Mar 11 2010

Photography 101: How to Use the F Stop

Published by at 8:44 am under General

Shooting with a camera and adjusting the settings manually can be an intimidating task to the new photographer. Most veteran photographers will no doubt remember the first roll of film they ruined by reading the light wrong or the photos they missed by having a closed lens cap. As a photographer, our job is to be the conductor of a symphony of moving components, gently influencing each element to ensure that the end result is more than just the sum of the parts.

Without understanding the elements of photography individually, it is impossible to understand how they relate to the whole. So let’s start our trip into the inner workings of photography with one of the most unfamiliar topics: aperture.

Defining Aperture
Aperture is simply what controls the amount of light exposed on the film or your digital camera’s sensor. It can be opened and closed using the F-Stop on your camera, which is usually a ring located around the lens in between the focus ring and the body of the camera. If you’ve ever looked into someone’s eye as light was shone into it, you have a pretty good idea of what the aperture does – it works just like a pupil.

Most cameras have an F-Stop range of 1.7 or 2.0 to 22 or so; the range of values usually increases with the quality and cost of the camera. You can see your camera’s range by looking at the numbers around your lens. Lower F Stops expose the film (or sensor) to more light and are more open, while high F Stops close the aperture and shut out the light.

How Aperture Can Impact Images
Using your F-Stop to purposefully manipulate the camera’s aperture will allow you to change the depth of field in your photographs. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “depth of field,” it describes how much of your photograph is blurry, and how much is sharp. Aperture directly affects the amount of time a frame is exposed. And, the more time the film has to absorb light, the more clarity and depth will come through the final image.

For example, if you were to take a picture of a line of old fashioned vintage picture frames from one end using a low F Stop number (an open aperture) you would likely see one or two frames clearly and the other frames as blurry. Open apertures create a shallow depth of field. If you were to then take the same photograph with a high F-Stop (a closed aperture), you would see many more antique picture frames clearly down the line and get a much greater sense of how far away they might be.

Fun Aperture Experiments
Playing with the aperture on your camera can be great fun once you have a bearing on what it does.  Here’s a couple of ideas to try the next time you’re out shooting and you want to test it out:

  • Take every photograph twice – once at a high F-Stop, and once at a low F-Stop.
  • Challenge yourself to shoot an entire roll at one F-Stop, then switch it up.
  • Put your camera on full manual and adjust the F-Stop on the fly to adjust for light

Don’t forget to adjust the shutter speed of your camera to allow for more or less light (faster speeds for more light, slower speeds for less), or you may end up with overexposed or underexposed images. Many digital cameras have a fantastic option called “Aperture Priority Mode” which allows you to choose an F-Stop value and will then adjust your shutter speed automatically. It is worth noting that the best conditions for experimenting with aperture are cloudy or overcast days. When faced with bright or low light, your options for F-Stop values will become limited.

Of course, the very best way to improve your photography is to take lots of pictures. So, get out there and find those photographs that you’ll be proud to hang on your picture frame wall!

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