Breaking the Rules: Break The Small Aperture Rule :: Digital Photo Secrets

Breaking the Rules: Break The Small Aperture Rule

by David Peterson 1 comment

The fundamental rules of photography have great wisdom to offer. Landscapes require great depth of field. Portraits require less depth of field. You should always follow the rule of thirds, except when it's ok not to. You can't use fast shutter speeds at night and you can't use slow shutter speeds during the day.

But you and I both know that just about every one of those fundamental wisdoms can sometimes be ignored. All you really need to know is when and how. That's why I'm bringing you this series on breaking the rules.

Rules of photography should never be ignored unless there's clear gain to be had. Breaking the rule of thirds, for example, is a great idea if you've got a scene that has symmetry. What you lose by giving up that 1/3rd 2/3rds composition you gain in balance and symmetry.

How about using a shallow depth of field in a landscape? We all know and love the great landscape photographers like Ansel Adams, but the mastery of these classic landscapes has done more than just impress our senses. It's also made an impression on our ideas about what makes for a great landscape. Many photographers just automatically dial down that aperture whenever setting up for a landscape shot. More depth of field is better, right? Not always.

Smith Rock by Flickr user Louis Ruth Photography

Your DSLR is a very sophisticated tool, and one of the most powerful choices it gives you is aperture. That means you should automatically think about aperture whenever you take a picture. If you are dialing in f/22 every time you find yourself in a beautiful natural setting, you aren't thinking hard enough about what you're doing. Even in landscapes, there are instances where you don't need that depth of field--or where your image might actually benefit from a shallow depth of field.

Isolate your subject

One of the major drawbacks of depth of field is that everything in your image has the same focus. This means that everything in an image is in danger of blending in with everything else in an image. It can be tremendously difficult to get your viewer to focus on one subject when everything in the shot is just as clear as everything else. So the first question you need to ask yourself when you enter that beautiful scene is this: "What is my subject?"

If your subject is the landscape itself, then dial down that aperture, just as the rule states. But if it's not--if it's that flower over there, or that cabin, or that group of deer crossing the meadow, you need to rethink your strategy. It may be that you'll still use a small aperture--if you want to emphasize that those deer are a part of the beautiful landscape rather than separate from it, for example. But if you want to isolate your subject from its environment, you will need a larger aperture. Let's look at this example:

  • Nikon D70
  • 200
  • f/6.3
  • 0.003 sec (1/400)
  • 200 mm

Stand Out by Flickr user EJP Photo

You can tell that there's some interesting stuff in the background, but we can't exactly define it since the depth of field is so shallow. Instead, that one flower in the foreground becomes the subject of the image.

Give your image a sense of dimension

Photographs are two dimensional. No matter what you do, you're never going to be able to create a photograph that someone can literally put his hand into. But what you do want to do is create a photograph that someone can feel like he can put his hand into.
It seems a little counter intuitive, but photos with a shallower depth of field often seem more three dimensional than photos with broad depth of field. This is because our eyes don't really see a scene the way a camera sees it at f/22. When we look at a landscape, we focus first on a small part of it, while the other parts fall out of focus. Then as our eyes move around the scene, parts come into focus and others fall out of focus. Those in-focus parts of a scene give us a reference point. We automatically judge everything behind or in front of that reference point to be at a greater or closer distance because that's the way our eyes are used to seeing reality.

  • Canon EOS 1100D
  • 100
  • f/1.8
  • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
  • 50 mm

Pinmore/Pinwherry field by Flickr user digitalmindphotography

Do you want your scene to look vast? Consider using a wider aperture. Let's take this example:

Enjoy the Sunset by Flickr user Miroslav Petrasko (

Not only do we have a diagonal line in the bottom third of the image, which creates depth, but a shallow depth of field which helps to create a sense of vastness in the scene.

Use an unfocused foreground to frame your image

You've seen images like this plenty of times:

Wavey Boarder by Flickr user Photography By Shaeree

This is a common tool used by photographers to add interest to an image. We are automatically drawn to photographs in frames, whether they are classic wooden frames or frames that exist within the scene itself. Try using the branches of a tree to frame your subject, but do so with a shallower depth of field so that those branches are out of focus. This will help define your frame from the rest of the image--a smaller aperture will potentially blend your frame in with your subject.

Simplify your scene

In this photo, the purple flowers are only slightly out of focus compared to the pink ones, but it's enough to separate the two and to simplify the overall scene, which would otherwise be too chaotic.

  • Nikon D300
  • 200
  • f/6.3
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 105 mm

Two Fields by Flickr user EJP Photo

Landscapes are beautiful, natural settings but that doesn't mean they are always serene and uncomplicated. A landscape can be just a busy as a cityscape, depending on how many competing elements are in a scene. If your landscape-in-question contains a bunch of rocks, a river, a mountain, a handful of trees, a stormy sky and a guy with a fishing pole, ask yourself if there's just too much going on to make for a compelling shot. Would your image benefit from some simplification? What if you focused on the guy with the fishing pole, and let the rest of the scene fall slightly out of focus? Would that improve your image?

Be surreal

With careful composition, out of focus objects can take on surreal qualities. Let's say your scene contains a very obvious subject--a bridge, for example, or a snow capped mountain. Deliberately shooting the scene so that your would-be-subject is out of focus can add a surreal feeling to your photograph. Try choosing a less obvious subject in this situation (a flower or leaf, perhaps) and shoot the scene so that the looming, snow-capped mountain is a mere afterthought in the unfocused distance. See how this changes the tone of your image.

  • Nikon D300
  • 200
  • f/5.0
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 105 mm

One of those Things by Flickr user EJP Photo

Unfocused backgrounds can also simulate paintings, especially when there are bright colors dominating certain parts of the scene. Try using a shallow depth of field to reduce definition between colors to create an image that looks like it was painted rather than shot.

  • Nikon D300
  • 200
  • f/4.5
  • 0.01 sec (1/100)
  • 105 mm

In spite of the rain by Flickr user EJP Photo

The key to making this rule break work is careful thought. You need to ask yourself whether the image would benefit from a shallower depth of field, then adjust your aperture accordingly. Start by shooting each scene both ways and then comparing the results when you get home. Eventually you will develop a good feeling for when you can break this otherwise time-tested rule.

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  1. Barry S says:

    Good tips for all, I am just now coming back to photography after many years away .Being able to catch up with the new DSLR's is wonderful. Thank you.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.