Friday, April 3, 2009

f/1.2 and be Lazy

Point and shoot cameras don't do shallow depth-of-field very well, so when many of us graduated to fancy DSLR's and faster lenses, we develop an implicit association between shallow depth-of-field and quality. The ability to throw a background radically out of focus becomes a hallmark of professionalism, as it serves remarkably well to isolate a subject and let the viewer know exactly where they are supposed to be looking.

Once upon a time, photojournalists were taught the expression "f/8 and be there," meaning that capturing the decisive moment was more crucial than the minutia of camera settings. F/8 gives a fair bit of depth of field on a 35mm camera, so classical photojournalists were not (especially on manual focus 35mm cameras) trying to play games with extremely shallow depth-of-field.

However, the current generation of young photographers, in many cases, now use this expression as an epithet against "stodgy old-schoolers." F/8 is no longer cool, nor is anything from f/4 to f/11, really. Many seem to want to either be shooting completely wide open, or perhaps at f/16 (with a super-strobe accompanying).

You don't usually need to compose very much when you're shooting at 85mm f/1.2. You've got a subject with perhaps a few eyelashes in focus, and a completely blurred-out background. So long as you don't bullseye the subject, you've pretty much got composition covered. Its easy and you don't have to think about it. When you're shooting with a 35mm lens at f/8 however, you've really got to work with leading lines, negative space, light, contrasting areas of interest, and various other tools because any focus effects are more subtle and don't yank your viewer's eyes right where you want them to go. Composition is almost optional at f/1.2, while its mandatory at f/8.

My point is that if you're looking to improve your compositions, try stopping down a bit! It will force you to consider your compositions all that much more carefully. Sometimes the big apertures are necessary under a given lighting condition, and sometimes extreme depth-of-field is the best way to compose a shot. However, shooting wide open all the time can really cause you to become lazy when it comes to composition.

The image below works because of the contrasting compositional elements: in theory (and title) the photo is of the Yale Commencement ceremony, but the old man in the foreground serves as contrasting subject matter. He is looking in the opposite direction as the other subjects, and is obviously in a very different emotional place (and chronological place in his life). The layered content in this image works because there is more than one thing to look at: at 1/4 this image would not work nearly so well.

Yale Commencement (from "The Americans")
Robert Frank (1955)


Matt said...

great write up! it's interesting though, the well known photogs, leibowitz, adams, etc., don't/didn't typically shoot wide open. but yet, now, it seems to be 'the cool' thing to do.

any way, just wanted to drop in and say, very nice write up.

Gray Photography - Zach and Jody - Nashville Wedding Photography said...

Oooh, good post! -JG

Myrick said...

ahhhh..I love you Evan... :-)

oopaddy said...

thanks Even, true, and yet we forget these simple things. Way to keep us sharp on what we should really be looking at/for!

Cakes By Shara said...

Oh I do not know what all of that means but I love how you are telling it because sometimes I want to say the same thing in my field. Sometimes, the the test of time and experience is what forces you to get better! My camera will to that thing with the background in macro mode. Of course I have NO idea how to make it do that. I do like to take pictures of food/cake.

Gray Photography - Zach and Jody - Nashville Wedding Photography said...

This is a great post! Just like you can't pigeonhole yourself into shooting the same style of images over and over at a wedding in regards to how you light and so on, you can't just shoot wide open because it looks cool. You need to have balance and actually be good at shooting in varying conditions to get the desired effect and, more importantly, to tell the story properly.