How to Use Your f-stop to Create Amazing Photos
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How to Use Your f-stop to Create Amazing Photos

The exposure triangle includes aperture, shutter speed & ISO. Another term for aperture is f-stop.

What is f-stop?

The f-stop is in reference to the amount of light that you camera lets in. In fact, your f-stop is directly correlated to your lens and how wide your lens can go.

When talking about f-stop people will use the term – smaller f-stop. This means that the number is actually a higher number when you think of it mathematically. For example, f/14 is a smaller f-stop compared to f/1.8.

Another term is wide open. This means that your f-stop is as wide as it can go. That means that if you have a lens that can go to f/1.8 and you shoot at f/1.8 then you are shooting wide open.

If someone tells you to “stop down” on your aperture they are also referring to using a smaller f-stop (bigger mathematical number). It can be confusing but don’t let the terminology confuse you.

When to use a wide or smaller f-stop

Once most photographers figure out how wide of an f-stop they can shoot they love to shoot around f/1.8. This is because they think this is the only way to get the blurry background with bokeh they are looking for. However, that is not always the case.

In fact, I tell my students often to not shoot at f/1.8. Learning to use a variety of f-stops in your photography will help you create interesting images.

Below are seven reasons why you should rebel against a wider f-stop and shoot with a smaller f-stop.

1. Photographing a fast moving child or subject

We all love bokeh (you know, that blurry background) and using a wide aperture like f/1.8 is sure to help you get it. However, that wide aperture also makes your plane of focus smaller and makes it harder to get your focus just right.

When you’ve got a quick moving child, you need some wiggle room. You don’t need to go extreme with f/22 but consider closing up your aperture some to f/3.5 or so. This will still allow you to get some good bokeh.

backlit-photo-of-child-dressed-like-Princess-Belle-by-April-Nienhuis

2. Landscapes photography with a smaller f-stop

This world is beautiful and sometimes we want to see every detail we possibly can. When photographing landscapes, it’s common to shoot at a small aperture to get as much in focus as possible. I prefer around f/22 to be able to capture the clarity and details that surrounds me.

landscape photography created with smaller f-stop

3. When photographing a group

Getting one person in focus at f/1.8 is hard enough but add in a few more people and it gets extra tough. How small your aperture needs to be is going to depend on how close you are to the group and whether they are on the same plane of focus or multiple ones.

For example, in the following image I am far away from them with a long lens. Since they are hugging, the focal plane for each child doesn’t differ too drastically and I can get away with an f/4 aperture.

three children hugging sharp photo from f-stop

However, being at f/4 with the below image wasn’t cutting it since I was so close to the group and there are 3 different focal planes. This is an instance where a smaller aperture of f/8 was needed to get everyone in focus.

family-of-five-portrait-by-April-Nienhuis

4. Include a clear focus of the atmosphere

Sometimes your surroundings are important to the story of your photo. In the photo below, it was important to see both the definition of the clouds in the background as well as the elements in the foreground.

Perhaps you’re photographing a portrait of a bride and groom in front of the church they’re getting married in? The church is an important detail too.

storm-clouds-in-Oklahoma-picture-by-April-Nienhuis

5. Create a starburst effect

Starbursts have a knack for making bright items clean, shiny, and fancy. In order to get a good starburst, you need a small aperture. The smaller the better. If you don’t have enough natural light to embrace a small aperture you may need to consider including a secondary light source or a tripod to embrace a slower shutter speed. Starbursts are especially fun with the sun or Christmas lights.

trees with sun coming through back with starburst effect created by f-stop

6. The night’s sky

You really want a nice solid focus of the stars when photographing them. The best way to do that is to use a small aperture. You’re working with a slow shutter speed so you might as well slow it down a little more in order to use a smaller f-stop. Don’t forget that your best bet for astrophotography is when there’s a new moon and in a place with very little light pollution. If you have trouble keeping up with the moon phase, I’d suggest downloading the Star Walk app.

night time star photo with smaller f-stop

7. Macro photography

With macro photography, your depth of field is much more narrow than when taking a portrait. Because of that narrow depth of field, you need to use a smaller aperture in order to get more in focus. Being that close with a larger aperture can create a fun and pretty abstract sort of look but when you want all the details, think of using a smaller f-stop. The below photo was shot at f/8 and you can see how I got a good deal in focus but because I was so close, I still got some lovely bokeh.

macro image of shell with a smaller f-stop
31 Comments
  • Bridget
    May 6, 2015 at 4:21 PM

    Love this! It drives me crazy when people always shoot at 1.4! I did not know that about starbursts! That first picture is stunning!

