Shooting camera phones from 2005-2011, I had no idea what aperture was, let alone how to change it.
I just pointed, pressed the shutter button, and let the camera make all the technical decisions.
But I did know from early on that some photos seemed to have backgrounds more blurred and out of focus than others, and that these were inevitably the photographs I liked most.
In late 2011 I bought my first “proper” camera after considerable research, a Nikon Coolpix P300.
Initially, I relied on Program (P) mode, and concentrated on composition and focus, much like shooting with camera phones, but again found I liked those blurred background shots best – especially when the subject was close.
So I started reading, and experimenting, and learned that I could use Aperture Priority (Av, or just A) mode on the Coolpix, set it to the lowest number, 1.8, and it would give me the end photograph I liked.
Getting into SLRs perhaps a year later, that initial understanding and experimentation became far more fleshed out, as I could see through the viewfinder how the scene changed as I rotated the aperture ring.
I went on to learn how aperture was connected with film sensitivity or ISO, and shutter speed, commonly called the exposure triangle.
I also learned a little more terminology, for example the f stop numbers used to label aperture (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4 etc), and that the look I had been honing was one with a shallow depth of field.
Depth of field (DOF) in the simplest terms means how much of the photograph is in reasonably sharp focus.
Many street photographs for example are at a smaller aperture, giving a deeper depth of field, so most, if not all of the image from the very foreground to the very background is in reasonable focus.
Most of my close images of flowers and leaves have a fairly large aperture to give a shallow depth of field.
Everything in front of and behind the main subject quickly falls out of focus, causing the eye to concentrate on that predominant object.
The quality of that blurred part is often called the bokeh.
I’m sure like me you’ve come across lenses being sold said to be “bokeh monsters” and “bokeh kings”!
An understanding of the exposure triangle and the f stop aperture scale is helpful, but far from essential, to get the depth of field you prefer in your images.
Even if you’ve never used Aperture Priority mode previously, all you really need is a camera with the option (typically marked A on the mode dial), and a little time and willingness to play.
Just start with a simple experiment like putting your camera on a wall or the floor, focusing on an object perhaps half a metre away, then taking a picture at every aperture setting from the widest (ie the lowest number, perhaps f/1.7 or f/1.4, depending on the lens) to the smallest (ie the largest number, perhaps f/11 or f/16, again depending on lens).
Comparing that set of images will give you a great insight into aperture and how you can tweak it to change the look (and I believe, the feel, and the emotional impact) of the final image.
Even if you mostly shoot film, grab or borrow a DSLR or another digital camera with Aperture Priority mode, and experiment to see how this works.
The same lessons and principles apply back with your film photography.
Using Program mode(s) is perfectly fine, and something I still do too.
But taking that step away from such automation, and using Aperture Priority mode to give yourself that extra creative control, is something I’ve found incredible rewarding, and perhaps the single most important step of learning in my whole photography adventure.
And because I rarely shoot moving objects, shutter speed is largely irrelevant to me (I don’t need a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action and avoid motion blur), putting the emphasis further on choosing the aperture for each shot.
How about you? Do you favour using Aperture Priority? If you’ve always used Program modes, is this a step you’d be curious about trying?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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