10 Steps to Manual Mode: Aperture Basics

close up of chipmunk eating something
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This is the fourth part of the 10 part series: 10 Steps to Manual Mode.

You can access the series here—> 10 Steps to Manual Mode Series.

In this fourth part of the series, we are going to focus on aperture.

Aperture is one of three parts of the Exposure Triangle that is very important when understanding photography.

I discuss the basics of the Exposure Triangle in this post—> Exposure Triangle Basics for Shooting in Manual Mode

What is Aperture?

Aperture is the F-stop number on your lens. This number controls the depth of field (the part of the photo that is in focus) in your photo.

a squirrel in a tree eating something

A smaller number means the lens lets in more light, which makes for a brighter picture with less in focus. This is called shooting wide open (usually between a 1.6 to a 5.6 f-stop number) or with a shallow focus. Your focal point will be in focus, but everything in front or behind it will be blurry. In the shot above, the squirrel and the adjacent branches are in focus, but everything else is blurry.

cowboy on a horse with his dogs in a green meadow

A larger number means the lens lets in less light, which makes for a darker picture with more of the photo in focus. This is called stopping down (usually between f 11 to f22 (or 32 depending on your camera) or with deep focus. The bigger the number, the more of your picture will be in focus.

In the photo above, I wanted all of the photo in focus so you could get a better perspective of the context of the cowboy and his dogs in the forest, not just the cowboy himself.

How do we use it to take better photos?

close up of chipmunk eating something

Shooting wide open (smaller aperture number) is called a shallow depth of field. Many people use a shallow depth of field for portraits or macro shots, where they want to have a blurry background or lots of bokeh, as in the photo above.

Shooting stopped down (larger aperture number) is called large depth of field. People usually choose a large depth of field for landscape photography where they want every detail, from the front to the back of the photo, in focus.

How does aperture effect the exposure triangle?

Anytime you adjust one of the three parts of the exposure triangle (Aperture, ISO, Shutter Speed), you will most likely have to adjust the others as well to get the proper exposure.

If you shoot wide open, you are letting more light into your photo. Therefore, you may need to increase the shutter speed to make sure the photo isn’t too bright. You can also more likely shoot with a small ISO.

If you shoot stopped down, you are letting less light into your photo. Therefore, you may need to decrease the shutter speed (by taking a long exposure with a tripod) to increase the light in the photo. You may have to increase your ISO as well.

How does proximity to your subject effect aperture?

The closer you are to the subject, the more pronounced aperture is.

In other words, if you are far away from your subject (lets say a you are taking a photo of a barn in the distance in a landscape shot) you could use F8 and get most of the photo in focus.

If you are very close to your subject (an ant on a leaf) you could use F8 and most of the photo would be out of focus.

This is an advanced perspective of aperture, but I wanted to make you aware of this phenomenon.

Using aperture to portray your vision:

Let’s take a look at a series of photos and how aperture played a role in how the landscape was portrayed.

cattails by a lake with aspens in the background

In the first photo, I use a stopped down aperture to get not only the cattails in focus, but the aspen trees behind it in focus too.

cattails by a lake

In this photo, I am almost standing in the same spot, but the photo looks different because I opened up the aperture a little more to get the cattails in focus but the aspens are blurry.

cattails by water

In this third photo, you can’t see the aspens at all. You can’t see anything in the background, only the individual cattails, which are now the focus of the photo.

In this case, I was in the same location shooting with 3 different apertures and I came home with 3 very different photos.

Using aperture to tell the story:

You can also use aperture to tell different parts of the same story. These 3 photos came from a birthday photo shoot I did several years ago with my middle son on a mini golf course.

boy in green shirt laying in mini golf course

Here is an overall shot of him on the golf course. I’m not sure the aperture here, but I would guess f11 because most everything is in focus except the buildings in the very far background. This gives context to where the shoot was and that he enjoys playing mini golf.

boy in green shirt sitting in a mini golf course

This second picture is closer up on him. This was probably an f5.6 or f8 (not sure exactly) because he is in focus but the background is out of focus. You can still tell we are at the mini golf course, but I use aperture to focus more on him and this cute smile (pre braces) and his personality.

boy in green shirt holding an orange golf ball

This last photo was just a cute way to show that we were playing mini golf by concentrating on the golf ball with him in the background. It shows how little is hands were then (he is 15 now and bigger than me!) and the texture of the ball. This would have been shot at a wide open aperture (as low as this lens would go) which was probably an f4 or f2.

Using aperture to help tell your story is a great way to make your photography stand out. You don’t need to use the same aperture for every shot. Play around with it and make it work for you and your story.

3 Tricks to Choose The Right Aperture:

  1. Think about and evaluate your vision of the photo. Do you want the entire photo in focus, or just your subject? If you want just your subject in focus, use a low aperture. If you want the entire photo in focus, use a high aperture.
  2. Practice with the aperture to see how low you can go on certain subjects without being too blurry. When you are first starting out, you might not want to go as low as your lens will go with aperture. It is harder to keep what you want in focus at the lowest numbers.
  3. Make sure when using a low aperture that the subjects you want in focus are on the same plane directly across from you. If you shoot at a diagonal or your subjects are different distances from you, you won’t be able to get them all in focus at a low aperture.

Action Steps:

  1. Test your lens to see how high and low it goes with aperture.
  2. Try using different apertures on different subjects to see how it effects the whole picture.
  3. Try getting bokeh (blurred out part of a photo) with a subject by focusing on one subject with a low aperture.

This is the fourth lesson of ten that will be coming in the next few weeks.

Next week we will talk about focus and how to use it properly for great photos. Click here to go to the next lesson —> 10 Steps to Manual Mode: Focus Basics.

Aperture was the hardest part of the exposure triangle for me to learn as a new photographer. It can be a big part of your photography style once you know how to use it.

Don’t just shoot wide open because others are doing it. Try different kinds of apertures on different subjects to see what works best for your vision. Finding your personal style is a big part of photography and I think it is the fun part too! Good luck!

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What is your favorite aperture to shoot with? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found this post helpful, please share. Thanks!

man taking a picture with a monopod and DSLR camera

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