It’s Not About The F-Stop!

Last year I did a lecture about how to get commercial assignments by photographing and promoting personal photography projects at the Event Space at B&H Photo in NYC. It was a wonderful lecture discussing how to come up with tests shoots that are artistic, enjoyable to shoot, and could be marketable to potential clients. Most of the images I was showing that day were from a portrait project I had shot a couple years earlier which ended up getting me some great advertising jobs. The portraits I was showing were very much about personality and were by no means a great technical feat being that they were shot in the studio on a black background.

About ten minutes into the talk someone raised their hand and asked me what f-stop one of the portraits had been shot at. I wasn’t quite sure why that person had asked that question, and to be honest, I didn’t know the answer. I continued on showing other portraits and discussing the subject at hand when another hand went up and asked what kind of lights I had used to shoot the portraits and if I had a lighting diagram. I was really taken aback this time, wondering why the attendants of this talk about personal projects getting you commercial work were only concerned with technical things like f-stop, lighting type, and lighting diagrams. At that moment I realized one incredible, universal, and powerful truth. So many photographers are way too distracted by the technical aspects of making photographs to ever make great images. That is, of course, unless they can get past those technical hurdles and see the big picture. To these photographers making a technically perfect image was the goal, and an image that is technically perfect must be a good image right?

I’m not saying that f-stops, lights, cameras, lenses and other technical things aren’t important to making good images. I’d be the first one to tell you that some images can only be made by incredibly technical photographers. The point I’m trying to make is that photographers need to practice the technical things often enough so that they don’t get in the way of making great images. It’s like training for a marathon. You can’t possibly expect to go out and win the Boston Marathon without first doing years of training, running some shorter races, and maybe even losing races along the way. The exact same thing applies with photography. You can’t expect to take amazingly beautiful, moving, and meaningful images without first shooting lots of bad photos. There is nothing wrong with shooting some bad photos as long as you eventually realize they’re bad and you learn from them. I have shot plenty of bad photos in my day.

Pictures need to be about much more than the technical if they are to truly have a great impact. Do you think when Dorthea Lange was photographing Migrant Mother she was worried about what shutter speed she was shooting at? When Richard Avedon was shooting Dovima and the Elephants, do you think he was worried about what f-stop he was at? When Steve McCurry was photographing the Afghan Girl, do you think he was worried that maybe he should be using his on-camera flash for fill? I think it’s very unlikely.

In order to concentrate on what is really important you need to figure out all the technical stuff before your photo shoot even begins. There is a reason why Annie Leibowitz has 5 assistants on set when she’s shooting a big celebrity portrait, and it’s not to make sure she always has a fresh cup of coffee. As the photographer you need to be concentrating on making the subject do what you need him to do, and that alone is enough to be worried about. If you are also worrying about your lighting, shutter speed, shadow detail, light direction, and if it looks like the client is happy, then it becomes much more difficult to make a good image. So the question is, how are you going to run a marathon when you’re too busy figuring out how to tie your shoelaces at the starting line?

I shoot with a Phase One IQ180 digital back, high end Profoto lights, and the fastest SSD RAID array toting Macintosh computers so trust me when I say that there is nothing wrong with using technology to help you make great images. The point that I am trying to make is that whichever tools you do choose, they shouldn’t get in the way of you making great images. Making great images is about so much more than the f-stop!

About the author: Steve Giralt is a NYC-based photographer who was selected in 2005 by PDN magazine as one of 30 emerging photographers to watch. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

Image credit: D90 Liveview by (Click)D40(Click)

  • J.Donnelly

    I disagree with a lot of this post. After shooting your way for five years, and shooting more technically minded for the last three years, I believe a healthy balance of both is extremely key. I take better pictures now than I ever did because I’m actually thinking about the details (which includes f-stop). Also, in any sort of photography class, regardless of whether it’s a beginning or advanced class, or one about composition rather than technical details, you will ALWAYS get questions about f-stops and lens and lighting. Any experienced photography teacher know this. So why was the writer taken aback? I am, frankly, taken aback by this.

  • Melo

    I couldn’t disagree more. You write this whole piece stating the technical aspects are not important, but then bookend it by bragging you use te best high end equipment on the market?

