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Reader Comment: Fast Lenses Wide Open

Dan M writes:

I only do portrait lenses close to the maximum aperture and I virtually NEVER do any lens at it's maximum aperture. I've always wanted you to go on a diglloyd rant on the urban online photography myth that one buys an f/1.4 lens to shoot only at 1.4, a f/2 lens to shoot at f/2, etc. It seems to have abated on some of the forums lately.

But not soon enough to prevent thousands of unfortunate family members from being condemned to albums and archive discs loaded with fabulous images of little Johnny and Rose Marie, who will never be little again, with one eye, a half eyebrow, and the tip of a nose or ear in focus.

These guys actually believe that the ONLY benefit to spending 2-3 grand on a high end f/1.4 is that you can shoot it at f/1.4. They think there is no difference in a shot made with that lens at, say, f/4, than the same shot made with a $450 lens at f/4. The quality of the glass, the chromatic issues, the total color rendition, the sharpness, the bokeh, all that stuff magically evaporates the instant you turn that dial from 1.4 or 2.0 to f/4 or 5.6. Which, of course, happens to be the sweet spot for performance in many of the top lenses.

I remember in one forum 2-3 years ago the "old pros" were encouraging young guys with toddlers and new copies of the ZF 100/2 to get down on their knees and hobble around the living room and dining room, chasing their toddler kids, trying to get that perfect image with a slow-throw manual focus ring which is deliberately NOT designed for that sort of thing, and doing it at f/2, because, duh, that's what they bought it for..... There are guys who posted 10-15 images or more, not one of which had any important part of their child's anatomy in focus. Ditto for the unmarried widest-aperture fanatics and their poor girlfriends, who we can only hope moved on and found suitors higher up in the gene pool. And it's clear from the maximum aperture groupie comments that they have each NEVER shot their $1,800 lens at the apertures where it's top performance resides.

Now, don't mistake me. I use the ZF 100/2 in my artifact work and it easily ranks in the top three most used lenses I have. I love that lens; it's a bedrock, foundational lens for my work. But, for the record: artifacts don't run around hyper on the living room floor and they tend to have--with good care-- the same appearance tomorrow and next year that they had yesterday. For people, especially fast moving people, I go where I should go, the 85G, the 200/2VR and the 70-200VR. And I have sense enough to shoot each of them at apertures that will get little Johnny's nose and face in focus back at least to his ears. I do not go on a portrait session to save one of his eyebrows or the tip of his left ear for posterity. And I do not go out on a shoot to see what a beautiful young twenty-something would look like if, say, her entire face were behind a fishbowl.... If I do 20 finished images of little toddler Rose Marie, I might mix in 3-4 very wide aperture shots where only her eyes, BOTH her eyes, and the accompanying cheekbones and eyebrows are tight in focus. But I will not hand her parents twenty finished images from which they have to cut and paste to assemble what was their whole child back in 2013.

I feel better now. The primary wide aperture issue in the online world, the real issue, appears to be cranial, not in the camera .

DIGLLOYD: Great perspective.

The right lens for the job (autofocus in particular). And shooting wide open can be both a valuable tool and can also be overdone. As can always stopping down for depth of field, which introduces distractions of its own (no subject separation).

There is often a sharp/unsharp balance to be achieved— the goldilocks “just right” thing. It’s tricky work to make an f/1.4 image work at close range, but it can be done. See Portrait 3 for an example of a close range image that would work well at f/4 or so.

In general, satisfactory close-range portraits require two technical achievements:

  • Nailing the focus on the eyes (sharp nose hair with unsharp eyes is horrible).
  • Enough depth of field for sharpness while providing just enough but not too much contextual information in the background, e.g., without having the background intrude by eliminating subject separation and/or being too sharp.

Personally I find studio portraits that many pros shoot quite boring (the f/11 - f/16 studio flash kind that eliminate all sense of depth). Technically flawless but boring (ditto for many classic landscape shots). I would rather accept the challenge of a wide aperture along with a high failure rate. But that would be intolerable for someone like a wedding photographer, so don’t misunderstand me on this point. And I certainly like to use f/8 or so for portraits under some conditions.

