Understanding Aperture (and How to Use it)
Manual Mode
Understanding Aperture (and How to Use it)

Understanding the exposure triangle requires you to have a firm grasp on aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These three settings make up the exposure triangle. In this post we will be diving into just one of these settings and that is aperture.

Each setting is extremely important to create a properly exposed, sharp photo. The key is making sure you understand how to get them to work together to create the photo you want. So let’s get started on the first key element in the exposure triangle.

Read more: 3 Steps for Perfect Exposure for Every Photo

What is aperture?

Aperture is the hole or opening in which light travels through. It determines not only how much light to bring in, but also how much of your image is in focus. Aperture is the actual opening of the lens’s diaphragm.

What is f-stop?

Aperture and f- stop are very similar. Sometimes aperture will be written and talked about in the term “f – stop,” which is written like f/. That term is followed by a number like 1.2, or 5.6 etc. So you will hear photographers say “I had my f-stop at 3.2.” Or they will write it like this “In this photo, my aperture was f/3.2.”

Read more: How to use your f-stop to create amazing photos

How aperture affects light

A white boat with a beautiful sun flare in the background.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know for Unique Lens Flare Photos

Lower number means more light allowed

If you want to bring more light into your photo, you will want to shoot with a smaller number. This is often referred to as “opening up your aperture.”

For example if I need a light to find something in the dark, I am going to get a larger flashlight rather than using a laser pointer. If I need more light in my photo, I will open up to a lower number.

The diagram below illustrates that.

Grey and white graphic showing how aperture lets in light.

Larger number means less light allowed

To decrease the amount of light coming into your image you will use a higher aperture setting. This is referred to as “closing your aperture”.

Maybe the sun is very bright in the sky and I don’t need all of that to properly expose my photo, I will close to a higher number so less light is allowed in my photo.

Child riding bike with airy light helps create unique photography style

Read more: Master Backlighting Photography in 8 Easy Steps

What does aperture do?

Besides affecting the light in your photo aperture also plays a large roll in how sharp your image will be. It determines how much of your photo is in focus and how much is blurred.

Creates a beautiful blurry background

The thing I love most about setting my f/ wide open is creating those blurry backgrounds that make photos look more professional.

If you have ever looked at a photo where the subject is tack sharp but the background is blurry, this is created by their choice of aperture. These type of photos really make the subject pop.

Read more: Master Depth of Field with 4 Simple Tips

Smaller number = less in focus

The smaller the aperture number like f/ 1.2 and f/ 2.8, then less of the photo will be in focus. That means you will have that nice blurry background.

Plus, if you are shooting in your house and have your aperture wide open it helps to hide the mess that may be in the background. That is one of my favorite tricks for capturing real life without all the mess.

The larger the number like f/11 or f/14, then more of the photo will be in focus.

Read more: 6 Tips to Improve your Background

Shooting “Wide Open”

Another thing to keep in mind about when people talk about aperture or f stops is they say they are shooting “wide open” or a “narrow” or “smaller aperture.” When people say they are wide open or to “open up your aperture” they mean to lower your number.

Comparing f/1.4 to f/16 apertures to show difference in blurry background

For example, if you are shooting at f16 and you open up your aperture you would change it to a lower number and like f1.8. If you want to shoot wide open you would change it to the lowest number possible depending on your lens.

Read more: 6 Reasons Why You Have Blurry Photos

Which aperture is best?

Depending on what photography style you are going for, you will find that one aperture range works best for you. Some people need a very low number to make their subject pop and stand out from a blurred back ground. While others will need everything in focus to really capture the scene.

Portraits use wider apertures

Image of child wearing a yellow dress with a very blurred background showing an example of how to use aperture for portraits.

Portrait photographers like to use a low f/ number to draw the attention to the subject and nothing else. Having the subjects eyes in focus with a blurry background creates a beautiful and professional looking image.

Landscape photography use closed apertures

If you are trying to capture a beautiful landscape shot you are probably going to want everything in focus. You want to see the clear lake, the sharp trees, and the fluffy white clouds. If your aperture is too low, not everything will be in focus. So a closed aperture like f/14 or more will be what you use.

Image of a very blue green ocean with a rocky coastline.

Read more: Elevate Landscape Photography with Light

Examples of different apertures

Here are a few examples of what a picture will look like using different aperture settings. I started wide open at f/1.4.