    Many photographers want to know what f-stop you used because it does matter and can greatly effect the outcome of a photo.

    Guys like you wax poetic about the moment it the meaning if the image but you go out and drop $100,000 on equipment?


    And you bet you ass Avedon cared about his camera settings and picking the best setup. You think he would bring in a damn elephant and his muse and just wishfully click away.

    Whatever point you were attempting to make is lost in what seems to be weak writing.

    Maybe you should simply say that although the camera settings may vary, the content of the image is more important to a successful image. But don’t say settings an setups don’t matter. They do.

  • Suman0102

    ps. can i has your Phase one?! haha

  • Antonio Carrasco

     What the original poster is trying to explain is that, yes, it’s good to know all those rules as a good jumping off point, but your creative vision is more important.

    You see it on most photography forums–people get really stuck on arguing over their photo gear, or some people figure out three point lighting and then shoot the exact photos over and over and over without any creativity.

    When they are asking what aperture he shot that at or for the lighting diagram, they are looking for the “right answer” for the test so that they can mimick that.

  • Gher

    SIMPLY: the right stuff  is important when it is… try shooting football with a 18-105 a.. you will see what your customers will say when they will take the photos

  • dougerino

    LOL, I just love the irony of the “you’re so wrong about this you idiot” defensive- sounding comments. I take it a nerve has been hit? :)

  • Mansgame

    Sorry, if you can’t even remember the ball park figure of what your settings were on a particular shoot, you have no business holding a lecture on photography.  For all you know the person asking the question saw an interesting depth of field and was just curious what you used.  It’s not for you to judge.   The same composition using f/1.4 and f/8 can have completely different looks so if you don’t think that’s important, you’re in the wrong business, bub.

    Believe it or not, a lot of photographers do balance the technical and artistic side. 

  • Mansgame

     Or they were asking what the f/stop was because they were wondering what the f/stop was.  So far every pro I’ve met who says gear doesn’t matter has had the highest end gear available.  If they sold all their gear and shot weddings with kit lenses and pop-up flash for a living, they’d have more credit.

  • Steve Giralt

    I never said the Technical wasn’t important. If you have a great creative picture that is technically horrible, nobody will get passed that and see the true creative side of it. What I’m saying is that you need to get your technically stuff nailed down so that when you’re shooting it’s not something you’re thinking about because it’s second nature for you. The look of the portraits I was showing that day showed no sign what-so-ever that f-stop was important. 

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  • WhipArtist

    The thing about technical details is that they’re easy to talk about and easy to wrap your brain around– every photographer knows what f/5.6 is and why it’s different from f/11.  

    Qualities like artistry are slippery– it’s much harder to talk about or even understand something that you can’t see or measure, or even agree on.  It’s not surprising that people keep looking for the easier concepts.

    I think the key to being a good photographer is to have the technical fundamentals nailed down so well that they’re second nature, so that you can focus on vision and have technical tools at your disposal.  The key to being a really great photographer is to have such excellent vision that the technicals become almost irrelevant.

  • michael campbell

    You [the author] were teaching a class on “how to get commercial assignments by photographing and promoting personal photography projects”. How are you taken aback by the fact that people were asking rudimentary questions? The title of the class sounds as if it is geared to non-professionals who are looking to step up their game and to do so means making their work better. Questions about lighting and camera settings would be completely accepted as they would improve a photographer’s personal work which would lead to the possibility of more commercial work. If you were going to talk about networking and self promotion, change the title of your lectures. With that example of “what f-stop was used for the portrait?”, that is a totally valid question that has nothing to do with the how pricey your rig is. The tone, depth of field, composition, and many other factors can be determined by the f-stop used. 

    The technical aspects of photography are just as important as the creative mind behind those technical aspects. Now, when I say “technical aspects” I’m talking about general knowledge of a camera works and how to use it. I’m NOT talking about high-end vs low end gear. ALL artists reach a point in their lives where they learn all the necessary technical aspects of their craft and then learn how to apply that to the ideas in their minds. We all take it at a different pace so stop being subjective about it. 