Below is an image at f/1.4 with one eye (almost) in focus (see the discussion on focus calibration). I’m not so bothered by one unsharp eye so long as one eye is razor sharp (it is not quite sharp in the image below, due to a slight focus error). But what is the alternative here? Stop down and thus create a sharper and more distracting background? That would probably be acceptable to ~f/4 or so, but f/11 is required to fully sharpen the face in this orientation at this range. And yet I like this angle of the head (not exactly, but close). Stopping down would have meant ISO 6400 or so, which would have introduced another distraction, noise. One has to choose a balance, nail it and be practical for the conditions all at the same time.

Nikon D800E + Sigma 35/1.4 DG HSM

Charles M writes:

Dan M makes some valid points on your blog regarding Fast Lenses Wide open. I find that too many people shoot arbitrarily wide open just for the bokeh effect. In some cases, for effect, I may want just the iris tact sharp, but in may more cases I would prefer the eyes, noise and mouth sharp in a frontal portrait and I really do prefer both eyes to be sharp at the expense of less than creamy background in a three quarter portrait. One can always choose a background that is further away to retain more bokeh in the background. I sometimes have to resort to only keeping the front eye in focus but often it's more out of necessity (low light condition), than choice. Shooting portraits strictly wide open is becoming a fad that will eventually go away like most fads and people will be left with only memories of their kids and loved ones with just one eye sharp by the time the fad goes away and then it may be too late to go back. What's particularly disturbing is couple's picture where the only the person closest to the camera is sharp, not because of artistic expression but because the photographer just loves to only shoot wide open. There is a time and place for everything and I can't accept the rational for this. Bokeh is not everything!

There is a strong argument for Micro 4/3 sensors when doing natural light portrait photography. I find that with my OMD I can get much more of the face in focus at the same aperture than with my full frame camera and I appreciate the increase dept of field. To get the same dept of field on my full frame I would have to stop down and increase the ISO. But then, the full full frame better handles the ISO so it's a balancing act we have to consider. I think we photographers are more fascinated with ultra bokeh than our clients. From the pictures that they actually order, I find that they tend to oder ones that they consider more sharp (where most of the face is in focus) than the ones with only one eye in focus. Some clients have even remarked that there were pictures that they really loved but "too bad it's out of focus" (actually only the closer eye is in focus).

DIGLLOYD: Well I don't disagree here except that “one can always choose a background that is further away” seems to presume that one has control over things that I rarely have control over.

Dan M continues:

This whole aperture mindset thing is complex and it's very easy for our parameters and points to slip past one another. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having one eye dead in focus, the other slightly out of plane. I've taken many of those, especially where the subject is looking at an angle to me. Or looking directly at me with both eyes dead in focus with the cheekbones and eyebrows and the nose slightly soft and with the ears and the back side of the hair out of focus. Either of these situations is OK, especially if the kid or lady has knockout eyes. To me, it has to be obvious why you kept that shot with the narrow field of focus. (notice how I worded that. Not that you took it, but that you kept it. Even more important if you posted it or put it in an album or archive.... This implies the photographer looked at his results and judged that the narrow field actually accomplished something meaningful other than satisfying a fad) I know you've published on the site several of your daughter with the dark hair where that rule was well applied.....

What's a problem with me is when a guy takes thirty photos, posts them, and all thirty are a plane of f/2 or f/1.4 focus slicing the faces to pieces. Or NONE of the face is in focus and he doesn't seem to realize it. This tends to happen when the newbie catches on to the fad long before he catches on to how to operate his lens or what his lens can actually do in a variety of circumstances..... Imagine owning a Zeiss 100/2 for a year or more and never taking a shot at f 4 or 5.6. Such people exist.

