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Photography Basics: All About F Stops

Taking pictures and adjusting the settings manually can be intimidating to the new photographer. Veterans of the craft will no doubt remember the first roll of film they ruined by reading the light wrong, or the irreplaceable moments in time lost behind a lens cap. As a photographer, our job is to be the conductor of a symphony of moving components, gently influencing each element to ensure that the end result is more than just the sum of the parts.

Without understanding each element of photography, it's impossible to know how they relate as a whole. So let's begin our trip into the inner-workings of photographs with one of the most unfamiliar topics: Aperture.

What is Aperture

Aperture is simply what controls how much light is exposed to your film (or your digital camera's sensor). It can be opened and closed using the F-Stop on your camera, which is usually a ring located around the lens in between the focus ring and the body of the camera. If you've ever looked into someone's eye as light was shone into it and watched the pupil get smaller, this is how the aperture works too.

Most cameras have an F-Stop range of 1.7 or 2.0 to 22 or so; the range of values usually increases with the quality and cost of the camera. You can see your camera's range by looking at the numbers around your lens. Lower F Stops expose the film (or sensor) to more light and are more open, while high F Stops close the aperture and shut out the light.

How Aperture Can Impact Images

Using your F-Stop to purposefully manipulate the camera's aperture will allow you to change the depth of field in your photographs. If you're unfamiliar with the term "depth of field," it describes how much of your photograph is blurry, and how much is sharp. Aperture directly affects the amount of time a frame is exposed; the more time the film has to absorb information, the more clarity and depth will come through in the final product.

For instance, if you were to take a photograph of a line of dominoes from one end using a low F-Stop number (an open aperture), you would probably see one or two dominoes clearly and the background ones as blurry. Open apertures create a shallow depth of field. If you were to take the same photo with a high F Stop (a closed aperture), you would see a lot more dominos down the line.

Fun Experiments with Aperture

Playing with the aperture on your camera can be great fun once you have a bearing on what it does. Here's a couple of ideas to try the next time you're out shooting and you want to test it out:

* Take every photograph twice - once at a high F-Stop, and once at a low F-Stop.

* Challenge yourself to shoot an entire roll at one F-Stop, then switch it up.

* Put your camera on full manual and adjust the F-Stop on the fly to adjust for light

Don't forget to adjust the shutter speed of your camera to allow for more or less light (faster speeds for more light, slower speeds for less), or you may end up with overexposed or underexposed images. Many digital cameras have a fantastic option called "Aperture Priority Mode" which allows you to choose an F-Stop value and will then adjust your shutter speed automatically. It is worth noting that the best conditions for experimenting with aperture are cloudy or overcast days. When faced with low or bright light, your options for F Stop values will become limited.

Of course, the very best way to improve your photography is to never stop shooting. So, get out there and find those photographs!


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