Aperture and Shutter Speed Explained

A common question among new photographers is, “What are shutter speed and aperture?” A lot of people seem to get hung up on this question, thinking that it has a complicated answer, but with a little bit of study, it is really quite a simple concept: your shutter speed and aperture determine how much light enters your camera. The two are closely related, as you will see, so let’s look at aperture first.

1. Aperture

Aperture is the amount of light that is allowed into the camera through an opening in the lens, and is measured in f-stops. The smaller the f-stop number, the more light that will be let into your camera. For example, at f/1.4, the opening in the lens will be wider than at f/22, therefore, the exposure will be brighter.

F Stop Diagram

As you can see in this diagram of common f-stops, f/1.4 has a very wide opening, whereas f/11 is much smaller. Always remember: the smaller the numerical value, the larger the opening in the lens, and the brighter your photo will be.

You’re probably thinking, “Why would I want less light to enter my lens, why not just shoot at the widest aperture possible, at all times?” Well, when you have your lens wide open, less will be in focus in your photo. A photo shot at f/1.4 will have a shallow depth of field, with a lot of background blur. This can be great for portraits, but if you are shooting a landscape, for example, you will want to have more in focus in your photo, so you will want to avoid a shallow depth of field by having a smaller aperture of somewhere around f/16.

shutter speed

In the example above, look at the progression between f/1.8 and f/3.5. As you can see in the first photo, the building behind the camera prop, as well as the table in front, are not in focus. As you progress to f/3.5, more of the building and table come into focus, but the image gets darker, since less light is entering the lens.

The shutter speed also affects how much light is let into the camera, so let’s now look at shutter speed. Then, we will look at how shutter speed and aperture work together.

2. Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is exactly what it sounds like – how quickly the shutter moves, and it is measured in fractions of a second. The slower the shutter speed, the more light that will enter your lens, while a fast shutter will let in less light. In most cases, especially if you are shooting a moving subject, or you do not have a tripod, you will want to keep your shutter above 1/60, which is 1/60th of a second.

shutter speed

In this example, I set my aperture as small as I could, at f/22. As you can see, more of the buildings in the background are in focus than they were in the previous example, seeing as how more of the background will be in focus at f/22 than it will at an aperture like f/2.8.

Now, look at the exposure time for each of the images. At 1/20, the photo is extremely overexposed, because the shutter was very slow, and a lot of light entered the camera. As I progressed all the way to 1/200, the exposure got darker. For this scenario, somewhere around f/22 and 1/80 is close to the correct exposure.

If you have a slow shutter speed, be sure to watch out for motion blur. If you want to create sharp focus on something that is moving, you will need a fast shutter of, at the very least, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/200. If motion is not an issue, then you will be able to use a slower shutter, below 1/60.

3. Putting It All Together

The best way to completely understand shutter speed and aperture is to put your camera in Manual mode, and experiment! Your settings will depend entirely on what you are shooting, your shooting environment, and how you want to expose your photo. If you want a shallow depth of field, but do not want to overexpose your photo, you will need a wide aperture (f/2.8, for example), and a fast shutter (somewhere around 1/125). If you want to capture a wide range of focal points, you will need a smaller aperture (f/11), and a slower shutter speed (1/80). Like I said, these settings all depend on your environment and what you are photographing, so be sure to experiment with different settings.

exposure settings

This is a handy diagram that can be printed out here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11192124@N00/2124175721/

The chart displays exposure equivalents by diagonally following the boxes of color. For example, f/5.6 and 1/500 is equal to f/8 and 1/250. This is a great way of figuring out your settings, depending on what you are shooting.

Again, I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to have a firm grip on shutter speed and aperture. The more you practice with balancing out the two, the quicker you will be able to know what settings you need when you are in a hurry! Also, you may find it helpful to use Aperture and Shutter Priority on your camera. That way, you will only have to adjust either the shutter or aperture, and the camera will do the rest for you. These modes are great ways of seeing how the two balance out the exposure of your photos.

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