    This article is all over the place. First you start going on about being interrupted in your lecture and the ole’ “its not about the gear” chestnut. Then you say its ok for those who are learning…but it wasn’t ok for those who were asking you questions? Then you give ridiculous examples of master-photographers not worrying about their camera settings. You bet your ass they were…and the example shots are ones out of hundreds…which they got right because of the settings they chose and the timing of the shot. And then with the example of Leibowitz, its almost like you’re telling all us readers to hire a crew and let them worry about the technical details. And that shoelace metaphor makes no sense what so ever. I’ve read it several times now and I’m still not sure what this is really about. Next time you write an opinion piece, stay on topic and give it a read before you submit. 

  • Mike

    Steve, seems to be a lot of negative vibes around your article and I don’t really know why. I totally agree with you and I’m still learning so somewhat guilty of focusing on the details and not the overall image. However, I’m not a complete rookie and in most cases I know what settings are most likely going to give me the result I want. The camera is just a tool to capture the image I want and it should just get out of the way when shooting.

    Regarding your example of the f-stop, it likely wouldn’t help the person asking the question if you had given them the answer anyway. Without focal length, format, and likely a few other details ‘2.8’ doesn’t mean much. The fact you shoot a Phase One makes that even more evident if anyone will be trying to compare to a full frame or smaller DSLR.

  • Brandon Mendoza

    Awesome! This needs to be everywhere. Yes, learning about what your tools (in this case your camera) can do and how to use them is essential, but specs don’t mean anything if you can’t visualize or have an eye for aesthetics.

  • Melo

    Well said Michael.  For the people wondering why other photographers and readers are ‘bothered’ by his article and articles like it; he’s putting himself out there as an expert.  If you do that you best be prepared to take questions and opposing perspectives.  A new trend in photography is for everyone to suddenly be an expert and posting their insight via blogs, videos and ‘lectures’.  You can throw a stone and hit a dozen schmucks in every city ‘teaching’ and posting instructional videos. It’s gotten completely out of hand.  It’s not to say they may not be good photographers, but being a good photographer does not qualify you to instruct or lecture.

    I’m a former martial arts instructor.  I learned quickly that not everyone is cut out for teaching.  Some of my best and most skilled students could not teach a class.  They did not have the aptitude, demeanor nor articulate ability to distill years of knowledge into digestible doses for those ‘learning’.  Unfortunately Steve, you don’t seem to be a good writer, speaker or ‘expert’ as evidenced by this piece.

    Your snub of someone asking a perfectly acceptable photography question (f-stop) comes off as smug and is punctuated again by your listing of your fancy kit.  That alone completely nullifies the point of this piece.  If gear or f-stop is not so important… don’t touch on them at all.  Stick to the theory and artful bs your professors likely filled your head with in school.

    If you want to be exalted as an expert and ‘teach’.. you best be prepared to qualify your words.

  • Antonio Carrasco

     I currently only have a nikon D3200. Before that I had a D90.

  • Scott Baker

    It’s amazing to me how an article like this gets some people’s hackles up.  I read it as the photographer saying that you need to have mastery of your equipment and technique such that you barely even think about it while shooting.  This seems to me to be so obvious as to hardly warrant a comment.  I don’t think he’s saying that the exposure and the equipment didn’t matter. 

  • Kathleen Grace

    Oh boy, I know I’m going to get tromped to death, but yes, yes, yes.  I also know I will never call myself a professional photographer but am an artist who uses photography as a medium, however, I was trained as a photographer. I worked with journalists, entertainment photographers, studio photographers and worked as a customer service manager for a large commercial photo lab.   And the truth is I often get so enthusiastic taking pictures that I simply forget everything I learned and just shoot.  I wish I could get more enthused about all the technical aspects but completely lose my head.  I had to come to terms with the type of work I liked to do, and having worked with so many photographers as well as artists – and teaching classes – there is an inclination to focus on the equipment, the settings, the tools, which is essential for exacting commercial work, but not necessarily for artistic work.  I admire the technicians as masters and also admire the low-tech just as much.

  • donniefitz2

    My interpretation of this post is that you need to be so deeply technical that technical details become and extension of your being, so much so that you don’t even consciously think about things like f-stop. Not sure how his point is being interpreted as technical/vs non-technical. If anything, he’s advocating a higher level of technical ability.

