Unlocking the secrets of perfect exposure is a lifelong pursuit for many photographers, and F-stops are your golden key. Far from just being a technical setting, F-stops offer the creative dials that make your photos come alive.

In this article, we’ll demystify F-stops and delve into their relationship with shutter speed and ISO across a range of scenarios. From capturing soulful portraits to breathtaking landscapes, understanding F-stops is your ticket to photographic mastery. Ready to level up your skills? Let’s dive in.

Mastering Photography Starts with Mastering Exposure-Photo by Julius Drost
Mastering Photography Starts with Mastering Exposure-Photo by Julius Drost

The F-stop scale is a series you’ve likely seen before: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and so forth. Each of these numbers corresponds to a unique aperture setting. Lower numbers signify larger apertures, allowing more light into the camera and resulting in brighter images. Conversely, higher numbers indicate smaller apertures, which let in less light and produce darker images. Now, you might find this counterintuitive at first—why would a larger hole correspond to a smaller number?

Here’s a tip I often share with my students: instead of thinking about the F-stop number as representing the size of the aperture, consider it as an indicator of how much light you’re blocking. A lower F-stop number means you’re blocking less light, while a higher number means you’re obstructing more light from entering the lens. Thinking of it this way simplifies whether you’re allowing more or less light when you’re adjusting the F-stop, making it easier to master the scale.

Lenses With Different Apertures-Phot by KoeppiK CC BY-SA
Lenses With Different Apertures-Phot by KoeppiK CC BY-SA

Understanding how F-stops affect exposure is crucial because it allows you to control the brightness of your images. By adjusting the F-stop, you can make your images brighter or darker, depending on the lighting conditions and the creative effect you want to achieve. This control over exposure is essential for capturing well-exposed photographs.

Understanding the Aperture Scale and How it Relates to F-stops

Aperture Ring on a Hasselblad Lens-Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Aperture Ring on a Hasselblad Lens-Photo by Shawn M. Kent

If you’ve peeked into the world of photography, you’ve inevitably crossed paths with the term “f-stop,” also known as the f-number. In technical jargon, it’s the ratio of your lens’s focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil. But if that sounded like Greek to you, no worries—let’s simplify. Think of the f-stop as the magic number your camera shows you when you’re fiddling with the size of the lens aperture.

You’ll spot this f-stop number on your camera’s LCD screen or viewfinder as something like f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc. Sometimes, it ditches the slash, appearing as f2.8, or adds a capital “F,” like F2.8. All these variations mean the same thing—this is your f-stop. Each number signifies either a halving or doubling of the amount of light that enters the camera, thanks to adjustments in the aperture size.

F-Stops Scale with Half and Third Stops
F-Stops Scale with Half and Third Stops

Older cameras and lenses were equipped with aperture rings that clicked into place at each f-stop. Those clicks signaled ‘stops,’ which are specific settings where the incoming light level is predetermined. In today’s modern cameras, this mechanism is often electronic, but the foundational idea behind ‘stops’ remains steadfastly the same.

Photography, at its core is about putting light in a box, under control. F-stops are one of the way we control that light. We control How much light goes into the box by adjusting the f-stop. Each f-stop you see operates on a logarithmic scale, meaning each step on aperture scale precisely doubles or halves the light of its predecessor. If you go from f8 to f5.6 you are letting in exactly double the amount of light into the camera. Conversely if you go from f5.6 to f8 you are letting in exactly half the amount of light into the camera.

But, changing f-stops isn’t just about light and exposure; it’s also about depth of field. That’s the term for how much of your image is in crisp focus. Larger apertures (smaller f-stop numbers) yield a shallower depth of field, making one area pop while the rest blends into a lovely blur. On the flip side, smaller apertures (bigger f-stop numbers) give you a broader depth of field, keeping more of the scene in focus.

The Relationship between F-stops, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Camera and Film-Photo by Christopher Burns
Camera and Film-Photo by Christopher Burns

F-stops are no the only way to control the light entering the box. Aperture controls How Much Light, but the other control we have is how long. In exposure we control the duration we let camera enter our box using a control called shutter speed. Shutter speed controls the How long, and just like apertures, it has a logarithmic scale. The scale of shutter speed follows a pattern of fractions of a second like this:

1/2 sec, 1/4 sec, 1/8 sec, 1/15 sec, 1/30 sec, 1/60 sec, 1/125 sec, 1/250 sec, 1/500 sec

While the math isn’t exactly consistent, you can see how this also follows a patter of doubling or halving the amount of light we let pass through the lens into the box.

The next part of the equation is the camera sensor or films sensitivity to light. This one is a bit harder to explain since the adoption of digital cameras. However, if we think back to the film days, film came with different sensitivities to light, meaning that the amount of light you needed to expose the film was variable. For instance I might buy ISO 200 film that was half as sensitive to light as ISO 400. Alternately I could buy 800 ISO film that was twice as sensitive to light as ISO 400.

