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How to Control Aperture and Create Images You Love

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This article is sponsored by the New York Institute of Photography. NYIP offers high-quality online photography courses that are affordable, convenient, and accredited.

1 aperture

Controlling the aperture is one of the most powerful ways to improve your images. It’s also the topic that continues to perplex photography students everywhere. Rather than unnecessarily complicating matters, I prefer to demystify the subject. In this tutorial, I’ll reveal how both a wide and small aperture can be used to create consistent and beautiful results.

Consider the Background

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When I’m about to take a photo, the first question I ask myself is, “What kind of background would be best?” With wildlife, sports, portraits, and still-life objects, I often want the subject sharp, and the background to be a soft blur. As you’ll see in the example above, the blurred background allows the viewer to focus on the beautiful details of the butterfly, not on the leaves behind it. To do this, I chose a wide aperture by adjusting to a smaller f-number. At f/5.6 the opening in your lens is physically wide open, creating what’s known as shallow depth of field.

3 puffin

In the example above, I photographed an Atlantic Puffin at f/5.6. The bird is tack sharp while the foliage in the distance is very soft. The theme of the photo is clearly about its colorful beak, and there is little else in the photo to detract from it. For this reason, wildlife photographers typically use wide apertures for the majority of their work. To further emphasize the effect, try positioning yourself so there is distance between the subject and the background.

Freezing action

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If you flip through the pages of Sports Illustrated, you’ll notice how most of the players are sharp while the fans are out of focus. The wide aperture chosen by the photographer not only creates that shallow depth of field, but it also lets a great deal of light into the camera. As such, it’s possible to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. If you are serious about sports photography, a lens that opens all the way to f/2.8 is worth the investment. You may even hear people refer to them as “fast lenses” which describes the speed in which the wide aperture lets light into the camera.

Focus on what’s important

Before going any further, allow me to spend a moment on focus. When using a wide aperture, be sure to place your active focus points on the subject you want sharpest. These two vineyard photographs were both taken with the same wide aperture of f/1.8, but they look very different. This is due to my placement of the focus point indicated here by the arrows. For the image on top, I focused on the vines closest to me. As a result, everything behind it is soft. For the image on the bottom, I focused on the distant vines. The shallow depth of field then works to blur everything in front of the focus point.

5 focus example

We can see how all of this comes together in the image of the male buck. I saw the large deer in October just after sunrise. With my active focus point on his face, I knew the deer would be sharp. A wide aperture of f/5.6 created a shallow depth of field. Not only was the background blurred, but the tall reeds in the foreground as well. The perspective makes it seem as if we’re spying on the creature through the tall grasses.

6 buck

As you can see, a wide aperture can help you create images that surpass routine snapshots. With this new knowledge, you’ll start to recognize the techniques other photographers have used in their photographs. Begin practicing with wide apertures and you’ll soon be changing settings like a pro. Now, let’s turn our attention to small apertures.

Small apertures

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There’s a common misconception amongst photography students who believe sharp photos are solely result of fast shutter speeds. While that is part of the equation, the other equally important consideration is the aperture. By achieving greater depth of field, it’s possible to keep the entire subject in focus. In this second portion of our aperture tutorial, I’m going to share the specific f-stops and techniques used to create tack sharp images.

8 aperture opening

Don’t let the terminology trick you. The term “small aperture” refers to the physical size of the lens opening. This may seem counterintuitive since the actual f-number is larger. Yet, f/22 is a smaller aperture than f/16 because the aperture blades inside the lens don’t open as wide. See the example above.

9 empire state

When you hear photographers say they are “stopping down”, it means they are using a narrower aperture opening, for example going from f/8 to f/11, or from f/11 to f/16. This renders everything sharp from near-to-far, hence the phrase “great depth of field”. I’ve created a phrase to help you remember this. “The greater the f-stop number, the greater the depth of field.”

10 brooklyn bridge

Great depth of field is also useful when you’re photographing flowers or close-up objects. If the aperture is too wide like f/2.8, only a handful of the petals will be sharp. The solution doesn’t necessarily have to be f/22 which is more suitable for a vast landscape; a better compromise would be f/8 which provides enough depth of field for most macro opportunities. Then, by simply focusing on the center of the flower, the entire subject remains reasonably sharp.