  • Flgraphics

    It’s a stupid question anyways.. if the F stop is obvious with a shallow depth of field.. then what the hell would it even matter?

    Basically.. that is what the article is saying.  F Stops, lenses, body, lights.. which ones they are don’t matter if the end image is a pleasing one. Even then, it’s all a matter of opinion on what looks good.

    why can’t we just shoot, and shoot what we like and how we like too without all the snobbery that comes with gear. who cares?

  • Mansgame

    The point that you’re missing Steve is that unless you are in a studio, things change.   You can’t just be on autopilot and worry about the composition otherwise you might as well put the camera in P mode.

    I don’t know what this portrait was, but I can think of several reasons why the person asking the question thought it was important to know.  Maybe it was the depth of field.  Maybe a strobe was used and the person asking wondered how much power it was used and maybe a speedlight would have been enough.   What’s the point of having a class if you don’t allow questions without belittling the person asking the question and posting about it as if it’s something to be proud of?

    While on your site, I noticed almost all of your interior pictures had some severely overblown highlights and lack of a depth of field.  Was that a creative thing or were you unaware of the aperture?

  • Mansgame

    you can control how much flash power to take in with the aperture too and it’s very important in balancing with ambient light.   Without seeing the picture in question, it’s very ignorant of you to say it was a stupid question.

  • Roman

    “When Richard Avedon was shooting Dovima and the Elephants, do you think he was worried about what f-stop he was at?”
    I am sure he wasn’t worried but I am sure he did know why he set the lens to that setting.
    “If you are also worrying about your lighting, shutter speed, shadow detail, light direction(…)”
    Really? Isn’t all about light and composition?
    Portrait of Afghan Girl is taken with beautiful directional soft-light (window-light type). Do you think it was just coincidence? It just happened that she was there and he walked by and pressed a button…? He used psychological technique to make her participating in the shot.

    You are trying to say that people are asking questions unrelated to the subject of the lecture but you are saying that settings and equipment doesn’t matter.
    I think you were so much “taken aback” that you missed the point…

    Next time wait one day, read the post again and think if it is really what you are trying to say before you click “publish”.


  • J.Donnelly

    He doesn’t do a good job of convincing me that f-stop is indeed important. (It is, for me. I shoot portraits, weddings, and food/products.) You bet it is important. He says things like “Do you think Ansel Adams was worried about his f-stops?” No, he wasn’t WORRIED about them. He knew them, and employed them. Of course artistic vision comes first, but I’m saying one MUST have a balance of both in most (not all) professional photography pursuits. I wouldn’t hire someone who couldn’t tell me what f-stop they were shooting at, or didn’t know how to use their lighting. That’s way too amateurish for me. So, it really DOES matter.

  • J.Donnelly

    Agreed. He lost me with his writing. He didn’t get his point across clearly (which he’s tried to do in the comments section here). If you have to EXPLAIN the meaning of your post, you should have had your editor read it first.

  • Mike

    If you are a professional basketball player and, after many years of
    successful games and stats, some coach or trainer tells you “Meh, just SHOOT. Some
    balls will make it in, some won’t,” it’s irritating. It’s like this “teacher” is
    saying it’s simply okay to be non-technical with your craft (and for a good
    portion of us folks, that means “mediocre” since very few of us can be
    instant geniuses). Although he states that “of course, it’s important!” the rest of his post implied otherwise.

  • Renato Murakami

    I think the “technical aspects are not important, what’s important is your artistic view” speech is starting to feel overused right now…

    Yes, the most important piece of your photographic equipment is your brain and your heart. Yes, some people tend to give too much attention to these aspects.
    But the examples are not very good ones there.I think the thing is: Good professional photographers know enough of the technical aspects of their equipments not to keep thinking about them too much, and give more attention to the image they are capturing.It’s plain wrong to assume pro photographers “don’t think” about things like f-stop, lighting gear and setup, and other technical aspects of their shots. It’s just that they know enough about it, so they come up instinctively.It becomes an automatic process.So yeah, it is important and a big deal to know your gear, know the theories… so much so that you’ll end up incorporating it and making the process of decision automatically.I think it’s a good thing people are curious and actually ask about stuff like that.It means they are trying to understand and deconstruct shoots as they are interested in reproducing the effects.Yes, the artistic part, the feel, the subject are all more important, specially in an age where we have tons of people who knows and can learn fairly easily about technical aspects…. but I don’t agree with setting them aside.Just as much as I don’t agree with videos and lectures downplaying the importance of gear… like that last “fashion shoot with an iPhone” thing that came out not long ago.Downplaying gear and technical knowledge can severely limit photographer’s options.And while investing time only to learn tech details is a horrible thing someone learning photography can do, completely discarding those can be as damaging. There has to be a balance between them….

