This is what a portrait looks like at every aperture
What’s your go-to aperture that you always seem to gravitate towards? Go on, I bet you have one, even if you hesitate to admit it! For me, whether I’m shooting natural light or in a studio, I often seem to end up at f/2.8. For environmental portraits or groups, I’m often swapping between f/8 and f/11. but that’s just me, and honestly, although I’ve settled into shooting like this over the past few years, I’m not sure I’ve really taken a step back to really think about why I often end up shooting with these apertures.
In this video, portrait photographer Julia Trotti shows us what a portrait of the same model looks like shot with each aperture, from f/1.4 to f/16.
Julia says that she loves to shoot wide open for a dreamy look with a very shallow depth of field. This has the advantage of creating lots of bokeh, but also runs the risk of not having enough of the subject in focus. Depending on the focal length of the lens you could just have a few eyelashes sharp and in focus!
Next, she jumps to f/2 and then f/2.8. Now that’s my favourite aperture remember on a 50mm lens! But let’s consider why I like it so much. At this aperture, you still get that dreamy look, but a little bit more of the subject is in focus, especially if there is some movement. You don’t miss the focus on the eye quite as often as you would with shooting at wider apertures. At this aperture, there is still nice bokeh on a 50mm lens and decent separation. Of course, it also depends on how close you are to your subject as well, but let’s assume that is staying pretty much the same throughout the test.
Like myself, Julia says that she finds herself loving to use the 50mm lens for this style of portraiture. It’s very versatile, can handle different lighting situations and does well at both medium-close ups and pulled back images. It also creates little distortion. As a portrait shooter, it is probably the one lens I would have in my bag at all times, and if I was forced to choose just one it would probably have to be the 50mm!
At f/4 (I’m skipping the in-between third and half f-stops because let’s face it, the true ones will give us enough info!) the subject is pretty much all in focus, but the background still has a decent out of focus feel to it. F/4 is good for shooting couples or if there is a little more movement going on and you want to make sure you’ve got the subject in focus without compromising the blurred effect of the background.
F/5.6 is fairly similar, and to make sure there is still background separation Julia is making sure to keep the background a decent distance from the subject. Julia says that f/4 and f/5.6 feel to her a little more fashion and editorial than wedding or portrait in style, and you do have to begin to start paying more attention to the backgrounds and composition at these apertures. You cannot just blow out everything and be done like you almost can with the wider apertures.
As the apertures get smaller you can use other tricks to separate the subject from the background. Julia gives the example of composing the shot where the subject is in front of the lightest or brightest part of the background so that she is framed naturally by it.
At f/8 and above Julia claims that we are getting more towards landscape photography territory. I’m not sure I agree. I mean, a landscape is a landscape due to the subject matter, not down to what aperture you’re shooting at. But I sort of catch her drift. I think perhaps she means that as in many landscape images, everything is in focus from front to back. At these apertures, you definitely need to pay attention to the background elements and overall composition as much as possible.
By f/11 pretty much everything in the image is in focus. I feel like Julia is missing a trick here in this video and isn’t changing the way she is shooting for the narrower apertures. For f/11 and above I would likely want to see a more narrative approach, where the environment is playing a larger role in the storytelling aspect of the image. At smaller apertures you have the advantage of everything in the image having weight, so like in a movie, everything must be there for a reason to add to the story, not to detract from it. I would also expect to see more pulled back shots at these apertures in order to take advantage of including more of the environment in the portrait.
Admittedly it is much harder to take great portraits with smaller apertures purely because you have to pay attention to every single little thing. But once you get used to it, I find environmental portraits an absolute joy to shoot. It’s really fun to figure out what you want people to take away about the person in the image by what you choose to include and exclude.
What’s your favourite aperture for portraits?
Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe