Mastering Manual Mode – Part 1: Aperture

Do you have an interest in photography but don’t know where to start? Do you want to have more control over the photos that your camera takes? Are you looking to take the next step in your photography but are, perhaps, a little intimidated? Then this series is just for you! We will take a closer look at shooting in manual mode in this four part series:

  1. Aperture
  2. Shutter speed
  3. ISO
  4. Hints & Tips.

At the end you should have a better understanding of how to shoot in manual mode. But do’t worry – no fancy jargon here (or the least amount possible!) and we have plenty of photos to help you out along the way. Ready to get started?

Aperture

The easiest way for me to define “aperture” is, it is the size of the hole that allows light in when you are taking a picture. Aperture settings are called “f-stops” and each “stop” allows in half as much light as the previous “stop”. The size of the aperture helps determine two things: the amount of light let in to the sensor and how much of the image will be in focus. The wider (open) the aperture, the more light allowed in. The narrower (closed) the aperture, the less light allowed in. Here is a great visual to help you understand this concept.

aperture guide

The most confusing concept to grasp about aperture is that the number values for f-stops is inverse to the amount of light the aperture lets in. For example, you can see the circle on the left is labeled as f1.4 and the aperture is open very wide. On the right the circle is labeled as f16 and the aperture has a very small opening.

  • Smaller f-stop = more light.
  • Bigger f-stop = less light.

The next important element regarding the aperture is the f-stop will also determine how much of your photograph is in focus. When the aperture is wide open (remember, that’s a LOW f-stop number) there will be very little in focus and lots of bokeh in the background (see here for more information regarding bokeh). When the aperture has a narrow opening a lot more of the image will be in focus.

Ok – enough talking, how about we look at some real life examples? I find this is when the information really clicks with people – you might have an “ah-ha!” moment! I did a series of photos using my daughters stuffed animals to show the difference between a small f-stop (wide open aperture) and a large f-stop (narrow aperture). In the first image you will notice that only the octopus is in focus, as the aperture is open really wide. Notice how everything behind the octopus is blurry?

Example of wide f2 aperture

In the second image I moved the f/stop up creating a smaller opening.  You will notice that more of the stuffed animals are in focus and you can start to see the two elephants more clearly.

Example of semi-wide f5.6 aperture

So far two of the stuffed animals in focus and the other two are on their way. Next, I moved my aperture up again in order to get the third stuffed animal in focus.

Example of semi-narrow f8 aperture

Now, what if we wanted the bear all the way in the back to be in focus, as well as the other stuffed animals? That’s right – we’re going to increase the aperture again to make an even narrower opening. Now all four stuffed animals are in focus once we get to f14.

Example of f14 Narrow Aperture

How do you know when to use a low f-stop and when to use a high f-stop? In general, portraits use f-stops that are on the low end of the scale (anywhere from f1.2 – f5.6 depending on your lens) as this helps the main subject stand out against the background. Landscape photography tends to use f-stops that are on the high end of the scale (anywhere from f8-f22, depending on your lens) as it puts more of the photograph in focus, allowing you to clearly see the view in front of you.

Want me to let you in on a little secret? This is what helped me remember the relationship of aperture f-stop to the focus level:

  • Small f-stop = small focus.
  • Big f-stop = big focus.

So if I am taking a picture of a baby and want only the baby in focus and the background blurry, I know that I need to use a SMALL f-stop number in order to get a SMALL amount of focus. If I want a landscape picture to have lots of detail and focus I know that I need to use a BIG f-stop number in order to get BIG focus.

Yellowstone photo with narrow f13 aperture

f13

Landscape photo with narrow f22

f22

Baby Photo taken with f2 wide aperture

f2

Baby Photo Taken with f3.5 wide aperture

f3.5

How do you know how wide your aperture will go? The range of your aperture will depend on the lens that you have. Prime lenses (those with one focal length only, such as a 50mm) tend to have wider apertures (smaller f-stop number, with some as low as f1.2). If you have a zoom lens (with a range of focal lengths, say 20-70mm) you will probably start off with a narrower aperture, around f4 as your widest setting. It also depends on the quality of the lens that you buy. Higher quality lenses have the ability for very wide apertures.

I highly encourage you to play around with the aperture to figure out what style you like best. Do you like creamy backgrounds with one main focal point? Or do you like to see more detail throughout the whole photograph? There is no wrong answer here, so play around and see what suits you best!

Stay tuned for the next part in our Mastering Manual Mode series – shutter speed!

*all photos taken by Tracy Cepelak of Tracy Lynn Photography

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About Tracy

Tracy is a children's photographer at Tracy Lynn Photography (www.tracylphotography.com) in Houston, TX. When she isn't behind the camera you can find her chasing around her one year old daughter, baking something sweet in the kitchen, and traveling as much as she can. She writes about her life as a mom at the mini traveling cupcake and traveling adventures at The Traveling Cupcake. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest

What do you think?

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Comments

  1. 8
    Shaunna Wesselius says:

    love that you explained it simply for us novices that don’t understand all the technical jargon.

  2. 9

    Your explanation of aperture is brilliant ! Small focus vs Big focus is hopefully going to stick Thanks

  3. 10

    Great post. Very simply put. Thank you!

  4. 11

    great article…. Very simply put. Thanx! Looking forward for the next one…. Shutter speed…

  5. 12

    Greetings from India. Thank you so much for this. This was indeed very helpful and a learning experience

  6. 13

    Absolutely wonderful. Every other guide I have read through was hard to understand, full of jargon, and tedious.
    You were able to get the point across in a clear and easy to understand way. I feel I definitely understand Aperture better.

  7. 14

    Thanks Tracy,
    I have a Nikon D3100 and for the last year or so, I’ve always shot in Aperture mode but I never quite saw it the way you describe it here. You can bet I will be testing out your theories and hope to better my photography.
    Thanks again and if possible, keep me posted on any other “tutorials” you have.
    Marc

  8. 15

    Very nice overview of aperture, Tracy!