Unlock your Creativity - Using Manual Mode part 1 - Aperture

March 04, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Photography has always been a great way to record those important times in life, but it is also an art form as much as painting, sculpture or music; a medium through which we can express ourselves creatively, communicating ideas and evoking emotion.
_DSC9742_DSC9742 With the right knowledge and a camera that allows us to manually set exposure, we have in our hands a tool that allows us to take control of the images we produce and express our creativity.

In the same way an oil painter will pick up a brush and decide how he’s going to represent the scene before him on canvas, a photographer can decide how they will use their camera settings creatively to produce the image they have in their mind.

Before I start, I am well aware that modern technology has advanced to the stage where you can take a photo in full Auto mode and then create any artistic effect you want in post process. That technology is amazing and I love it, but this blog isn't about that; it's about using the settings on your camera creatively to get your images as close to how you want them at the shutter end before tweaking/finishing off in post process.


You’ve heard of the saying ‘art is subjective’? It’s a well-known phrase which demonstrates that the appreciation and interpretation of art will vary from person to person. (It's also a reason why I sometimes question the validity of competition; but that’s another matter!)


Canon Australia ran a fascinating project a while back (you'll find it on YouTube). They created ‘the Lab’, a series of experiments designed to get photographers thinking and photographing in their own way. In their experiment ‘Decoy’ they invited six people to take a portrait of the same man. In each case, the model gave the photographer a different background story, in one he was a millionaire, in another he was an ex-criminal and so on; it was fascinating to see the different portraits of the same man that were produced!

Despite the fact that the photographs were all taken in the same room, each photographer came up with a totally different portrait of the same man. Each photographer had their own idea of the portrait they wanted to produce and used their knowledge and skills to achieve their vision. So how can we begin to produce images that reflect more of our own creative ideas? A good starting point is to learn how to shoot using Manual Mode.

What is Manual Mode? (note - I do not own copyright for this image, my website is temporarily not allowing me to remove my copyright sign) downloaddownload

When taking a photograph using manual mode you set the exposure settings Aperture (f-stop), ISO and Shutter speed yourself, rather than have your camera do it for you as it will either completely or partly in one of the automatic modes. These three elements work together to expose your image:

Aperture controls the amount of light entering the camera and the depth of field.

ISO determines the sensitivity of the sensor to light.

Shutter speed regulates the duration of light exposure and controls motion blur.

Adjusting one of these settings will typically require compensating with one or both of the others to achieve the exposure wanted.

A ‘correct’ exposure from your camera’s point of view is achieved when you look through your viewfinder and find your exposure meter is centred. Unfortunately although technically correct, this isn’t always pleasing or accurate; you see your camera doesn’t see through human eyes, it works out a ‘correct’ exposure by assuming the scene in front of it will always average out to a middle grey (18% grey to be exact). Although this works well most of the time, there are occasions, for example when dealing with difficult lighting conditions such as a bright snow scene when your camera will struggle to return a pleasing exposure.

In this blog I am going to talk about Aperture (F-Stop) and how it can help us be creative. I hope that anyone new to photography finds this helpful. I am not a teacher, and Lord knows there is a wealth of information out there that can expand in greater technical detail on what I write here, but I am going to try and keep things as simple as possible. I’ll perhaps talk about the other two settings (ISO and Shutter speed) in later blogs.

APERTUREAPERTURE So, what is Aperture? (note - I do not own copyright for this image, my website is temporarily not allowing me to remove my copyright sign)

In brief, the aperture is the ‘hole’ in your lens (proper name - the diaphragm). The bit that decides how much light you let through into your camera to hit your camera sensor.  

