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Video: 5 Tips on Shooting Sharp Images with a Wide-Open Aperture

How do we get tack-sharp images, especially when it comes to groups, when we’re shooting with a wide-open aperture? This is without a doubt one of the more common questions I get. In this article/video, we’re going to share 5 tips to help answer this question.

Let’s dive right in.

Tip #1: Line Up Your Subjects on the Same Plane

sharp images wide open aperture line group on same focal plane

Whenever you’re posing more than one person, you want to make sure to line everyone up on the same focal plane. The easiest way to do this is to actually walk around to the side of your subjects and look at their profiles to ensure they’re lined up correctly.  It also helps to explain to the group what it is you’re doing so that they can assist in staying lined up. I usually tell them I’m shooting at a wide aperture and explain that they need to stay lined up so that everyone is in focus. Once everybody’s lined up, take a test shot and zoom in to make sure nobody looks blurry.

Tip #2: Use Pixel-Based Focusing Systems

sharp focus wide open aperture pixel based focus systems live view

If you’re on a mirrorless camera, like a Canon EOS-R or Sony A7R IV, for example, you will generally already be using a pixel-based focusing system. If you’re using an older DSLR, however, like a Canon 5D Mark IV, then turn on Live View and shoot using Live View. The reason for this is pixel-based focusing does a much better job tracking focus than using through-the-lens focus systems, especially when you’re shooting with a wide-open aperture.

[Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Aperture]

Tip #3: Use Face & Eye Detection (If Possible)

sharp focus wide open aperture face eye detection

If your camera features face & eye detection, then make sure it is turned on. Once the group is lined up, make sure your focus is point is placed directly over your subject’s face, and if you have an option to select the eyes, even better.

Tip #4: Understand Distance

sharp focus wide open aperture understand distance

It’s important to understand how distance affects depth of field, or the area in focus. The farther you are away from your subjects, the more leeway you have with the depth of field. If you’re shooting wide open on a 50mm prime, for example, you’ll have more wiggle room to capture tack-sharp images standing 15 feet away from your subjects than you would standing only six feet away (with proper social distancing in tact). The closer you stand to your subjects, the more you have to pay attention to the focal plane and other details. If you’re struggling to keep your subjects in focus at close distances, you can also step back and use another focal length (say a 105mm f/1.4 instead of a 50mm f/1.2). Either way, understand the lens you’re working with and how shooting distance affects the area in focus. See the graphic below for a visual representation of this concept.

sharp focus wide open aperture distance chart

[Related Reading: 3 Simple Photography Composition Rules for Using Depth of Field]

Tip #5: Know the Lens

Not all lenses are created equal. On the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2, for example, I know that I can still capture tack-sharp images when shooting wide open, but this isn’t the case with all prime lenses. Some prime lenses produce softer focus when shooting with a wide-open aperture. In such cases, the images will always be a little softer. You can stop down the aperture by two or three stops to increase your depth of field, which typically helps, depending on the lens.

sharp images wide open aperture stop down wider depth of field

If the lens blurs around the edges, avoid shooting wide open when using it for group shots. Stop down the aperture to f/2.8 or f/5.6 (see the image above) to take advantage of a wider depth of field and get edge-to-edge sharpness with a larger group.

This leads us to the first of three bonus tips.

Bonus Tip #1: Do Not Shoot Journalistically Wide Open

If you’re shooting journalistically, do not shoot with a wide-open aperture. When it comes to shooting portraits and your subject is holding still and posing while you work to capture the shot, you have a better chance of capturing an artistic, tack-sharp image with a shallow depth of field.

sharp images wide open aperture journalistic shooting

When you’re shooting journalistically, in the moment, you’re going to get a lot of blurry images with a wide-open aperture. If you’re photographing a bride and groom walking down the aisle during the recessional, don’t shoot it wide open. If you do, you better know your gear and know that the focus can keep up with the action. I typically stop down the aperture during moving shots to ensure more accurate focus. So, on a 24-70mm f/2.8, I know that I can get tack-sharp images at f/2.8 because that lens focuses very quickly and the depth of field is adequate for capturing the bride and groom as they exit the ceremony site. If I’m photographing sports or other types of action shots, then I’ll stop down the aperture a bit more.

Bonus Tip #2: Verify Sharpness

sharp images wide open aperture verify focus

Even though I’m comfortable shooting wide open, I still make sure to look through my images before moving on so that I can make sure the expressions are good and also verify sharpness, especially with group portraits. If I notice the images are not sharp, I will stop down the aperture a little until I get the results I need. It’s better than getting back to the studio later only to realize that half of the shots are out of focus.

Bonus Tip #3: Don’t Solely Rely on Depth

Keep in mind that depth is a wonderful compositional tool, but it’s only one of many available to you! You also have lighting, leading lines, framing, symmetry, and many others at your disposal. When you rely on shooting every image with a wide-open aperture so that your background is blurred, then you’re limiting the diversity of your portfolio. The images in your collection are likely going to look very similar. So, use depth as a compositional tool, but don’t lean on it as a compositional crutch.

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed this article/video with five tips (plus three bonus tips) on how to shoot sharp images with a wide-open aperture. When you put these tips into practice, you’ll find that your shots are not only sharp at a distance but also when you step in a bit closer, even if you’re still shooting wide open. It’s important to understand that shooting wide open takes practice. Don’t try this out with paying clients without first practicing and mastering the technique.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!