Photography Basics: Learning About Aperture

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  • Author Autumn Lockwood
  • Published February 10, 2010
  • Word count 832

Aperture and other photo basics can induce yawns in the most eager of new shutterbugs, but once these basics are understood, the rest of photography comes easily into focus. Aperture, ISO and shutter speed are all important terms to know, whether you have a point-and-shoot or a professional camera. This article explains the basics of aperture and provides tips on how to use it to take better pictures.

To better understand aperture, think about how the irises of your eyes get bigger and smaller to allow more or less light into the pupil. Like your irises, the camera's lens diaphragm narrows and widens to let in less or more light. Thus the aperture determines the exposure of the picture, that is how bright or dark it is. The aperture also has another important function which we'll look at shortly.

"Aperture" refers to the size of this opening and is measured in F stops. The smaller the F Stop number, the wider the aperture. This is why it can be confusing. Actually the F stop numbers represent ratios, which is why the larger the F stop number, the smaller the aperture.

Besides controlling light, aperture controls depth of field. To better understand this concept, make a fist and hold it in front of your eye. Now slowly open your hand. See how the focus changes? Sure you can see more through the bigger opening, but when the opening in your fist is small everything is in focus? Try it again and see how when you open your fist, the object closest to you will come into focus while objects further away will be fuzzy. This is how aperture determines depth of field, that is how much of a photograph is focused.

If you are shooting in Auto Focus (AF), the camera will attempt to focus on what it perceives to be the main subject of the photograph, but the results may not be what you want.

For this reason, many cameras have an Aperture Priority setting to help eliminate this problem. This allows you to set the aperture and then it automatically adjusts the shutter speed to compensate for the aperture. For example, if you set the aperture for a landscape, this narrows it, thus letting in less light. The camera would then automatically increase the amount of time the shutter stays open so that your photo isn't underexposed or too dark. Aperture Priority isn't exact, but this is how it usually works.

Now if you have an SLR and are shooting in manual mode, you can adjust the aperture and shutter speeds separately.

Most will have a camera with preset modes, such as portrait, landscape, sports, etc.

When the mode is set for landscape, the aperture automatically narrows so everything will be brought into focus. At the same time, the shutter speed automatically slows, thus leaving the shutter open longer to compensate for the lessened amount of light streaming through the diaphragm.

When you switch to portrait mode and focus on someone in front of you with the landscape in the background, the camera will make your subject in focus and make them stand out from the background. And it will speed up the shutter speed so the photo isn't overexposed by the extra light allowed in with the larger aperture.

Remember: the smaller the aperture, the greater the F stop number (because it represents a ratio not a whole number) and the greater the depth of field.

Understanding photo basics like aperture is super important for using manual settings or aperture priority but also helps those using preset modes as well. Here are three preset modes you should better understand:

  • Portrait: How much the background blurs when using this mode depends on your camera and the distance between your subject and background – a minimum of 10 feet works best. This mode can be used for any subject that you want to bring into focus, while taking the background out of focus, not just people and pets.

  • Landscape (also called "infinity" on some cameras) is the mode represented by a mountain peak or a figure 8. You can use this for anything where you want everything in the picture to be in focus, such as seascapes, city scapes or your garden.

  • Macro: This mode, depicted by the tulip, opens the camera's aperture extra wide so that you can take extreme closeups without the blur caused by not enough focus. Depending on your camera, you'll be able to get anywhere within an inch to a foot of your subject. When preparing to take photos outdoors of items like flowers, remember that even the smallest petal movement can cause the image to be blurry because of the slower shutter speed. Also remember to focus on the part of the subject that you want most in focus, whether it be a butterfly's wing or a caterpillar's eyes.

Just applying this knowledge can help you take some beautiful photos that you'll be proud to display in your home.

Autumn Lockwood is a writer for Your Picture and loves photography. Your Picture Frames makes it easy for you to find just the right picture frame for your photo or artwork. Shop online and see our selection of solid wood picture frames now.

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