Recently, we told you about our favorite shutter speeds and how we put them to use. In an effort not to overlook other essential camera controls, this week we’re looking at the best apertures out there. More specifically, what makes these apertures so great at achieving particular photographic effects? Without further ado, here’s a look at our favorite apertures, why we love them and how we like to put them to use.
The widest of the wide-open apertures, if you’re lucky enough to have a super-fast lens with a super-wide aperture such as ƒ/1.2 (or even ƒ/1.4) you can practically photograph in the dark. That’s what wide-open, superfast lenses are best at: low-light photography with fast shutter speeds and without the need to boost the ISO to outrageous, noise-inducing lengths. This great aperture is found most frequently on prime lenses and the lenses are often hefty due to all that glass. The downside of such wide apertures is that they produce an incredibly shallow depth of field—meaning fewer elements in the image are tack sharp. This is used for creative effect, of course, but it can also make it tricky to ensure the point of focus is exactly where you want it.
Because of the aforementioned razor-thin depth of field when working wide open, I love to shoot at ƒ/2 even if my lens has a really fast ƒ/1.2 maximum aperture. (On a lens with an ƒ/2 maximum aperture, I might use ƒ/2.8 to similar effect.) This is true largely because I still get many of the benefits of a shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh but without the tight margin for error that shooting wide open allows. Further, working just inside the extremes of a lens’s available apertures also produces sharper pictures. Aberration becomes more apparent at a lens’s widest and smallest apertures, so stopping down from wide open to ƒ/2 provides shallow depth of field that’s great at isolating portrait subjects from their backgrounds but with a little more leeway for sharpness and success.
My favorite use for ƒ/5.6 is when I’m shooting action (whether that’s a candid portrait or an athlete in motion) and want a reasonably shallow depth of field without completely obliterating detail while also providing a bit of wiggle room so the subject’s subtle movements won’t make me miss focus. This useful aperture—frequently a couple of stops from wide open—is also going to be very sharp while still being fairly fast. When mixing flash with ambient, ƒ/5.6 is a great way to allow available light in while providing an aperture that a typical flash won’t overpower. Wide-open apertures can be difficult for all but the lowest-power flashes, while smaller apertures require a ton of output and that tends to blot out ambient light.
If you had to choose a permanent, fixed aperture on your camera at all times, it should probably be ƒ/8. It’s one of the sharpest apertures around because the sharpest aperture on any given lens is a few stops from wide open, and it’s a versatile, fairly “normal” aperture. It produces neither shallow nor deep depth of field, and it’s useful for strobes and bright daylight, works in slightly low light and requires neither especially fast nor slow shutter speeds to accommodate it. As much as the middle of the road can be boring sometimes, in this case, it’s simply the standard. That’s why the old adage for capturing good photographs is simply “ƒ/8 and be there.”
When I’m photographing landscapes, or architecture, or any situation in which I want to have deep depth of field, I turn to ƒ/16. Why not stop all the way down? Because the smallest aperture on a lens is going to create a fair amount of chromatic aberration so it simply won’t look quite as sharp as even one stop opened up. So, unless I need every last bit of depth of field I can squeeze out, I choose ƒ/16—or whatever aperture is a stop or two from a lens’s minimum aperture. I also use ƒ/16 to create starburst effects. Ever seen a shot of a snow skier with a starburst from the sun over their shoulder? That’s done with an aperture of ƒ/16 or smaller. Simply stop down and include a pinpoint light in the frame and the aperture will turn it into rays of light that form a starburst.
I just finished explaining that a lens’s smallest aperture isn’t particularly sharp, so how can ƒ/32 be included in my favorite apertures? Because sometimes you need to eke every last bit of depth of field out of a frame, and if ƒ/32 is available, it’s a great way to do that. If I’m photographing a tabletop scene or a product and I need it to be tack sharp from front to back, I’ll use ƒ/32 or whatever a lens’s smallest aperture may be. I also pair it with a tripod to accommodate the slower shutter speed that such a small ƒ-stop necessitates, then I use manual focus and the depth-of-field preview button to check for sharpness where I need it—or simply shoot a frame and check it on the LCD to ensure I’ve put the focus in the right place.