I think photo books and photo magazines may have done too good a job of telling everyone that you should always stop your lens down from its maximum aperture or f-stop so that you gain the best quality from your lens. While it is true that on a very arbitrary level, the maximum f-stop of your lens (such as f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6) is not the sharpest aperture, that might not be important. In addition, a lot of outdoor photographers think they have to shoot for maximum depth of field, but I think as photographers we have to think about the photo's needs, not an arbitrary use of f-stops.
After all, when was the last time someone said, "You know, this photograph is not very good. It was shot at f/2.8 and not the preferred f/11"? If you carry this to extremes, you will end up shooting with a very limited range of f-stops (because the smallest f-stops such as f/16 or f/22 are not as sharp, either), and that can be very limiting to your nature photography.
I am going to suggest something radical, something that goes against much of your reading and study of photography. Try shooting with your lens at its maximum wide aperture! Use f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 -- whatever number is the smallest number with your f-stops on your lens (the smallest numbers are actually the widest f-stops).
This is a trick that pros use all the time and is one thing that separates the look of their images from amateur work. I love to use this effect for close-ups, but it can also work for people at close to moderate distances.
The way to really get you going with this is to give yourself a self-assignment that forces you to shoot for a morning, for example, only using the widest f-stops of your lenses. This will immediately do several things that offer you some great visual looks:
- Limit depth of field when photographing at moderate and close distances (at infinity, there is little effect). This can be really cool when it helps you clearly define your subject as separate from its surroundings because it is sharp and other things are not.
- Create a selective focus effect. If you shoot wide-open with a telephoto lens on subjects that are at moderate and close distances, then compose so there are objects in front of and behind the subject, then you will gain a dramatic effect called selective focus because the focus point is very selective with out-of-focus objects in front of and behind that point.
- Create a plain and simple background by blurring the detail behind your subject. With more distance behind your subject, the background will blur more.
- Shoot at faster shutter speeds. When you are photographing in low light, it is more important to have your subject sharp than to have a lot of fuzzy depth of field because a slow shutter speed caused blur.
- Create photos other photographers are not getting. Since most photographers are afraid to shoot wide open, you can take advantage of that and create unique photos unlike everyone elses.
I do on-line workshops with BetterPhoto.com and they have just let me know that there is a special sale on through 3 pm on Thanksgiving. Click on these links to see what is offered: My courses, 4-week courses, 8-week courses. Just enter Thanks50 into the Gift Card Code field when you order a course.