Depending on the lens being used, the lower aperture (F-stop) numbers (1.4, 2, 2.8, 4) allow the widest opening and therefore the greatest amount of light to pass through the lens. Have you heard photographers say they are shooting ‘wide open’? This is when they are using a lens set at one of these small F-stop numbers

The higher aperture (F-stop) numbers (16, 22 or 32) give the narrowest opening and therefore allow the least amount of light into the lens. If you are ‘stopping a lens down’ it means you are shifting from a wide aperture (smallest F-stop) to a narrow aperture (largest F-stop) For example, if you're shooting at F2.8 (a wide aperture), and you change to F16 (a narrower aperture), you are ‘stopping down’ the lens and letting less light into the camera.

I know it can be tricky to grasp at first; the smallest F-stop numbers meaning the aperture ‘hole’ is at its biggest and vice versa. Just keep repeating ‘Small Number Big Hole, Big Number Small Hole!’

As mentioned earlier, the three exposure settings work together and so whenever you adjust your aperture you will also need to adjust your shutter speed and/or ISO to achieve your desired exposure and effect. For example, if you use a lower F-stop to allow more light into your camera, you could use a faster shutter speed to compensate, as shutter speed controls how long the camera shutter remains open to allow light in and maintain exposure. Conversely if you use a higher f-stop, meaning less light coming into the lens, you’ll need a slower shutter speed.

In a similar way if using a lower F-stop (more light in) you could use a lower ISO as ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. If you use a higher F-stop (less light in), you can increase the ISO sensitivity to maintain exposure.

So I’ve talked a bit about how Aperture (F-Stop), needs to work together with Shutter speed and ISO to give you your exposure, but how can Aperture be used creatively?

_DSC9711_DSC9711 Selective Focus

By selecting a wide aperture (lower F-stop number) you will be able to isolate your subject from its surroundings by keeping it sharp while the background and foreground are blurred. Think of a photograph of a nesting bird picked out against the leaves and branches in a tree. By keeping focus on the bird and blurring the leaves behind and in front of it, the viewer’s attention will be drawn to the bird and a sense of depth will also be created in the image.


Wide apertures are also used to produce bokeh, those wonderful smooth creamy out-of-focus areas in a photograph. This can look particularly wonderful in images where there are lights in the background; by focussing on your subject using a wide aperture the background lights would be beautifully blurred, creating visual interest to the image.

I need to mention at this point that it isn't just wider apertures that will create blur and bokeh; focal length and your distance from your subject also has an impact, as does sensor size, (although you can't control sensor size without changing cameras). Of the two you can control:

The longer a focal length you use, the more compressed the perspective will be and the shallower the depth of field, which will make the background even more blurry when using wide apertures. 

The closer you are to your subject when you focus, the shallower the depth of field resulting in more blur. When you stand further away from your subject, the less background blur there will be.

You'll see from the above then that, in addition to using your aperture (F-stop) to influence blur, using a longer lens and standing closer to your subject will typically give you a more blurry background. If you go for a shorter lens and focus on subjects further away, you will get a less blurry background.

Creative Portraits 06bw06bw

A wide aperture is often used in portrait photography to focus on the model’s features and minimise distractions for example, by blurring out an undesirable background.  We newborn photographers tend to use wide apertures (small f-stop numbers) on our tiny subjects to pick out gorgeous details such as eyelashes and toes.

DSC_2171DSC_2171 Alternatively using a large F-stop number (narrow aperture) in portraiture is also a great way to capture the subject’s surroundings for example, in workplace portraits or documentary style photography. 

Creative Landscapes

Aperture is used in landscape photography to control depth of field and highlight certain elements in a scene. If you want everything you see before you in sharp focus you would use a narrow aperture (larger F-stop) such as F16; if you wanted focus on something in particular, perhaps an interesting rock formation or plant, a wider aperture (small F-stop) will allow you to do this while blurring the rest of the landscape.


I think I’ll leave this blog here as my brain is hurting a little! I hope I’ve been able to explain how aperture can be used to achieve effects such as depth of field, selective focus and bokeh without ‘mumsplaining’ (yes I’ve copyrighted that phrase!). If it goes down well I will blog again in more detail on the creative use of Shutter speed and ISO.

 Thanks for reading!


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