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How to Take Control of Aperture and Create Stronger Photos

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aperture and composition

The focal length of the lens you use, combined with the aperture setting, determines how the camera sees whatever you point it at. This has profound implications for composition. Let’s look at them one by one.

Selective focus and bokeh

Selective focus occurs when you focus on your subject, and use a wide aperture to make the background go out of focus. Bokeh is the blurred parts of your photo. It originates from the Japanese word boke, and has come into use because we don’t have a word in English for it.

aperture and composition

This photo shows both selective focus and bokeh. I focused on the model’s eyes, and selected an aperture of f/1.4, to blur the background as much as possible.

There are several factors that affect bokeh.

1. Aperture

The wider the aperture, the less depth-of-field there is, and the more bokeh you get. Photographers that like to use selective focus buy prime lenses, as they have often wider maximum aperture settings than zooms.

But, you can still obtain nice bokeh with zooms, if you pay attention to the following points.

2. Camera to subject distance

The closer you are to the subject the less depth-of-field there is. This is a useful tip if you have a zoom lens with a limited maximum aperture (such as an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens). Just set the focal length to longest available setting, the aperture to its widest setting, and move in as close as you can. You’ll be surprised by what you can achieve.

aperture and composition

This photo was taken with an 18-55mm kit lens set to 55mm and f/5.6, the widest available aperture at that focal length. It’s not nearly as close to how little depth-of-field there would be if I had used an 50mm prime lens at f/1.4 – but it’s still enough to blur the background.

3. Subject to background distance

The more distance there is between subject and background, the more out of focus the background will get, at any given aperture setting.

4. Quality of light

Light affects bokeh. Soft light (like that on an overcast day) produces smooth, even bokeh. Sunlight or reflections, create a different type of bokeh with more texture.

aperture and composition

I took this photo on an overcast day. The bokeh is very smooth.

aperture and composition

I took this photo in the early evening. The artificial lights reflecting from the shiny objects in the background have created a different type of bokeh.

5. The aperture blades of the lens

The more blades the lens has, the rounder the shape of the aperture, and the smoother the quality of the bokeh. Less expensive lenses tend to have fewer aperture blades, and may not produce the same quality of bokeh as better ones.

6. Other optical characteristics of the lens

Some lenses, such as the Helios 58mm f/2 lens, used to take the photo below, have optical characteristics (or more likely, flaws) that produce a certain type of bokeh. Lensbaby is a company that makes lenses that produce a specific type of bokeh.

Aperture and composition

f/2.8 on a prime lens

I’ve singled this aperture setting out because it hits a sweet spot when it comes to composition, especially for portraits.

If you have a normal or short telephoto prime lens, and use the widest aperture setting (generally f/1.2, f/1.4 or f/1.8) then the depth-of-field is very narrow indeed. Sometimes that works really well, but other times you need a little more depth-of-field to create a stronger image. It’s like any technique – overuse it and it becomes a gimmick.

The solution is to mix it up a little by using aperture settings like f/2, f/2.8, and f/4. You’ll still get a narrow depth-of-field and create some beautiful bokeh, but a little more of your subject will be in focus.

Using f/2.8 (or thereabouts) shows subtlety, restraint, and maturity.

aperture and composition

I took this photo with an 85mm lens (full-frame) at f/2.8. The depth-of-field is still shallow enough to blur the background nicely.

The middle apertures

Now we get into the middling apertures, those from around f/4 or f/5.6, to f/8, depending on your lens.

The effect of these apertures depends on the focal length of your lens and how close you are to your subject. For example, you could use a super telephoto lens (300mm plus) and shoot from farther away from your subject to create images with shallow depth-of-field at f/5.6, or get the entire scene in focus at the same aperture with a wide-angle lens (35mm and less) if you focus on the right spot and are much closer to your subject.

These middle apertures represent the transition between photos where some of the image is out of focus, to those where everything is in focus.

You can still use selective focus at these apertures (although perhaps not with wide-angles), although the effect is much gentler than with the widest aperture settings of your lens. Use these apertures when you want good depth-of-field but don’t mind if the background is out of focus a little.

aperture and composition

I used an aperture of f/4.5 for this photo. The depth-of-field is sufficient to get the man, the statue, and the wooden baskets in focus. The background is unimportant and doesn’t need to be in focus.

The smaller apertures

These are the ones you use when you need everything within the frame to be sharp, like with landscape photography. This can be anything from f/8 on a wide-angle lens, to f/11 or f/16 on longer focal lengths. With telephotos and macro lenses you can stop down to f/16 and still not get everything in focus.

The thing you need to be aware of here is diffraction. When the aperture gets too small, the light passing through it spreads out, and softens the image. Thanks to diffraction, images taken at f/22 are usually visibly softer overall, than those taken at f/8 or f/11. Noticeable diffraction may start at f/16 or f/22 on a full-frame camera, and around f/11 on an APS-C camera.

aperture and composition

An aperture of f/11 ensured everything in this photo, taken with a 14mm lens (APS-C), was in focus.

Take control

Every time you take a photo you should be thinking about what the optimum aperture is for the composition you want to make. Do you want to open the aperture and throw the background out of focus? Do you want to stop down and get as much as possible in focus? Or somewhere in between?

What aperture settings do you like to use with your photos? Do you use a Lensbaby or other lens that gives a certain bokeh effect? Please let us know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts and see your images.

This week on dPS we’re featuring a series of articles about composition. Many different elements and ways to compose images for more impact. Check out the ones we’ve done so far:


Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful imag

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

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  • I’m all about the bokeh, which is why I shoot exclusively on prime lenses. I started with the 24mm 2.8 (which I now as a wide-angle lens) and have since added the 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8 to my repertoire. I never thought of using a zoom lens to create bokeh – it’s not something I’ll be trying anytime soon (once you go prime, you never go back…) but it’s good to know that the option is there. x

    Jasiminne | Posh, Broke, & Bored

  • Thanks for sharing, you have some nice photos on your website Jasmine.

  • Darryl Lora

    Thanks again Andrew for another very interesting, informative and very easy to understand article. It didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know……..but, like all your articles, I couldn’t stop till I had finished it. What I did get was reinforcement on doing it right.

  • Thanks Daryl, I’m glad you liked it!

  • Timmy Tilley

    I attempted to get an interior photo of a church,300 ft long , 100 ft wide, with everyone and thing in focus, standing at the back of the church. I use a Nikon d90 , a AF-S Nikonr 16 – 85 mm 1.3 – 5.6 GED lines. I did get a simi ok photo but not professional iso 3200 , f16 , 30 shutter speed. I am looking forward to all help I can get

  • very good advices, the best way to go forward is to practice

  • Jim

    I’m not familiar with a Lensbaby? What is different with it and what does it accomplish and do?

  • Lensbaby makes special effects lenses that blur the photo in different ways. They have quite a range now – check out the photo galleries on its website if you’re curious.

    http://lensbaby.com/usa/

  • 30 seconds or 1/30th? Did you use a tripod? If so then cut your ISO way down to limit noise. Does that help?

  • Timmy Tilley

    Thanks so much for replying Darlene and so sorry I left out some important facts. Yes is was 1/30 th and I did use a tripod but did not use a remote shutter.

  • Timmy Tilley

    Here is what I have

  • Right okay. So if you want less noise in your images go down to ISO 200 or so and just use a longer exposure. Higher ISO will add more noise than a long exposure will.

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