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How to Easily Understand the F-stop Scale in Photography

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

Understanding the f-stop scale is the key to achieving the correct exposure. Our article will give you all the f-stop know-how. You just have to put it into practice.
close up of changing f-stop on a DSLR camera

What Is an F-Stop?

In photography, an ‘f-stop’ or ‘f/stop’is a measurement of the exposure. Exposure is made from three settings, which make up the exposure triangle.  These settings are the shutter speed, ISO and aperture settings.

If you were to increase the exposure by one f-stop, you would be doubling the exposure. Decreasing the exposure by one f-stop is halving it.

So, for example, your camera’s aperture is f/4, shutter speed is 1/100 and ISO is 100. If you keep the aperture at f/4 and the shutter speed at 1/100, but you increase the ISO to 200, then you have increased the exposure by one f-stop.

Doubling the ISO makes the exposure twice as amplified; hence the settings jump in single stops.

It can get a little bit confusing, but you must learn this, and here’s why…

As your photography skills improve, you will start to shoot in manual mode more. You will gain more and more control over how the camera exposes the scene. Knowing what one f-stop can do for the shutter speed, ISO and aperture will affect how you change each one.

Let me make this simpler for you:
You’re shooting at f/2.8, at 1/100 of a second, with an ISO of 200 but you want a shallower depth of field. You know that widening your aperture opening to f/2 will produce a shallower depth of field.

Perfect! But it will also double the amount of light that’s entering your camera lens. You have jumped up one f-stop with your aperture and made the exposure brighter.

You need to counter this with a change in shutter speed or ISO. To do this, you can halve the ISO to 100 or double the shutter speed from 1/100 to 1/200 of a second.
a blurry photo of a castle in a field of yellow flowers a blurry photo of a castle in a field of yellow flowersSo you see, this is quite important to know.

To briefly summarize, increasing the exposure by an f-stop will double the exposure and decreasing the exposure by an f-stop will halve it.

But there is more to it…

ISO Stops

Let’s start with the easiest to understand: ISO. One stop up from ISO 100 is 200. And one stop up from ISO 200 is 400.
The intervals aren’t equal but, instead, the ISO doubles between stops. Easy enough to understand, so I’ll leave it at that.

Close-up photo of setting ISO on a camera

Shutter Speed Stops

The majority of the time when you use your digital camera, you’re shooting at a fraction of a second. If you shoot at speeds of 1 second or longer, the same principle as above applies. You double the time from 1 second to 2, then from 2 seconds to 4. Simple.

When shooting at a fraction of a second, such as 1/200, to double this number, halve the denominator (the number on the bottom of the fraction, in this case, 200).
If you’re new to photography, don’t worry; this will soon become second nature.

1/100 is twice the length of 1/200 so that’s one stop and the exposure is doubled. 1/50 is twice the length as 1/100 and so on.
A cityscape at night

Aperture

I’m afraid this is where things get a little bit complicated and somewhat mathematical.

If you use the logic that I’ve explained above, you would probably assume that f/2 is twice the exposure of f/4. Sadly, this is not the case, and f/2 actually allows in four times as much light as f/4.

You might be scratching your head at this but, I promise, it will all become clear if you can just stick with it.

The aperture scale does not take on the same principles as shutter speed or ISO because of how the measurement is taken.

Aperture is measured using something called the f-stop scale.

On your camera, you’ll see ‘f/’ or just ‘f’ followed by a number. The number denotes how wide the aperture is which, in turn, affects the exposure and depth of field: the lower the number, the wider the aperture.

This may seem confusing: Why a low number for the maximum aperture? The answer is simple and mathematical, but first, you need to know the f-stops scale.

The f/stops 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.
a lizard resting on a stop sign

If you are changing from f/2 to f/2.8, you are halving the exposure. In doing so, you’re halving the open area of the aperture in the lens.

The most important thing to know about these f-stop numbers is that, from each number to the next, the aperture decreases to half its size. It is thus allowing 50% less light through the lens (1 f-stop). This is because the f-stop numbers come from an equation used to work out the size of the aperture from the focal length of the lens.

The ‘f’ in f-stop or f-number stands for focal length, and the number is a fraction of the focal length, which tells you the size of the aperture.