Film manufacturers varied the sensitivity of film by increasing or decreasing the size of the silver halides in the film (the part of the film that is sensitive to light). Bigger silver halides were more sensitive to light and smaller ones less. They developed a logarithmic scale as well to correlate with the other exposure controls:

ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, ISO 1600

By changing the sensitivity of my film, the amount of light I need to get correct exposure changes depending on my ISO. This technique has carried over into the world of digital photography. But now instead of having to change the film or sensor, I can do it electronically through a technique called amplification.

What the digital camera is doing when you change ISO is increasing or decreasing the signal your sensor receives, not unlike turning up or down the volume on your stereo. To make things easier for photographers however, they continue to use logarithmic steps to make it easy to understand and adjust exposure settings.

To achieve a well-exposed image, you need to find the right balance between these three settings. If you use a larger F-stop (smaller aperture), you will need to compensate by using a slower shutter speed or a higher ISO to allow more light into the camera. Conversely, if you use a smaller F-stop (larger aperture), you will need a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO to prevent overexposure. This relationship is often show with the exposure triangle shown here.

The Exposure Triangle

Understanding this relationship is crucial for mastering photography. When I was an instructor I would often get the question “What should I set my camera to to get perfect exposure?” The answer is, it depends. Because there are many perfect exposure answers. Because we use a logarithmic scale for all three of our exposure controls: f-stops, shutter speed, and ISO. We can have many answers that are, technically speaking, perfect exposure. For example: f8, 1/125 sec, ISO 400 results in the same exposure as f16, 1/60 sec, ISO 400 As does f5.6, 1/125 sec, ISO 200. They are all correct exposure because we are using the doubling and halving of light in our controls in exactly opposite directions to result in the same amount of light being captured. Super photography nerds say that exposure controls are reciprocal. Meaning that if you change one in one direction and the other in the opposite direction, you get a reciprocal or identical result.

So why would we have all these confusing controls where we have to adjust three settings to get one result? The short answer is that the side effects of these three controls are the essence of photography. While generally considered bad, controlling the side effects of photography controls are what elevates a photographers work above the fray of automatic cameras. Side effects of these controls include noise, motion blur, and depth of field. Controlling and manipulating the f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO to achieve a desired artistic effect makes your photography rise above the standard phone photos that your mother in-law might take.

The Concept of Depth of Field and How F-stops Impact It

Maple Lawn Farms by Roma Kaiuk
Maple Lawn Farms-Photo by Roma Kaiuk

Of all the side effects that impact your photography in good and bad ways, the essential first effect to master is depth of field. Depth of field plays a significant role in photography, as it determines the amount of background blur and the level of focus in an image. By adjusting the F-stop, you can control the depth of field and create different creative effects.

Depth of field is essentially the zone of sharpness within a photo that will appear in focus. When you look at a photograph, particularly one where the main subject is crystal clear but the background is a smooth blur, what you’re observing is a shallow depth of field. This zone of sharpness can range from mere inches to several miles, depending on various factors like lens, aperture setting (F-stop), and distance from the subject.

The F-stop you choose directly influences this zone. Lower F-stops like f/1.8 or f/2.8 result in a shallower depth of field; it’s like a spotlight on your subject. Only a specific part of your composition will be sharp, while elements in front of and behind it will blur away, beautifully isolating your subject from its environment. This is commonly used in portraits or macro photography, where you want the subject to stand out and the background to fade into a pleasant blur, often referred to as ‘bokeh’.

Higher F-stops like f/16 or f/22, on the other hand, yield a deeper depth of field. This keeps more of the image in focus, from objects close to the lens all the way to the distant horizon. It’s like turning on the floodlights at a stadium, illuminating everything in your view. This is often the go-to setting for landscape or architectural photography where capturing detail at all distances is important.

Importantly, the depth of field isn’t just a background thing; it also applies to the foreground. This means that depending on your F-stop, you can blur out distractions in front of your subject, further focusing attention where you want it.

Setting an F-stop is not just choosing a technical setting; it’s a powerful storytelling tool at your fingertips. It permits you to control and master depth of field. It is an art in itself, an art that empowers you to make your photography truly your own.

Tips for using F-stops effectively in different photography situations

Colosseum Light Interplay-Photo by Luca Lago
The use of a telephoto and careful selection of f-stop can have dramatic results-Photo by Luca Lago

Now that you’ve gained a firm grasp on F-stops and their role in exposure and depth of field, let’s delve into practical tips for leveraging them across diverse photography scenarios. As you’ll come to learn, photography—and exposure, in particular—is a game of compromises. Keep in mind that you’re always juggling three core elements of exposure: F-stops, shutter speed, and ISO.


