Written By:
Jeff

What Does Aperture Mean In Photography: Its Importance

Published On:
July 25, 2021
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We've all seen photos with blurry backgrounds, or pictures that are perfectly sharp from edge to edge. But what does aperture mean in photography? How do we get these effects? What makes aperture so important? And how do we use it correctly?

This article will answer all of those questions and more! Let's dive into understanding exactly what aperture means in photography, why it's so important, and finally how you can start using this setting effectively, right away!

Let's get started, shall we?

What Is Aperture, In Photography?

At some point in your hunt for the meaning of aperture, you may have heard of the term - the exposure triangle.

The exposure triangle is the balance of three main camera settings (or elements) that work together for a common goal, the perfect exposure (or amount of light). These settings are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

As you'd imagine, each setting's approach to achieving the perfect exposure is different.

Aperture adjusts exposure by physically altering the opening of your lens. It does this by using aperture blades.

Simply put, the wider the opening, the more light that is let in. This would give you a brighter image. On the other side of that... the smaller the opening, the darker your image will be.

Think Of Aperture Like The Pupil In Your Eye

Believe it or not, there are many aspects of cameras and lenses that compare greatly with the human eye.

Think about it, when you're inside in regular indoor lighting- and then stop outside on a bright sunny day... what happens? You probably squint until your eyes adjust.

What your pupils are doing is getting smaller - to allow in less light and adjust to the perfect

The opposite happens when you step back inside on that bright sunny day. You may have to allow your eyes to adjust once you get inside. This is your pupils getting larger to allow in more light.

Have you ever wondered why you're able to enter a really dark room, wait a couple minutes, and then you're able to see a lot more? That's because your pupils are opening as wide as they can to allow for as much light as possible.

Let's now discuss some pros and cons of adjusting aperture settings.

F-Stops - Not As 'Important' As You May Think

Don't get me wrong, understanding what f-stops are and what they do is important. Very important in fact.

What I mean, is that once you understand a bit of what the numbers represent and do, you'll most likely never use the technical side of 'f-stop' for anything more than a reference from this point out.

F-stops are a direct representation of the opening of your lens. The lower the F-number, the more open your lens is. I have included a chart below... it explains what I'm talking about in a visual form.

An example would be - A lens with an f stop number of 1.8 will have a larger opening than at 5.6. So, a lens set at f/1.8 will create a brighter image, have more bokeh (get to that in a minute). On the opposite, the f/5.6 would be darker, less bokeh (than the 1.8), but more would be in focus (because there is less bokeh).

As I said, f stop number are important to understand and to know what they do. Other than that, you don't need to measure or get super technical (unless on a high-end film set). Testing and practice will get you to where you don't even think about it and only use the f stop numbers as a reference when speaking with others or looking at a past photo.

The Pros Of Adjusting Aperture (Versus Other Settings)

Here are 4 of the major pros for adjusting aperture compared to other settings on your camera.

  • Brightening or darkening your shot
  • Bokeh for days!
  • Creating depth within an image.
  • More in focus

Common Problems With Using Very Wide (f/1.8+) And Narrow (F/16+) Aperture Settings

Here are 2 of the most common cons to adjusting aperture settings.

  • Missing focus
  • Diffraction

Exposure, Bokeh, Depth, More-In-Focus

I thought it would be only fitting to include a little bit of information on each of these topics.

Exposing The Shot

Believe it or not - this is one of the least favorite reasons to adjust the aperture (shutter speed is favored greatly for exposure, over aperture). But, the aperture is there if you need it to help with exposure.

Open it up (lower the f/number) to make it brighter, close it down (increase the f/number) to darken.

Bokeh! Please!

If you want more bokeh, lower the f/number. Want more in focus? Increase the f/number.

The quality of your lens will determine how low you're able to go and how good the image will look as a result.

Generally speaking, the lower the f/stop compared to the focal length, determines the overall price. Prices vary greatly.

Creating Depth Within An Image

Notice how there is depth created in the image above.  There are foreground OOF elements on the right and the background is soft and blurry too.  All while the subject is super sharp.  Taken with a 135mm at f/1.8 with an off camera flash.

This feeds off the bokeh idea. The depth created in photography is achieved by using wide aperture settings. Having something between you and the subject while focusing on the subject creates depth.

Example: Have your subject 10+ feet from you. Having something like flowers close to you (the photographer) while in the frame will put the flowers out of focus (bokeh). The subject would be tack sharp against their background, which will be just as out of focus as the foreground (the flowers in this case).

The above image is another great example of depth.  Taken with an 85mm at f/1.8

The is how real depth is created (along with other tactics, like editing/lighting work). Think of it like this - Bokeh, sharp, bokeh. Think of them as layers. You can also think of it as foreground, mid-ground, and background. With mid-ground in focus and the other two out of focus.

