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How to Choose the Best Aperture Every Time

Are you using the correct aperture?

Understanding aperture is a crucial step in becoming a skilled photographer. Knowing which aperture to use in any given situation will ensure you never miss a shot, an essential skill for any professional. In this article we are going to explain exactly what aperture is, what it does, how it effects your images, and how you can choose the best aperture in any given situation.

READ OR WATCH: This blog post is also available in video form! If you’d rather watch me explain this content, simply watch the video below. Otherwise you can find the text guide below. Just keep scrolling!  


What is Aperture?

Let’s start at the top.

Aperture is one of the three main camera settings that we adjust to ensure we have a proper exposure, the other two settings being shutter speed and ISO. Aperture, also known as the f/stop, is essentially the iris of your lens. If you look inside a lens you will see a small opening, this opening is your aperture. We can adjust our aperture to control the amount of light that enters our camera. The wider the opening, the more light enters the camera. The smaller the opening, the less light enters the camera.

Aperture is denoted by a number, such as f/1.4 or f/8. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture. The larger the number, the smaller the aperture. If you’re shooting in a low light environment, it’s wise to shoot with a wide aperture to ensure we get a good exposure. On the flip side of that, sometimes we might have to close our aperture on sunny days if there is too much light entering the camera.

From an exposure perspective, aperture is quite easy to understand. The wider the opening, the more light enters our camera. There’s not much to it. But like every camera setting, aperture also has a creative effect on our image that’s separate from it’s effects on exposure. The creative effect of aperture is what allows us to get some very cool shots, and understanding it is crucial for ensuring you choose the proper aperture with every shot.

Aperture diagram showing how aperture and exposure are related. This diagram does not include the creative effect of aperture, you will find this in the next section.


Apertures Creative Effect

Exposure aside, why is aperture so important?

The creative effect of aperture is its ability to control the depth of field in our image. Depth of field (DOF) is defined as the range of distance that appears in focus in our images. A simplified explanation of DOF is the amount of blur (bokeh) behind our main subject that is in focus. A shallow depth of field would be a very shallow focus plane, meaning only a small part of the image would be in focus. A deep depth of field is an image where there is sharpness from the foreground all the way to the background.

The wider our aperture is (lower number such as f/1.8), the shallower our depth of field will be. The smaller our aperture is (higher number such as f/22), the deeper our depth of field will be.

However, it’s not always that cut and dry. Aperture heavily effects depth of field, but it’s not the only factor. Your depth of your scene itself largely impacts depth of field. An example is the easiest way to explain this. Imagine a landscape with a foreground, midground, and background. A scene like this naturally has a deep depth of field because the distance between the first subject (foreground) and last subject (background) is so great. If you want to capture everything in focus, you’ll need to shoot as a small aperture to ensure you achieve a deep depth of field. However, a landscape that only contains a background and no foreground or midground doesn’t have a deep depth of field. Because of that, we can get an incredibly sharp photo at a wide aperture like f/1.4. Why? Because we don’t require a large range of focus to capture that scene, our only subject (the background) is on the same focal plane!

Aperture diagram showing how aperture impacts exposure and the depth of field of an image.
Real life example of how aperture effects depth of field. The image on the left has a much shallower depth of field than the image on the right.


How to choose the best aperture

What’s the best aperture?

The creative effect of aperture is its ability to control the depth of field in our image. Depth of field (DOF) is defined as the range of distance that appears in focus in our images. A simplified explanation of DOF is the amount of blur (bokeh) behind our main subject that is in focus. A shallow depth of field would be a very shallow focus plane, meaning only a small part of the image would be in focus. A deep depth of field is an image where there is sharpness from the foreground all the way to the background.

The wider our aperture is (lower number such as f/1.8), the shallower our depth of field will be. The smaller our aperture is (higher number such as f/22), the deeper our depth of field will be.

However, it’s not always that cut and dry. Aperture heavily effects depth of field, but it’s not the only factor. Your depth of your scene itself largely impacts depth of field. An example is the easiest way to explain this. Imagine a landscape with a foreground, midground, and background. A scene like this naturally has a deep depth of field because the distance between the first subject (foreground) and last subject (background) is so great. If you want to capture everything in focus, you’ll need to shoot as a small aperture to ensure you achieve a deep depth of field. However, a landscape that only contains a background and no foreground or midground doesn’t have a deep depth of field. Because of that, we can get an incredibly sharp photo at a wide aperture like f/1.4. Why? Because we don’t require a large range of focus to capture that scene, our only subject (the background) is on the same focal plane!

Because this image has a foreground and a background that are quite far from each other, we would need to use a very small aperture to ensure we have sharpness throughout our entire scene.
This landscape does not have a foreground, thus we don't need to use a small aperture to ensure everything is in focus. We can get a sharp image of a scene like this shooting at a wide aperture!


Conclusion

Summing things up.

Choosing your aperture ultimately comes down to having a clear understanding of how aperture impacts the exposure of your scene, as well as the depth of field in your image. While this article will set the foundation for understanding aperture, mastery will come through trial and error. I urge you to head out and shoot at all the different apertures your lens has, and look at how it impacts your image. This is the best way to gain a true understanding of how aperture impacts depth of field. 

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