The aperture is an essential camera setting; in fact, you might even say that it’s where the magic happens in photography. It holds the key to unlocking sharpness and creative possibilities, plus it’ll help you capture images that are sufficiently bright.
Fortunately, understanding aperture isn’t difficult, especially once you’ve wrapped your mind around a few simple definitions – and in this article, I’m going to take you through all the relevant concepts, including:
- What aperture actually is (in simple, easy-to-understand terms)
- How you can use your aperture setting to capture artistic images
- How to choose the perfect aperture for landscape photography, portrait photography, and more
- Plenty of other tips and tricks!
Ready to take your photos to the next level? Let’s dive right in, starting with the most important question of all:
What is aperture?
The aperture is the opening in the camera lens. A larger hole allows more light to hit the sensor, lightening your photos. A smaller hole allows less light to hit the sensor, darkening your photos.
And by adjusting the aperture setting on your camera, you can adjust the size of the aperture (and, in turn, affect a photo’s brightness).
Aperture and f-stops
Aperture is measured in terms of f-stops, also known as f-numbers. Like this: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/22, etc.
As shown in the diagram below, the smaller the f-number, the larger the aperture hole:
Now, each full stop corresponds to a halving of aperture size. So when you go from f/2.8 to f/4, you cut the aperture in half. And when you go from f/4 to f/5.6, you cut the aperture in half again.
(Of course, to double the aperture size, you just go in the reverse direction: from f/5.6 to f/4, and from f/4 to f/2.8.)
So f/2.8 is a much larger aperture than f/22. And f/11 is a much smaller aperture than f/4.
Does that make sense? It can be confusing at first, especially because large aperture sizes correspond to smaller f-stop numbers and vice versa. But stick with it, and it’ll become second nature.
How does aperture affect your photos?
At this point in the article, you should know what aperture is: a hole in the lens that increases and decreases depending on your camera settings (i.e., your f-stop value).
But what does aperture actually do? How does it affect your photos?
In the next two sections, I’ll discuss the primary effects of aperture:
- Depth of field
Aperture and exposure
As you may already know, exposure refers to the brightness of a photo.
In general, the goal is to end up with a photo that’s not too dark and not too bright; instead, you want a shot that’s just right, one with lots of detail.
So where does aperture come into play?
Aperture is one of the three key variables that affect your exposure. (The other two variables are shutter speed and ISO.)
Remember what I said above? By widening the aperture, you let in more light, which brightens your image. And by narrowing the aperture, you let in less light, which darkens your image.
So if you’re photographing a beautiful sunset and your photos keep turning out too bright, you can always narrow the aperture to darken down the image. (In fact, using a narrow aperture is often a good idea when shooting sunsets!)
And if you’re photographing a forest and your photos keep turning out dark and shadowy, you can always widen the aperture to brighten up the image. (As you might expect, this is a standard low-light photography practice.)
Of course, aperture isn’t the only variable that affects exposure. If you want to brighten a photo, you can also lower the shutter speed or boost the ISO. And if you want to darken a photo, you can raise the shutter speed or drop the ISO.
In terms of exposure, widening your aperture by a full stop has the exact same effect as lowering your shutter speed by a full stop or boosting your ISO by a full stop. A key consequence of this: different exposure variables can cancel each other out. Increase your ISO by a stop while decreasing your aperture by a stop, and you’ll end up with an identical exposure.
The point here is that, while aperture does determine exposure, you can’t think about it in isolation. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together to give you a well-exposed (or poorly exposed) image.
Aperture and depth of field
Aperture also affects the depth of field in your photos.
What exactly does that mean? Well, depth of field (DOF) is the amount of your shot that is in focus. So a photo with a large depth of field will have most of the image in focus, like this:
Do you see how sharpness stretches from the foreground to the background? That’s thanks to the large depth of field.
A photo with a small depth of field, on the other hand, will have only a sliver in focus, like this:
As you can see, the effect is pretty artistic; you get a sharp subject but a blurry background. Neat, right? Because a blurry background helps the subject to stand out, this is an effect you’ll often see in portrait photography.
As for aperture, the wider the aperture (and the smaller the f-number!), the shallower the depth of field.
So an image with an f/2.8 aperture will have very little in focus:
And an image with an f/16 aperture will have all of the scene in focus:
Got it? If you’re still struggling to understand – and if you are, don’t be embarrassed! – let me illustrate using two pictures I took in my garden:
The first picture was taken with an aperture of f/22, while the second picture was shot at f/2.8. The difference is obvious, right? The f/22 picture has both the flower and the bud in focus and you’re able to make out the fence and leaves in the background. Whereas the f/2.8 shot has the left flower in focus, but the right flower is less in focus and the background is completely blurry.
That’s all thanks to aperture, which controls the depth of field.
4 simple aperture examples
Here are a handful of additional aperture examples to help you wrap your head around its effects – in particular, how aperture affects the depth of field.