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:06 PM

      Thanks, Bridget! Starbursts are fun – I hope you give one a try :)

  • Elisa
    May 6, 2015 at 4:27 PM

    Love it! I’m just working on this, so I appreciate this article! Thank you for giving suggestions on the f-stop #s. I just took one of my little boy where one eye is in focus, and the other is not! He was tilted. I’m learning! I read another article on here (I think) that said focus is everything and I completely agree. It could be the best pic in the world, but if focus is off, then you can trash it. Thanks for the article!!

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:09 PM

      You’re right, focus means so much. If you just barely miss focus, it really can ruin a picture. If it’s going to be out of focus, you have to do it with intent :)

  • Janet
    May 6, 2015 at 5:16 PM

    Thank you for this great article, love that you included photos with the f stops used…. I did now know to use a smaller f stop for macro shots, for some reason, I thought the opposite…

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:11 PM

      I’ve definitely shot macros at f/2.8 or so before but when I want everything in focus like a set of wedding rings, gotta go smaller like f/10 or more.

  • Shelly
    May 6, 2015 at 9:24 PM

    Thank you! I’ve been working on when to use what F-shop and still have lots of questions and experimenting to do. This will be great to incorporate!

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:14 PM

      Glad it was helpful, Shelly!

  • Heather
    May 6, 2015 at 9:29 PM

    This was a great reminder! I’d love some tips on getting larger groups in focus!

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:18 PM

      Two ways to get more in focus is to either use a smaller aperture or to scoot back away from your subject(s). Or both. A good way to practice is to line up some stuffed animals and shoot at different apertures and distances so you can see the difference in those changes :)

  • max
    May 6, 2015 at 11:25 PM

    Just love your stuff. Always seem(ed) to have shot wide open. Not anymore! Thank you. All the way from South Africa!

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:19 PM

      Thanks, Max! Wide open is fun but don’t limit yourself to just that. Smaller apertures can be fun too :)

  • Hayley
    May 7, 2015 at 1:16 AM

    Thanks for this article- it will probably seem counter intuitive for me but your pics tell a different story. I’ll definitely give it a go:)

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:20 PM

      Like I tell my workshop students, you don’t have to like it but I encourage trying it, you never know if you’ll like it or not :)

  • Tish
    May 7, 2015 at 6:40 AM

    Great article April! Thanks for sharing!!

    • April Nienhuis
      May 7, 2015 at 2:21 PM

      I loved sharing and I’m so happy you enjoyed it, Tish!

  • Jaina
    May 7, 2015 at 3:48 PM

    The first thing I did when I got my 35mm f/1.8 lens was to shoot all things at f/1.8! While it’s great for some shoots and photography subjects, like you’ve illustrated here, need to remember to go up a few f-stops too.

  • mary
    May 8, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    I am glad you posted this. A smaller aperture comes in so handy. Both large and small have their use; IMO the wide open look is overdone and played out. Sometimes it’s nice to get BOTH eyes in focus, or the whole face in focus….or the bride AND groom in focus, or the whole group in focus. :)

  • celeste pavlik
    May 10, 2015 at 5:26 PM

    Great article April! I love your work. :)

  • elizabeth
    May 29, 2015 at 7:55 PM

    Love the title, and so much that evening sky!

  • tish
    September 2, 2015 at 9:54 PM

    great article and a good reminder to switch it up now and then!! thanks! :)

  • Tony
    September 3, 2015 at 3:08 PM

    Misleading title is misleading. Do you mean a smaller aperture (ie; a larger f-number)?

    • September 8, 2015 at 12:56 PM

      When referring to the f-stop it is opposite of what you would think :)

      • Mary
        June 7, 2017 at 10:33 AM

        Yes, when referring to f-stop, the numbers move opposite to what you think. Smaller f-stop numbers mean larger aperture size and vice versa. That still means that the title of your article is wrong since you are arguing within the body of the article that there are times when a smaller aperture (a larger f-stop) works better. So the title of your article should be ‘7 reasons to use a LARGER F-stop’.

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  • Mother of Dragons
    June 20, 2016 at 9:11 PM

    So many photogs like to shoot wide open. It was a trend started by famous celebrity photographers. It’s nice to have bokeh but yeah open your mind and adjust aperture based on what you are trying to achieve. Bokeh exists at other f-stops too, so it’s nice to have bokeh and also have your subject in focus if you shoot at 3.5 or whatever.

  • Jenni k
    November 14, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    Why is it such a trend and why do some photographers say “I only shoot wide open” -arev they act like it’s some mystical secret that they do it and that the people who don’t aren’t as skilled of photographers if they can’t get everything in focus at f 1.8? Why ?

  • […] want to get everyone’s faces in focus. Therefore, using a smaller f-stop will help make sure everyone is in […]

  • terisa
    July 29, 2019 at 4:00 PM

    Great article. I am just getting into photography.

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