The Basics on Decoding the Hieroglyphics of Aperture and F-Stop

Have you ever looked at the barrel of your camera lens and felt like it might be written in a foreign language, or even hieroglyphics? What is this f/2.8 and f/5.6?  Then, you google “f/2.8”, which takes you to f-stop, and ultimately leads you to a wiki page on aperture.  After a few minutes, there are wrinkles on your forehead, you exhale from your confusion, and move onto something less taxing for the day.  Besides, you spent money on a DSLR, so the camera should take some decent photos, right?

Alright, I have been there.  When I was entering this photography world, I remember trying to figure out if I really needed to spend the extra money (and a lot of it at that) on an f/1.4 lens over a f/1.8 lens.  Was it really going to make that much of a difference in my work? The short answer on that particular question I learned – for me, no, it was not, but I digress.

In my opinion, understanding aperture is the first step to better photography. When I’m photographing, my camera is set to aperture-priority mode (not manual) 90% of the time.  I want you to learn to be comfortable to move your camera dial from “Auto” to “A” (Nikon) or “Av” (Canon), which is aperture-priority mode.  The why is simple; shooting in aperture-priority mode will be the first weapon in your arsenal to produce more creative photos.  Selecting the aperture is one mechanism by which you control the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor.  And light, my friends, is the soul of photography!

In case you are wondering, aperture is only one of the three pillars of photography. ISO and shutter speed are the other two, but we’ll focus on them in later posts.  So if you ever have muttered any of the questions below, this article is your decoder to understanding the basic concept of aperture.  In future blog posts, we go step-by-step on improving your photographic skills through aperture-priority mode on your camera. If you know the answers to the questions below, then go find a funny meme to email friends or buzzfeed article to entertain yourself.

  • What is aperture?
  • Why do photographers write f/1.4 or f/22 in their descriptions? Are they telling me anything useful?
  • What does a lense have to do with aperture or f-stop? Isn’t that why I bought this expensive camera?
  • Does aperture really effect my photo?
  • What is “stopping down?”
  • What is “stopping up?”
  • If I’m meant to “stop up,” then why are the f-numbers lower? Should that be the other way around?
  • What is a fast lens? Should I be worried if mine is considered slow?
  • Is there any reason to use any setting on my camera other than Auto?

So let’s start to simplify this mystery and get you on your way to better photos.

Aperture Simply Explained

The aperture is the size of the opening in your lens.  When you press the shutter release button to take a photo, the aperture is the size of the hole that opens inside the camera to let your camera sensor record the scene.  It dictates how much light will be allowed to develop the exposure.

Aperture is measured in f-stops (“f” stands for focal).  The catch is that f-stops are measured by fractional values so at first, the numbers seems counterintuitive. A higher number allows less light to hit the camera’s sensor? But, yes that is the truth.  I guess someone was trying to keep this a secret or wanted to over-complicate the matter; regardless, you just need to remember the following:

The lower the f-stop number, the larger the aperture allowing more light into the camera. f/1.4 means lots of light will hit the camera’s sensor.

The higher the f-stop number, the smaller the aperture allowing less light into the camera. f/16 means not a lot of light will hit the camera’s sensor.

So if someone recommends “stopping down,”  he or she is suggesting to decrease the size of the aperture (increasing the f-stop number)so that the amount of light entering the camera is decreased.  If someone tells you to “stop up,”  he or she wants you to increase the size of the aperture (decrease the f-stop number) to allow more light.

Commit this knowledge to memory so that my next blog post “How Does Aperture Shape Your Photo?” will show you how to become more creative with your photography.

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