First, take a look at this landscape shot. It was captured with a narrow aperture, which resulted in a deep depth of field and sharpness throughout:
Now take a look at this street photo, which was taken with a wide aperture; it has a shallow depth of field:
And here’s a third example, which has a midrange depth of field. The entire photo isn’t sharp, but the main subject plus some of the surrounding area look crisp:
Finally, here’s one more example with an ultra-wide aperture for an ultra-shallow depth of field:
What’s important to know is that the aperture offers you creative control as a photographer. Want to create a blurry background? Pick a wide aperture. Want to keep your shot sharp throughout? Pick a narrow aperture.
Of course, you also have to remember the effect of aperture on exposure, which is what makes things a bit more complex (but a lot more fun!).
The problem with narrow apertures: diffraction
As you already know, narrowing the aperture increases the depth of field, which means that images appear sharper throughout. As you continue to narrow the aperture, the depth of field continues to increase – and this is important if you’re capturing close-up subjects or scenes with a lot of depth.
Once the aperture gets too narrow, however, you run into a problem: diffraction.
Diffraction is an optical property where rays of light interfere with one another. In the context of photography, diffraction reduces sharpness, which is far from ideal!
Fortunately, diffraction is only really an issue when you narrow the aperture extremely far – to f/16, for instance. Most photographers don’t need to shoot at f/16 and beyond, so diffraction isn’t a big problem. Sometimes, however, you’ll need lots of depth of field for your scene, in which case you’ll have to decide: Do you narrow the aperture and decrease image sharpness? Or do you use a wider aperture and let parts of the image go out of focus? At the end of the day, the choice is yours!
By the way, you do have another option, called focus stacking, where you capture multiple images at different points of focus and blend them together in post-processing. It can be a handy solution if you frequently find yourself needing ultra-deep depth-of-field effects, but it does require some extra time following each photoshoot.
Wide vs narrow apertures, reviewed
Wide and narrow apertures both come with benefits and drawbacks. To recap:
Wide apertures let in more light, thereby increasing image exposure and allowing you to use a faster shutter speed and/or a lower ISO. They also produce beautiful shallow depth-of-field effects that help focus the viewer on the subject. However, very little of the frame will be sharp, which can be a problem if you’re looking to document an entire scene or subject in crisp detail.
Narrow apertures let in less light, forcing you to use a slower shutter speed and/or a higher ISO if you want to ensure a nice exposure. They also ensure that your images feature a deeper depth of field effect, though if you narrow the aperture too much you risk losing sharpness to diffraction.
One more note: Narrowing the aperture by a few stops generally puts you in a lens’s sweet spot, which means that your images will be as sharp as possible! Every lens’s sweet spot is different, so if you’re looking to shoot at the sharpest aperture, I encourage you to do some testing for each lens you own.
Maximum and minimum apertures
Most lenses allow you to choose from a number of different aperture values, such as f/5.6, f/8, and f/16. However, the apertures you can use do vary from product to product, and every lens does feature both a maximum aperture and a minimum aperture.
A lens’s maximum aperture refers to the widest aperture it offers. Because widening the aperture allows for beautiful shallow depth of field effects and lets in lots of light so you can shoot indoors and at night, lenses with wide maximum apertures tend to be very popular. (Lenses with wide maximum apertures also tend to be relatively big, bulky, and expensive.)
Lenses with a maximum aperture of around f/4 are considered average, whereas lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, f/1.8, and especially f/1.4 are referred to as “fast.”
A lens’s minimum aperture refers to – you guessed it! – the narrowest aperture it offers. Because diffraction is a big problem at ultra-narrow apertures and because most shooters don’t need huge amounts of depth of field, the minimum aperture tends to be less important than the maximum aperture. Common minimum apertures include f/16, f/22, and f/32.
If you want to know a lens’s maximum and minimum aperture, you can always check the manufacturer’s spec sheet, though the maximum aperture is generally listed as part of the lens’s name. A 400mm f/2.8 lens, for instance, has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, while a 35mm f/1.4 lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.4.
Adjusting the aperture on your camera
Now that you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering:
How can you actually change the aperture on your camera? What do you have to do?
Fortunately, adjusting the aperture is easy. You just set your camera’s shooting mode to Manual or Aperture Priority. Then rotate the relevant camera dial to change the f-number. (The specific dial will depend on your camera model; if you’re struggling, consult your manual.)
Which aperture is best?
When photographers first learn about aperture, this is a question that crops up constantly.
But as you’ve hopefully gleaned from the sections above, there is no single best aperture that you can use all the time. Sometimes you’ll want a deep depth of field or you’ll want to darken down a too-bright shot, in which case you’ll need to use a narrow aperture. Other times you’ll want a shallow depth of field or you’ll want to brighten up a too-dark shot, in which case you’ll need to use a wide aperture.
