Quite some time ago I hired a non-photographer to delve into the three main controls in the exposure triangle, and write a full blog post on each topic. I wanted to have s non-photographer write this, because as an experienced shooter, a lot of information is simply taken for granted, and I was afraid that I would miss something that was very important, or that somehow I would not convey the ideas as well as someone who was just figuring it all out. Here is that exploration of aperture. I hope that this will help everyone who is new to this subject to get a clearer concept of what it's all about, and how it impacts your photography!
What is aperture?
A basic understanding of aperture will give the photographer the most creative control over a photo, and that’s why our series starts here. Aperture, in layman’s terms, is the setting that controls how focused or blurry, light or dark, and how deep your photo will turn out. Mechanically, it is the hole through which light travels into your camera. Visualize the classic image of a camera shutter opening and closing as you press the shutter. The hole in the middle is the aperture. Another way to imagine this is to think of the aperture as the pupil of your eye. As your eye opens and closes, more or less light travels into it, allowing you to see things at different levels of clarity. Setting your camera to a larger aperture will result in a more centrally-focused photo with a blurred background. This is great for that portrait of your daughter in her high school graduation gown! Conversely, setting your camera to a smaller aperture will allow less blur, meaning that more of your photo will be in focus. A smaller aperture works well for a landscape photo.
Aperture is measured in numbers, known as “F Stops” because they are attached to the letter “f” – for example, f/8, f/2.8, and so on (some cameras will display the F Stop without the slash, like f8 or f2.8). Now, here is the slightly tricky part: a larger aperture will be denoted by a smaller number, while a smaller aperture will be denoted by a larger number. We’ll get into this more below.
The numbering system
Let’s review this again, since it is probably the most difficult aspect for new manual mode users to understand: an aperture of f/1.4 is larger than an aperture of f/5.6. The reason for this confusing numbering system is that aperture is actually a fraction. So, f/2 is like the fraction 1/2, while f/11 is like 1/11. Since the fraction 1/11 is a smaller number than 1/2, 1/11 represents a much smaller aperture.
How aperture affects your photos
You might be asking what this practically means for your photos. A large, also known as wide, aperture, will allow more light into your camera, and focusing your photo on a central point. To return to the example of your daughter on her graduation day, a large aperture will focus the photo on her, with the area behind her appearing blurry. Another element that aperture affects is the bokeh in your photo. Bokeh, stemming from the Japanese word for “blur” or “haze”, refers to the quality of the out-of-focus background of your photo. I could write an entire post on bokeh, but for now, suffice to explain that a large aperture will create a blurrier bokeh.
A small, or narrow, aperture, will allow less light into your camera, so that more of your photo can be in focus. As mentioned above, you’ll want to use a smaller aperture when taking a photo of a landscape, like your yard or a beach. This is because a smaller aperture will capture details in both the foreground and background of your photo. If you are using your camera at night, you’ll want to use a larger aperture to allow every bit of available light into your photo.
F Stops range from f/1.4 – a very large aperture, to f/22 – a very small aperture. You will have to play around with your camera to find the appropriate apertures for your photo needs. This is a matter of your own creative preference, and also depends on the specific camera you have. Different lenses will interact differently with their apertures. Also note that your lens may have a smaller range of available aperture. Generally, a mid-range, “sweet spot” is between f/5.6 and f/8, but again, this varies by lens. Have some fun with your camera and experiment!
Setting your aperture
Your camera will have two options that allow you to set aperture. The first is manual mode, represented by “M” on your camera. You will need to understand and be able to set your own shutter speed and ISO in manual mode. The second option is Aperture Priority mode, represented by “A” or “AV”. It lets you control the aperture but will set shutter speed and ISO automatically. It's a great way to become well acquainted with the way aperture will affect your images, without needing to learn all three controls at the same time. And, if you do want to learn how to control shutter speed and ISO, look out for the upcoming posts in this series!
Was this helpful?
The goal of this series is to help you – the aspiring amateur photographer – learn how to make the best out of your new camera’s many features. I’ve made an effort to relay this information in the most basic terms, so that someone with no experience in photography can understand it. Did you find this helpful? Was anything unclear? Let me know [RW3] so I can adjust future posts accordingly. Happy photographing!
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