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How to Understand Aperture in 5 Simple Steps

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

Aperture is one of the three factors that create an exposure. Understanding the aperture settings makes getting to grips with taking an evenly exposed photo a lot easier.

Using different aperture also opens up more creative avenues through unique effects. This post will teach you what they are and how to use them to your advantage.

Overhead image of a perfectly exposed green plant amongst brown leaves - using aperture

Step 5 – What Is Aperture?

The best way to understand the aperture definition is to think of it as the pupil of an eye.  The wider it gets, the more light it lets in.

Together, the aperture settings, shutter speed, and ISO produce an exposure. The diameter of the aperture size changes, allowing more or less light onto the sensor. This depends on the situation and the scene being photographed.

Creative uses of different aperture sizes and their consequences are tackled in Step 4. Put simply, when talking about light and exposure, wider aperture settings allow more light and narrower ones allow less.

Aperture can be confusing. Some people will say a wide or narrow aperture, but others might say a large aperture. What is the difference? A wide aperture refers to the wide opening in the lens, where f/1.2-f/2.4 is being discussed.

A large aperture refers to the number of f/stop, where f/32 or f/22 is being discussed. A low aperture and wide aperture are the same things – one talks about the size of the number and the other relates to the size of the opening.

Close up shot of an old film camera - understanding aperture for beginners

Step 4 – How Is Aperture Measured and Changed?

Aperture size is measured using something called the f-stop scale. On your digital camera, you’ll see ‘f/’ followed by a number. This f-number denotes how wide the aperture is. The size affects the exposure and depth of field (also tackled below) of the final image.

What may seem confusing is that the lower the number, the wider the aperture. This means that your camera aperture settings will be wide open at a smaller f-stop number, like f/1.4 (maximum aperture).
At higher numbers, like f/16 or f/22, you’ll get a narrow aperture.

Why a low number for a high aperture? The answer is simple and mathematical, but first, you need to know the f-stop scale.

The scale is as follows: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.

The most important thing to know about these numbers is this; as the numbers rise, the aperture settings decrease to half its size. Half meaning that it allows 50% less light through the lens.

This is because the numbers come from an equation used to work out the size of the aperture setting from the focal length. You’ll notice, on modern day cameras, that there are aperture settings in-between those listed above.

These are 1/3 stops, so between f/2.8 and f/4 for example, you’ll also get f/3.2 and f/3.5. These are just here to increase the control that you have over your settings.

Now things begin to get a little harder. If you get confused, skip to Step 3 as the most important part has been covered.

For example, say you have a 50mm lens with an aperture setting of f/2. To find the width of the aperture, you divide the 50 by the 2, giving you a diameter of 25mm.

Then take the radius, multiply it by itself (radius squared) and multiply that by pi. The whole equation looks something like this: Area = r²*pi.

Here Are a Few Examples:

A 50mm lens at f/2: 50mm/2 = a lens opening 25mm wide. Half of this is 12.5mm and using the equation above (pi * 12.5mm²) we get an area of 490mm².

A 50mm lens at f/2.8: 50mm/2.8 = a lens opening 17.9mm wide. Half of this is 8.95mm and using the equation above (pi * 8.95mm²) we get an area of 251.6mm².

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that half of 490 is less than 251 – this is because the numbers used are rounded to the nearest decimal point. The area of f/2.8 will still be exactly half of f/2

Diagram showing what the aperture scale looks like in reality
This is what the aperture scale looks like in reality

Step 3 – How Does Aperture Affect Exposure?

Before we talk about anything else, let’s look at the exposure triangle.

The change in aperture size correlates with exposure. The larger the aperture size, the more exposed the photo will be. The best way to demonstrate this is by taking a series of photos and keeping everything constant with the exception of the aperture.

All the images in the slideshow below were taken at ISO 200, 1/400 of a second and without a flash. Only the aperture size changes throughout.

This set of photos was taken before the recent purchase of my f/1.4 so the photos are in the following order: f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.

A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/2 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/2.8 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/4 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/5.6 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/8 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/11 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/16 exposure
A photo of a tree branch in the foreground and autumn leaves in the background, taken with f/22 exposure
A good way to see the changing size of the aperture is to look at the size of the out of focus white circle at the bottom left of the image. The main creative effect of aperture, however, isn’t exposure, but depth of field.

Step 2 – How Does Aperture Affect Depth of Field?

Now, the depth of field is a big topic. For now, I shall summarize it by saying that it is all about the distance at which the subject will stay in focus in front of and behind the main point of focus.

In terms of how the depth of field is affected by aperture settings, the wider the aperture setting (f/1.4), the shallower the depth of field. The narrower the aperture size (f/22), the deeper the depth of field.

Before I show you a selection of photos taken at different apertures, take a look at the diagram below. If you don’t understand exactly how this works, it doesn’t matter too much.

For now, it’s important for you to know the effects.

detailed diagram explaining how aperture affects depth of field
How aperture affects depth of field

Here is an example of a photo taken at f/1.4. With the subject moving away from the lens, it’s easy to see the effect that the shallow DoF has on the photo.