11 dahlia

In a big sweeping landscape, it can be tricky to determine where to focus. For me, apps that calculate precisely where to focus are just not practical (or fun). To further emphasize the effect of the small aperture, I have found a simple solution that really works. Place your focus point on an object that’s 1/3rd of the way up from the bottom of the frame and use a small aperture like f/22. Not only will the object in the bottom third be sharp, but so will everything in front of, and behind it. As an example, I focused on the large boulder towards the bottom of the frame in this photo from Yosemite National Park.

12 yosemite

Where the tripod comes in

While f/22 may be an ideal setting for a landscape, it does present photographers with a challenge especially in low light situations. Since a small aperture doesn’t let much light into the narrow opening of the lens, a slower shutter speed and/or higher ISO become necessary to achieve a good exposure. These longer exposure times are the primary reason most landscape photographers use tripods.

13 central park

Bonus tip

If carrying a tripod is not possible, you can create a makeshift camera support by placing the camera on a bag, a wall, even the ground. Then, to avoid jostling the camera during the exposure, set the two second timer to automatically trip the shutter.

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This article is sponsored by the New York Institute of Photography. NYIP offers high-quality online photography courses that are affordable, convenient, and accredited.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Chris Corradino is a professional photographer and head student mentor at the New York Institute of Photography. His work has been published internationally with credits including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, and National Geographic Online. For more, visit online at www.christography.com.

  • Paul Lehman

    Great article! For someone like myself who is a new student to photography, this article is a gem. Particularly the “greater the aperture, the greater the DOF” statement – NOW I can remember it!
    Many thanks to you!

  • Chris Corradino

    Thanks for the input Paul! I’m glad that line helped about DOF. BTW, a great place to jot down helpful reminder notes is the inside of your lens cap on a small sticky label. Wishing you all the best with your photography.

  • Michael O

    Although I understand aperture quite well now, I read this and enjoyed it. Well laid out, written well and the examples are exactly what I would be looking for if I was a complete novice. Thanks for sharing.

  • CeeJai

    I appreciate your saying, too. I finally had to to do the same for myself years ago “the bigger the number, the smaller the opening, the greater the depth of field”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chanted that.

  • Christine

    Using a chart to determine your camera’s hyperfocal distance at your lens’ sweet spot is ultimately a more accurate way to get landscape photos in focus thru the whole DOF. The focus 1/3 into the photo will work, mostly. f22 tends to cause lack of sharpness due to diffraction, so many people don’t use apertures much above f/11 or f/16

  • I’m doing a small photography lesson for a couple of absolute beginners next week and I’ve been searching for some visual aides to send them in advance. THIS is the aperture resource I will be using. Thanks for the great resource!

  • Vicki Conroy

    I think aperture can be really confusing, particularly for beginners. I was told by a photographer that the easiest way to remember is the more you want in focus the higher the number. This is so simple, I don’t understand why it isn’t taught this way. It may not explain the way it works, but it’s a really good and easy starting point.

  • Very well-written, and the example shots and explanations are easy to understand. Thank you, Chris Corradino! DPS is a great source of learning for me 🙂 Thank you!

  • MonaLiza Lowe

    A beginner like me appreciates the explanation, well laid out. Thank you.

  • Amy U

    Useful info. Thanks!

  • thatguywithacamera

    Telling people to shoot landscapes at f/22 is bad advice. Beyond f/8/f/11 diffraction will degrade the quality of the image. Shooting wide for a landscape f/22 is pretty excessive.

    Shooting wider and stacking would be far better.

  • Amy U

    I tried your suggestions and came up with this one. We had a Santa Ana wind so I was lucky to get this guy. Thanks for your help!

  • Kirk Billingsley

    Very nice explanation of what I already know, just now I know it a bit better. Thanks

  • Kirk Billingsley

    I agree! For beginners this works very well, then they can be taught the more scientific version and incorporate that into their photography. At least they can go start shooting right away with a bit of confidence.

  • bob

    gay

  • bob

    u all r gay

  • Maria R

    Awesome tips! Thanks! Gotta try these techniques 🙂

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