Sometimes I think we as photographers tend to get hung up on certain kinds of images. I’ve known colleagues who have pretty much based their entire careers on shooting images with their lenses wide open. The pretty bokeh effect is something that almost everybody loves. But if you’re a seasoned photographer you’ll know that a whole other world of images exist out there when you stop down and practice isolating your subject with methods other than focus.
For some unknown reason the average person thinks you must be an incredibly skilled photographer if you can shoot a portrait at 1.4 or 1.2. In fact in some ways, this takes less skill. You can pretty much set your camera up before you leave the studio. Position your client with the sun at their back and perhaps use a tiny bit of fill flash. The background isn’t much of an issue because it just sort of melts away. Some specular highlights might even make the picture pretty. And if the light is lousy on the day of the shoot, just pull up a sun flare action and drop it into the picture. I guarantee you that people will love this.
But what happens if you need to do an environmental portrait? Selecting a smaller aperture is necessary to help tell the story and place your subject into a setting that perhaps helps to describe who they are. It becomes much more critical to carefully frame and position yourself so that a good composition results with the subject and setting both in focus and both complimenting one another.
Photojournalists and street photographers commonly shoot at apertures of f8 or smaller. And they employ things other than focus to isolate their subjects. It becomes more about light, contrast, motion, colour, and gesture to help make their images work.
As an exercise for my students in my photography classes I sometimes ask them to purposely defocus their lenses and search out shapes and forms to help find their compositions. This teaches them to not get hung up on perfectly sharp images and actually helps them to see contrast and colour. Try it. You might like what it can do for your photography.
And if you’re one of those people who always has to shoot wide open because everyone on social media loves your pictures, try stopping down and develop a different set of eyes. Refusing to take the easy way out is usually always good for you as a photographer.