Tom, I think we just have to ask ourselves what motivates our technical decisions. If that motivation comes from your own artistic goals, then by all means be confident and go forth and make photographs! Frankly, I do not have that confidence most the time, it's a work in progress. But I do my best not to duplicate what I've seen before... unless it's just some technical exercise.
Let me give you a concrete example relevant to the issue of softness and out-of-focus rendering. I use a 50/1.2 lens in 35mm and an 80/1.9 and 110/2.8 in MF, and I use them quite a bit. Of course, I have seen all manner of daytime photographs with razor thin DOF, it's clearly a popular look. So naturally I asked myself if I were simply shooting wide open to follow the fad. But... most of the time I shoot at those apertures, it's not for DOF at all. On the contrary, it's because I like to shoot in "quiet," soft, muted light and I also have an intense dislike of artificial light. I am especially allergic to flash.
(And no, its not just because almost every family snapshot in my life has depicted me with demonic red eyes :rolleyes: )
The reason why I like available light so much is because it is so natural, so unclinical... and it is undisturbing to the subject. Doesn't jar them out of their normal state. So, I would assert that I make the technical decision to shoot wide open not for the effect of razor-thin DOF, but rather because of the quality of the light that I prefer.
I can't think of any aesthetic reason why I'd prefer to have somebody's ears out of focus!!! I mean, sure, eyes are expressive and we emphasize them for that reason, but they are not the only thing in the image....
I am not saying that shallow DOF is inherently a cliche. On the contrary, if it serves an artistic purpose then what's wrong with it? I am not bound to some f/64 code of conduct! Nor am I bound to f/1.2 for portraits or whatever.
Now, I make as many cliches as anybody; I shoot 'em daily. I am sure that I don't even recognize half of the cliches I shoot as such. So I think there is the need to inform oneself of what others have done and what others are doing, and to step back and ask, why am I doing what I do? Why don't I do something else? Am I afraid to go off-recipe? Or am I so afraid of making a cliche that I won't even try something like shooting a fast lens wide open?
We have to talk to ourselves ...and ask questions like why do you do what you do?