The pros and cons of wide aperture shooting in street photography

Many street photographers photograph in the open all the time without really thinking about it. The problem is that a lack of intention and ignorance of the fundamentals can result in a botched photography. In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of wide-open shooting and why learning the basics is essential for this technique.

What does it mean to shoot wide open?


Lens aperture

Large aperture shooting just means your lens is set to the smallest aperture (or f-stop) value. This allows the maximum amount of light possible into the camera. For example, a 50mm f / 1.4 lens has an aperture aperture of about 36mm in diameter (50 divided by 1.4), which is quite wide open. Wide open means the lens is at its widest aperture, or aperture.

In short: the smaller the diaphragm, the larger the aperture, and the larger the diaphragm, the smaller the aperture.

Why do photographers like to shoot wide open?


An example of bokeh

There are both aesthetic and pragmatic reasons for going wide open.

Arguably the most popular reason photographers like to shoot wide open is the bokeh effect or bokeh balls. You can achieve this effect by taking pictures wide open with most camera lenses. Basically any lights or lighting effects get out of focus and stand out against the background as rounded points of light, like in the image above.

Another popular reason to shoot wide open, especially for street photographers, is to blur background details to isolate the subject. This is very effective for times when background detail is not important, as well as for highlighting a person or object in a portrait frame.

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There are programs like Luminar AI where you can create bokeh effects to enhance boring backgrounds.

Wide open shot without intention

Having a nice camera and a lens that can produce a nice background blur and bokeh can inspire many street photographers to take pictures wide open all the time. The main problem with this is the lack of intention; what details are left in the composition at the cost of what is left out?

Camera and lens manufacturers often feature bokeh as a primary selling feature. With so much emphasis and marketing focused on selling expensive glasses to photographers, it’s no wonder that many street photographers tend to overlook the fundamentals of photography in search of a blurry background. and a bokeh effect.


Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of wide aperture shooting – with examples – to see how fundamental mistakes can be avoided.

Benefits of wide open filming

There are many reasons why a street photographer would want to shoot wide open. Let’s discuss some of them.

Night shot


Boy with friend at night

At night, there are few options other than taking pictures wide open, however good your camera and lens pairing is. Large aperture shooting lets you capture your main subject while juggling the best shutter speed and ISO settings in conjunction with your iris. Review the exposure triangle if you need a refresher.

In the image above, the camera settings were as follows: shutter speed at 1/125, ISO of 5000, and wide aperture of f / 1.8. If the photographer had not shot wide open, he would have had to decrease the shutter speed at the risk of blurring the photo, or increase the ISO and risk introducing more noise.


That’s why wide-aperture shooting at night is almost a no-brainer, unless you pack a tripod.

Busy backgrounds


A worker posing for a photo

Street photographers often work in environments such as city streets that have chaotic or busy backgrounds. While such details are great for images that require context, they can also be overwhelming if a person is your primary focus.

In the photo above, the photographer took a wide-open photo to blur the foreground elements as well as lightly the background elements so that the subject stood out more. A good understanding of depth of field will also help you better understand how a wide aperture shot will affect the scene.

Aesthetically pleasing bokeh


Black cat running along a city street at night

Okay, let’s say it’s all about the amazing bokeh, just for a moment. There are lenses that produce amazing and beautiful effects. And if it’s done with intention, there’s nothing wrong with pulling it wide open to get some bokeh.


Disadvantages of shooting wide open

Shooting wide open just to get the effect of a blurry background or bokeh will ultimately hurt your photography more than help it. There are several reasons.

You can easily blur the wrong details


Boy selling flowers

In the image above, not all flowers are sharp. This is because the photographer was taking pictures wide open and focusing on the boy’s face. Street photography is notoriously fast, so maybe the photographer didn’t have time to stop and lower the aperture to allow for a depth of field that would have brought the flowers into focus perfectly.

While not a bad image, this is an example of a wide aperture shot that does not produce intentional results.

You can completely miss the focus and blur everything


Boy doing flip on the beach

This can be hard to tell given the resolution of the image above (you can see its full size on Pexels), but the camera missed the focus on the man in the background and managed to focus on some of the sand behind him instead. Looking closely at the image, you can actually see where the blur lines start and end in the middle.


If the photographer had not shot at f / 1.8, and instead at f / 8 or even f / 16 because of the sunny conditions, the man in the image would have been sharper even though the focus was point was still not on point.

It doesn’t all have to be turned wide open


Man leaning on a street sign

This is the harsh truth that street photographers with great lenses have to come to terms with. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should use it. There are some scenes that just don’t require any bokeh or blurry background.

Concrete example: the image above of a man leaning against a road sign. The photographer shot wide open and missed the focus on the man and the text on the sign. A casual observer won’t notice, but close inspection will reveal some sloppy photography fundamentals in play. The entire scene could have been completely in focus if it had been shot at f / 8.


Always shoot with intention

Wide aperture shooting can give you great results, but the downsides of unintentional wide aperture shooting can cause a street photographer to be in a mess with no focus. Familiarize yourself with the fundamentals we’ve discussed here, and shooting wide open will give you a much better result.


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About the Author

Stewart C. Hartline