I recently got a Canon 50mm and have found myself probably over-using the large apertures for portraits. I'm curious if anyone has a good rule of thumb for when to avoid it.

My sense is that its good to:

  1. Really focus on only the subject
  2. There are undesirable things in the background
  3. The background may be far away (landscape)

Does this seem right? Any other suggestions?

  • \$\begingroup\$ The only rule of thumb I would follow is to use it creatively to get all aspects of the subject into focus as desired, but understand the limitations of shallow DoF and the challenges it brings to capturing images(ie how difficult it can make getting eyes in focus, etc.). Note - This isn't really a rule, as none exists. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Jun 25, 2013 at 3:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ you can always toss in the " everything goes" card, but there are still some inherent tendencies that can be turned into "rules of thumb" (sounds less strict) if you correlate settings to subject attractiveness (to make the customer happy to see him/herself in the photo). \$\endgroup\$ Jun 25, 2013 at 6:58

2 Answers 2


If you are portraying people in their habitat, you need to include the surroundings. How much depends of what you want to show. If you portrait a blacksmith you want his anvil and hammer, maybe the fire, but blur the rest of the room. If you show a rich person in the New York penthouse with Scandinavian designer furniture you want everything sharp , maybe even F22 with lots of fill flashes. If you want a traditional person portrait face or body you want as narrow a dof as you can get away with. Beware of a trap though! Shooting wide open often has a too narrow DOF. Hence my wording "get away with". Wide open tends to be so narrow that only the nose or eyes are in focus and the nose or eyes and ears are not. So you might need to stop down just a bit, which will include the entire face into the focus field and sharpen the lens up a bit as well. Sometimes you might want the dreamy look of the wide open , other times not so much. As ling as this is a conscious choice you make, it is good.

If you want to make your subject beautiful you can use this study as a guideline:


Especially study the example photos to evaluate what makes the difference.

So from it we can conclude that you should shoot with a interchangeable lens camera, narrow DOF, No flash, in the afternoon, sunset or early night.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Concluding people "should" shoot with no flash? Really??? No. Just no. Talk about over-generalising. You might say that you wouldn't use on-camera flash as a main light (though even that is over-generalising), but to say don't use flash is just way off the mark. Two contemporary photographers that spring straight to mind that use flash for portrait work are David Hobby (Strobist) and Joe McNally. (You even suggested using flash earlier in your own answer!) As always with photography, you use the equipment and settings you need to give the finished photo the artistic vision you have for it. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Jun 25, 2013 at 7:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Im talking about the conclusion of that experiment, "flash adds 7 years" doesnt mean that you cant do better with flashing. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 25, 2013 at 11:33

There isn't a right or wrong amount of background blur. Do it to your personal taste. Some people like the background clear, some like the background soft. Generally, my view is that I use as fast an aperture as I can unless I specifically want the background in focus. It is even acceptable to have such a narrow depth of field that the subject themself is partially out of focus. (In this case, normally the eyes will be in focus, but the depth of field is only centimeters, so shoulders and back of hair are already going out of focus while the face itself is mostly in focus.)

So my guidelines would be, unless you have a specific reason to want to have a wider depth of field (taste or some distance between subjects) use the most open you can. Background blur, or more accurately a narrow depth of field, gives a greater sense of depth to your images and generally most people will think it looks better.


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