Wide open aperture photo examples f/1.4

Notice how in the ones where my f/ was wider (smaller number) there is some great bokeh and as my aperture was more closed up you can see all the details in the background.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to have a high or low aperture?

They both have their place in photography. First determine how much light you need in your photo. Then decide how much of your image you want in focus. That will help you determine what will be the best aperture for your shot.

What does f/2.8 mean in photography?

This is a number on the aperture scale. It usually means a smaller focal plane with a blurrier background. This f/ will let in a lot more light as well.

Which aperture is best for portraits?

The lower the f/ number, the better. If it is a solo shot, f/ 1.8- f/2.8. Then based off of how many people & if they are on different focal planes, go up as necessary.

What aperture is best for landscape?

You want the majority of the scene in focus for landscape shots so you are going to want to keep your f/ at 10 or higher.

Read more:
17 Do’s and Don’ts for your Large Group Photo
How to Shoot Still Life Photography to Push Your Creativity
Everything You Need to Know to Capture & Edit a Stunning Sunset Silhouette
Complete Guide to Understanding the Exposure Triangle

63 Comments
  • Amber
    November 29, 2010 at 8:20 AM

    Great examples! I’ve been telling lots of my friends about your blog…it is SO helpful! Thanks for starting it.

    • November 29, 2010 at 8:33 AM

      Thanks! I appreciate you spreading the word :O)

  • November 29, 2010 at 1:22 PM

    OK this helps a lot! I didn’t understand about the “wide open” thing.
    And the tree-head is hilarious.

  • November 29, 2010 at 2:57 PM

    LOVE these pics of Trisha! She looks like a model. I wish I had an adult to practice my photography on. haha.

  • November 30, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    Wow, there is another Amber!!!

    I think changing the day and the theme is a great idea. I had no idea there were so many photo challenges out there, but I have learned there is far less participation on Friday’s. My Journey of Faith would probably be better if I would change the days.

    did you get my email?

  • Trisha
    November 30, 2010 at 11:17 PM

    Stop, Janell, stop. You are always way cuter than me. :))

  • February 9, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    this was extremely helpful! your blog has really helped me change the way i take pictures. thank you!

    • February 9, 2011 at 10:01 AM

      That is wonderful to hear!!

  • May 11, 2011 at 5:19 AM

    Hi!! Just dropping a note to tell you I LOVE your blog, and I totally appreciate all the tips and tricks! I’m new at this, and I linked to you in my most recent post about shooting in Manual! Hope you check it out!!

    Cheers.
    http://gracelouisephotography.blogspot.com/2011/05/manual.html

    • May 11, 2011 at 2:05 PM

      Will go check it out :O)

  • Tina Carlson
    May 20, 2012 at 11:34 PM

    I love the different examples…I am a visual person, like most of us and this is very useful!
    Thanks again

  • Leann Thompson
    May 21, 2012 at 3:16 AM

    This was so awesome. I need help shooting inside I totally struggle with getting it right.. I’m shooting in aperture mode with a speed light but I just can’t get it. Help????

    • Courtney
      May 23, 2012 at 2:18 PM

      Leann,

      I wish I could help you but I have never shot in aperture mode or used a speed light. What lens are you using? Are you shooting with your lens wide open (lowest number). Low lighting inside is a challenge but the speed light should help you with your exposure. I would suggest setting your aperture as wide as it can go. Good luck! Sorry I’m not much help on this one!

  • June 11, 2012 at 6:57 AM

    Hi! I’m an Italian blogger and photographer. This is one of the best blog about photography that I found! It’s clear and well explained!

    • Courtney
      June 14, 2012 at 3:24 PM

      Welcome! Thanks so much! Glad you found this post useful!

  • Denise
    July 12, 2012 at 2:18 AM

    Thanks for the post. Has me wanting to learn to shoot in manual.You explain it so simple that I may be able to do some of this.

    • July 14, 2012 at 5:10 PM

      Thanks! I hope you do decide to shoot in manual mode! I promise you will love it!

  • xochitl
    November 14, 2012 at 12:19 AM

    Love you blog, i have been so addictive to all of your posts, keep up cheers to a wonderful work. And thanks for sharing with us all of your knowledge!!!!!

    • Courtney
      November 26, 2012 at 1:49 PM

      Thanks so much!!

