One of the things that set professional photographs apart from point-and-shoot snapshots is that pros know about controlling the aperture of their lenses to guide your eyes and create better shots.
This post is for both iPhone users as well as owners of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
I hope you’ll practice with both. By the way, you’ll need an iPhone that shoots in Portrait mode. That has been available since the iPhone 7 Plus.
I’m going to focus on the amazing effect a low aperture number can have. By the way, a low aperture number is also called a wide aperture, but don’t let the terms confuse you. I’ll be giving detailed step-by-step instructions to have you controlling your aperture and creating better shots today.
Getting better shots on an iPhone by controlling your aperture:
Here are two examples of the same scene to help you see the difference.
I shot these tulips early this spring with my iPhone 11 Pro.
The photo on the left has a deeper depth of field. As you look at it, do you find yourself wondering what the small building is in the distance? There’s so much in focus that it’s hard to know what the photo is about, and I think that confuses the viewer. Is it about a garden of tulips? Or maybe about a park with tulips? Or is it about the small building in the bed of tulips?
The one on the right is shot with Portrait mode. I am using a shallow depth of field to guide the viewer’s eyes to two of the tulips. They are the subject.
Portrait mode on an iPhone mimics shooting in Aperture mode on your camera and setting a low aperture number. It creates a shallow depth of field. You are not actually controlling the aperture for the shot, since that is not possible on an iPhone. Instead, the phone takes the photo with two lenses at the same time and combines the results. It’s almost magic!
You can enhance the look by getting as close as the iPhone will let you to the subject. But, don’t worry, the iPhone will tell you if you are too close or too far away.
Getting better shots on your DSLR or mirrorless camera by controlling your aperture:
Now that you know the effect we’re looking for, here’s how to set your camera to achieve it.
Set your shooting mode to Aperture. (Either “A” or “Av” on your mode dial)
Then, turn the wheel or dial on the top of your camera to get a low number. You’ll see the number in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.
Depending on the lens you are using, you could possibly get as low as f/1.4. Yes, the lens determines the lowest possible number. Lenses that can be set to really low numbers like f/1.4, f/1.8 or even f/2.8 are called “fast lenses.” They are usually pretty expensive and most people will not own one.
On the average lens that comes with cameras, you’ll probably be able to set your aperture to f/3.5 at the lowest, but, if it’s a zoom lens, you’ll need to zoom out to get that low number.
A trick to create an even shallower depth of field:
As well as controlling your aperture, there’s another trick for getting a shallow depth of field to get better shots. Stand as close to your subject as you can. If you can place your subject closer to you than to the background, that will also help.
In these two shots, taken with my iPhone 11 Pro, you can see the difference it makes. For the one on the left, I’m standing right next to the curtain. In the shot on the right, my husband, Skip (who is shooting the photo for me) and I have taken a large step away from the curtain while staying the same distance from each other.
The pattern on the curtain is really clear in the first shot, while in the shot on the right, it’s blurred. Sadly, I’m a bit blurry, too. The photographer was losing interest and moved the iPhone. He has a long way to go to be an Instagram husband. 😉 (The link takes you to a funny YouTube video called Instagram husband. Happy laughing!)
On a funny note, Skip could not figure out why we were taking these shots. I explained that it was to use it in my blog. That got him more confused. You’ll see why when you look at the photo below. We were standing in my granddaughter’s bathroom! It’s just what photographers do… 🤣
How I used my aperture to tell a story with the photo at the top:
Finally, here’s a full version of the photo at the top. I was out for a walk with my daughter and granddaughter. My granddaughter fell in love with this footbridge. She happily toddled back and forth across it many times. Occasionally, she would stop to look at the ducks in the water below. I wanted to show her growing independence, so I shot it with her in focus. I set a low f/stop (aperture) number to control the aperture and get a better shot. Her mother is looking on, but the lack of focus shows she’s giving her daughter the space to try out her independence.
Now, it’s your turn!
Now it’s time to grab your camera and mobile phone and spend some time trying this out.
If this is a new concept to you, start with your iPhone in Portrait mode first. Then, try to take the same photo by setting the aperture on your camera.
Both your iPhone and your camera will give you creative control, but the DSLR/mirrorless camera wins overall.
I’ll write about controlling your aperture in your iPhone photos for better shots in a future post. (Hint: You use Portrait mode, but it’s not what you think. You actually control the effect after you shoot the photo!) Be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you’ll know when I post it.
Finally, are you interested in a deeper dive into the subject of apertures?
Here’s a link to an article all about aperture from Viktor Elizarov at PhotoTraces. I enjoy reading his posts and think the chart is worth printing out and keeping with your camera notes. In fact, when I teach my in-person classses, I hand out a copy to each student.