  • Photo Retoucher

    For all those who disagree with the author; he says and I quote:
    “I’m  not saying that f-stops, lights, cameras, lenses and other technical things aren’t important to making good images. I’d be the first one to tell you that some images can only be made by incredibly technical photographers. The point I’m trying to make is that photographers need to practice the technical things often enough so that they don’t get in the way of making great images.”I think this says it all.I am also going to say the following:The Title of the Lecture: “How to get commercial assignments by photographing and promoting personal photography projects” seems to be hitting a nerve.It is my experience that if you are involved in the world of truly “Commercial” work it means you are no longer an amateur and you have crossed over in to the land of being a professional. In any field, from photo, to medical, to engineering, to cooking.When the author says he was taken aback by the question at hand, i believe it is because he was giving a conference that was aimed at professionals trying to push their personal projects to bring in commercial clients that might be looking for an edge and a unique voice.  “What f-stop did you use” is not at all a bad question-if you are taking a class on how to shoot.  But for this particular lecture, asking a question like that is; (in my opinion), equivalent to someone attending a medical lecture on “how to apply unorthodox Suturing Techniques to a wound” and someone asking what kind of needle is being used.
    I think the dr. would agree if you are attending this lecture its because you know your needles and you can move past that.

  • Danny St

    I agree with this article. As Ansel Adams said: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” 

  • Mansgame

     Then what’s the point of showing ANY picture in the class if it’s a marketing class?  Anytime you show a picture in a room full of photographers as if to brag about how great you are, there are going to be questions about how you did it. 

  • 9inchnail

     “What I’m saying is that you need to get your technically stuff nailed
    down so that when you’re shooting it’s not something you’re thinking
    about because it’s second nature for you.”

    How can it become second nature to the people listening to you if you can’t even tell them what f-stop you used?

    People look at your photo and want to know how you took it so that they can maybe recreate it and learn in the process. But you’re not helping them at all and propably shouldn’t be teaching in the first place.

  • 9inchnail

    Creative ideas and visions don’t mean anything if you don’t have the technical knowledge to realise them. All you have then is nice, pretty pictures IN YOUR HEAD.

  • 9inchnail

     Yes, but if I was an amateur photographer sitting in his class and he didn’t answer my questions because I’m supposed to already know all the technical aspects of photography, I’d get up and leave cause he has clearly nothing to teach me.

  • 9inchnail

     I don’t think, a blurry image of a good concept is that much better.

  • Ute

    I agree completely with the article and the comments are just as interesting as the article itself. They show how hard it is to many people to go beyond the technical side of photography. 

  • Gavin Stokes

    I think everyone on this thread is on the same page, article is poorly written (once again hats of to peta pixel) and the impression is given that a technical understanding does not matter as much as creative vision, when really what the article is saying (badly) is that it should be second nature and not get in the way, its similar to the old adage….”to break the rules you must fully understand them first.” In this case its being able to have them as second nature.

  • Gav Lister

    wow so much spitefulness out there!!  I think he has a good point, I understand people having an opinion but why the nastiness and attempts to degrade the author.  Especially mansgame who even goes as far as rubbishing his work publicly, you are an embarrassment to serious photographers. Maybe some of you need to re read the article and see it from a different perspective, not just through your own blinkered narrow minded world.  There isn’t anything at all wrong with this article so stop feeling threatened and defensive and maybe you will get his point. 

    The fact is he was giving a lecture about on the artistic sides and how to achieve it, not photography 101.  Of course technical knowledge is important and he acknowledges this several times.  Sure it is ok to ask about f stops but this was irrelevant to his lecture.  Whether you agree with him, his point has validity.  Those of you who are experienced professionals know that you see the world in f stops and even different formats in almost everything you do.  It becomes second nature. 

