a camera with a small aperture opening


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Once you’ve made the decision to get off auto mode and start shooting in manual mode (or any other more advanced mode), it becomes evident pretty quickly that understanding aperture is a major component to getting perfect exposure.

So how exactly do you do that? Well, let’s take a deep dive into aperture in photography, what it does, and everything that it controls!

This post is a part of the Get Off Auto Mode series! Check out the rest of the posts in the series here:

What is Aperture?

Aperture is hole in your camera through which light travels in order to hit the center.

Depending on how big or small this hole is, more or less light will be let in, resulting in a brighter or darker photo.

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Why Start Understanding Aperture?

In order to control the exposure of your image and have more creative control over your photos, you’re going to need to start understanding aperture. So basically, all of the same reasons you want to understand any other component of shooting in manual mode.

Aperture is a key component of learning to shoot in manual mode/get off auto mode, so it’s super important to understand!

Understanding Aperture: F-Stops

Aperture is measured in f-stops, ranging from 1.2 to 22.

The smaller the number, the bigger the hole is (and the more light is let in). The bigger the number, the smaller the hole is (and the less light is let in).

So if you have a bigger number, like 22, you’ll have a smaller hole.

And if you have a smaller number, like 1.2, you’ll have a bigger hole.

This can seem a bit confusing, because the smaller number is a bigger hole and the bigger number is a smaller hole, but a better way of thinking about it is that the bigger the number is, the more the hole is covered up. And the smaller the number is, the less the hole is covered up!

Here’s a diagram of different f-stop numbers and what they look like to help you visualize this a little better:

a diagram of different f-stop numbers, key to understanding aperture

What Aperture Controls

When it comes to understanding aperture, you need to know how it controls 2 different things: exposure and depth of field.

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Exposure is how light or dark your photo is, and is a key component in taking a good photo! It’s also exactly what you’re controlling when you’re shooting in manual mode.

Exposure is controlled by aperture because it’s controlled by the amount of light that hits the sensor of your camera, which can be controlled by how big or small the hole that lets that light in is.

So if you have a bigger hole you have a brighter photo, because more light is let in, and if you have a smaller hole you have a darker photo, because less light is let in.

You let more light in with a bigger hole by setting a smaller F-stop, like 1.2

You let less light in with a smaller hole by setting a bigger F-stop, like 22.

It’s as simple as that!

Exposure is also controlled by shutter speed and ISO. Learn more about shutter speed here and ISO here!

Depth of Field (Focus)

The other thing that aperture controls is the depth of field of your photo. Depth of field is basically just how much of the photo is in focus.

If you have a smaller depth of field, then less of the photo is in focus and you can get blurry backgrounds like this:

a picture of a leaf with a small background made with a large aperture

If you have a larger depth of field, then more of the photo is in focus and you can get crisp landscapes like this:

temple towers in bali

You get a smaller depth of field with a larger aperture (smaller number F-stop). With that smaller number, less is in focus. This is great for things like portraits, where you want a creamy background and less in focus.

You get a larger depth of field with a smaller aperture (bigger number F-stop). With that bigger number, more is in focus. This is great for things like landscapes, where you want everything to be in focus.

This is also a much easier way to think about F-stops than thinking about them by the size of the hole!

Being able to control the depth of field gives you so many different creative options!

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Understanding Aperture: Using Aperture

Being able to control aperture is super important if you want to control depth of field for creative reasons.

There are two camera modes in which you’ll have complete control over aperture: aperture priority mode and manual mode.

Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture priority mode is actually my favorite camera mode of them all!

In aperture priority mode, you choose the aperture setting that you want. Then, then camera reads the light levels around you and sets your shutter speed accordingly to get perfect exposure.

If things are a little bit off, then you can change the exposure using the exposure compensation dial. Easy-peasy.

Manual Mode

In manual mode, on the other hand, you have complete control over both aperture and shutter speed, and can control exposure, depth of field, and movement.

Now, here’s the secret: You don’t necessarily need to be in manual mode all the time. In fact, aperture and shutter priority mode will almost always do the trick. You only really need to switch to manual mode when you need to override the settings that aperture/shutter priority mode gives you.

Read some more travel photography posts from me:

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Booking Flights: The first place I turn when I’m searching for flights is actually just Google Flights - it’s great to figure out what sort of routes are available. Then, I check Skyscanner and Kiwi for deals. I also love Kiwi for its destination: anywhere feature!

Transportation: I love Omio for figuring out the cheapest way to get from one place to another, and Trainline for booking train tickets within Europe.

Accommodations: I absolutely love Booking.com for finding great hotel deals. After you stay a certain number of nights, you get Genius discounts! For hostels, Hostelworld is my go-to, and I use Airbnb occasionally as well (click here for $40 off your first booking!)

Travel Insurance: I knew that I shouldn’t travel without insurance for the longest time, but I really learned my lesson when I got an infected cut in Bali. Thank goodness I had travel insurance! I use and love World Nomads for their extremely comprehensive coverage.

Travel Insurance: I knew that I shouldn’t travel without insurance for the longest time, but I really learned my lesson when I got an infected cut in Bali. Thank goodness I had travel insurance! I use and love World Nomads for their extremely comprehensive coverage.

Tours: I always check Urban Adventures for great day tours of cities first–I’m obsessed with them! GetYourGuide and Viator are also great options. For multi-day tours, I highly recommend Intrepid.

Camera Gear: I use a Sony Alpha A6300 camera with an 18-105 mm lens and a 35 mm lens. My tripod is the MeFoto Backpacker Air and I loooooove it! I also use a DJI Mavic Air and a GoPro and which allow me to capture everything my regular camera can’t.

Addie Gray is a recent college grad and a passionate solo female traveler. Having traveled to more than 20 countries, she now shares her knowledge on budget travel, solo female travel, and travel photography.

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