Monthly Archive: May 2016

Aperture

With the exception of shooting fast motion action, like sports, aperture is one of the biggest creative controls that you have at your disposal to create different looks in your photographs. I believe selecting your focal length to suit your vision for the end photograph, and then finishing off the process by selecting the aperture that will give you the effect that want are two huge tools! That is why they are items 1 and 2 in my list of Taking a Great Photograph.

Still, I have started writing this lesson more than one time and I am dreading finishing it. Why? Because there is a lot of information to cover! What I have decided, in order to make this lesson as useful as possible, I have decided to skip most of it! Hopefully, you will see why.

The aperture you select for your photograph boils down to controlling the depth of field. When I started writing this lesson, I started with what is depth of field, how it varies with aperture, how it is effected by distance, and how it is effected by focal length. That is a lot of technical information, could require a lot of reading, and for a lot of people it can be extremely dry. And, for the most part this has already been done several other places.

My goal with these lessons is first, to get you to take better photographs with the equipment you currently have, and second is to get you taking those photographs quickly. So, it is more important to me (at this point in the lessons) to understand what you can do with depth of field, instead of all the background information. To show how it works, not why it works….if that makes any sense 🙂

Like I said, most of this information has been covered in great detail. As much as this advice violates a rule that pretty much every blogger knows (taking readers away from your website), if you want to learn more about depth of field, I suggest you google. Google “depth of field charts” or “aperture and depth of field.” There you will find the information that I was originally going to create here.

Another goal for me with these lessons is to not just sit around and create content that is already out there. I am trying to do something different. So, I have decided to skip a lot of that background information (for now) and get on with the “why” of being aware of aperture control.

I have to start somewhere though, and that is going to be with quick, oversimplified definitions of aperture and depth of field so that I know you at least know what I am talking about.

Aperture

Inside the lens is a diagram that opens and closes and control the amount of light that is allowed to hit the camera sensor or film. It goes from very small (like f/22 or f/32) to very large (like f/1.2, f/1.8 or f/2). Small numbers open big, and big numbers open small…..just to make things easy on us 🙂

You generally don’t notice this diagram doing anything because it remains in its wide open state while you are looking through the viewfinder. When the shutter button is pressed, it moves to the size it is set to and curtains inside the camera are moved inside the camera so fast all you really know is going on is the click of the camera.

Not every lens will open up all the way to f/2 or larger. You may be stuck with something that only opens to f/4.5 and that is fine for now. The reason is in order to open large, you generally need the room inside the lens, big enough glass up front to allow that much light in, and if you have been lens shopping, generally big money too. Just work with what you have and learn its limits of what you can and can not get before you get hung up on buying something new.

Bottom line is aperture effect the depth of field, so we will define that next.

Depth of Field

To keep it simple, depth of field is the range of distance in your photograph that is within focus. In general, the larger the aperture (small f-number, like f/2) the smaller the depth of field. The opposite is also true, the smaller the aperture (large f-number, like f/16) the greater the depth of field.

Great! Now what we got the definition stuff out of the way, what do we do with that?

Let’s go through some “real life” examples and I will take you through the steps in Taking a Great Photograph, as well as the thought process behind it.

Scenario #1

You are at the park, on a hike, doing your normal weekend thing with the kids, and you realize you have not taken a recent portrait of your kid. You whip out your camera and make the shot.

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First, you picture the shot in your head, and then make it happen. Here is how I do it.

1) Select the focal length that will achieve the desired result.

I know I wanted a tighter shot on this one. Based on the previous Focal Length article, I know I want at least a normal lens, but even better is a moderate telephoto. Here I selected 150mm on my medium format Hasselblad, which is somewhere closer to 90-ish on a full frame DSLR and a tad less on a cropped sensor DSLR.

If you are shooting a point and shoot, it means zoom out a little. If you are using a camera phone, you are a bit out of luck, because zoom is digital zoom and not optical zoom.

2) Select the aperture that will achieve the desired result.

With a close tight shot, the subject is pretty much the person and nothing else. That means I want to focus attention on the person and not features of the background. So, I throw them out of focus with shallow depth of field. I my lens, I went with f/5.6, which is shallower than the same setting on a DSLR, so just keep that in mind. We can come back to that at the end of the lesson.

3) Make sure the shutter speed at that aperture is suitable for hand holding your camera. If it is too slow, you can stabilize the camera, use a monopod or tripod, or increase the ISO setting.

Yup. I was good. What is good? The general rule of thumb for shutter speed is 1/focal length. If you are using an 80mm lens, the rule would be you want a shutter speed of 1/80 or faster. Use it for what it is….a rule of thumb and do some experimenting on your own.

4) Check/Create the composition of the shot. Check your background!

Mine was very basic here. There were very few compositional elements to play with. The key for me was making sure the background was not distracting, and there was no stray light falling any place in the frame that would ruin the color depth. For more on color, see my Lighting lesson.

5) Do any posing, if necessary or desired for the photograph you are taking.

No posing here, because it was more of a candid photo opportunity. However, my extensive study of posing made me know what I wanted to go for in terms of facial angle and camera height. So, I moved my body accordingly to get the shot I want.

6) Take the photo.

