A decade ago, digital single-lens reflex cameras (also known as DSLRs) were used mainly by professional photographers and cost about $3,000—and only had 3 megapixels. Today, many popular camera manufacturers offer consumer-targeted entry-level DSLRs for as little as $500—with a whopping 18 megapixels.
Many people have invested in DSLRs, but how many really know how to use them? With so many shooting options, non-professional photographers overwhelmed by their camera’s horsepower tend to rely on the camera’s automatic settings. While there’s nothing wrong with that, if you own a DSLR, you’re missing out on some really great creative shooting options, and still probably not getting that perfect shot you were hoping for from your new fancy camera. With just a few manual adjustments and working with aperture, you’ll be shooting like the pros in no time.
Aperture, or f-stop, is basically light control in photography—how much light hits your camera’s sensor. The aperture is a hole in your lens that lets more light in the more it’s open and less light in the more it’s closed. The process is similar to your eye’s iris. In the sunlight, the irises of your pupils contract to limit the amount of light hitting your optic nerve; while in the dark they enlarge to let as much light through as possible.
Why do we care about aperture? One: because too much or too little light can ruin an image. Two: because aperture also controls an image’s depth of field—the amount of the image that is in focus. A deep depth of field keeps everything in the image in focus. This is good for a landscape or architecture photograph. A shallow depth of field focuses narrowly on one part of the image, and the rest of the photo falls away in a blur, ideal for portraits, flowers or artistic still shots.
To shoot with custom aperture settings, change your shooting mode to Aperture Priority, usually denoted on the program mode dial as Ap or Av (consult your owner’s manual for the exact location). There are several standard aperture values, but each camera model and brand will vary. All usually include: f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22.
Understanding how the values work can be a bit confusing at first, as a low value lets more light in. So, if you were shooting in a low light situation, you would choose an f-stop of 2.8 or 4, not f/22. It’s hard to wrap your brain around that concept at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.
To see this function in action, I’ve photographed a flower on a grainy wooden table. Granted, it’s not the most exciting photo, but this exercise illustrates the different effects of “stopping down” or “opening up” the aperture.
This image was shot in the Automatic setting. The camera chose to use a flash. It came out over exposed and the light from the flash blew out some of the flower’s detail. While your mom might say, “Oh, that’s pretty, dear.”—Professional photographers would likely dump the image.
This next image was shot in Aperture Priority mode at an aperture setting of f/22. Notice how the colors are richer and all of the details are in focus. This is a lovely shot, but let’s look at what happens with a different f-stop.
Still in Aperture Priority, this image was shot at f/11. Notice how we start to loose some of the background and foreground detail now, but the flower is still in focus.
At a setting of f/5.6, the background and foreground are blurred and the focused flower pops out of the picture. Imagine if this flower were a person. If focused on the face, the subject would also pop out of the photo—a technique often used by professionals when portrait shooting.
There’s no right or wrong way to shoot a photo. Beauty is in they eye of the subjective beholder. But, with a little experimenting, you can create stunning photos that stand out from pictures taken by your neighbor, who is still stuck on the automatic setting.