The aperture is a hole in the lens that lets in light. So a wide aperture is a large hole, and a narrow aperture is a small hole. To change the aperture size, simply dial a different f-number into your camera. To create a wide aperture, use an f-number of f/1.2 up to f/4. To create a narrow aperture, use an f-number of f/8 on up.
But which is better, wide versus narrow apertures? And which should you use in your photography?
Wide vs Narrow Aperture: Light
As I mentioned above, the aperture refers to a hole, or diaphragm, in the lens.
The aperture contracts when you dial in a large f-number, such as f/11.
And the aperture expands when you dial in a small f-number, such as f/2.8.
Why does this matter?
Because larger apertures allow more light to reach the camera sensor, which results in a brighter photo.
There are other camera settings that affect brightness as well, so brightness changes may not immediately be obvious; shutter speed and ISO are the other two key settings that you use to set the overall exposure.
But all else being equal, if you widen the aperture, the photo becomes brighter. Like this:
And if you narrow the aperture, the photo becomes darker. Like this:
So brightness is one big reason you should pay attention to the aperture. You’ll often be faced with situations where your camera doesn’t have enough light to get a good exposure–unless you widen the aperture, that is. Because a wide aperture will draw in more light, allowing you to brighten up the photo and get a great final result.
But there’s another big reason why the aperture matters:
Wide vs Narrow Aperture: Depth of Field
The depth of field refers to the amount of a photo that’s in focus.
So a photo that has a deep depth of field has a lot in focus, from the subject in the foreground to areas of the distant background. Here’s an example of a photo with a deep depth of field:
A photo with a shallow depth of field, on the other hand, has very little in focus. The main subject will be sharp, but the areas in front and behind will be blurry, like this:
Note that neither a shallow depth of field or a deep depth of field is actually better–they’re just different ways to produce creative photos. While some subjects do work better with shallow depth of field, and other subjects work better with deep depth of field, there are occasions where photographers will go against convention and get something truly unique.
But what does depth of field have to do with aperture?
In a word:
You see, the aperture is what determines the depth of field. If you use a wide aperture–say, f/2.8–you’ll get a very shallow depth of field. You’ll also get a brighter photo (for reasons stated above).
And if you use a narrow aperture–e.g., f/16–you’ll get a very deep depth of field. And you’ll get a darker photo, all else being equal.
In other words, you can creatively control the amount of your photo that is sharp–just by changing the aperture.
Now let’s take a look at some situations where you’ll want to try a wide aperture, and some situations where you’ll want to try a narrow aperture, and the settings you need to make it look good:
Using a Narrow Aperture: Landscape Photography
Landscape photography is the most common genre for a narrow aperture; you’ll see photographers using it over and over again.
This is because landscape photography relies on getting the entire scene in focus, from the river in the foreground to the mountains in the background and everything in-between.
For landscape photographers, the deep depth of field is what keeps the scene engaging. It causes the viewer to appreciate every aspect of the scene, including foreground and background details.
To capture a deep depth of field landscape photo, you’ll need to use an aperture of at least f/8, though you may need to go all the way to f/16 or f/18. The precise aperture depends on the distance from your camera to the nearest subject–in cases where the nearest subject is very close to the camera, you’ll need a greater depth of field, and in cases where the nearest subject is far from the camera, a shallower depth of field will be fine.
Note that if the nearest subject is really close, such as ice cracks in the foreground of a winter mountain shot, you won’t have the aperture capabilities to make the entire scene sharp. You’ll need to do something called focus stacking, where you take multiple photos with your focus on different areas of the scene and blend them together during photo editing. This is a fairly complex technique and not one I recommend for beginners.
So if you find yourself focusing on a subject that’s extremely close, try to back up a bit and see if you can find an alternative composition.
One more thing to note about aperture in landscape photography:
If you want to nail both foreground and background sharpness, you need to focus about 1/3rd of the way into the frame. This will ensure that you maximize the depth of field coverage and get a beautiful photo.
Using a Narrow Aperture: Architectural Photography
Architectural photography is another area where a narrow aperture is very common. An aperture of f/8 and beyond is often required to ensure that the entire building is sharp, especially when dealing with more creative compositions (versus a photo of a building’s flat facade).
For instance, this photo required a deep depth of field to keep things sharp throughout:
As did this one:
Now, if you decide to capture architectural photos that keep the entire photo sharp, you’ll need to decide on an aperture based on the nearest area you’d like in-focus (just the same as in landscape photography). However, you’ll also want to take into account the furthest area from your camera that you’d like to be sharp. If the only depth of field you need is for the front and back of a small building, you may not require a deep depth of field at all!
However, if you position an edge of a building very close to your lens and want to keep the entire thing sharp, you will need an aperture of around f/16–though if the look you’re going for is very extreme, you may need to focus stack.
