January 10, 2012

Photo 101 - Aperture and Depth of Field

I receive emails asking for photography tips and thought I would try to explain what I think is important.  If you own a DSLR camera, you want to stop shooting in auto mode.  Understanding aperture, or the A or AV setting on your camera is where taking control of your photography begins.  I'd like to do my best in explaining this function.  Please keep in mind that I am not a professional, and everything I have learned about photography, I have taught myself.  So, I hope I do not confuse you, as this is one of my lengthiest (and driest) posts.  Please feel free to correct me if I have a misstep.

Aperture and Depth of Field 101

The main function of a camera lens is to collect light.  There are two main functions for collecting light; the aperture and shutter speed.  How little or how much light enters your camera while taking a photo will affect the overall outcome or exposure of the photograph.
  • Too little light = underexposed, or very dark.
  • Too much light = overexposed, or very white. 
  •  A properly exposed photograph will have just the right amount of light.
When shooting in auto, your camera automatically evaluates the subject based upon how much light is available and adjusts the camera's settings for aperture and shutter speed automatically.
If you want more control, switch your camera's setting to Aperture Priority or the 'A' or 'AV' mode.  This will allow you to control the aperture.  The camera will then automatically adjust the shutter speed (which we'll discuss later).

What is Aperture? 

The aperture of a lens is the diameter of the lens, that opens and closes when you take a picture.
Think of it like the pupil of your eye.  When there is a lot of light available, the pupil will constrict and become smaller, allowing less light to come in.  When there is little light available, your pupil will dilate or expand, allowing more light to come in.

The aperture of your lens works in this way:
  • A smaller lens opening means less light is collected.
  • A larger lens opening means more light is collected.
When taking a photograph, you can set the aperture of your camera to be very open, closed very tightly, or increments in-between.  The settings of the aperture openings are called "f-stops".  This is where it gets confusing because it's kind of counter-intuitive, but you'll get the hang of it.  Below is a diagram I created showing the relationship between the lens' opening and the corresponding f/stop.

  • The smaller the number (or f/stop) --> the larger the lens' opening --> the larger the aperture.
  • The larger the number (or f/stop) --> the smaller the lens' opening --> the smaller the aperture.
  • F/1.8 has a large lens opening.  F/22 has a small lens opening.
  • F/1.8 is a much larger aperture than F/22.

Depth of Field 

Which aperture you choose depends on the depth of field you want.  Depth of field or DOF is how much of the photo is in focus, and how much of the photo is not in focus.
Think of it like this: small numbers mean small DOF.  Large numbers means large DOF.

Shallow Depth of Field

A shallow depth of field means that the subject is in focus but the background is out of focus.  Shooting with a large aperture (small number) - f/1.8 - creates a shallow depth of field.  Shallow depth of field is great for portrait photography. 
Let's go back to the example of the eye.  Think about when you go in for an eye exam and the optometrist dilates your pupils.  The dilation drop expands the pupils so the optometrist can see all the way into the back of the eye.  The pupil or "aperture" becomes wide open.  Your vision becomes very blurry.  Your depth of field becomes shallow as you may be able to focus only on one subject while the rest of the picture is fuzzy.  Your vision also becomes highly sensitive to light, again, because your pupil is wide open.

Here are some examples of photos with shallow depths of field:

Notice in all three of these pictures, the subject is isolated and in sharp focus, while the background is out of focus.  All three of these pictures were taken on the A setting on my Canon T1i Eos Rebel with the largest possible aperture setting on my camera's 50 mm lens - f/1.8.   If you are new to DSLR photography and you have a Canon, I highly recommend buying this lens.  It is $100 and will produce these types of effects.  The 50 mm f/1.4 is three times the price. 

Note, that if your lens allows you to go this large, always switch it back to at least F/2.2 or F/2.5 when taking outfit pictures or pictures with more than one subject.  I don't know how many times I have taken outfit pictures on f1/8 to find the photo batch completely blurry and unusable.
  
Large Depth of Field

Shooting with a small aperture (large number) - F/22 - means that foreground, background, subject - everything - in the photo is in equal focus.  Shooting with a small aperture is ideal when shooting landscapes because you want objects both near and far in focus.

Here are some examples of photos with large depths of field:
 

Notice that everything is in focus in these three photographs and you can see all the of details.

Play around with the different apertures and see the different effects each f/stop produces on the A or AV function of your camera.  Go to the absolute smallest, to the absolute largest and every increment in-between.  Messing around with the settings is the best way to learn.

I hope this helpful and not too much information or too confusing.  It can be a lot to rack your brain around but totally worth it once it makes sense.  Next, I will be explaining shutter speed and ISO.  I will also post how to amp up your photos in the post production process.   

P.S.  Winner of the Stella & Dot giveaway is Jennifer Baker!  Congrats!  We'll be in touch.

58 comments:

Ana said...

Wow, this is the best explanation I've found yet. I was playing with my (point-and-shoot) camera this past week-end and tried to find out what ISO was all about. I did find a little bit of information on it, but the concept of aperture was introduced too without much explanation and it got me totally confused. Turns out that I don't have it on my very old camera but now it's very clear to me what it is and what it does - and will come in very handy once I save up enough for a DSLR. :)
Can't wait for the other posts! :D

Amy said...

Super helpful - thank you! I got a Rebel T3i in the fall and went to a "Rebel 101" class at the photography shop and it wasn't explained this clearly. This was actually easy to understand and makes sense. Off to play with my camera now :)

Ashley said...

Thanks for sharing! I've been playing around with my rebel too to try and find the perfect setting for taking outfit pictures! Your pictures always look so great and you hide you remote so well ;)

Color Me Blue said...

Thank you so much! This is super helpful - I've been playing with my aperture setting but for some reason it won't go larger than like f5.0, even though the lense allows for it to go larger - do you have any idea why that would be? Maybe I need a different lense...

Thanks!!
Amanda
www.colormebluefashion.com

Kelly said...

great explanation!! and thanks for the recommendations. :)

MrsLord said...

I'm not sure why it took me so long to find your blog but I love it. These pictures are amazing (really all of your pictures are amazing) thanks so much for sharing!

xo
Justyn
thoughtsbyapetitebrunette-mrslord.blogspot.com

Mallory said...

Oy....You rock! This is one of the only explanations of aperture & depth of field I've found that I can actually understand! I tried messing around with different settings the other day but I failed miserably. Appreciate you sharing your knowledge!

Chloe Jacqueline said...

Great tips! This is all very important to understand before you take your camera off of Auto! Great tutorial!

Shabana said...

This was super-helpful! I have a Canon 550D and I've already been explained all of the above, but it made much more sense from your perspective and with the pictures. I was playing with my camera's aperture while reading. Thank you so much and can't wait for the next posts!
www.thesilverkickdiaries.blogspot.com

Megan Muller said...

I've been looking into DSLR cameras recently but am so lost on how to use them. This post made it so simple! Especially the dilating of the eye example. Thank you so much for sharing!

Meg
@MissMegasaurus
www.glamoroushustle.com

Sandra said...

This is so incredibly helpful. I have yet to really explore these settings on my camera and I've always wondered how to get those beautiful shallow depth photos. Looking forward to the next lesson!

xoxo
Sandra

Neris / Fashion Fractions said...

very helpful! i will send the link to my BF/photographer to read it ;)

xoxo,

Fashion Fractions

Dani said...

This was GREAT! I'm soooo scared of my camera! But with a little pracitice I think/hope I can start to understand it more...

So helpful!

Annie-Rose said...

Great post! You do take beautiful photographs and I love hearing a bit about the process you take to get these results. I just borrowed my brother's DSLR for a trip to Japan and have been meaning to learn how to use it, so this is perfect! Looking forward to the follow-ups!

Carrie said...

THANK YOU! I just got my camera a month ago and it's so confusing!
Style in the City

Brianna said...

Oh my goodness! Thank you sooo much! I have my Canon battery charging up and I am immediately going to toggle with all this! :))

Amanne | UrbanBedouGirl.com said...

Great post. I just purchased a Canon T3i and have been too scared to take it off of auto haha. I have the kit lens but I've been thinking about getting the 50mm.

Is there a difference between the 50mm EF vs the 50mm EF-S. When I ask people at the store they have no idea haha.

Iamonewithmuchope said...

That was super helpful! I'm forever getting confused about aperture and fstops and depth of field! :)

check out my blog if you get a moment...

http://munchtalk.blogspot.com

Chloe Mateo said...

Thank you so much! This was perfectly clear. I can't wait for the next tutorial!

Monica said...

Thanks for posting. I just purchased my first DSLR and am so excited to learn all the settings. Definitely can be confusing so this was so helpful. Thanks again!

Marisa said...

Great explanation! I am getting more and more into photography and love reading about it. Thank you!

Samantha Elizabeth said...

I am a photographer...and a blogger...you did a great job of explaining these things!!

