Just as a painter carefully selects the grain and texture of her paper before the outline and foundation of the piece have begun, so should you with aperture. It can be a fundamental artistic choice, not just a technical tool.
Let’s assume that we all know the basic rules of aperture and that we have all the light we want. Now that we have the full scale available to us, what shall we do with it?
Below, you’ll find examples of images with artistically chosen aperture and explanations as to why. Rather than do one shoot as an example I’ve pulled from some past projects where I very specifically selected the aperture as part of the voice of the image.
First, let’s start with some things that were in the more common range of aperture. Somewhere around f2 - f5.
From the beginning of the above shoot, everything was intended to be more of a lifestyle vibe and feel. Even though there was plenty of sunlight (and even a fill strobe), the aperture was kept around f4.5 to create this particular depth of field that we usually associate with a lifestyle image.
I believe that one of the reasons we relate to and are emotionally and psychologically affected by this type of imagery is because it more closely replicates our natural field of vision and we can, therefore, more naturally imagine ourselves in the depicted scenario.
Let’s look at a similarly used aperture but under very different circumstances.
The images below, like the ones above, needed to be reminiscent of the field that the human eye sees, but in this case, a bit more cinematically. The aperture was kept in a similar range to help achieve the more cinematic quality of the images. That meant pushing the ISO a bit and a longer than ideal shutter speed, but in this case, the aperture took priority to achieve the desired outcome.
Okay. Let’s look at some street-style images and see what happens when you change the aperture around.
First, a more classic street style photo. Aperture around f2.8.
The woman is the focus, and though much of what else you see in the frame is visible and recognizable, it’s clear that she is the center of the story.
I took the above image in Haiti. Before I took his portrait, I had gotten to know this gentleman over a couple of days prior. He had a kind and sweet nature about him. He was quiet, but not shy, and just by the way he carried himself, you knew that he was no stranger to hardship or to love. I took many portraits there, but I recall him above all others.
This man made quite an impression on me, and I wanted to take a portrait of him that might covey the strength and kindness that I so admired in him. I wanted he himself to be the story, and I used what I will call, a “forced low aperture” to help me in that.
I’ll explain what I mean by “forced,” but first let me tell you how I arrived there.
I wanted the lower aperture, not for the light it allows in but for its shallow depth of field. I wanted the background to fade away and for the focus to remain on the subject. I also wanted him to stand out even further from the background, so I lit him with an octabox.
Bringing in even more light to an already wide open aperture means that I have to shut light down somehow to keep everything balanced. The answer — Neutral Density (ND) Filters.
What is a Neutral Density Filter?
A Neutral Density Filter, (sometimes called an ND filter,) is "a photographic or optical filter that absorbs light of all wavelengths to the same extent, causing overall dimming but no change in color." That's a complicated way to say its a dark tinted filter you can attach to your lens to allow less light in.
Using these filters, I was able to knock the light down a couple of stops, which allowed me to keep my desired depth of field as well as light him with the octabox.
Here’s a studio shot with a similar setup. Lots of studio light knocked back with an ND filter.
Now, look at what we open up when we close our aperture down to f/8, f/11, f/16 and beyond.
Even when you have a clear subject, the more open detail creates an entirely different kind of narrative in the mind of the viewer, and the images take on a more painterly quality and effect. There’s enough content in a single frame that our eye can wander from detail to detail, and we can get lost in the image wondering how other things relate to the subject and story.
This painterly technique also, of course, works with studio and editorial style images.
The above images were part of an editorial concept that I did, featuring the band, Creature Comfort. During concept creation, I knew that I didn’t want to do a typical “band shoot,” and that I wanted to focus more on story and composition. We shot in four locations that day and not once did we shoot anything below f8.
(I also have to give mad props to Elisabeth Donaldson for the styling of this shoot.)
If there’s one takeaway that I hope you have from this, it’s that photography is an art form and means of expression. It doesn’t matter if you photograph people and portraits, like me, or if you are a wedding, still-life, or landscape, or what-have-you photographer. The way you see the world is truly unique to anyone else, and we have tools at our disposal, like aperture, that can assist in us in bringing our vision to life.
As always, if you ever have questions, comments, or just want a friendly chat, send me an email! I’d love to hear from you!