Knowing Your Settings: Aperture Priority

Recently some friends who were interested in starting photography had asked me a few questions. Their questions were:

  • What settings do you use?
  • Do you shoot full manual?
  • What is exposure compensation?
  • How do I blur the background?

Though all these questions were great, there was one that really stood out to me..."What is a good setting to start off with as a beginner?" This question got me thinking about how I started off with photography. So I decided to start this new series of tutorial for anyone who has these questions on their mind. Hopefully you will be able to find some benefit in reading this!

To start off, lets answer the question - What is a good setting to start off with as a beginner? And the answer is....there is really none! There really is not a camera mode specifically for "beginners" other than maybe Auto. But if you want to advance in photography, you can really use anything to create an image. The best photos are not created by the camera, but by the person using it.

When I first started photography, I had no idea what the symbols like M or AV or TV were and what each did (M, A, and S for Nikon users). My uncle had a camera and I really just copied what he used at first which was AV or aperture priority and I stayed there for about a year. Now that I looked back, I'm really glad that's where I started because from there I knew what the exposure triangle was and how all the settings effected one another...but that did take some time though. And that's the important thing with photography...it takes practice...a lot of practice! I remember quitting after 4 months because I had no idea what I was doing and my photos were terrible!...Eventually, I picked it back up and really started to dig into the technical side of the camera.

I stayed on AV for a good period of time because it was easy to use and understand.  There wasn't many buttons to press so I was able to focus on what I was shooting. I got to see how the aperture controlled how much lighting I would get and I began to understand how I use the compensation dial to adjust the exposure. Eventually, I did have to move to manual because it gave me better control of the exposure. (We will talk more about exposure in a separate blog!)

What is an Aperture?

All DSLR cameras usually come with a kit lens and you can buy other lenses to fit your needs or style. Inside the lens is a diaphragm that opens and closes based on setting you choose in your camera. This is called the aperture and what it controls is the amount of light that hits the sensor when you take a photo.

Now, what would confuse beginners is the different terms photographers use for aperture. You might hear something like, "What f-stop are you on?" This would be the same if you were to say, "What aperture are you on?" The terms f-stop and aperture are totally the same thing. The reason why we use "f-stop" is because it refers to how the aperture is annotated on your camera. On your camera, you should see on the back of your LCD screen an "F##." This tells you what aperture setting you are currently on. It could be f2.8 or f3.5 or f5.6 just as an example. Here are two examples of where you can find it and how it would look.

Top screen if you have one
Top screen if you have one
LCD Screen
LCD Screen

The thing about aperture is that the smaller the number is, the larger the aperture will open to allow for more light to hit the sensor. The larger the F-number, the smaller the opening will be and therefore not a lot of light will hit the sensor. This confused me at first, but just know that smaller number equals more light and larger number equals less light.  I created a chart for your reference if you need help understanding. It can be very confusing, but I hope that this will make it easier for you.

First Line - Common Aperture Settings Second Line - Opening in relation to the settings Third Line - Amount of Light Fourth - Depth of Field
First Line - Common Aperture Settings Second Line - Opening in relation to the settings Third Line - Amount of Light Fourth - Depth of Field

All lenses come with a widest open aperture and that can be very useful to know depending on what you are photographing. For example, if you have a 50mm f/1.4 lens then the widest or most open your aperture can go is f/1.4. Or if you have a 100mm f2.8, then the widest your aperture will open to is f/2.8. Some lens have variable maximum apertures such as the 17-55mm f3.5-5.6. The maximum aperture on that lens will change as you zoom. You can find this on the box your lens comes with and on the lens. Often times the wider the aperture the more expensive the lens will be, but it would be good for low light shooting like indoor events where you need all the light you can get. Keep that in mind when you make a purchase.

What does it do?

On the chart you can see that I labeled the aperture number, or f-stops, in the common order of what you would see or use in your camera from f/1.4 being the widest and f/22 being the narrowest.

As mentioned before, the aperture controls the amount of light that can enter the lens and hit the sensor. The sensor reads the information from the light bouncing off the subject, records the image and thus, a photo is born! Not only does the aperture control the amount of light entering the lens, it also controls the "bokeh" or the amount out of focus area in the background and foreground. If you ever seen a photo where the background is really blurry and the person or object in the photo is super sharp and you've always wanted to know how did that person do that?  That has everything to do with the aperture and what you set it to.

You can see from the set of images below how the aperture affects the sharpness of the background. This is what we call "Depth of Field" or DOF for short. The less the depth of field there is (aka shallow depth of field) the less in focus the background will be and the greater the depth of field (aka wider depth of field) the more in focus the background will be. At f/1.4 the background is not even noticeable. You can't make out the words on the book and the only thing you can see in focus is the camera lens. Once you close the aperture down to f/5.6 you start to see more of the background come back in. Finally, if you stop it down to f/22 everything in the background is in focus.

Shot at f/1.4
Shot at f/1.4
Shot at f/2.0
Shot at f/2.0
Shot at f/2.8
Shot at f/2.8
Shot at f/4.0
Shot at f/4.0
Shot at f/5.6
Shot at f/5.6
Shot at f/8.0
Shot at f/8.0
Shot at f/11
Shot at f/11
Shot at f/16
Shot at f/16
Shot at f/22
Shot at f/22

There are a few more things that can affect your image by adjusting the aperture, that I won't go over right now, which are diffraction and starburst. I will save that for a later post since these two things are not really of a big deal in my opinion. For the next post, I will talk about shutter speed and what exact does it do.

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or email me! And if you find this blog helpful, please subscribe for future updates!