Are you a new DSLR user trying to figure out the various settings? In this series of posts, I’ll be explaining terms like “aperature,” “shutter speed,” “ISO,” and “white balance.” Settle in while I unpack camera settings for dummies, specifically answering the question: “What is aperature?” Not that you’re a dummy, just a newbie, that perhaps feels like a dummy.
What Is Aperature?
Aperature is a camera setting used for obtaining depth of field, exposure, sharpness, and focus. Imagine aperature as one of three legs on a stool, alongside shutter speed and ISO. To keep the stool balanced, which is represented by a properly exposed image, each setting needs to work in conjunction with the other. I like the analogy of aperature being akin to the pupil of an eye, only in this case, it’s the opening of the camera lens. The larger the aperature, the more light that reaches the camera sensor. The smaller the aperature, the less light the sensor receives.
Typically, but not always, smaller aperatures correlate with slower shutter speeds, and larger aperatures with faster shutter speeds. Together, they determine exposure or how light or the dark an image will be. Aperature also controls depth of field. The smaller the aperature, the greater the depth of field, meaning both the foreground and background of a scene would be in focus. Conversely, the wider the aperature, the more shallow the depth of field. Large aperatures are amazing for creating gorgeous blurred backgrounds, referred to as bokeh. Bokeh is particularly suited for portraiture where you want the focus to be directly on the subject.
Small and Large Aperatures
I use wide aperatures for senior portraits, baby photography, glamour and headshots, and closeup wedding photography. Wide aperatures are more forgiving in terms of downplaying flaws because they don’t show every little detail. They also separate the subject from the background. Smaller aperatures are ideal for large family groups, portraits where the scenery surrounding the subject needs to be in focus, and for product and macro photography where capturing detail is the goal. I have, however, shot family portraits using wide aperatures if the group is all on the same plane. Otherwise, I use f/8 or f/11.
[Read More: How To Photograph Flowers and Insects]
Aperature is also referred to as F-stop. For instance, here is how aperatures, ranging from widest to smallest, would be represented: f/2, f/3.5, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, and f/16. You might initially get confused, because rather than f/16 being the largest aperature, it’s actually the smallest. The numbers are reversed, meaning the higher the number (f/16), the smaller the aperature, and the lower the number (f/2), the wider the aperature.
My all time favorite lens for creating amazing bokeh is the Canon 85mm f/1.4.
The Canon 85mm f/1.8 is also a great choice.
Specific Situations and Corresponding Aperatures
For clarification, here’s a summary of different aperatures and applications:
F/1.4 to f/1.8: Very wide aperatures work well for indoor photography, such as wedding receptions and other venues, where there is not much available light. In these situations, a slow shutter speed may also be required to take advantage of as much ambient light as possible. Many times, wide aperatures enable faster shutter speeds, which are necessary to prevent motion blur. These f-stops are also great for outdoor photography because they create awesome bokeh, and for baby photography and headshots where the goal is to minimize detail. Count yourself lucky if you have a fast lens with these incredible aperatures.
F/2.8 to f/3.2: I like using this range of aperature for outdoor portraiture, when I want to blur the background, or for shooting indoors in low-light environments. They’re also ideal for separating the subject from the background. Large f-stops will serve you well for any of the situations referred to above, as well.
F.4 to f/5.6: Personally, I don’t like setting my aperature to f/4, which is unfortunate because that’s the widest aperature on my zoom lens. I don’t use it very often as I don’t care for the look of the bokeh it creates. The only time I will use it is if a particular lighting situation requires it. F/5.6, on the other hand, is a versatile aperature that is applicable for a variety of lighting conditions. It works well outside, and can work well indoors paired with a slow shutter speed, depending on how much light is available. You won’t get much bokeh at f/5.6, however.
F/8 to f/11: These aperatures are ideal for family portraiture, real estate photography, landscapes, and macro photography. F/8 is a safe aperature if you want to nail focus without too much fuss. It’s considered the sweet spot on most lenses. I use it a lot for family groups and architecture. It would also be a good choice for wildlife photography. F/8 allows enough light into the lens, while still allowing for fast shutter speeds, when shooting outside.
I don’t use f/11 as much as I use f/8, but it is effective for highlighting detail when photographing products or for macro photography. I use both f-stops outside for wedding photography when it’s bright outside. These aperatures, along with fast shutter speeds, are amazing for dialing in sharpness and focus. They’re also applicable for sports photography and for capturing any type of action.
F/16 to f/22: F/16 can be a good aperature for shots where you want a lot of depth of field. However, be aware that focus may suffer as a result of using smaller aperatures. I’ve used f/16 for landscapes and some instances of macro and sports photography. I can’t remember an instance where I used f/22. If you’re in a situation where you need more depth of field, but don’t want to use a smaller aperature, increase the distance between you and the camera.
It took me awhile to understand aperature, but it’s a setting you must grasp if you want to be more than an amateur photographer. Aperature controls exposure, focus, and depth of field, giving you the ability to control how much of your scene is in focus. Wide f-stops are extraordinary for creating bokeh, while smaller aperatures give you the ability to capture detail, and keep both the foreground and background in focus.
Do you have any questions about aperature? Let me know in the comments:)