    The above post by retoucher couldn’t have said it better.

  • Russ Campbell

    It’s simple: make your camera invisible.

  • bt

    I think the article is saying once you have the technical side down pat, you can then concentrate on the composition.  I think the thing that got everyone’s hackles up is that the author refused to help the questioner get to that staqe.

  • Antonio Carrasco

     f-stops are important in beginning photography classes. From what the OP described, this was more of an intermediate class.

    Going to a class like this and asking about Fstops is like getting in a race car and asking how the manual transmission works.

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  • Mansgame

     Yes, he does speak out of both sides of his mouth.  Every photographer can agree that there is a both technical and artistic side to photography. 

  • Mansgame

     Bingo.  The “I can’t imagine why they would want to know that” is what did it for me. 

  • PatrickJClarke

    The moment I went from “I need to shoot something at  f/1.4″ to looking through the lens and adjusting and previewing the aperture on the fly until it “looked like I wanted” was a great day.  

    I can’t tell you if my shot was f/2, or f/3.5, but I can tell you that what I chose was just the perfect amount of blur to tell my story.

  • Feter Prampton

    “Do you think when Dorthea Lange was photographing Migrant Mother she was worried about what shutter speed she was shooting at? When Richard Avedon was shooting Dovima and the Elephants, do you think he was worried about what f-stop he was at? When Steve McCurry was photographing the Afghan Girl, do you think he was worried that maybe he should be using his on-camera flash for fill? ”

    yes, yes and yes, you doofus. these are all photographs, not snapshots. they are considered. and McCurry was shooting on a Fm2, which doesn’t do on-camera flash

    you sound like a hack

  • Jon C. Hodgson

    I couldn’t disagree with this post more.

    While I wholeheartedly agree that some people get way too caught up on technical details when you show them a photo rather than experiencing the emotion of the image. That’s why I stopped patronizing because they judged images based on technical details such as the number of distinct layers or how closely it followed the rule of thirds, rather than how the image made them -feel-. Art is about creating an emotional response, not about calipers and protractors.

    But that being said, to be a master photographer, you absolutely have to be conscious of the technical details and know precisely how to leverage them to achieve the image you have in your mind’s eye or the essence of moment that you’re witnessing.

    The subject of the image and the overall mood are always the primary things i’m concerned with, but I would not be able to capture those moments if I didn’t have a mastery of all the settings to squeeze every last bit of sharpness out of an image, and ensure my subject stays in focus etc.

    I completely disagree with the poster’s comment about the masters not being worried about f-stop. I am very confident that they were extremely conscious and calculating about what settings they used. Very few great photos happen by accident.

    With regard to the what F-Stop question, I would not have answered with the specific setting, but rather what my thought process was in choosing the setting I did. For example, when sharpness is critical, I always choose 1 or 2 stops less than wide-open, since most lenses are far softer at the extremes of their aperture range. Or, if I have a subject with a lot of motion, i’ll widen my DOF to give me more wiggle room for focus.

    I’m always conscious about striking the right balance between shutter speed, aperture & ISO to get the highest quality image with the specific effect I want relative to the environment i’m shooting in.

    In my opinion the poster missed the whole point of being a lecturer – which is to educate. He should have shared insight into why he went one ways vs. another, so that others could benefit from his (supposed) experience.

  • Guest

    Looks like the author got everyone to question if they do in fact get caught up on the  technical aspects of taking pictures. Thats is much better to me than another boring article on thinking outside the box, or another three point portrait lighting article. If you agree with him, or disagree with him, he still wrote a successful article in my opinion. 

  • Melo

     Best response yet.

  • Gav Lister

    quote “McCurry was shooting on a Fm2, which doesn’t do on-camera flash
    you sound like a hack”

    ummmm, so what’s that connector on top of the FM2 for?  Damn, all those times I connected a flash to that hotshoe.  Now I feel so stupid ;-)


  • 9inchnail

    Ok, so if I write an article about what a cool dude Hitler was, it’s an successful article because people disagree with me and attack me.
    Brace yourselves, Hitler-article coming.