When it comes to portrait photography, a shallow depth of field is often the goal to help isolate your subject from the background, creating an intimate atmosphere. Opt for a wide-open aperture, like f/1.8 or f/2.8, to generate a pleasing background blur while maintaining a razor-sharp focus on your subject. Mastering exposure by fine-tuning shutter speed and ISO is crucial, particularly when relying on ambient light, to achieve truly remarkable portraits.


For landscape shots, the aim is usually to secure a large depth of field, ensuring clarity from foreground to background. To do this, select a smaller aperture, such as f/11 or f/16. This will expand the depth of field, capturing intricate details. However, be cautious in low light conditions—you might need a tripod, and even a slight breeze can blur leaves if your shutter speed is too slow.

Street Photography

In the dynamic world of street photography, finding a middle ground between capturing spontaneity and maintaining sufficient depth of field is crucial. A moderate aperture, around f/5.6 or f/8, often hits the mark. During daytime shooting, you can typically employ a quick shutter speed to freeze the action. The real challenge here is dealing with the rapid light changes between sunny open areas and shadowy spots, which can make exposure tricky, especially on bright, cloudless days.

Low-Light Situations

In scenarios with limited light, your priority is to allow as much light as possible to hit the sensor. Achieve this by using a wide-open aperture, like f/1.4 or f/2. But when capturing a group or a larger scene, you’ll need to find that elusive sweet spot—an aperture wide enough to admit light but not so wide that crucial elements fall out of focus. Around f/4 or f/5.6 often proves effective in these conditions.

By actively applying these guidelines and experimenting with various F-stop settings, you’re on your way to mastering exposure and depth of field in a wide array of photography situations. Remember, these are simply starting points; the ultimate F-stop setting will hinge on your specific scene and the creative vision you aim to express.

Diffraction and the Optimal Aperture

Fireworks at the National Gallery of Canada (Blue and Yellow)-Photo by Shawn M. Kent
Using a lenses Optimal Aperture is Key When Photographing Fireworks-Photo by Shawn M. Kent

For photographers on the quest for unparalleled sharpness, the relationship between aperture settings and image quality is a nuanced ballet. When you tiptoe into higher f-stops, like f/16 and above, you’re entering the realm where diffraction takes center stage. Diffraction is the bending and scattering of light as it passes through a narrow aperture. Though these tighter apertures offer an impressive depth of field, they come with a nuanced drawback: diffraction can cause light rays to deviate, making your photos appear subtly out of focus.

This phenomenon underscores that every lens has its “sweet spot,” where it shines with its sharpest performance. To secure images that are pin-sharp, it’s essential to balance the expansive depth of field you might desire with the softening impact of diffraction. For most photographers, this often means selecting an aperture in the mid-range, where many lenses tend to perform at their peak.

Being attuned to diffraction and its effect on your photos’ crispness is crucial for anyone chasing photographic excellence. Keep in mind that all lenses are not created equal; more affordable options may be particularly vulnerable to diffraction. Knowing this, it becomes even more important to identify the ideal aperture for your specific lens. To master the complexities of exposure and net razor-sharp images, it pays to experiment. Methodically test out various apertures, scrutinizing the results to pinpoint the ideal sharpness for your unique lens. While it’s generally agreed in the photography community that shooting between f/11 and f/14 often yields optimal results, remember that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. Don’t hesitate to put your lens through its paces to reveal its individual characteristics and unlock its full potential.

Conclusion: Mastering exposure through understanding F-stops

Mastering Camera Controls-Photo by Christina Ambalavanar
Mastering Camera Controls-Photo by Christina Ambalavanar

Mastering the intricate dance of F-stops is far more than a technical skill—it’s the linchpin that holds the art and science of photography together. When you deeply understand F-stops and their interplay with shutter speed and ISO, you’re not just turning dials on a machine; you’re wielding a painter’s brush, delicately stroking light and shadow onto your canvas.

F-stops are your gateway to controlling exposure and depth of field, the twin pillars that define the aesthetic quality of every image you capture. Whether you’re isolating a subject in a portrait, crystallizing the sweeping grandeur of a landscape, or freezing the dynamic energy of a bustling street, your choice of F-stop is pivotal.

We’ve delved into the practicalities of using F-stops in a myriad of shooting scenarios, and we’ve wrestled with the challenges that come along for the ride—from the elusive balancing act in low-light conditions to the intricate nuances of diffraction and lens sweet spots. Through it all, we’ve seen how a judicious selection of aperture can elevate each shot from ordinary to extraordinary. These aren’t just tricks of the trade; they’re the tools you can use to imprint your unique vision onto every frame.

Your journey toward photographic excellence is one of continuous learning and experimentation. Seize your camera, dial in those F-stops, and let each shot be a stepping stone on your path to creative mastery. Because in photography, as in life, the devil—and the divine—is in the details.

Editor’s note: the correct way to represent an f-stop is with the use of a “florin” character. For example: ƒ 8.0 or ƒ-stop, however, for readability and searchability we have used the “f” character instead.

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