What do you think? Great photo? I am always critical and always see what could be better, but not bad for an unplanned snapshot that I feel is at least worth of hanging on the wall.

Scenario #2

You are on vacation. In between photographs of family members and tourist attractions, you want some of the surroundings around you. Your photos tell a story and sometimes in that story, you need some good B roll footage for filler material.

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Let’s step through the process again for this one.

1) Select the focal length that will achieve the desired result.

On this one, I want to go wide. I want to create a sense of depth. Something near and something far.

This one I shot on a cropped sensor Canon DSLR at 24mm. About 38.4mm on a full frame DSLR or old film SLR.

2) Select the aperture that will achieve the desired result.

Hmmm…..what do here? This isn’t the grandest outdoor scene where I might normally want good focus all the way across the photograph. But, the lines and repetition make things at least somewhat interesting. So, I decided to keep something up front in focus and throw the rest out, just a bit. Not super crazy fuzzy, but enough to not make everything in focus. I decided to shoot at f/5.

3) Make sure the shutter speed at that aperture is suitable for hand holding your camera. If it is too slow, you can stabilize the camera, use a monopod or tripod, or increase the ISO setting.

At that aperture, the camera meter said the correct exposure would require a 1/100 second shutter speed. Good for me.

4) Check/Create the composition of the shot. Check your background!

First is that there is no stray lighting popping in anywhere, so I am kind of checking the foreground and the background at the same time.

Since I am using wide angle, I place an object near and yet still have plenty of room in the frame for far things. The sense of near and far can make ordinary shots look much better.

There is the curved line that goes from one diagonal of the photo to the other, which creates some visual interest and so does the repetition of the lanterns.

5) Do any posing, if necessary or desired for the photograph you are taking.

Not applicable here.

6) Take the photo.

What do you think? Great photo? Not too bad. I was able to take something rather ordinary and mundane and at least make it somewhat visually interesting. Sometimes as a photographer you just have to realize that you are not going to popped into amazing scenes with incredible views. Sometimes (well most times), it takes looking at something from a different viewpoint than the average tourist walking up with their DSLR in auto mode, shooting f/8 and 50mm at everything they see.

Scenario #3

There are rivers and flowing water everywhere. One morning, you decide to get up before everyone else and take a photo of some water before the morning sun becomes too bright.

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Last time….let’s step through the thought process behind this one.

1) Select the focal length that will achieve the desired result.

Often with outdoors, I go wide. And that was the case here, but not too wide. This photo was taken with my first DSLR with a crappy kit lens. Between the crop factor and the kit lens only zooming to 32mm, it is the equivalent of a normal lens in the olden days 🙂

So, I worked with what I had. I would have preferred a little wider angle, but pretty much a normal perspective worked out fine.

2) Select the aperture that will achieve the desired result.

I wanted everything in good focus (except the moving water) which meant stopping the lens down. You see the rocks up close are in focus, and the trees in the back were in focus.

If I would have thrown something out of focus with a wide aperture, between that and the flow of the water, I am afraid it would have been a confusing visual mess.

Here I used f/14.

3) Make sure the shutter speed at that aperture is suitable for hand holding your camera. If it is too slow, you can stabilize the camera, use a monopod or tripod, or increase the ISO setting.

Nope. No Way. I wanted to keep the ISO setting as low as possible. I also decided on a small aperture for depth of field, but that also limits the amount of light the lens is letting in. Add on top of that early morning dim light, and there was no way around using a tripod and I used a remote trigger.

4) Check/Create the composition of the shot. Check your background!

No crazy light spots flashing in, nothing distracting in the background (in the woods). Things are okay.

Having the water flow at a diagonal across the frame makes it more interesting. Done for now.

5) Do any posing, if necessary or desired for the photograph you are taking.

I asked the river to show me sexy….but it just wasn’t going for it! Just kidding….not applicable here.

6) Take the photo.

What do you think? Great photo? I think so.

Summary

I mentioned some setting on my camera and what I did. I also mentioned what approximate comparisons would be for other cameras. The point is not for you run out and shoot medium format film, like I do, but rather take some time to get to know these features with your own equipment. For example:

– Take a head and shoulders type photo with a longer than normal focal length. Shoot the largest aperture, a medium one and a small one. See what that looks like on your equipment.
– Take wide angle landscape type photograph trying for a shallow depth of field around one object. Shoot the largest aperture, a medium one and a small one. See what that looks like on your equipment.
– Take a wide angle landscape type photograph and try a small aperture (large f-number) and try to keep everything in focus.

You could make up dozens of other examples. The idea is to get a feel for what the equipment you have can do. That way, when you have a vision in your head, you will have the feel for the settings that can make it happen.

In my next lesson, I going to talk about getting your camera out of “Auto” mode so that you can control aperture better. While technology is great, it often times does not know what you want. When a lot of cameras meter for exposure, they don’t really know if you are going for shallow depth of field, or large depth of field, so they usually go for the middle and set the aperture to f/8 or so. Based on the light, it will set the shutter speed and a lot of your photos will end up looking very similar. This is a generalization, but my next lesson will show you how to take control of it yourself and get exactly the look you are going for.

Happy shooting!

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