[Updated October 2019]
Welcome to Photography Basics. Aperture is a fundamental concept in photography, yet one of the most important.
Understanding aperture doesn’t have to be complicated.
In this short article part of the series Photography basics, you’re going to learn what it is and how to use it in no time. We’ll also see some useful aperture settings and examples.
Learning the basics of photography is crucial if you want to up your game. Today you’ll learn what the Aperture is. How it affects your photos, how it impacts bright or dark an image is, and also how it affects the Depth of Field.
The aperture of a lens is the size of the opening that allows light through into the camera body.
Understanding what is the aperture will get you away from automatic mode. It’s also important to know that together with Shutter Speed, ISO, and Focal Length, aperture is one of the pillars of photography.
If you’re looking for a complete guide about how aperture works together with ISO and Depth of Field, you can also read my articles
Photography Basics: Understanding ISO and The Ultimate Beginner Guide to Photography.
Photography Basics Part 1. How Does Aperture Work?
Let’s understand how aperture works.
When shooting a photograph, your lens diaphragm opens up for a certain amount of time (exposure time), and it allows the light to hit the camera sensor to record the image.
The size of the lens opening is the aperture, and it’s measured in f-stops.
It’s necessary to know that mastering the use of aperture will allow you to improve your photos dramatically.
Thanks to a wide aperture, for example, you can obtain a shallow Depth of Field hence a beautiful bokeh (soft background). Viceversa, a narrow aperture, will cause the Depth of Field to be longer and so to get a larger part of your image in focus.
Read the Bokeh Photography Tutorial for Beginners to learn how to obtain silky smooth backgrounds in your photos using aperture.
Narrow and Wide Aperture Examples
As I said, aperture not only affects the Depth of Field but also the exposure of your image.
Mastering photography basics means knowing how to set up the proper aperture value and knowing how it affects the depth of field.
A wide aperture corresponds not only to a shallower depth of field but also to a brighter image.
Viceversa, a narrow aperture will give you a darker image (and a more extended depth of field).
By adjusting the aperture in your settings, you affect a series of circular blades inside your lens. The blades will narrow down and widen up, determining different opening, according to the values of aperture you choose.
A small aperture will create that interesting star effect when shooting bright spotlights, like city lights at night, as you can see in the image above. Or if you’re shooting landscapes, the sun will be an excellent subject to experiment. Best time of the day for this is either going to be sunrise or sunset.
A wide aperture will cause a smooth background effect called bokeh.
Measuring Aperture: F-Stop
Let’s now introduce the concept of f-stop and how to measure aperture. Take a look at the following images.
Here you can see how aperture affects the brightness and darkness of an image (exposure).
From left to right, as you can see, the initial aperture value of f/2.8 will let in a lot of light. That’s a wide aperture. Moving forward, reducing the aperture reduces the brightness, and as you notice, the values on the second and last images are f/8 and f/22.
So the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture, and the darker the image.
Aperture Settings. How Aperture Affects Depth of Field
In the following image, instead, you can see how aperture affects Depth of Field. Let’s see some aperture settings:
On the left, the wide-open lens (wide aperture f/2.8) results in a shallow Depth of Field. The background is entirely out of focus.
On the right, a small aperture (f/16) makes it so that the background is acceptably sharp as well as the foreground. In this case, you have a larger Depth of Field.
There’s a lot more to say in regards to Depth of Field and how to master it with the knowledge of Hyperfocal Distance. Find more here The Best Guide to Understanding Hyperfocal Distance.
How to set different values of aperture in your camera? I recommend to abandon the Automatic mode of your camera and set it to Aperture Priority mode. It’s called A (or Av on Canon cameras).
The Aperture Priority mode is a semi-manual mode with which you can adjust the aperture value, and the camera will automatically determine the correct shutter speed for a proper exposure.
The Complete Guide to Camera Settings will walk you through the process step by step in case you need it.
Aperture Examples in Landscape Photography
In landscape photography, you want to make sure that your entire scene is in focus. For this reason, you will select a small aperture.
By setting your camera to aperture priority mode, the camera itself will take care of ISO and shutter speed. Here’s an aperture example.
With a small aperture (f/20) I was able to get most of the image in focus.
Fast Lenses (Zoom and Prime)
Now that you know more about aperture, if you’re looking for a new lens check out these fast f/1.8 Prime lenses:
And some zoom lenses if you want more flexibility to compose your images.
Aperture, Video Explanation
I found this video on Fstoppers and I thought I might include it here if you want a nice graphical explanation of how aperture works.
As you can see in the video at:
0:13 Aperture is the hole in the lens through which light travels into the camera body and onto the camera sensor.
1:00 The diaphragm is the “iris” of the lens and controls the size of the aperture.
1:10 Aperture is expressed in F-stops or F-numbers. Small f-stop = large aperture. Large f-stop = small aperture.
1:42 Aperture has a direct impact on the Depth of Field: the area of the image that appears sharp.
2:20 Fast Lenses description. F1.4 to F2.8 are considered fast lenses.
2:55 Prime and zoom lenses (I’ve also written an article on prime and zoom lenses here for you)
4:34 Set your camera to aperture priority mode
At his point, you know quite a lot about aperture. To master it, make sure to experiment with different values and scenarios and with different compositions.
Exploring the menu of your DSLR or mirrorless camera and playing around with different settings is one of the most important things to do when learning photography.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or need any help understanding how your camera works!
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Stefano Caioni is the founder of Pixinfocus. His passion for photography helps him discover new places and live new adventures.