  • amanda
    January 6, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    I have been practicing with wide open apertures (f/1.8, f/2.2) on a canon 50mm 1.8 lens but noticed that the subject in the pictures always seems “soft” when I use them. The model is in focus in comparison to the blurred background, but I have to bump up the clarity in post processing to make it look sharp. Am I missing something in terms of shutter speed or ISO that would help this problem?

    • Courtney
      January 10, 2013 at 2:16 PM

      Mmm…are you choosing your focal point?? http://clickitupanotch.com/2010/09/changing-your-focal-point/ Is anything in your photo sharp? Just wondering if maybe the focal point is falling on something other than your subject. Is your shutter speed fast enough to get a sharp image? Around 1/125 or higher?? Feel free to send me a picture with the settings and I can look at it for you :)

  • Meghan
    January 7, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    Great post–the examples are so helpful. Thanks!!

    • Courtney
      January 10, 2013 at 2:17 PM

      That is fantastic to hear :) Thanks!

  • Liz
    August 21, 2013 at 12:32 AM

    Thanks! I’m so glad I found your blog. It has helped me so much!

    • Courtney Slazinik
      August 21, 2013 at 4:31 PM

      That is great to hear! Welcome!

  • greta
    November 20, 2013 at 5:42 PM

    I love the bokeh effect from using smaller apertures. What I hate is that in getting that lovely bokeh, it is a constant struggle with how much depth of field I can get. It’s a rare day that I can get everything I want in focus because I have such a small depth of field when opening up the aperture. Very frustrating to me. I shoot in manual now, but this is something that hurts every macro I shoot.

    • November 21, 2013 at 3:08 PM

      Macro is really hard. When I shoot macro I normally shoot with my aperture around f/9 and worry more on focus than bokeh :)

  • November 20, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    I love shooting in AV mode! ever since I have discovered how beautiful bokehs are, I have been shooting in AV. Now, I am loving Manual. You tutorial is awesome especially picture tutorials. Made it easy to understand and apply.
    Thank you!

    • November 21, 2013 at 3:09 PM

      Thank you so much! Glad you are enjoying the tutorials :)

  • Elizabeth
    November 21, 2013 at 3:30 PM

    My problem with shooting wide open is my focus. I’ll get half of my daughter in focus and half of her still blurred. Sometimes I feel like I may be standing too close to her and should back up a few steps. I also toggle one single focus point, which may also be one of my issues. Do you recommend an autofocus setting that would capture more of my subject than just a single point focus?

  • January 3, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    Thank you for this website! I just got a nikon D3200 for Christmas and was overwhelmed by it. I read the manual and was even more overwhelmed. Your website breaks it down so simply. I finally feel like I am beginning to grasp the manual mode. Up until now I have just been doing the point and shoot. But this isn’t why I got the camera. I have always wanted to explore and learn more about photography. Again thanks!

    • January 6, 2014 at 10:55 AM

      Thank you for your kind words :) So glad you it is starting to make sense for you!

  • Trish
    February 18, 2014 at 4:01 PM

    so glad i found your website! i’m new here and i love it! thanks!!

  • Theresa Weiss
    May 18, 2014 at 10:24 PM

    Great examples! Those really help clear aperture up for me!

    Thanks!

  • June 18, 2014 at 1:40 PM

    Nice examples.

  • Carole Botha
    June 18, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    Thank you for this website and all your information. It is great that you take such trouble to take shots to demonstrate to us the difference in apetures. I have learned much from your site and look forward to your emails to find out more.

  • Amber Pitre
    September 18, 2014 at 9:21 PM

    I love shooting “wide open” when I have one subject, but every time I have two subjects I have a hard time getting them both clear, while not closing up all the way. How do you find the perfect number without trying every one? It’s nice to still have some background blur…

    • September 22, 2014 at 11:01 AM

      Amber, one rule of thumb is to have your number at the same number of people are in the photo but I would say close down even more. If I’m photographing 2 of my daughters I may shoot at f/4. It also depends on what plane they are on. If they are on the same plane you are more likely to get them in focus than if they are on different planes in the image.

  • Megan
    September 19, 2014 at 2:40 AM

    Hey Courtney.. love the picture examples! quick question..
    i have a 50mm 1.4 lens and when i shoot my kids from far away and then zoom in on the photo i just took of them they aren’t clear. my question is when i shoot from far away (like 10+ feet away) with this lens should my aperture number be higher? thanks for your help!!

