Exposure for Beginners: Playing with the Aperture

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Exposure for Beginners: Playing with the Aperture www.sleeklens.com

If you are a photography beginner, you might feel a bit confused with all the things you need to learn. But don’t worry, I am going to make things a bit easier for you. One of the first things you should understand is exposure. Exposure is the amount of light the sensor of your camera captures when you take a photo. When you master the exposure of your images, your skills as a photographer will improve! How can you know the exposure value of your picture when you are shooting? Your camera will tell you by its camera meter.

This is what the camera meter looks like in my Nikon. I see it either in the viewfinder or in the live view. It can look slightly different in other cameras, but the idea behind the exposure indicator is always the same. So if you understand the principle, you will be able to work with any camera that falls into your hands.


In my Nikon, I activate the camera meter by half-pressing the shutter release (Maybe it will be slightly different if you are using other camera models or brands. It will be explained in your camera manual). Once it is activated,  the camera will tell you the exposure value (EV) of the scene. But why should you care about the exposure of your pictures? Because you don’t want your photos to be too dark or washed out (too bright).

In the overexposed picture the petals look almost white but the leaves look very vibrant, on the other hand, in the underexposed picture you barely see anything except for the petals, but you can see a lot more details on them (like the dew drops). The neutral exposure is the spot of full compromise between the two. If you are a beginner, I recommend you to focus on trying to understand how to get neutral exposures. Once you master the concept though, try to be more creative: does an overexposed picture work better for what you want to express in a particular photo? Do you prefer to use underexposed pictures in other cases? Go for it! But do it because non-neutral exposures fit your creative purposes and not because you didn’t know how to get the correct exposure.


How can you control the exposure? By using different combinations of the 3 elements that control exposure:

Aperture: it controls how much light goes into the sensor of your camera. It also affect the depth of field.

Shutter speed: it controls how long the sensor is receiving light.

ISO: it controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor towards light.

You can go really deep into technical details about exposure and how each element works. I recommend you to take it easy at the beginning. I won’t go into complicated numbers or photography terminology here, but if you want to get more information, there are other awesome blog posts explaining these 3 elements. What I want to do here is to give you some exercises that will allow you to start practicing with exposure on you own. Photography is a craft, once you feel confident with the essentials you will be ready to go into more detail.

Keep in mind that the 3 elements of exposure are connected between them, so although you can focus on just one of them, the other 2 will have their role too. Today we will focus in the aperture. My next post will be about shutter speed. For ISO, you can take a look at this great post by Kim  Suarez: The Guide to ISO in Manual Mode.

What Aperture is?

As Damon Pena well explains in his article Aperture vs ISO vs Shutter Speed – A Beginner’s Introduction to Manual Mode, aperture is the size of the opening in which the light will pass through your lens.  Aperture sizes will depend on your lens and they are written as a ratio to between the diameter of the aperture in the lens and the focal length of the lens (f-numbers or f-stops).  This seems complicated, doesn’t it? If you want to keep it simple for now, just remember one thing: the lower the aperture number, the larger the opening will be. Or in other words:  small numbers mean lots of light and the other way around.


And now that you have the aperture concept in mind, it is your turn to practice! I propose to you 3 easy exercises that will help you to start playing with the aperture of your camera. You will just need your camera and a tripod, if it is possible. If you don’t have a tripod, try to set your camera on a surface in a way that it won’t move along the exercises. If you are not familiar yet with how to change the settings of your camera, keep your manual at hand.

Exercise 1: Understand how aperture affects the amount of light

For this exercise you need to set your camera on Manual Mode. Then, you set the ISO to a fixed number. ISO 100 or 200 are good to start with. After that, you fix the shutter speed. You can try a value of 1/125sec.  Find a subject for your photos (I used my Maneki-neko) and set the camera on your tripod (or any alternative way that will keep the camera stable and immobile). Take a photo using the highest aperture number (f-number) you can. In my case, using a AF-S Nikkor 35mm 1:1.8, it was f/22. Take photos and change the aperture progressively. Once you are done, check what happens with the exposure of your photos. The only thing that change between your photos was the aperture because you fixed the ISO and shutter speed. So whatever changes you see in the exposure are due to the changes you did in the aperture. You can repeat this exercise with new values of ISO and/or shutter speed and see what happens!

Exercise 2: Understand how Aperture mode works

For this exercise you need to set your camera on Aperture Mode. Set the ISO to a fixed number, for example ISO 100 or 200.  Find a new subject for your photos (to add a bit of variety) and set the camera on your tripod/alternative option. Take photos changing progressively the aperture. You will see that all your photos look the same in terms of exposure. Why? Because when you are using Aperture mode the camera is constantly changing the shutter speed in order to get what it considers a good exposure. Go over your photos and see which shutter speed the camera used for each aperture value. The lower the light going into the lens (because the lens is not open so much), the longer the camera let light go in (slower shutter speed, but we’ll wait with that for the next post).

An interesting variation of this exercise is doing the same but holding the camera in your hands. I did it and I realized that when the camera is adjusting to slow shutter speeds my photos were blurry. Why? Because I am not able to hold the camera still for longer than 1/80 sec. My hands shake and the result is a blurry photo like the one below. The shutter speed threshold that you are able to handle when you are hand-holding the camera is important to know. Imagine you are going around in a sunny day taking photos in Aperture mode. Everything will work ok. However, if for some reason the day gets dark (clouds, shadows, sunset) your camera will start compensating this decrease in light with longer shutter speeds. If these new shutter speeds are longer that the time you are able to hold the camera without shaking…you will have blurry photos.

A shutter speed of 1/15sec is too long for me when I hold the camera in my hands. Result: a blurry photo.

Exercise 3: Depth of field 

For this exercise you can set your camera in the same way as in exercise 2 (Aperture Mode and ISO 100 or 200).  This time you will need several objects. 3 or even more will be great. Set your camera on your tripod/alternative option. Focus on one of the objects and take photos changing progressively the aperture. Start checking the photos with small aperture. Which objects are in focus? Are all of them in focus or just one? Does this change when you use other aperture values? This exercise will help you to understand the depth of field and know which aperture values will allow you to keep the whole frame in focus and which will not.

Now you are ready to go out and have fun with your new knowledge!! It will be easier for you to take well exposed photos and you can change the depth of field in order to get the effect you want. Have a look at the 2 nature photos I took using different depths of field.

In this photo I wanted to highlight the young leaf. For that reason, I used an aperture f/3.5 that allowed me to have my subject (the little leaf) sharp and all the others blurry.

In this photo I wanted to show how rich this landscape was: fields, mountains, clouds. I wanted to show everything, so I needed everything to be sharp. For that purpose, I set the apertures higher than f/8.


I hope these exercises will be helpful for you. If you try them, I will be happy to know how it went. Do you have any suggestions for other exercises to practice with aperture? I would love you to share them with me! Have a happy shooting!!

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I am a biologist and a self-taught photographer based in Barcelona (Catalonia). Buddhist philosophy has a strong influence on me: I have a deep appreciation to life and I give a huge value to the little things that makes our days happier. I became a passionate about photography when I got my first camera and I understood that photography allows me to express my way of approaching life. I love learning so I am always willing to trying new things. These days I am shooting mostly nature and portraits.

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