Enthusiasm in photography will only take you so far. Your first step to improving your photography comes when you understand aperture.
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Enthusiasm Will Get You 1000s of Average Photos
“How many photos have you taken with your new camera?” my husband asked me about five months after I splurged on a DSLR for a digital photography class I had enrolled in over the summer.
“Umm…I don’t know?” I glanced up from the back of the camera. “Maybe 10,000.”
“Ten thousand photos,” he exclaimed. “I guess we really did save money when you got a digital camera. Just imagine how much developing all that film would have cost!”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I answered. “Maybe I haven’t really taken that many photos. Let me check.”
I logged on to my computer and looked at the number of photos in my folder. “I guess I’ve taken closer to twenty thousand photos.”
“What do you do with them all?” he wondered.
“Nothing yet. I’m trying to improve my photography still.”
“Are any of them any good?”
“Maybe a hundred.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Well, if photography makes you happy and you don’t have to make prints of every photo, I guess it can’t hurt anything.”
Enthusiasm Will Only Take You So Far
I spent hours each weekend roaming around looking for things to photograph. Rainy weather? No problem. I’d put on my rain clothes, wrap a clear plastic bag around my camera and head out. Tiny flowers pushing through snowbanks? Not a problem. I’d dress in snow pants and hunker down to get the perfect shot.
Despite my photography teacher warning us to take our camera off the auto setting, I still felt afraid of missing a shot or spoiling the effect. I’d snap dozens of photos of the same thing with great enthusiasm. Only to realize when I went to process the photos that they all looked remarkably the same.
Perhaps it was time to venture out of the tried and true and explore my camera. Maybe you feel stuck in your photography, too, and would like to know a little about those mysterious settings on the dial.
Basic Terms I’ll Use Throughout this Series
DSLR—a digital single-lens reflex camera. A DSLR has interchangeable lenses and a mirror inside the camera. Some popular entry-level models include the Canon Rebel T-series
Or the comparable Nikon D5600
Mirrorless: A mirrorless digital camera usually weighs less than a DSLR and many of them have more advanced sensors (allowing you to take photos with larger pixel counts). I don’t have one of these (yet), so I won’t share a lot of information.
Point and Shoot: These cameras deliver what they promise. You point, and shoot, and get decent photos. I have a Nikon CoolPix waterproof point and shoot, so I’ll explain how to use these, too. You don’t have to keep the setting on auto on a point and shoot camera!
Phone cameras: Phone manufacturers constantly upgrade the cameras on their phones in order to appeal to people who want high-quality photos without a lot of fuss. I have an iPhone 11 Pro (the kind with three camera lenses). Most phone cameras allow you to make adjustments similar to those one makes on a point and shoot.
What Basics Do You Need to Know to Venture Off the Auto Function on Your Camera
First, you need to understand the three elements of exposure—or how your camera decides which settings to use when it’s on the [auto] mode. Today we’ll tackle aperture because you can improve your photos drastically by learning how to use the aperture value (or [Av]) mode on your camera. The two major camera rivals, Canon and Nikon, use slightly different terminology. Canon’s mode dial uses [Av] and Nikon uses [A]. If you have a different brand of camera, check the instruction manual.
Think of aperture as the camera’s eye. You can either squint it or open it wide. And just like with your eye, you’ll get different results depending on how much light comes in.
Photographers refer to aperture as f-stops. The smaller the number of the f-stop, the wider the eye of the camera and the more natural light will enter.
Conversely, the larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening of the camera and the longer it will take light to reach the sensor.
The smaller the number, the bigger the hole. And the bigger the number, the smaller the hole. What difference does this make? Plenty.
Aperture Openings and F-Stops
The amount of light reaching the sensor (based on the aperture value you select) determines what shows up in focus on your photo.
For example, if I have a small aperture (a big f-stop), everything in the photo will be in focus—from the things five feet away to the things a mile away. But because the hole in the camera is so small when taking a photo with a big f-stop, you have to take care not to jostle the camera (or use a tripod).
If I have a large aperture (a small f-stop), only the things closer to the lens will come into focus. The background will take on a blurry ‘bokeh’ effect. We call these differences in what the background looks like a photo’s depth of field. The larger the lens opening and smaller the f-stop, the more shallow the photo’s depth of field.
The smaller the lens opening and larger the f-stop, the more details you’ll see in the background of the photo. Just remember it’s all relative depending on the focal length (is your lens short or long) of your lens. I can take photos with bokeh with a small aperture (an f-stop up to 14 or so) when shooting with my telephoto lens. But when I use my 50mm lens, I can’t do that.
Your Assignment for the Day
Find an object and photograph it multiple times, experimenting with your aperture value settings.
- Move that mode dial to [Av] or [A].
- Check your camera’s ISO. It should be set on 100.
- Set your camera to the smallest f-stop. On my telephoto lens, it’s 5.6. On my 50mm lens, it’s 1.4.
- Take a photo, and then change the f-stop one value. Remember, this is like having your camera’s eye squint a little at a time. Your camera should automatically adjust the shutter speed to accommodate the changes you make in the f-stop.
- Load your photos onto your computer, and spend twenty minutes comparing them. What is your favorite aperture of the batch? My sweet spot when shooting wildlife (mostly birds) is somewhere between f/8 and f/11.
Point and Shoot:
Starting with the portrait mode, take a photo of the same object from the same distance and go through each setting on your camera. The portrait mode (usually an icon of someone’s head) should give you a photo with a bit of bokeh (the blurry background), and the landscape mode (usually a mountain) should give you a photo with EVERYTHING in focus.
Load your photos onto your computer, and spend twenty minutes comparing them. What is your favorite setting of the batch? You don’t have to shoot portraits with the portrait setting and landscapes with the landscape setting.
On newer iPhones (iPhone 8 and above), you can still try this exercise. Start by just taking a photo of the object. Next, click on the object you want to stay in focus and a yellow box will appear.
This will lock the focus on that object and slightly blur (depending on how far you are away from the object) the background. You can also use the portrait mode to achieve the same effect.
Come Back Tomorrow
Tomorrow I’ll explain the [Tv] (or shutter speed) mode.