Take better photos: Understanding Aperture

Do you want to start taking better photos? Today?!? It’s not as hard as you think. There are a few key things to learn to help you begin taking photos that will have greater impact. One of those is your camera’s aperture.  It may sound really technical, and understanding it in full can be. But, you can understand some very basic points without worrying about the technical aspects. Taking control of this one setting has the power to dramatically increase the quality of your photographs. So let’s take a look at what your Aperture does and how you can use it to take photos with greater impact.


First of all, what does APERTURE refer to? In simple terms it is the iris for your camera. Just like your eye, it opens and closes to regulate how much light gets to your camera’s sensor. Most point and shoot or DSLR cameras have a setting called “AV” (which stands for Aperture Value). If you put your camera on that setting it will let you set the aperture. When you set the aperture value, the camera will adjust the other settings so that you don't have to worry about them.  Even many of the smart phone camera apps will open up the option for you to adjust your aperture.

Another term we need to understand is DEPTH OF FIELD. The depth of field refers to the amount of your photograph that will be in sharp focus.

Now lets look at how your aperture affects your depth of field and how that can help create photos with greater impact.


The smaller the number is on your AV setting the smaller your depth of field will be (remember - that’s the camera’s way of saying aperture value which means you can set the aperture).

The larger the number is on your AV setting the larger your depth of field will be.


The following pictures were taken with the number on the AV setting really small.

The AV was set at 3.5 for this picture at Safeco Field.

The AV was set at 3.5 for this picture taken at the UW Botanic Gardens. That small AV means a small focus point on the kids while everything else begins to blur out. You can still make out that it's a park with trees and a bench but those items don't compete with the attention your eye wants to give the kids like it would if you used a high AV.

The AV was set at 2.8 for this picture of my son who wigged out when he saw the big plate of food they brought mom. If the AV had been high like a 22 then everything would be in focus and would draw attention away from the main focal point of the shock on my sons face.

Do you see how narrow that depth of field is? Meaning the focus is really sharp on the subject but then quickly begins to blur.

Now look at these pictures that were taken with the number on the AV setting really large for a large depth of field.

The AV was set at 22 for this photo to ensure I got good focus on both my wife and son as well as the Smith Rock park in the background. If the AV was low like a 2.8 or 4.0 then you would have lost all the beautiful detail in the unique rock formations behind them.

The AV was set to 20 in this photo to ensure I had good focus all the way to the top of the Space Needle without loosing focus on the parking area below.

The AV was set at 14 to capture both the leaves in the foreground as well as my buddy Scott hiking down the trail.

Do you notice that there is a much bigger depth of field in these photos than in the first set? Most everything is in focus.

Let’s look at one last set of images with the number on the AV setting set to a medium number.

The AV was set to 10 so that Tyler and Hillary were the primary focus point but the foreground and background had some degree of focus. If it was a high AV like 22 then the foreground and background would have a sharp focus which would draw your attention away from the couple. If it was set really low, then the foreground would be completely blurry and you would lose the nice highlights of the sun on the blades of grass.

The AV was set to 5.6 which is a low to medium AV value allowing me to put the primary focus on the athlete while still maintaining enough focus on the other elements to let you know he was in the gym and tired from throwing around the heavy weights.

The AV was set to 11 to put the sharpest focus on the city but leaving enough focus on the foreground and background to enjoy Mt Rainier in the distance. If it was a low AV like 2.8 then you would not be able to make out that there was a mountain in the background.

As you would expect, these are somewhere between the first two sets. More is in focus than the photos shot with the AV setting at 2.8 but not quite as much as with the photos shot with the AV setting at 22.


A big aspect of creating photos with impact is focusing the viewers eye on what is most important.

Ask yourself before you set your AV, what is it that creates the most impact in your view finder? Is it a specific subject or item in the view finder or is in the breadth of the scene?

Will your image have more impact if you focus in one one small aspect or if you have everything in focus? Based on how you answer those questions you can adjust your AV setting and shape the way your photo captures the scene.


Let’s look at a couple of examples to explain how to use the AV setting to create the impact you want.

This first set was captured when out shooting a rock climbing adventure with my friend Eric at Washington's classic route near Snoqualmie pass called“The Tooth.”  For the first image, I wanted to ensure I captured the detail of Eric in the foreground as well as the beautiful mountains and scenery in the background. Said in the terms we’ve been learning above, I wanted a big depth of field. So I used a big number for the AV setting which in this case was an AV setting of 22.

In the second image, Eric was repelling down after having submitted the Tooth. I wanted to draw the focus to him by blurring out the background a bit (not completely) which means I wanted a small/medium depth of field. So I set the number on the AV setting to 5.6.

In the next example I have a set of images taken of my clients and friends Eric and Jeannette. In the first image, I really loved the color of the trees and I wanted there to be some detail to show the whole scene. But I while I liked the entire scene I wanted to draw the viewers eye to Eric and Jeanette. Like the last photo (of Eric rappelling) I wanted to draw the focus to them by blurring out the background a bit (not completely) which means I wanted a small/medium depth of field. So I set the number on the AV setting to 5.6.

In the next image I shot, I realized I wasn’t too crazy about the backdrop but I loved the lighting on Eric and Jeannette. So I really wanted to draw them out from the rest of the image by using a very small depth of field. As you’ve learned by now, a small depth of field calls for a small number on the AV setting. So I used an AV setting of 2.8.


Reading this will do very little to help you improve the power and impact of your own photographs unless you go and put this to practice!

Let me give you one simple assignment to try to begin to understand how your AV influences the final photograph.

Set up a scene of some sort that has items in fairly regular intervals stretching out before you. For example, a checker board with checkers placed on the board. Set your AV as low as it will go and take a picture. Then raise your AV setting, taking a picture at each new setting, till it’s maxed out as high as it will go. Then review your pictures and see how the depth of field changed photo to photo.

You’re on your way to creating photos with greater impact by understanding your camera’s aperture and how to use the AV setting! Happy shooting!