Travel Photo Tips: What is aperture, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is aperture

You’ve schooled yourself on ISO, and you’re starting to get a handle on shutter speed. Next stop? Aperture. This particular setting is exceedingly important when trying to wrap your head around the basics of manually controlling a camera, but it’s also one of the more confusing. For starters, not every camera and lens can achieve the same f/stops (in case you couldn’t guess, aperture levels are measured as f/[number]), and similar to shutter speed, changing the f/stop does more than just one thing.

Tweaking the aperture can change the outcome of your photo in a drastic way. But before you go cranking that number beside the “f” on your camera screen, let’s break down the basics on what aperture is, what it affects and why you should care. Read on for a few pointers that every shooter should know.Have you ever noticed those black blades within your lenses? In optics, an aperture is simply the hole through which light travels. As you can imagine, changing the size of that hole can make a huge difference in the look and feel of your photographs. There’s an exhaustive definition of the topic over at Wikipedia if you’re interested, but we’re assuming you stopped here because you’re just looking for the long and short of it. Here are a few general rules to understanding aperture:

  • The lower the f/stop, the more light is allowed in.
  • Exceptionally low f/stops (f/1.2 through f/2, for example) are only found on a handful of lenses, primarily professional DSLR lenses.
  • Most point-and-shoot cameras only stop as low as f/3.5 (at best), limiting the amount of light you can fetch when shooting in dimly lit scenarios.
  • You’ll pay dearly for exceptionally low f/stops. A Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 can be found for ~$100; the same lens with an f/1.4 rating (just one step lower) is three times more expensive at ~$300.
  • Lower f/stops narrow your depth of field; a shot at f/2 will have a very tight focal point, with a tremendously blurred background, whereas a shot at f/14 (as an example) will focus on the foreground and background with essentially no ‘bokeh‘ to speak of.

Now that you’ve got a grip on that, we’re going to break down the most common uses of aperture when it comes time to compose a shot.

  • A lowered f/stop can be artisically chosen if you want to focus in tight on a foreground subject while introducing a silky, beautiful blur (that’s the ‘bokeh’ we mentioned above) around the subject. This is great for focusing on a person with a less-than-exciting backdrop.
  • A higher f/stop is useful for capturing vast groups, where you want the persons on the edges to be just as sharp and in-focus as the person in the center of the image.
  • A lower f/stop is very useful for letting more light enter an image during dimly lit or dark situations; this prevents you from having to boost your ISO (and thus, inject noise and grain) or dramatically slow your shutter speed (and thus, potentially introduce unwanted blur from hand-shake).

Let’s look at an example of how lowering your f/stop can be beneficial at night and in situations where you want oodles of bokeh surrounding the subject. The image below shows an identical shot at f/1.4 and at f/8, both taken in a dimly lit room with very little ambient light around. Lowering the f/stop allows a tremendous amount of light to flood in, in turn giving us a useful image without resorting to firing a flash. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop when you’re in dimly lit areas — your images will thank you!

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Now, let’s look at an example of injecting bokeh into a shot. These two pictures were taken with a f/1.4 (left) and f/16 (right) aperture. You’ll notice the shot on the left has a soft, silky, progressive blur surrounding the focal point. This highlights the subject and simultaneously hides the ho hum background. The f/16 shot has most of the background in focus, effectively destroying your ability to focus only on the foreground subject and disregard the lackluster backdrop. On the flipside, your backdrop is in focus, so if that is your goal for a shot, now you know how to accomplish it. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop if you want to introduce bokeh, bring out the foreground subject and blur the background; raising the f/stop will help you to focus on a larger image, such as capturing an entire soccer team.

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Our suggestion now is to give it a try! If you have a camera where you can adjust the aperture manually, try placing your camera in Aperture Priority (the “A” mode on the dial) and stopping it completely down as low as it’ll go. This will vary based on the lens, but toggle the f/stop and lower it to the smallest number allowed by whatever lens you are using. Focus close on a foreground object, and snap the shot. Check out that bokeh! If you’re having a hard time getting the bokeh effect, try holding an object out in your hand and focusing; that’s an easy way to get the background to blur nicely. Now, try that same shot with an aperture of f/8 or greater in order to see how wide your focal range becomes.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of aperture to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in aperture for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, using the aperture to help you focus on your kids while blurring crowds behind them, ensure that your entire background is in focus in self-portraits, and more. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous articles on ISO and shutter speed, you’ll be three steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • The lower you set your f/stop, the more light you’ll have access to. This allows you to rely less on a boosted ISO and a sluggish shutter speed to still get a usable image in low-light situations.
  • If you need to focus on a large group of people, or you want the ocean behind you to be sharp, use a higher f/stop.
  • If you want to introduce artistic blur (or ‘bokeh‘) into your images, use a lower f/stop.

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO and shutter speed can be seen here.

The End of an Era: last roll of Kodachrome film has been processed

The final roll of Kodachrome has been processed, marking an end of an era.Dwayne’s Photo, located in Parsons, Kansas, hardly seems like a place where history is made. But that is exactly what happened yesterday when the photo shop processed the final rolls of Kodachrome film, effectively bringing the curtain down on one of the most well known brands in the history of photography.