Very narrow field of focus on a portrait works if the subject is REALLY special in some way and that photo shows it, or if it is mixed with other photos where it is NOT used. To shoot the same kid twenty times at f/2 and from only a few feet away kills the special effect of the wide aperture. It quickly begins to look like it wasn't the photographer's choice, but a reflection of his or her lack of skill/knowledge. You aren't guilty of any of this, but man, there are a host of guys in online forums who have butchered their kids, wives or girlfriends with f/2 and f/1.4 slices.

You're a smart cookie and I hope you're catching the subtle linkages here. What we have here (See Cool Hand Luke for reference) is a failure, a technical misunderstanding of lens manufacture and engineering purpose which then, in the hands of the eager "a-little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing" purist, becomes an in-the-field artistic problem. Honest to God, Lloyd, there are guys on the forums with ZF 100/2s and 200/2 VRs who have NEVER used those lenses in the best range of apertures for their specific engineering. And they will righteously lecture you, asking you why you shot that 200VR at f 3.2 or that ZF 100/2 at f/4. And, harrrumphhh! They will declare that you are wasting your money you spent on that lens if you insist on taking shots at anything other than the maximum aperture. Again, this boggles the mind how somebody can reason this way. It's a de facto declaration that the glass and technology of that lens actually morphed into something ordinary when you went from f/2 to f/2.5 or 3.2 or whatever.... It's the inability to ask "when I say this, what has to be happening for it to be true?" Or, "when I paid the extra two thousand dollars for this lens above and beyond the price of that other f/3.5 dime store lens, is the two thousand dollars really just so I can shoot at f/1.4?? I mean, really?"

Aperture choice should be subservient to the occasion, not the other way around. There's a reason that $1,500 to $5,000 lens has an aperture ring or internal hardware aperture settings with more than one number available....

This conversation is further complicated by the fact that you are a lens and camera professional reviewer, so yes, you DO have a legitimate reason to go hunting images at a specific aperture with that being the dominant (temporary) priority.

To complicate matters further still, this stuff comes in waves. For two or three years it's a fad. Tens of thousands of cute young ladies and kids with noses, ears and eyelashes peeking out from bokeh ethereal space.... And then, for reasons known only to Seers atop Himalayan peaks, it fades away. And then boom, 4-5 years later, back come the mushy faces. And each time, the photographers think they're on the cutting edge.

It's a good thing we've not stumbled upon an issue where I have a strong opinion.

Enough. You really do need to wade into this phenomenon in the blog sometime.

DIGLLOYD: Seems like Dan has waded pretty deeply already. But just to get his goat, I need to add to my list a bunch of nose-hair portraits at f/0.9 using the Metabones SpeedBooster! :; Now about that new Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar....

Dan P (not Dan M) writes:

Great article and with a great impact on the way I am taking photographs. I have to say that, yes, I was using the lenses at the max aperture because "I paid for 1.4". Or for 2.8 in the case of the 300mm.

On the other hand - I have to say that I made the family portraits at f5.6 with my Nikon 35mm f1.4. Even though, the merit is not entirely mine - my wife was very adamant that everybody's face's has to be sharp.

DIGLLOYD: The choice of aperture is one of the many creative choices to make. Like any tool, it has its uses and abuses.

Markus H writes:

Much as only-one-eye-in-focus can become repetitive, any kind of portrait photography can become repetitive. Selective focus is there to draw attention to something both by making the sharp areas stand out and letting as little as possible of the background distract the viewer. Putting only one eye in focus, for example enhances the effect that somebody is just glancing at you out of his peripheral vision or just turned his head (and eyes) towards you or is looking at some completely different.

There are boring images with very selective focus and there are boring images with everything from nose to ear in focus. Just like selective lighting, selective focus is a tool to guide the viewer's gaze. If that target is not interesting, the tool did not make it a good photo. Just like a frame around an image guides the viewer and can enhance an image, a bad image won't become a good one just by putting a frame around it. But this does not mean frames are a fad.



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