XO Samantha Elizabeth

www.samanthaelizabeths.blogspot.com

Follow me and I’ll Follow You! just let me know you did!

Bettina said...

Thanks for this post! It was much easier for me to understand than other tutorials I've found on the web. The way you phrased terms and used visual examples made sense to a beginner, thanks for that!

Kayla said...

Such awesome explanations! I can't wait for your other lessons. I just got a camera a couple months ago and have been playing around on auto mode because I haven't tried manual yet. I start a class at the end of this month, but am so happy I am not going in there knowing nothing now! Thanks you!!

Victoria said...

This is exactly what I wanted to learn. Keep on posting. Especially how to take better outfit photos.

Perpetuity said...

I actually loved this post. I have the canon 7d and Im still trying to figure it out. Your pictures are always gorgeous! Im going to have to try some of these out. Thanks!

~Heather
www.perpetuitystyle.blogspot.com

Chic Coastal Living said...

This is awesome! I just need another Canon I have a powershot sx120is need to upgrade!

Brynn {In Bloom} said...

Thank you for the excellent and detailed advice! A DSLR was my Christmas present and I need to learn how to get out of Auto!

Megan @ Tales of an HBS Wife said...

Great explanation for a photography novice like myself - so easy to understand!

bethfisher30 said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post! I've been researching DSLR cameras for about six months and my biggest hang-up has been my own lack of knowledge. This little article just might push me to make the purchase. :)

Vanessa said...

Thank you for this!!!

Life is Good said...

Thanks for the explanation and recommending a lens! I'm going to look into it :)

PINKSequence said...

Wow thank you so much!! You explained everything so clearly~~ I've had a Canon T2i for over a year and its been collecting dust because I've been feeling very intimidated & confused with the whole manual idea of taking pictures. I feel excited to go and practice the A priority settings now :) Looking forward to reading about the shutter speed and ISO!! Thanks for all the help!

Francesca Felix said...

thank you for this!!

Jessi said...

This was the least intimidating "photography for dummies" lesson I have ever read! Thank you so much, I feel like a know a lot more than I used to {which was nothing...} and feel like I really might be able to start taking better pictures! LOVED this.

Jessi
cherishinghopesanddreams.blogspot.com

BrooklynBlonde said...

This is SUCH a great post! Thank you so much for this!

BrooklynBlonde said...

This is SUCH a great post! Thank you so much for this!

BrooklynBlonde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ani said...

That really helped so much! Now I can stop just staring at my camera in dismay and actually use it for once. Thanks :D

steven andrew said...

I loved this and I'm saving it for later! :) Thank you!

Isobelle said...

I love this advice. I am just starting out with photography, this advice is so great!!

She's got heart{s} Blog

Isobelle said...

I love this advice. I am just starting out with photography, this advice is so great!!

She's got heart{s} Blog

Abby said...

SO incredibly helpful! Thank you so much!!!! Xo

Sweet Laundry said...

I just received a DSLR for Christmas and am learning how to use it. Thank you for this feature, I am finding it so helpful!

Mrs Stepford said...

Oh my gosh, I have been Googling and Googling for MONTHS on how to understand apreture and f-stops, and I finally do! Everything else I had read just made it sound SO complicated. Just been fiddling around with my DSLR and totally 'got it', thank you so much for posting this! :) xx

Courtney said...

so well done. thank you for this. i feel i know the basics but sometimes it's nice to have all the meanings laid out in clear, concise language. can't wait to keep churning out photos!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! Really would love tips for post processing! :)

Wendy said...

So simple and easy to read! Great tutorial :)

DelbaMé said...

Love this post, not only great photos, but very informative! I needed this!
I actually 'tagged' your blog about this post in my latest blog post, I hope you don't mind!
Thanks Katie!

Delaney
xx

Ashley Slater said...

I think this is one of the clearest explanations I have ever read--- great job! I just ordered a new canon mark ii 5d and am so excited to play with it! I am looking forward to more photography tips from you!

xo,
ash

Anonymous said...

Superb! This is the best and the simplest explanation I have found so far. I have a Canon T2i and I am pretty much using the auto mode. Will switch to Av mode right away and try out your tips..

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Looked like you were having a great time. I'd love to go there at some point. Wayne Dyer would love to meditate there.

Amy said...

Did you ever do a post on shutter speed and ISO that's mentioned in the last paragraph?? I liked this one so I know I'd like that...or if you haven't it's a new year and it would be great to write about :)

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