Mastering your Camera Aperture
We have made it, together! We have discussed everything from fields in photography, lenses, equipment, exposure, ISO and shutter speed. Now for the reason you bought your camera in the first place, we are going to master camera aperture. At the end, I will post a quick cheat sheet to go by, just like with shutter speed, that will help you learn the suggested settings for a few scenarios. But remember these are just suggestions, your artistic vision will always be the end determination of what aperture to use.
Since we have been discussing aperture since the beginning, I won’t go too far into the basics. I mean, we are here to master it right? But as a quick reminder, the more open your shutter is, that’s increasing your aperture, but it’s signified by a lower number. Like f2.8 is a much “higher” aperture than f8. We also know that the higher the aperture, the more light enters the lens which also reduces the depth of field.
So f2.8 is going to be great if you are focusing on a single subject and want to blur everything else around them with creamy beautiful bokeh; however, if you have two people who aren’t standing at exactly the same depth, one person may be in focus, and one may be slightly soft. This is extremely important when doing close-ups, macro photography, and multi-subject photography since this effect is amplified as you zoom in. Below, you can see how an aperture of f/2.8 on this baseball focuses crystal clear on one spot but the rest of the ball is heavily covered in bokeh.
The second picture below shows the entire ball is now crystal clear when I use an aperture of f16. So yes, it’s one subject, but it’s all about depth of field within the picture. Since I zoomed in really close, the camera doesn’t know the difference in 10cm and 100 yards, it’s all about depth relative to the focal point.
So, taking a close-up of someone’s eye, you may want to decrease that aperture to focus on the entire eye, otherwise, the pupil might be in focus, but the eye lashes might be unwantedly blurry. I only mention this because, if you are like me after getting your first quality lens, you want to just set it on that super high aperture and get your money’s worth.
I had to learn that a quality camera gives me more tools at my disposal, but that doesn’t mean that its capability needs to be used all the time. So, use the settings that will execute your vision, 98% of viewers will have no idea what aperture even is, they are just going to say they like it or not.
So if we decrease the aperture, the shutter doesn’t open as wide, which allows less light into the lens. This increases the depth of field on and around our subjects. So if you have two individuals side by side but maybe a little offset, f4 will keep both in focus so no one is blurry and feels like the ugly duckling. The more people or subjects you want in focus, the lower your aperture needs to be. Pretty simple right? Even easier with a cheat sheet, which I’ll provide at the bottom!
Now, as a rundown… We use aperture to adjust the light we need and for how much bokeh we want. Simple as that. Now you can incorporate your aperture into your practice regimen and start trying to figure out how your lenses perform. The best way to learn photography is to go out and make the mistakes early! If my advice means anything, start taking portraits right away and do it on your family and friends.
That way you aren’t getting paid and coming back to a client telling them that half the pictures turned out blurry! And if there are mistakes, remember you are using a professional camera now! If you took me recommendation to shoot in RAW format, these are big files! You can crop portraits into headshots and still use them for 8×10’s. If you are using a full frame camera, that is even more true! I know I have taken headshots and cropped out everything but the model’s hands in her lap because it was such a pretty placement. So don’t throw those pictures away, and if you don’t like it, crop away!
Promised Cheat Sheet!
Now is time for our cheat sheet! Just like with shutter speed, this is the maximum aperture you want to use for each type of scenario. Remember this is all about your vision for the image, so when in doubt, try multiple apertures to make sure you hit the mark remembering that decreasing aperture may require you to adjust other settings to keep your image from being too dark. After a few months, this becomes second nature and you will be doing this on the fly!
Individual headshots (chest up)
f/1.2 will have soft sides to the head and body, very dreamy look
f/1.8 will show just a small amount of bokeh on the back of the head
f/2.0 if you are wanting more crispness with the slightest bokeh
f/2.8 if you want the entire subject sharp and background with heavy bokeh
f/3.0 and above- as you decrease your aperture the bokeh begins to clear up and soon the background and surrounding objects will become sharper and sharper.
Individual full body
f/1.8 for a little bokeh on the sides of the body
f/2.8 for full body crispness (as a rule, there are a lot of things that can effect this)
Couples headshots and full body portraits
f/4.0 this is the hard and fast rule if they are standing side by side. You can try a little lower, but you are really pushing the limit on that one, a little more bokeh isn’t worth the risk normally.
Three or more Group Shots
f/4.0 is the lowest I would go to maximize bokeh if they are standing close.
F5.6 is a great place to start for group shots as long as they are sanding in a line or maybe in two rows (tallest in back, please). 5.6 will give you nice clear faces and still produce some nice bokeh
f/5.6- The second you use a wider aperture on a facial close up, you may not even catch all the bokeh on the small camera screen, but it will be there. Ears, noses, eyelashes, all kinds of things may be blurred, so stay safe with 5.6 or above. You can always try a few more at a wider aperture after you take that first picture at 5.6.
f/8- will give you minimum bokeh (really just softness) keeping almost everything in the image at least identifiable.
f/11 and above- the benefit becomes sharpness/crispness of all objects until you reach f/32 or so which is hard to manage unless in very heavy light or long shutter drags, but exposed correctly, everything will be razor sharp. Beware of going above f16 due to lens diffraction.
As you can see, aperture is definitely a major contributor to exposure, but typically it is used to determine the artistic vision while shutter speed and ISO are then used to adjust the exposure in lieu of the aperture. There are going to be times that you need to just bump the aperture down though and maybe settle for an outdoor portrait at f/4 instead of overexposing your image by using a much wider aperture.
This is where ND filters can come in handy. They naturally darken your image like a pair of sunglasses so you may be able to use that higher aperture and get your dreamy look in light you normally would have to f-stop down. This is one thing beginners (and professionals eh, hem…) will forget to take in their bag for daytime photography. It may take an extra minute to place on your camera, but it can save hours of editing in post processing.
Mastering Aperture: It’s the end but I’m still here!
Have questions? Need a recommendation for a great f-stop in a certain situation? Ask away in the comments below! Want to keep it private? Just send me a Facebook message or email. You have free access to any experience and advice I can lend, because that is what photographers do. We help the next group of rising stars reach their dreams and push this wonderful art further to new unexplored places!
And if this lesson helped you take that first dreamy picture, please share! I am happy to even provide feedback if you would like, that can cost you a lot going through professionals; so, take the opportunity to get it for free if you can! Well, hope you are well on your way to your first 10,000 pictures!
Now I will pause and see how the demand plays out for these blogs, don’t want to burden anyone who isn’t looking for unsolicited advice! But if you are interested, let me know and I can cover more advanced topics. Even suggestions if you may have. Happy shooting everyone and thanks for reading from all of us at Seven11.
Wanting more? Check out our articles on more advanced topics and keep learning!
Photography and writing by: Jon Frederick