    • September 22, 2014 at 11:02 AM

      Hey Megan,
      Their faces will not be as tack sharp if you are further away than if you were closer. It has something to do with the amount of pixels in the image. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that. :)

  • September 19, 2014 at 5:30 AM

    Great examples! Thanks!!!

  • October 3, 2014 at 10:41 PM

    Great examples, thank you so much

  • October 3, 2014 at 10:43 PM

    As you changed the aperture you also change the ss, but you didn’t write the example for that

    • October 6, 2014 at 9:46 AM

      Yes, you will need to change the shutter speed depending on the light you have available :)

  • charles barnabas okhipo
    December 18, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    Hi my name is Charles, i am based in Nigeria and have been gathering e books and videos on DSLRs so far yours is the most helpful ever. It is so easy to understand and guides properly. Thank you for this assistance.

  • Pamela Sundberg
    May 14, 2015 at 3:09 PM

    Hi, Courtney… So grateful to find your help and examples… I just am starting and don’t even have a DSLR yet, but hope to figure out which one as I read your blog… My question is… What does it mean when they say to “stop it down”… I get confused… Thanks! P

    • May 21, 2015 at 1:25 PM

      When you read to stop down or use a smaller f-stop then you should use a larger number for your aperture.

  • cata
    July 28, 2015 at 11:47 AM

    Hello! Thank you for these tutorials , are very helpful! I am a beginner in photography. I have nikond 3200 and my lens are that one from the kit- f/3.5-5.6 . When i want to photograph a person , sometimes i can’t lower my aperture less than f/5.6 and the background in my portraits aren’t blurried at all. What can i do? or is the lens i need to change?

  • Pamela
    August 11, 2015 at 5:19 PM

    Thank you so so much, Courtney! For all these AMAZINGLY examples and lessons…. It really makes it so much easier than trying to learn out of the manuals or photography books… THIS is the only way to really learn and UNDERSTAND…thank YOU and may God bless you and your family for sharing all this!…… Pamela

  • Bethany W
    November 10, 2015 at 12:16 PM

    Random question. :) In your pictures at 1.8 your model is sharp and in focus. I thought only part of her would be in focus at 1.8? Did you have to stay far away from her in order to get her sharp like?

    I’m a newbie who still struggles with sharpness. Sigh..

    • November 10, 2015 at 12:25 PM

      Yes, the further away you are from your subject the more of them will be in focus at f/1.8.

  • Fready
    March 1, 2016 at 12:54 PM

    Thanks Courtney,
    I am taking it day by day till i get it right.

  • Kelly
    July 4, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    I’m messing with aperture and with both of my lens I can only go as low as f4.0. Also, as much as I mess with the 3 settings, in M I can’t get the dial inside my eye piece to move to 0. It stays at -2??? Do I have the wrong lens’ ?
    I have a EFS 18-55mm 0.25m/0.8ft and a EFS 55-250mm 1.1m/3.6ft I have a canon EOS rebel T1i

    • July 20, 2016 at 5:25 PM

      Hey Kelly, You are definitely restricted by your kit lenses since the aperture only goes as wide as f/4 which means you can’t bring in a ton of light. If your meter is moving to zero and it is on -2 it means you don’t have enough light. Check out the post on manual mode. You may need to increase your ISO to bring in more light.

  • Kayley Richardson
    January 28, 2017 at 1:41 AM

    Thanks so much!!! Can you do blogs like this on ‘exposure’ and ‘white balance’

    i am a real beginner and there are so many tutorials on how to improve your photography, but for me, what i really need is a blog that tells me what all these words mean, and what turning them up and down will do!! i am not a pro at all, and i am doing a project 365 and Monday me as well….but i don’t actually know the basics to be honest!!

    Thanks a ton!!

  • Yogesh Gaikwad
    February 19, 2017 at 1:38 PM

    Your blog is very useful for me to understand small small things of photography.
    Thank you dear.
    I will write something for you in MARATHI language.

    TU KHUP SUNDAR DISTES.
    YOGESH

  • Gaethuse
    April 20, 2017 at 5:45 AM

    Thnx for the information u share with us i will do the sittinng of mu camera regarding bacground.

  • Raven Woods
    November 5, 2017 at 8:01 AM

    I’m just starting photography and this has helped a whole bunch ! Thank you so much !

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