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Wide Open Spaces

March 31, 2010

I get asked how to shoot “wide open” a lot, meaning setting the aperture to it’s very lowest setting (which means it’s as open as it can possibly be).  So here are some thoughts on that.

First of all, when I shoot wide open with my Nikon lenses, they tend to be very soft if I’m in bright light.  What I mean by that is the part that supposed to be in focus looks a bit fuzzy.  Here’s an example:

If you look at her you can see she looks a bit hazy.  Here’s a closer look:

You can see that there’s a purple/blue fringe around her and it’s not very sharp.  This is something to watch out for when you’re shooting in bright light.  To avoid it they say to be at least two stops above the widest setting (for some reason I tend to favor f/2.2).  Supposedly nice Zeiss lenses don’t do this but then they’re only manual focus on a Nikon.

If you shoot on anything less than the widest setting the bits of light in the background (I’m avoiding the word “bokeh”) don’t appear to be circles ~ they are octagons or hexagons, or some other shape depending on the lens and how many blades it has.  If you look at the picture below, shot at f/2.2, you can see how the light spots in the back have a shape:

If you shoot wide open, no shape:

It’s something I notice when looking at pictures but I’m not sure the average person does.

So, how to get things in focus.  That’s the tricky bit.

I am not a technical person, so if it’s going to bother you that I’m going to murder the physics of photography, misuse the jargon, and get things “wrong”, then stop reading now 🙂

When you shoot wide open, your focal plane is very small.  Basically that means that the bit that’s going to be in focus is very small.  So being able to control what’s in focus becomes very important.

1) Realize that if you’re too close to the subject you’ll get the eyes in focus, but the nose will be blurry:

Or the nose in focus and the eyes blurry:

You need to move back a bit so that they’ll both be in focus:

99% of the time you want all of the face to be in focus (I would think :)).

The other thing to consider, if you want to be super close, is stopping down the aperture a bit (make it smaller).  Like I said above, I’m a huge fan of f/2.2.  The closer you are to your subject, the smaller the focal plane, so the less that will be in focus and the more that will be blurry in the background.

2) and I don’t have any examples to post of this, but make sure that you are keeping the front of the lens directly parallel to the subject.  In the pictures above I’m sitting directly in front of Anne and I have the camera even with her face.  If she looks up at me, I get higher than her and make sure that I have the camera angled so that it’s dead even with her face (but more often I tell her to put her chin down, so that we aren’t moving all around).  When I’m shooting a portrait I generally make sure that I’m at the same level of the person’s face (lots of bending down if it’s a child) and I’m generally saying “Look at me! Look right here (and I tap the top of the lens)”.

3) Seems obvious, but focus on the eyes if you’re shooting a portrait.  It’s what people look at and it’s what needs to be in focus.

And, finally, take a lot of pictures.  Move in, move out, look at your viewing screen, get a feel for where you need to be.  My 50mm lens is my go to lens, so I know what’s going to happen when I use it.  Pick a lens you like and just use it every day for a month.  Take a ton of pictures in different light, with different apertures, in different places ~ start getting a sense that you know what’s going to happen.  After a while you should have very few surprises.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2010 9:58 am

    you are amazing!

  2. Karo permalink
    March 31, 2010 10:01 am

    Nice post! And I love that last photo of Anne.

  3. March 31, 2010 10:17 am

    Thanks so much!
    Do you ever get a lighter spot in the middle of your pictures with your 50mm.
    I have 50mm 1.8 for my Nikon and when I shoot in bright light or at the beach where everything is bright or light. I end up with this silly blob of lighter color in the middle of my picture??? It is very frustrating bccause there is not always a wasy to fix it??

  4. March 31, 2010 10:28 am

    wow an amazing blog post – so very very useful 😀

  5. *Olivier permalink
    March 31, 2010 10:32 am

    Great synthesis, and with the best way to explain it … ! Bravo.

  6. Jose permalink
    March 31, 2010 10:46 am


  7. March 31, 2010 11:17 am

    Wow Lauren – The very last one – no masks? It’s amazing how moving back the right amount will put the entire face (or whatever one wants to focus on) so unbelievably in focus relative to the back/foreground. I have to try this… I have never given it a thought.

  8. Nancy Newell permalink
    March 31, 2010 5:13 pm

    thanks Lauren for a great post! I find that I can control the 85/1.8 better with the full frame. My 50/1.4 casts too much vignette and I get frustrated with the blur. I think I’ll take your advice, strap on the 50 for a month, stop it down a bit and see what I get.

    Annie’s hair is growing in nicely. 🙂

  9. April 2, 2010 12:52 pm

    I just have to sing praise of your beautiful and inspiring blog! I love photography and yet often feel frustrated for my lack of technique. (well, and quality lens choice) It is a wonderful offering that you bring to others in sharing your passion. I love the quality of your images, they read as poetic and emotionally rich! If you ever have opportunity to share your favorite lens choices, and what you love about them, it would be so great for me. I am ready to branch out from my nify 50 1.8 and yet, I am overwhelmed by the options . Happy Spring!

  10. April 3, 2010 9:59 am

    hi Lauren!
    Thanks for this post!
    this fuzzy focus happen a lot to me.
    i shot with a Nikon D60 and i have a 50mm 1.8f lens, but they are only manual and the D60 doesn’t have an auto focus on the body…so i have lots of problems with focus. Even when i’m close to the subject and i shot 1.8 f directly to the eyes…i don’t now how to do with them..;(

    Love your photo examples!

  11. April 4, 2010 4:12 pm

    Anne looks a lot like you on the second photo!

  12. April 10, 2010 3:46 pm

    thank you so much. i didn’t know about stopping down the lens. i spent an entire afternoon shooting my kids only have a very few images clear and sharp. now, most everything is. thanks again.

  13. April 14, 2010 4:26 am

    Hi Lauren.

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

    I still can’t believe I’ve stumbled upon this gem of a blog, perfect for someone like me who just started to get the hang of using a digital slr. Your explanation is just perfect. This post is especially great for me — I love shooting with a wide apperture but the softness can sometimes be a nuisance.

    f/2.2. I will keep that in mind. Thank you so much.

    ps: I want to tell everyone I know about your blog now! 😀

  14. April 20, 2010 12:41 pm

    Thank you, Lauren, for such helpful posts. You give clueless folks like me a chance to feel like we actually know something about photography.

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