There are apertures that get used consistently in certain genres. I’ll cover them briefly below, starting with:
The best landscape photography aperture
Landscape photographers gravitate toward small aperture settings, such as f/8, f/11, and even f/16.
When you’re shooting a sweeping photo of the land, sea, or sky, you often want to keep the whole shot sharp. That way, the viewer can appreciate every little detail of your majestic scene.
Plus, a deep depth of field makes the shot feel more real, like the viewer could physically step into the scene.
The best portrait photography aperture
In portrait photography, it can be handy to have your subject perfectly in focus but the background nice and blurry. That way, your main subject stands out and the background doesn’t become a distraction.
In other words, use a large aperture to ensure a shallow depth of field.
It’s a trick used by family portrait photographers, headshot photographers, fashion photographers, and more.
The best macro photography aperture
Macro (i.e., close-up) photographers tend to disagree over aperture.
Some macro photographers use a very narrow aperture because depth of field gets shallower at high magnifications. And by using a narrow aperture, a macro photographer can ensure that their entire subject is in focus, even if the background is blurred.
Whereas other macro photographers embrace a shallow depth of field. They use a very wide aperture for a soft-focus effect.
Which is the way to go? That depends on your preferences! Both approaches work well, and there are plenty of professionals using each technique, so don’t stress about it too much.
The best product photography aperture
Product photographers tend to use both wide and narrow apertures depending on the scenario and the look they’re after.
On the one hand, you can use a wide aperture to create a background blur that emphasizes the subject and creates a more artistic vibe. This is common when capturing products outdoors or in a more informal setting.
Alternatively, you can use a narrow aperture to keep the entire subject sharp and highlight key details, such as product logos, label designs, etc. Studio product photography is generally shot at a narrow aperture for this reason.
The best street photography aperture
Some street photographers do like to create shallow depth of field effects, in which case they’ll use a wide aperture (e.g., f/1.8). Street photographers may also shoot with a wide aperture when they’re working in low light or at night.
However, many serious street shooters use zone focusing, which involves setting the focus in advance and relying on a deep depth of field to cast a wide net and keep subjects sharp throughout the scene.
A common aperture for zone focusing is f/8. If you do decide to go this route, it’s a great starting point!
Aperture in photography: final words
Mastery of lens aperture is a skill that can take your images from ordinary to extraordinary. By understanding the impact of wide and narrow apertures, you have the power to shape the mood, depth, and focus of your photographs – and now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well-equipped to capture some breathtaking shots.
Remember, wide apertures let in the light and produce dreamy, shallow depth-of-field effects that draw the viewer’s gaze to the subject. On the other hand, narrow apertures allow you to capture the full breadth of a scene, ensuring every intricate element is sharp and in focus.
If you’re still a little confused, that’s okay. Grab your camera and do some experimenting. Find a subject – an apple works great! – and shoot it with different apertures. Watch as the depth of field changes.
Pretty soon, it’ll click. And your photos will (genuinely!) never be the same again.
Now over to you:
Do you have any questions or tips about aperture in photography? Share them in the comments below!
Aperture in photography FAQ
The aperture directly affects a photo in two ways: It adjusts the exposure (i.e., brightness), and it influences the depth of field (i.e., the window of sharpness in the image). Wider apertures let in more light and give a shallower depth of field. Narrower apertures let in less light and give a deeper depth of field.
That depends on your goals! A lower (wider) aperture will increase the exposure and the intensity of the background blur. A higher (narrower) aperture will decrease the exposure and keep a larger portion of the photo sharp. Both approaches have their merits.
Photographers use many different aperture settings – it all depends on the scenario, not to mention the look that they’re after. Landscape shooters tend to use narrower apertures, such as f/8-f/16, in order to keep the entire scene sharp. Portrait shooters tend to use wider apertures, such as f/1.4-f/2.8, to isolate the subject and create a beautiful background blur. But even landscape photographers occasionally use wide apertures and vice versa! What’s important is to understand the different effects of apertures; that way, you can make an informed decision in each new scenario.
Think about both the exposure and the depth of field. If you’re working in low light and therefore need to brighten up the exposure, a wide aperture is often helpful. A wide aperture is also good if you want to achieve a shallow depth of field. On the other hand, a narrow aperture is ideal if you want a deep depth of field in your image.
This changes from lens to lens, but in general, apertures around f/8 tend to be extremely sharp. If capturing ultra-sharp images is important to you, do some tests with your lenses.
It depends on the scene and your point of focus. Narrow apertures such as f/16 will increase the amount of the scene that’s sharp, but if you need to be certain that the entire scene will be in focus, I’d recommend using a hyperfocal distance calculator.
Not necessarily. Higher (narrower) apertures ensure that more of the scene is in focus, but if you don’t use proper shooting technique or work with a too-slow shutter speed, the image may turn out blurry anyway. Also, higher apertures cause diffraction, which will decrease sharpness.