China Town is a bustling area in central London filled with interesting characters, colours and countless photo opportunities. I thought it would be a great place to go and experiment with my aperture settings, something which can be quite confusing for budding photographers looking to shoot in manual mode...  

There are three things that you need to balance in order to achieve a correct exposure when shooting in manual mode. Aperture is one of them. If you need a bit of help understanding exposure here’s an article that might help: The Beginner's Guide to Understanding Exposure

1.  What is aperture?

Aperture literally means "opening". In photography terms, it refers to the opening within a lens. Light travels through this aperture in the lens and into the camera body. The aperture of your lens can be controlled by you, depending on how much light you want to reach the camera sensor.

Put simply:

The wider the aperture, the larger the flow of light entering the camera.

The smaller the aperture the smaller the flow of light.

Sometimes it helps to think of the aperture of a lens as a bit like the pupil in your eye which shrinks or grows according to the changing light.

2.  Size matters.

Aperture is expressed using f-numbers which are more commonly known as f-stops. This is where it's easy to get confused because the bigger the number, the smaller the aperture (or lens opening). It feels a bit back to front.  When I was first learning about aperture it really helped me to just imagine that the number actually related to the amount of diaphragm (lens blades) covering the aperture. 

Take a look at these two pictures to see what I mean:

f/2 - This is a low number which offers up very little diaphragm, giving a wide aperture.  
f/9 - This is a higher number which brings about a large diaphragm, giving a small aperture.

3. What is Depth of Field?

The size of your aperture affects the depth of field, the area of the image that appears sharp. It’s really important to play around with those f-stops and get to grips with aperture as soon as you can when learning to take photographs in manual mode. Aperture is where the magic happens. Take at look at this photo to see what I mean. What do you notice about it?

f2.5      1/320     ISO: 200 

I love looking for shapes when I'm shooting. I saw the circular Chinese lantern along with the triangular roof behind and wanted to capture them in the same frame. To have everything in focus might have been a bit much though, so I opted for a wide aperture (low f-stop). The low f-stop has affected this photo in two ways:

          1. The subject (the circular lantern) is magically in focus.

          2. The background (the triangular roof behind) is deliciously blurred.

If you want more in focus, you might prefer to shoot with a higher f-stop. 

f9     1/100     ISO: 800
Personally, I prefer the first photo. For me, there are just too many distracting elements in this second shot. You can see the second Chinese lantern in more detail, the pedestrian zone sign and even the pub sign behind. None of these things add anything to the photo, so why include them at all?

Pro tip: When shooting, get into the habit of asking yourself. "Will every single thing in my frame add something to the photo?" If the answer is "no", think about what you should leave out. If this can't be done by getting in closer, consider using a wide aperture and isolating your subject.

The decisions you'll make when figuring out which aperture to use is such a fun, creative part of photography. Once you get the hang of this, you'll be hooked!

Portrait photographers tend to favour a wider aperture because those dreamy blurred backgrounds isolate their subjects and create a more intimate feeling.

Landscape photographers typically love using small apertures (high f-stops) because it means everything in their photos will be focus and the epic views seem to go on forever. Ansel Adams was one of eleven photographers who announced themselves as Group f/64, every member shared a common photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images.

5. How can I use aperture to be creative?

Once you understand the terms aperture and depth of field, the next step is tweaking your own aperture settings and having some fun! Can you answer these two questions?
***answers at the bottom of this post***

          1. You're standing in the middle of busy Oxford Street. You don't want every shopper and their
            granny in your shot, you only want to capture the traffic light closest to you, what f-stop could
            you use?

          2. You are standing on a London rooftop and want to capture every part of the glorious view,
             what f-stop could you use?

6. What lens should I use? 

Every lens has a limit on how large or how small the aperture can get. Take a look at your lens to find out its aperture range, it should be written somewhere on the side. 

The lowest number found on your lens is much more important than the highest. A lens that has an aperture number as low as f/1.4 or f/1.8 is considered to be a fast lens, because more light can pass through it than a lens where the number only goes as low as say, f/3.5. This is why if you want to shoot in low light situations, like a pub or a gig, you should try to take a lens that's capable of wide apertures.

In the article linked here, I mention wide aperture as one of the benefits of owning a 50mm lens. Some lens such as kit lenses (the one that came with your camera) won't be able to open up too wide so you might want to think about getting your hands on a nifty fifty is you really want to have some depth of field fun. 

Practice Makes Perfect!

If, like me, you need to actually DO things to understand them properly, have a go at this:


           1.  Line up 4 or 5 objects on your table (car keys, bit of fruit...whatever you have to hand). Get
               them at different distances away from you.

           2. Get yourself nice and low and slightly off-centre so you are shooting on the same level as
               your bits and bobs and can see them all in your frame.

           3. Set your f-stop to a nice low number. Focus on the object closest to you. Take a photo.

           4. Set your f-stop to a high number. Focus on the object that it is in the middle. Take a photo.

           5. Compare your photos and experiment with more apertures to really get to know how each
               f-stop looks.
Once you've had some fun experimenting with your aperture settings, why not click here to upload them to the Shoot Manual LDN community and join me next week for: Understanding Shutter Speed in Trafalgar Square. Until then, happy shooting!

***Answers to the above***
1) A wide aperture/low f-stop to create a shallow depth of field.
2) A small aperture/high f-stop to create a deep depth of field.

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