Aperture is one of the three pillars of photography, the other two being ISO and Shutter Speed. Without a doubt, it is the most talked about subject, because aperture either adds a dimension to a photograph by blurring the background, or magically brings everything in focus. In this article, I will try to explain everything I know about aperture in very simple language.
1) What is Aperture?
Simply put, aperture is a hole within a lens, through which light travels into the camera body. It is easier to understand the concept if you just think about our eyes. Every camera that we know of today is designed like human eyes. The cornea in our eyes is like the front element of a lens – it gathers all external light, then bends it and passes it to the iris. Depending on the amount of light, the iris can either expand or shrink, controlling the size of the pupil, which is a hole that lets the light pass further into the eye. The pupil is essentially what we refer to as aperture in photography. The amount of light that enters the retina (which works just like the camera sensor), is limited to the size of the pupil – the larger the pupil, the more light enters the retina.
So, the easiest way to remember aperture, is by associating it with your pupil. Large pupil size equals large aperture, while small pupil size equals small aperture.
2) Size of Aperture – Large vs Small Aperture
The iris of the lens that controls the size (diameter) of the aperture is called “diaphragm” in optics. The sole purpose of the diaphragm is to block or stop all light, with the exception of the light that goes through the aperture. In photography, aperture is expressed in f-numbers (for example f/5.6). These f-numbers that are known as “f-stops” are a way of describing the size of the aperture, or how open or closed the aperture is. A smaller f-stop means a larger aperture, while a larger f-stop means a smaller aperture. Most people find this awkward, since we are used to having larger numbers represent larger values, but not in this case. For example, f/1.4 is larger than f/2.0 and much larger than f/8.0.
Take a look at this chart (image courtesy of Wikipedia):
The size of the circle represents the size of the lens aperture – the larger the f-number, the smaller the aperture.
3) What is Depth of Field?
One important thing to remember here, the size of the aperture has a direct impact on the depth of field, which is the area of the image that appears sharp. A large f-number such as f/32, (which means a smaller aperture) will bring all foreground and background objects in focus, while a small f-number such as f/1.4 will isolate the foreground from the background by making the foreground objects sharp and the background blurry.
As you can see, just changing the aperture from f/2.8 to f/8.0 has a big effect on how much of WALL-E is in focus and how visible the background gets. If I had used a much smaller aperture such as f/32 in this shot, the background would be as visible as WALL-E.
In the above example, due to the shallow depth of field, only the word “Cougar” appears sharp, while everything else in the front and behind of that word is blurred. If I had used a larger aperture such as f/1.4 and focused on one of the letters, probably only that letter would have been sharp, while everything else would have been blurred out. The larger the aperture, the smaller the area in focus (depth of field).
4) Lens Apertures: Maximum and Minimum
Every lens has a limit on how large or how small the aperture can get. If you take a look at the specifications of your lens, it should say what the maximum (lowest f-number) and minimum apertures (highest f-number) of your lens are. The maximum aperture of the lens is much more important than the minimum, because it shows the speed of the lens. A lens that has an aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4 as the maximum aperture is considered to be a fast lens, because it can pass through more light than, for example, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4.0. That’s why lenses with large apertures are better suited for low light photography.
The minimum aperture is not that important, because almost all modern lenses can provide at least f/16 as the minimum aperture, which is typically more than enough for everyday photography needs.
There are two types of lenses: “fixed” (also known as “prime”) and “zoom”. While zoom lenses give you the flexibility to zoom in and out (most point and shoot cameras have zoom lenses) without having to move closer or away from the subject, fixed or prime lenses only have one focal length. Due to the complexity of optical design for zoom lenses, many of the consumer lenses have variable apertures. What it means, is that when you are fully zoomed out, the aperture is one number, while zooming in will increase the f-number to a higher number. For example, the Nikon 18-200mm lens has a variable maximum aperture of f/3.5-f/5.6. When zoomed fully out at 18mm, the lens has an aperture of f/3.5, while when fully zoomed in at 200mm, the lens has an aperture of f/5.6. The heavy, professional zoom lenses, on the other hand, typically have fixed apertures. For example, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G lens has the same maximum aperture of f/2.8 at all focal lengths between 70mm and 200mm.
Why is this important? Because larger maximum aperture means that the lens can pass through more light, and hence, your camera can capture images faster in low-light situations. Having a larger maximum aperture also means better ability to isolate subjects from the background.