A close up of a sports net taken with a wide aperture
As mentioned, here’s a selection of photos all taken on aperture priority mode. The exposure remains constant and the only changing variable is the aperture.

The photos below are in this order: f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. Notice how the depth of field increases every time the aperture size is decreased.

A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/2 aperture
f/2

A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/2.8 aperture
A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/4 aperture
A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/5.6 aperture
A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/8 aperture
A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/11 aperture
A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/16 aperture

A tree branch in focus with blurry background of autumn trees taken with f/22 aperture
F/22

Diagram explaining depth of field and aperture sizes.

Step 1 – What Are the Uses of Different Apertures?

The first thing to note is that there are no rules when it comes to choosing an aperture. It depends greatly on whether you are going for artistic effect or to accurately balance the light in a scene.

To best make these decisions, it helps to have a good knowledge of traditional uses for the different aperture listed below.

  • f/1.4 – This is great for low light situations. It also gives a shallow DoF. Best used on shallow subjects or for a bokeh effect.
  • f/2 – This range has much the same uses, but an f/2 lens can be picked up for a third of the price of an f/1.4 lens.
  • f/2.8 – Still good for low light situations, but allows for more definition in facial features due to a deeper DoF. Good zoom lenses usually have this as their widest aperture.
  • f/4 – Autofocus can be temperamental. This is the minimum aperture setting you’d want to use for portraits in decent lighting. You risk the face going out of focus with wider apertures.
  • f/5.6 – Good for photos of two people but not very good in low light conditions though. Here, use a bounce flash.
  • f/8 – This is good for large groups as it will ensure that everyone in the frame remains in focus.
  • f/11 –  More often than not, here is where your lens will be at its sharpest. Perfect aperture for portraits.
  • f/16 –  Shooting in the sun requires a small aperture, making this a good ‘go-to’ point for these conditions.
  • f/22 –  Best for landscapes where noticeable detail in the foreground is required.

As I said before, these are only guidelines. Now that you know exactly how the aperture setting will change a photo, you can experiment yourself and have fun with it!

You think you know everything about photography? Check out our new post to see if you’re a photography nerd next!

Before you go, check out this cool video!

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18 comments
  1. Great site and article. I have never understood aperature until NOW. Thanks for explaining it so well. I’m going to go try it out on my camera right now.

  2. Well,… I have a nikon coolpix L 120. Very amateur. I´ve been reading your posts and, I love them. Reading until I got here I was very excited, but now I think I´m stuck. I have a zoom lens and as far as I understand I can´t apply this variations i´m I right ?. But how can I play with this aperture with my zoom lens ?

    1. All lenses have different apertures, it’s up to your camera whether they allow you to change it or not. I suggest you google, or check the manual of your camera to find out how to do it. Thanks, Josh

  3. Josh, great info.. I’m a “newby” at this and find your Blog very informative and helpful. I suspect I will learn a lot from you and many others. Thanks for sharing!!!

  4. In high school physics class, we learned that light, from its point of origination (such as the midpoint of the lens passing it), decreases in intensity as the inverse square root of the distance (distance to the film or digital sensor.) Thus, it is an interesting mathematical exercise to note that F-stops or apertures are numbered in a logical progression. 1 is also the square foot of 1, 1.4 is the square root of 2, 2 is the square root of 4, 2.8 is the square root of 8, 4 is the square root of 16, and so on. That is why an aperture of F2.8 on any certain lens lets in twice as much light as F4, etc. If you know the reasons why the F-stops are numbered as they are, the matter of halving or doubling the shutter speed falls into place. F-stops are numbered the way they are so that each is double or half the value of the adjacent setting.

  5. Another point on manual exposure… I learned photography in the days before light meters were common (let alone built into cameras). What is now known as ISO (International Standards Organization) was called ASA (American Standards Association) then, but the numerical value is the same. It refers to the sensitivity of the film (film “speed”) when light reaches it, or in digital cameras, the equivalent sensitivity when the sensor and processor do their magic before recording the image. In those dinosaur days, I had to go by the old rule of thumb, which is: (1) set your shutter speed at roughly the fraction of a second that corresponds to the ASA rating of the film, such as 1/400 second for 400 speed film. Then (2) set the aperture to F16 for bright sun, F11 for “cloudy but bright”, F8 for hazy daylight, F5.6 for shady areas, and so on. Electronic flash was unheard of; we had to use disposable flashbulbs when daylight was not sufficient. That brought us to have to use “guide numbers”. The guide number divided by the distance in feet from flash to subject would result in the correct F-stop. A guide number of 110, for example, would tell us to set the aperture at F11 if the subject was 10 feet away. You digital camera users have it SO easy today.

  6. Thank you very much. I learned so much today that i feel quite good after reading u r post. Will try out the options you have discussed. Great work bro. Cheers

  7. Great article, but the top “Do you want to…” banner and the social media links on top of every image makes reading a painful experience on a mobile phone! I couldn’t go through the end.

  8. Pingback: Kenia Pletcher

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