Tips for Sharp Focus at Wide Apertures

We all love the look of wide apertures but sometimes getting the shot is trickier than it first appears. With wide apertures comes shallow depth of field and with shallow depth of field comes a smaller window of sharp, in-focus image.

First, if depth of field is a new concept to you, check out this fantastic Depth of Field Primer by Jeff Meyer at Digital Camera World.

Here are some tips and tricks that help me achieve sharp but dreamy, wide aperture shots.

1. Think about what should be in focus

I know this sounds pretty obvious but sometimes just thinking about what should be sharp and in-focus makes me concentrate on this area and stops me from shooting for the sake of shooting. For example, if I’m taking a wide-aperture portrait, it should be the eyes. If the subject is turned slightly side-on, which eye should be my focus? Which eye looks better? If it’s an inanimate object, which part of the object should be in-focus? When shooting objects up close and at an aperture of f1.2 for example, your window of focus is very small – so what part of the object is the focus? It sounds rudimentary and we should be doing this all the time but it’s easy to run in autopilot mode and forget to focus on what’s important (pun intended).



2. More distance = greater depth of field

Without getting into the technicalities and calculations, the rule is the more distance between you and your subject, the greater the depth of field. For more information and to check your lenses performance, check out this fantastic DOF calculator. Having trouble nailing focus in a portrait? Take a step back and try again. Remember, we can always crop in post.

3. Shutter speed

While shutter speed doesn’t affect depth of field, remember to make sure it’s fast enough to negate any movement of the subject or yourself. There are many schools of thought as to how fast your shutter speed should be and that’s completely up to your personal preference, the focal length of your lens, the type of scene, image stabilisation , etc. But personally, I prefer to run my shutter speed as high as I need and use my ISO to correctly expose. YMMV.

4. Tune your lens

Most modern DSLR bodies allow for fine tuning and there are numerous methods to so do. If you find shots are constantly soft when you are using autofocus, it could be that a quick tune is the solution. Sometimes lenses autofocus in front of or behind your intended focus point. This can be corrected by fine-tuning your autofocus on your DSLR. Please note this does not affect manual focusing.

Check out this article by Gannon Burgett at Petapixel using the traditional focus chart method -

There is another newer method call the ‘Dot Tune’ method – check it out here -

Or, if this is all too much, take your gear to your local trusted camera shop and get them to do it for you.

5. Relax

Like a sharp shooter, breathe in, relax, breathe out and shoot. I tend to relax when we exhale so taking the shot on the exhale works wonders for me. Another tip is to depress the shutter and leave your finger on it for a second or two after you take the shot. This tends to stop any jerking or shaking motions and always leads to sharper shots.

6. Ask the subject to remain still

A simple and highly effective tip – people tend to sway and move a little, ask them politely to try not to. Making the model aware of this makes your job a whole lot easier.

7. Use AF-points

This is my biggest, most important rule. Centre focusing and recomposing when shooting at wide apertures doesn’t work. More often than not, it shifts the focus point too much which leads to soft, out-of-focus shots. Use your camera's AF points to tell your DSLR where to focus.

I always shoot with Single Point AF and if you don't, you might be losing a lot of control over your autofocus. Read this article by Jeff Meyer at Digital Camera World on Autoficus points for more info -

If you need to recompose, try to recompose by moving vertically and horizontally, not by rotating the camera or changing the distance between you and the subject.

This is my modus operandi when shooting a portrait wide open and up close.

  • Compose the shot though the viewfinder.
  • Set the AF-point to the eye I want in focus.
  • Communicate with the model. They will tend to move and sway when you ask them to move, smile, touch their hair or pose – recompose slightly and make sure the AF-point is right.
  • Relax, half depress the shutter, wait for confirmation and shoot straight away.

Take more shots than you normally would – the likelihood of you or the subject moving and upsetting the critical focus zone is high so it’s a bit of a numbers game here. I don’t take anywhere near as many as I used to when shooting like this but I still grab a fair number for ‘insurance’.

8. Practice, practice and more practice.

Practice in non-critical situations so when it becomes critical you are confident and relaxed. I use my dogs to practice and if there are subjects that I are going to test me, it’s them!

If these tips don’t work, try stopping down! At the end of the day, I think we would all rather a sharp image with more depth of field than a soft, unusable image.

I have read and heard a lot of people complaining about lenses being faulty or soft when maybe that wasn’t the case. At the end of the day a wide lens, close up is a hard beast to tame. It requires the focus of a sniper and relaxed concentration of a Buddhist monk.

In my opinion, learning how to tame the open aperture beast is an extremely worthwhile endeavour… there is nothing quite like the look of a dreamy f1.2 portrait.

Got any tips? Post them in the comments below. Good luck!

Christian Benci.

Christian Benci