As much as photographers seem intent on relishing the power of large-maximum-aperture lenses and their selective focus, I was reminded over the last few days about the perils of overusing this feature, and that we need to keep in mind that it is a tool in the toolbox and not a goal unto itself.
I thought about this when the sun was streaming in through some windows as I got ready for work, and took the time to shoot a few frames. I decided to shoot “wide open,” at f/1.4, the largest maximum aperture of any lens I own, and a genuinely large aperture. Only a few specialized and expensive lenses have these impressively large maximum apertures. Legendary lenses like the Canon 85mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 (I had one in college) and 58mm f/1.2 aspheric, the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, and esoteric glass like the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 are some examples.
So what draws us to these lenses? What can we construct with these tools? Without a doubt, the first answer is selective focus, often very dramatic selective focus. We can then combine that tool with one like, say, movement, and have our backgrounds just like we want them.
The simplest background in all of photography is a neutral-grey roll of background paper about five feet behind the subject, evenly lit. It’s so simple and uninvolved that it’s barely ever a participant. It works. It works to create a rigid, predicable image that has a useful but narrow set of applications.
The challenge arises, however, when we want to use backgrounds as an element in our images. Whether it be a field of wheat at sunset or the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip at midnight, it becomes a contributor to our image. Will we use this as a compositional and narrative tool, or to show off our power to buy expensive lenses?