More in Focus!

This is something common for Real Estate Photographers and a Landscape Photographer.

For either of those types of photography, you'll want the majority (if not all) of the picture in focus. To achieve this, you would use a lens aperture setting of f/11 to f/16 wide angle zoom lenses.

This is not only for Landscapes or Real Estate.. these were just good exmaples.

Cons: Missing Focus And Diffraction

There aren't many cons about aperture other than missing focus and diffraction. Let's dive into each of them for just a little bit.

Missing Focus Is Common When Having Your Lens Set At A Very Low Aperture

When I say very low - I'm talking about anything below f/2.8. This will include f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, and f/2.0.

Beginners and intermediate have a hard time grabbing focus to begin with... regardless of autofocus or not... with f/1.2 you're talking about a focal plane/depth of field no greater than 4-6 inches (depending on the distance your subject is away from you). You're looking at no more than 6 inches for portraits.

Even with continuous autofocus - most beginners to intermediates miss over half their shots at apertures that low (myself included). While the bokeh is amazing, getting tack sharp images everytime - takes practice and patiece.

Diffraction Isn't Nearly As Common

Diffraction is basically the technical word for diminishing returns.

Depending on the lens you're using - you'll notice a sharpness increase all the way up to f/8 to f/11.

Now, some less expensive lenses will experience diffraction... it's the softness of the image past those f/numbers. The further you stop down the lens, the softer and softer the picture gets, regardless of any settings... it's the downside of the lens.

Now, this is can be pretty bad on some lenses, and not even noticeable on others. Generally speaking, you'll see this much more often in cheaper lenses compared to mid-tier or flagship models.

Why It’s Important To Always Keep Aperture In Mind

Not that we've gotten through a lot of the technical jargon... let's talk about the importance of keeping aperture in mind throughout the entire time you're shooting.

The main reason to keep aperture in mind is focus.

Forgetting about focus during a portrait shoot

I can't tell you how many times I have done this myself. This is the main reason I'm touching on this point in such depth.

If you set your aperture wide open (like f/1.4) for the entire portrait session - it's almost guaranteed you'll have a few shots that are a bit soft and out of focus or areas of the photos that you wish were in focus.

Take the image below for example. This was a Mothers Day portrait session. Ideally, I would have wanted the entire family in focus... and while looking through the EVF (electronic viewfinder, Sony A7iii)... everyone looked in focus.

The subjects in the front were out of focus and those in the back were too. We're talking about a distance of 6-8 inches at a distance of 25 feet (on a Sigma 135mm at f/1.8)

After coming home and editing them, I found these as a result. 

To fix this issue if I had seen it would have been to either stop down (increase f/stop), or step back a few more feet and cropped in on the picture when editing. This would have ensured everyone would have been in focus and the background would have remained soft.

This is still something I struggle with within the moment even 4 years into the business.

Not Every Shot Needs A Ton Of Bokeh

There is a trend with society right now... everything has to have bokeh. I mean everything. Even smartphones are implementing fake/software-driven bokeh (I'm looking at you Apple).

It's horrible at best and can take away from the meaning or 'feel' of the photo.

The above image goes with this section and the section below.  There was no reason for so much background blur/bokeh in this image.  What does it mean? What kind of feeling am I suppose to be getting out of this.  I took this photo about 2 years ago - thinking it was pretty decent and cool.  Looking back on it now - I cringe.

If you want an environmental shot, where you capture your subject in their environment... you'll want to stop down a bit and capture them with less bokeh and a sharper environment.

You should be actively thinking about this as you're shooting. Don't be like me... and shoot everything super shallow and come home and be like 'damn, that isn't right... I should have stopped down a bit.

Aperture Can Change The 'Feel' Of A Photo

As mentioned before, the aperture can change the feel of a photo entirely.

This can be a bad thing if it isn't intentional.

For starters, product or life-style product photos do not look good with a ton of bokeh. I don't care which way you twist or try to look at it... You're taking pictures of products. These photos should represent the product 100%.

Imagine this fitness photo with soft bokeh... It just doesn't work and would take away from the overall feel of the image.

Soft edges and background take away from the product altogether. If you haven't noticed, 95% of all professional product photos are taken and edited very sharp, natural, and not over exaggerated.

Same can be said about most male portraits. Even more-so for the ones who are going for the 'edgy' or 'hard' look. Bokeh would completely change the feel of these photos.

Think about the feeling you want to give your viewers before setting your aperture in these cases.

How To Adjust The Size Of Your Aperture While Shooting

Adjusting your aperture setting on your camera while shooting is quite simple.

Some zoom lenses or a regular camera lens have an aperture ring on the lens itself. The 100mm macro lens by Laowa has manual aperture settings with a ring on the lens itself. No autofocus either.

