera.