Stopping Your Lens Down: What Photographers Always Forget About

Many photographers never stop their lenses down, but they should.

“LOOK AT THE BOKEH!!!!” Does that sound like you when you were starting out? Well, unfortunately, many photographers never leave that phase. With so many new people getting into photography, we find it essential to do our part. Just remember that your lens often has more than one aperture. You can even stop it down in half stops and 1/3 stops. In general, it’s great to leave it wide open when shooting in low light. But turn off that electronic shutter setting and learn to focus on the exposure of the scene. More than that, use the storytelling elements a lens affords you.

Sharpness

Let’s start with lens sharpness. There are two ways to really boost it. The first is to use a flash. We’ve used a flash with a lens shooting wide open at f1.2. You get the combination of gorgeous bokeh and sharp photos this way. The second method is to just stop your lens down. No lens, not even your 50mm f1.8, is perfectly sharp wide open. But if you stop it down to f5.6 or 8, you’ll usually reach maximum sharpness. Combine that with a flash, and you’ll get the sharper images than you knew were possible. In fact, you can do also do that with older lenses. The output from a flash can really boost things: it can breathe new life into an old lens.

Bokeh is Not a Crutch, It’s a Story Telling Tool

Many new photographers love using the bokeh effect. If you’re stepping up from a smartphone, it’s easy to get hooked. But bokeh shouldn’t be a crutch. If you’re printing your photo to show to a meetup, they’re not going to care about your bokeh. They’ll care about the subject matter. And you should use depth of field as a storytelling tool. Watch the movies. See how certain things are blurred out using bokeh? That’s an integral part of telling someone what to look at. And you should do that much more often.

More importantly, look at lots of modern photojournalism. Lots of the scenes are in focus. They help to tell the story. But with portraiture, lots of the scenes are out of focus. That’s because we’re telling people to look at the subject.

“But in that same way, photographers should use bokeh to force a viewer into a specific part of the photo in order to tell the story that they want to tell in the way that they want to tell it. Indeed, this is part of the journalistic idea of framing–which specifically defines how you tell the story based on your own opinion and point of view. Bokeh, when used in this way, is used as a compositional story element that aids in the progression of the story.”

A quote from Why Bokeh is a Critical Element to Telling a Story Through Photos

Make the Most of the Scene

Stopping your lens down helps you make the most of the scene. Shooting a landscape? Then stop your lens down to get all of it in focus. Photographing a convention? Shoot wide and stop the lens down to give people the details. Photographing the mountains far away? Stop the lens down to make people see the entire vista. If you’re shooting with a super-telephoto lens, then only open it up to isolate a subject from the scene. Great examples are birds, insects, animals, etc. But by stopping the lens down, you can document much better.

In fact, that’s a great way of putting it. If you genuinely just feel like documenting, then stop the lens down. (Most people are documenters.) If you want to create a scene, then open it up.