But, most camera lenses nowadays have electronic everything. Take a look at the image below for the dial on a Canon 80D. It's very similar on other cameras like Nikon and Sony.

You would roll the dial to the right to increase the aperture (darken the image) and left to lower it (brighten the image). You can do this in the middle of a session without a problem.

Simple right? !

When Should You Use A Small Or Large Aperture And Why

There are specific times you should use a large or small aperture setting. We will discuss when you should use either one and why.

When You Should Use A Small Aperture

A small aperture is when the aperture blades are closed down, giving you a small aperture or opening in your lens.

What this will do (depending on how small), is bring the majority of what you're photographing into focus. This means less bokeh (greater depth of field), but more of the frame is in focus.

Seeing as all photographs are art... and art is subjective... when you should use it come down to you and the look you want to achieve.

But, the ideal use of a small aperture is for landscapes, product photography, Real Estate Photography, etc... Anything where you want to capture as much detail as possible.

Small apertures range from f/8 to f/16.

When You Should Use A Large Aperture

This is when your aperture is set to relatively wide (shallow depth of field). This will give you more bokeh/ soft backgrounds and foregrounds.

Large apertures are also essential for photography in low light (you'll want to capture as much real light as possible, instead of relying on it in post production).

Many common uses of large apertures include portrait work, Astrophotography, weddings, events (concerts especially). Basically anything where you want a shallow depth of field or need as much light as possible.

Large apertures range from f/1.2 to f/2.8

You'll achieve the largest apertures from prime lenses. Zoom lenses are limited in the aperture department due to the number of elements and moving parts. Prime (fixed focal length) lenses achieve this by having less elements and moving parts - allowing for larger glass and apertures.

When Should You Use A Small Or Large Aperture And Why

I thought I would throw together a few aperture setting recommendations of various situations I've found myself in throughout the years.

I'll be adding to this list as time goes on and I get questions about them.

Family Portrait Aperture Settings

This is something we've been 'perfecting' in terms of aperture settings. Like stated before, we used to run wide open on a 135mm f/1.8. What we found is we were getting soft images of family members that were just 6-8 inches behind or in front of the subject we were photographing (if the family was staggered).

What we've found is shooting at F/4 in these instances works the best for us. You'll still get great bokeh (just not as much) - but the entire family will be in focus.

You can then add more background blur in post production (you won't need much, f/4 doesn't take too much away from bokeh compared to f/1.8 on this lens specifically).

Indoor Event Photography Aperture Settings

This is something we specialized in prior to Covid.

I'll say this, keep your aperture wide open. Open it up as wide as it can go (if you are using a kit lens, you may want to consider upgrading), and make adjustments to shutter speed and ISO from there.

Ther's no need in closing down your aperture throughout the event. You're indoors, the lighting will most likely be less than ideal.

Use the power of your lens to let in as much light as possible.

Real Estate Photography Aperture Settings

Whether you are taking HDR/Bracketed photos or flambient shots, you'll want to stay at or very close to f/8. There's no need to be over f/11 and you shouldn't ever be below f/7.1.

If you find yourself below 7.1 - you're taking the chance of either your foreground or the far end of your photo being out of focus.

Real Estate Agents who pay good money for RE photos don't tolerate OOF images they paid money for. Stay between f/8 and f/11 - focus 2/3 up from the bottom of your frame and you'll be just fine.

Aperture In A Nutshell (video)

That About Wraps It Up For Now!

You now have a great foundation of what aperture means in photography, what creates bokeh/background blur/shallow depth of field, and when you should use a small or large aperture.

Again, we will be adding to this article when we feel we can add more value to it.

We hope you enjoyed the article and learned a thing or two from it today! Feel free to contact us or reach out to us on social media (Facebook Instagram).

Until next time - take it easy and keep creating!

Frequently Asked Questions

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Aperture affects a photo by either increasing or decreasing exposure (making your image darker or lighter) - and it directs how much bokeh is in your image (background/foreground blur) 

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It depends on what you're taking a photo of, your environment, and what you want the overall look of your image to be.  Generally speaking - in great lighting conditions, you'll have more blur with 1.8 but it'll be harder to achieve good focus.  The opposite can be said about 2.2 - you'll have more in focus (and it'll be easier to achieve - but you won't have as much bokeh.  

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Absolutely!  It is one of the aspects of the exposure triangle, it holds a great deal of power in terms of achieving good exposure - and most importantly, aperture directly relates to bokeh or background blur.  If it didn't exist, neither would bokeh.

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This depends entirely on what you're shooting.  If you want nice background blur - start with f/2.8 and work down until you find an aperture that works for you.  If you want something more in focus - start with f/7.1 and work up until you get the desired look/effect.

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