Using a Narrow Aperture: Macro Photography
If you’re looking to do macro photography, a narrow aperture is a common choice.
It’ll allow you to get shots that are sharp throughout, like this:
The overall sharpness will show plenty of nice details, and the shot will feel very intimate.
Deep depth of field macro photography can become very difficult, however, when you get into high-magnification shooting. Your lens won’t have an aperture narrow enough to create a shot that’s sharp from front-to-back and is extremely close. So you can’t just capture a shot of an insect at f/22 and call it a day.
Instead, you’ll have to use the focus-stacking process I’ve described above.
Because this involves a more technical approach, many macro photographers avoid using a deep depth of field when photographing at high magnifications. Instead, you can use a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field look, like this:
Related Post: Best Macro Lenses for Canon
Using a Wide Aperture: Portrait Photography
Portrait photographers love wide aperture effects.
Because it blurs the background, making the main subject stand out.
Here’s a portrait photo that was shot with a wide aperture:
Do you see how the aperture created a beautiful backdrop?
Generally, an aperture of f/1.2 to f/4 should do the trick. Be careful not to go too shallow, however, or you’ll end up blurring out parts of your subject that you want to stay sharp!
Note that you don’t want to just position your portrait subject in front of any old background and rely on the shallow depth of field effect to take care of any background distractions. Instead, you should find a pleasing backdrop, one that’s simple and fairly uniform.
Because when it’s blurred by the wide aperture, it’ll really enhance your photo.
Related Post: How to Blur the Background of Your Portraits
Using a Wide Aperture: Bird Photography
Bird photographers like a shallow depth of field effect for the same reason as portrait photographers:
It makes the main subject stand out.
A nicely blurred background can work wonders for making a bird pop off the page. So it’s extremely common to see bird photos just like this one:
And this one:
Do you see how the shallow depth of field keeps your attention on the bird? Note that the background was already fairly clean before I used a wide aperture–but the aperture really completed the effect.
One thing to realize, however, is that the depth of field on these photos was in the area of f/7.1. Yet it still created a shallow depth of field effect.
Because I was photographing the birds at such high magnifications that it took an f/7.1 aperture to get the whole bird sharp.
But you’ll sometimes face situations where the f/4 or f/5.6 will do the trick; it’s really a matter of experimenting and figuring out what works for your subject.
Wide vs Narrow Aperture: Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about wide apertures, narrow apertures, and the key differences between them.
And you know how you can use different apertures for stunning photos.
So get out and start testing out different aperture options.
There’s a whole world of potential photos out there!
Neither a wide or a narrow aperture is technically better–just different. A wide aperture will give you a softer look, with very little in focus and a beautifully blurred background. This is favored by portrait photographers and some macro photographers because it helps to make the subject pop. A narrow aperture will give you a sharper look, with the entire photo in focus, including foreground and background subjects. Landscape photographers love narrow apertures, and use them pretty consistently. Macro photographers also use narrow apertures to keep the entire subject sharp. And architectural photographers also use a lot of narrow aperture effects to maximize sharpness.
Here’s the bottom line:
There’s value to both wide apertures and narrow apertures. If you’re not sure which you prefer for a scene, try them both and compare them during post-processing.
To achieve a shallow depth of field look, simply use a wide aperture such as f/2.8. This will blur the background and ensure that your main subject stands out. It also helps to bring your main subject away from the background (which will enhance the background blur).
Landscape photography generally does involve using a narrow aperture. It’s pretty common to find landscape images taken at an aperture of at least f/8, and usually f/11 or even f/16. The narrow aperture ensures front-to-back sharpness, which makes images more impactful. However, it is possible to create interesting landscape images using a narrow aperture; you just have to be creative!
To make sure a photo is sharp throughout, you should use a narrow aperture–in the area of f/8 to f/16, with the perfect aperture depending on the amount of depth in the scene. If the scene has a lot of depth (that is, there is a significant distance between the foreground elements and the background elements), then you’ll need a narrower aperture. Note that a narrower aperture is always a safer bet, though an aperture that’s too narrow risks softness due to diffraction.
You should also focus your lens carefully within the scene. To maximize sharpness, aim for an area about one-third of the way into the shot.
The camera aperture refers to a hole (or diaphragm) in your camera lens, which contracts and expands depending on your f-stop setting. When you choose a small f-number, such as 2.8, the diaphragm will be large. When you choose a large f-number, such as 16, the diaphragm will be small. This controls the level of brightness in a photo, with large apertures letting in more light and creating brighter images, and small apertures letting in less light and creating darker images (all else being equal).
The aperture also controls the depth of field of a photo–in other words, the aperture controls the area of a photo that is sharp. If you use a wide aperture, very little of the photo will be in focus. A narrow aperture ensures that a large section of the photo is in focus.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.