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

You then have to take the radius (half the diameter: 12.5), multiply it by itself to create the radius squared (giving 156.25) and multiply that by pi (giving 490.9).

The whole equation looks like this: Area = pi * r².

This isn’t essential for you to know, but it may help you to get your head around it.

Here are a couple of f-stop settings examples:

  • A 50mm lens with the aperture of f/2 = a lens opening 25mm wide (50mm/2). Half of this is 12.5mm and, using the equation above (pi*12.5mm²) we get an area of 491mm².
  • A 50mm lens, with the aperture of f/2.8 = a lens opening 17.9mm wide (50mm/2.8). Half of this is 8.93mm and, using the equation above (pi*8.93mm²) we get an area of 250mm².

Now,  half of 491 is less than 250. That’s 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.
This is what the aperture scale looks like (not to scale):
A diagram of the aperture and fstop scale f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22
Ok, so that’s f/stop for you. With all this new information, you should have a much better understanding of how to control your exposure.

But Wait, There’s More!

You will have noticed with your aperture, shutter speed and ISO, that there are more intervals than just doubling and halving exposures. These are third stops, which give you more control over your exposure.

For example, between f/2.8 and f/4, you will also find f/3.2 and f/3.5.

Check out our post on understanding the difference between a t-stop and f-stop next.

If you’re just starting out and want to expand your knowledge, sign up for our Photography for Beginners course today!

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17 comments
    1. I am studying Professional Photography. This site has been very helpful! I understand it well now. Thank you Josh 🙂

  1. Hi,
    Great info, thanks for sharing. I have one note: You said “I/100 is half as long as 1/200”,
    Isn’t supposed to be the other way around?!
    Thanks

  2. Thank you man.. after 5 years in photography… as hobbiest, I first time took serious to read “stops” for shutter and ISO.. and you made my knowledge. very interesting info

  3. Nice, thanks for the article. Lots of useful info is here. Now i’m a new member of ur readership 😀 btw there is also another good blog contains much information about photography, cameras, photo editing etc. http://fixthephoto.com/blog – actually worth reading!

  4. Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to make a top notch article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and don’t manage to get nearly anything done.

  5. Thanks for the post!
    Another way to look at camera settings so as not to scare people off is the brakes and gas pedal of an automobile. Both the brake and the gas pedal affect the speedometer. Therefore, the driver doesn’t need to know how either the brakes or gas pedal work, they just need to keep their eye on the speedometer, also known as exposure in the camera analogy.

    Personally, I’m just a hack at photography. I’ve learned that humans should avoid hand-held shots at less than 1/60th of a second (to avoid a blurry photo) and should avoid high ISO settings to avoid digital noise and grain in their photos. I try to stay under ISO 400 for my camera.

    To take a properly exposed photo I watch the in-camera exposure meter and apply the brakes if the exposure is too high and apply the gas if the exposure is too dark. To apply the “brakes”, I expose the sensor in the camera for less time by increasing the shutter speed. To apply the “gas” I expose the camera sensor longer by slowing down the shutter speed.

    The f/stop setting can also be used to act as the brakes or gas pedal all by itself. A better use of the f/stop setting would be to assist or work with the brakes or gas pedal. However, the f/stop ALSO determines what will be in focus, also known as depth of field.

    Adjusting shutter speed and f/stops can get confusing to new photographers because you could end up stepping on the gas and the brakes at the same time. In my case, I’ve found it easier to know what the f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO actually do to my exposure meter while staying within my speed limit of 1/60th of a second shutter speed and ISO not greater than 400.

    Everyone learns and thinks differently, I hope this layman explanation helps. With just a little practice, anyone can take great photos. I’ve never met anyone that said they wished they had taken less phots when they were younger.!

  6. No, he’s right……..your reducing it as the offset to the ISO change.
    Quote: “1/100 is twice the length of 1/200 so that’s one stop and the exposure is doubled”

  7. The technical definition of aperture is: … What Are F – Stop and F … Good article but as almost every article I’ve read as a newbie to photography and aperture, …

  8. At the beginning of my photography journey i found confusing that a smaller number would indicate a wider aperture (and therefore less depth of field), therefore i used to think: ” Bigger number = bigger DOF, smaller numbers = smaller DOF, it helped me a lot.

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