Looking to get off the “auto” setting on your digital SLR? That was me but lots of the information I found was way too confusing. I’m hoping to provide a simple, straightforward way to learn the three basics you need to understand to start being more creative: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

We’ll start with aperture – the magic sauce for getting people or things in your photos to POP.

What is aperture?

Technically, aperture is how big of a hole you open in your lens when taking a picture and is noted by the letter “f” then a number.

But who cares about technical, right?

In my world, the “f” in aperture is for how “fuzzy” you want to make your background.

Lower your aperture and your background gets real fuzzy – like this!

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Raise your aperture really high and the background gets a lot less fuzzy – like this!

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Leave it in the middle somewhere and it’s somewhere in between – like this!

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It’s backwards because the lower your aperture (the “f” number), the more fuzz you get. So just remember this simple phrase, “Get down with the funk” to remember that the lower your “f”, the more funk you have.

Ok, stupid, but you’re going to remember it

How to use aperture

So how do you actually use aperture to your advantage to take better pictures?

Aperture lets you choose how much stuff you want to focus on.

In the first picture, you were definitely only focused on super-woman.

In the second picture, you could see all 5 characters.

So, if you’re wanting to take a picture of 1 thing, lower your aperture to increase the fuzzy factor of the background which makes your subject “pop out” more. This always looks super cool for portraits or close up face shots of people!

If you’ve got a bunch of people or things you’re taking pictures of, you have to crank up the aperture (again, backwards, but less fuzz) so that all of their faces stay in focus. Otherwise, you’ll have the people in the front row all in focus and the people in the back row blurry.

Understanding how aperture affects light

Ok, so I do actually care about the technical now that we understand what aperture is. The way aperture works is by adjusting how big the hole in your lens is to blur the background.

The bigger the hole, the more fuzzy the background. The smaller the hole, the clearer the background.

That’s great – who cares?

Well, the thing about making the hole a lot smaller to keep the background in focus is that a smaller hole lets in a lot less light.

Meaning if you crank up your aperture to keep everything in focus, you’re going to end up with really, really dark pictures if you don’t make adjustments to our other two basics – shutter speed and/or ISO (both of which let you capture more or less light). More on those in a bit, but that’s how I kept those photos similar light-wise.

Had I not, this is what would have happened to the exact same three photos above.

The first one would look just fine because a really low aperture is a really big opening (so lots of light):

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The second one with the crazy high aperture to keep everything in focus is absolutely useless because it lets in so little light (yes, it’s black):

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And the third one lets in a tiny little bit of light with it’s medium-sized opening (also fairly useless):

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So. Again. Can get confusing here, but let’s re-cap:

Low aperture (1st pic): fuzzy background, big opening, lots of light

High aperture (2nd pic): clear background, small opening, very little light

Medium aperture (3rd pic) not so fuzzy background, medium opening, medium amount of light

So if making a background clear makes our photos so dark, how can we fix that?

Well, we just have to let more light into the camera. That’s where our friend shutter speed comes into play.

Next Up: Read Part 2 – Shutter Speed (Capturing Movement)