I'm back to regularly writing this column. No more excuses. I swear it. And all it took to galvanize me back to action was a disagreement on Twitter. Late last week, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic (one of my favorite tech writers) tweeted a link to a guide to taking good photos on the relatively cheap. It was written by Stu Maschwitz, a cinematographer and ex-visual effects supervisor at ILM. The guide makes some pretty good recommendations, and I have no doubt that Stu knows what he's talking about. But I disagree with a few of his tips and wanted to give a second opinion, especially since his guide has been well-praised and linked around quite a bit now. It's not that I think he's wrong about any specific point, but that I think beginners should have more context as to what they're doing when following someone's catch-all recommendations.
The purpose of the guide was to get amateur photographers comfortable with the idea of buying a dedicated DSLR camera, and to show that an investment of $1000 will yield much better and more usable (eg. printable) photos than ones taken with a smartphone or cheap point-and-shoot. In that regard it's great, and I agree with the basic gist: buy a used DSLR body for under $500, a 50mm f/1.8 lens for around $100, and shoot a ton of photos so you can learn the hardware. You can also do the same with a good Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor mirrorless camera (refurbished Sony NEX-5N would be my recommendation), but you have more affordable-yet-great lens options with a Canon or Nikon DSLR. I also totally agree with shooting in Aperture Priority mode, using manually-set autofocus points (center), and shooting in RAW if possible. You get the most automatic bang for your buck just by switching from JPEG to RAW, and spending some time tweaking in Lightroom. And I want to give Stu a high-five for hammering home the idea that the biggest hurdle to taking good photos is not getting off your butt and actually taking photos. "Actually do this" is the best photography advice I could give, too.
Where we disagree, then, is on the blanket recommendation of how to configure your camera settings when shooting in Aperture Priority mode. Specifically, Stu's tip of shooting with the aperture of your lens wide open. In the context of his recommendations, that's using something like a Nifty Fifty on a Canon Rebel T3i at f/1.8. His rationale for that setting: "Shooting wide-open will result in two things: First, you can shoot in lower light, and even capture fast motion like kids on a carousel. Second, you’ll get that wonderful shallow depth of field that mushes busy backgrounds into pleasing blobs of light." I think both of those reasons are slightly flawed. In the first case, Aperture Priority and Auto-ISO isn't optimal for fast motion--the camera-dictated shutter speeds in Aperture Priority don't take into account a fast-moving scene, and you actually want to shoot in Shutter Priority or manually lower exposure compensation to avoid blur. In the second case, where Stu champions background defocusing--bokeh--I actually am in the camp that believes that it's too easy to overuse bokeh to ruin portrait photography. In fact, I think that shooting with aperture completely wide open on any "fast" prime lens (f/1.8 or wider) should only be used in very specific circumstances.
Here are four reasons why I rarely ever shoot with my 50mm lens wide open.