Kodachrome film was originally introduced by Eastman Kodak back in 1935 and is widely recognized as the first successful color film in history. Over the past 75 years, it has been used by many of the world’s top photographers and has captured numerous iconic images. Kodachrome was well known for its outstanding color reproduction and the ability to be stored nearly indefinitely, which helped to garner its legendary status amongst professionals and amateurs. But the process used to develop the photos shot on the film is a complex one which gave rise to a number of photo labs that specialized in developing those images.

In June of last year, Kodak announced that they were ending production of Kodachrome, citing the rise of digital photography for its demise. The company had stopped processing the film themselves several years back, and years of declining sales saw most Kodachrome labs closed down. At the time of the announcement, Dwayne’s Photo was home to the last processing machine in the world, and earlier this year they announced that that machine would shut down on December 30.

With Kodachrome’s expiration date clearly defined, photographers across the globe sprung into action. Many had stockpiled the film over the years and they now scrambled to use their final rolls before the deadline. Yesterday, dozens of them, from across the U.S. and around the world, descended on Dwayne’s to have those final rolls processed. In the end, last roll of Kodachrome to ever be developed actually belongs to Dwayne’s owner Dwayne Steinle.

When that final roll of Kodachrome slipped through the processing machine yesterday, it truly did mark the end of an era. And while most of us have moved on to easy-to-use digital camera options, which offer instant gratification for a new generation of photographers, it is impossible to understate how important Kodachrome has been to the art of photography over the past 75 years. So the next time you pick up your fancy new digital to capture that perfect shot, take a moment to recognize a bygone era and remember that you’ll need to tweak that image in Photoshop just to try to equal the color captured with Kodachrome.

“Extreme Exposure” photography exhibit to open in Los Angeles

A new group photography exhibit is set to open at the Annenberg Space in Los Angeles this October that will spotlight the work of five artists who specialize in shooting environmental, wildlife, and climate imagery. The exhibition is entitled “Extreme Exposures” and will feature visually stunning photographs from some of the most remote and demanding environments on the planet. Many of these photos were captured after spending weeks in the field enduring subzero temperatures, battling active volcanoes, dodging dangerous wildlife, and other harrowing conditions.

The five photographers on display will each have their own theme. For instance, Clyde Butcher’s exhibit is entitled “Swamplands” and demonstrates an interesting display of light and shadows. Michael “Nick” Nichols’ “Lush Jungle” highlights amazing wildlife, such as tigers and gorillas, captured in their natural habitats. Paul Nicklen’s images evoke thoughts of alien landscapes in his photos from the Earth’s icy polar regions, while Donna and Stephen James O’Meara’s fiery images are from erupting volcanoes and flowing lava. All of the photographers share a common goal of drawing attention to environmental threats to the planet.

Visitors to the Annenberg Space for the exhibit will be treated to an amazing print display of these photographs which will be hanging in the gallery, but those displays will also be enhanced further by a digital film presentation too. That presentation will offer hundreds of more images from these talented photographers, as well as in depth profiles of each of the artists, and insights into the adventures they had while capturing their images.

The exhibit will open on October 23, 2010 and run through April 24, 2011.

[Photo courtesy: Paul Nicklen/Annenberg Space]

Outside Magazine offers photography workshop in Santa Fe

This October, Outside Magazine will give amateur and professional shutterbugs the chance to hone their skills by working with some of the best photographers in the business today. The iconic adventure mag is hosting a 4-day long workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico that promises to blend classroom instruction, in depth discussion, and real world application with a sharp focus on improving your photographic skills.

While a number of Outside editors and creative directors will be on hand for the event, the real stars of the show are the professional photographers they have lined up to share their insights. Joining the Outside staff members will be Jimmy Chin, who specializes in adventure and expedition photography, Robert Maxwell, who is considered one of the best portrait photographers in the world, and Kurt Markus, who is a versatile, all-around shooter who covers everything from fashion to cultural images.

Beginning on October 19th, and continuing through the 23rd, the workshop will offer everything from hands-on sessions with Jimmy, Robert, and Kurt, to in-the-field shooting assignments for the attendees to complete. There will be lectures, round table discussions, and breakout groups to focus on how to best optimize your digital workflow. Attendees will have the opportunity to visit local Santa Fe art galleries and share their portfolios with evening image presentations, while bonding with one another over three shared meals per day.

The workshop is limited to just 45 seats, so if you’re interested, you’ll want to apply as soon as possible. For more information and to register, click here. The cost for the event is $1850.

Flickr’s New York: A tale of two cities

Tourists photograph Midtown and Lower Manhattan, while locals click their cameras in the East Village and Chinatown. So, it’s clear: tourists and locals don’t mix in New York.

Eric Fischer, a computer program, used geotagging data from Flickr and Picasa to plot maps of New York and 71 other cities, using a system he created for determining which shutterbugs are locals and which are from out of town.

Using this system, we can divine the following:

  • Tourists shoot Yankee games, while there are more locals snapping away when the Mets are playing at home
  • Locals prefer the Manhattan Bridge, and tourists flock to the Brooklyn Bridge … yet Brooklyn itself is packed with local photogs
  • Nobody goes to the Upper West Side (unless he or she lives there)
  • Governors Island is about as tourist-free a place as you’ll find in New York