Aperture choice: My favorite photos and why I chose the f-stop I did

  • photo of kids playing outside by Jessie Nelson

Aperture choice: My favorite photos and why I chose the f-stop I did

Seven years ago, when I first began my journey into photography, my husband gifted me with the cheap but fantastic Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens.

It rocked my world! I loved it.

I opened up that aperture wide and was suddenly able to capture those beautiful compressed backgrounds and bokeh I’d been craving. It was exciting!

But as I studied more about the exposure triangle – how the variables of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO associate to determine the exposure of a photograph – I realized that I wasn’t using my lens to its entire capacity nor was my photography growing and improving to its full potential.

Wrapping my head around the exposure triangle was tricky for me at first. But with lots of practice, changing my camera settings became second nature. I want to share not only the settings on a few of my photographs, but the brief story behind them and WHY I chose the aperture I did.

Helpful hint: When starting to work with aperture, begin by shooting in aperture priority mode. Set your aperture and keep your eye on the shutter speed. If it’s too fast then bring the ISO down. If the shutter speed is too slow then bring the ISO up.

Example 1: f/2

This is one of my all time personal favorite photographs. I was quickly brushing through my hair after a shower when I spied my naked baby in the mirror playing with the roll of toilet paper – classic babyhood!

I hastily shut off the lights, opened the blinds on a window, and sprinted for my camera halfway across the house. On my way back to the bathroom, I quickly adjusted my camera settings.

I’d shot in that bathroom before and knew it was relatively dark. That morning, there happened to be wildfire smoke covering much of the sun, making the light coming through the window weaker than usual.

My goal was to achieve a shutter speed of 1/250 or more in order to freeze his moving arms and hands. Because of the relative darkness, I raised my ISO to 3200 and set my aperture to f/2 to let in more light. The combination of those two variables made my shutter speed 1/320.

I sat down on the floor and got about four shots in before the baby lost interest and the moment was over. Fortunately, I got this keeper of a photograph!

black and white picture of baby playing with a roll of toilet paper by Jessie Nelson
Canon EOS 6D | 50mm | f/2 | ISO 3200 | 1/320s

Example 2: f/2.5

Who doesn’t love creamy golden backlight?

My go-to aperture setting is usually f/2.2-2.8. For me, it’s the perfect balance between a compressed background and nailing focus on my moving boys because the plane of focus is just a little bit wider than if I shot completely wide open at f/1.4.

On this particular summer evening, I was in the backyard with the baby enjoying the last of the sunshine. He began scooting his way through the grass and that’s when I pulled out my camera.

With an aperture of f/2.5 and an ISO of 400, my shutter speed was very quick at 1/2000. In retrospect, I could have dropped my ISO down a couple clicks to allow for a slower shutter speed. This would allow more time for light to hit the sensor which can add to that dreamy feel in a photograph! But I like how this backlit photo turned out anyhow.

Related: 5 easy backlighting tips

backlit picture of baby boy crawling through the grass by Jessie Nelson
Canon EOS 6D | 50mm | f/2.5 | ISO 400 | 1/2000s

Example 3: f/4

When I’m outside, I like to use a slightly smaller aperture as I’m often trying to shoot multiple people, or in this case, movement.

On this particular afternoon, my five-year-old son was having a blast swinging so high that his toes touched the leaves in the treetops. I wanted to capture that moment. I plopped myself down on the grass, composed my shot, and waited for my son to swing into the frame.

Because he was moving so fast, I focused on the branch that he was consistently hitting. Since it was hard to predict exactly where he’d swing, I knew I needed a bigger plane of focus. Thus, I chose an aperture of f/4.

Because I stopped my aperture down a few clicks, there was suddenly less light entering my camera lens. I checked my shutter speed and noticed that it was slow for an action shot. Therefore, I increased my ISO to 400. That increased my camera’s sensitivity to light and in turn raised my shutter speed to a nice 1/500.

photo of boy swinging into the trees by Jessie Nelson
Canon EOS 6D | 50mm | f/4 | ISO 400 | 1/500s

Example 4: f/8

I took my boys on a nature hike one evening where we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Snake River and a distant thunderstorm.

They were content to sit on a rock to look for moose while I stepped back to capture the scene. The background was just as big, if not bigger, a subject than my boys in the foreground.

I knew that If I shot wide open at f/1.4, my background might become a compressed smear of colors. However, I wanted to capture the scene as I saw it so I stopped down my aperture to f/8. The smaller aperture makes my boys sharp but also allows the viewer to see some details in the background, too.

Because my lens opening at f/8 was now much smaller and let in less light than my previous aperture, I had to increase the ISO to 1250 to ensure a nice quick shutter speed of 1/400.

pic of two brothers on a mountain looking at the view by Jessie Nelson
Canon EOS 6D | 50mm | f/8 | ISO 1250 | 1/400s

Example 5: f/13

It’s become an evening ritual at our house this Fall to toss the football around in the backyard. On this particular evening, the sun was setting and that beautiful golden hour light was calling my camera.

I could have shot this backlit scene with a wide aperture, but I wanted to do something different. Instead, I closed my aperture to f/13 in hopes of creating a starburst effect.

Shooting towards a light source with a narrow opening will cause the light to hit the edges of the len’s diaphragm and cause the light to diffract, or make a starburst. My aperture was small and the sun was fading fast so I had to make some adjustments. In order to get a quick shutter speed of 1/800 to freeze the ball, I cranked my ISO to 3200.

Related: How to create starbursts in your photos

photo of dad and boys throwing a football in a field by Jessie Nelson
Canon EOS 6D | 35mm | f/13 | ISO 3200 | 1/800s

Helpful hint: When shooting in backlit situations, you need to overexpose in order to keep your subject from becoming a blackened silhouette. The photo above was overexposed in camera by two full stops!

About the Author:

Jessie is a commercial and family photographer located in Idaho. She's also a lucky wife and mom to three busy little boys. Jessie enjoys mountain biking, sunshine, and chocolate, but mostly, she loves spending time outside with her boys documenting their lives through the lens. Visit Jessie Nelson online.


  1. Kaycia Nov 06 2017 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    Great examples and explanations! The “triangle” is a hard concept to master. Thank you!!

  2. Elena Nov 17 2017 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Great article and photos!

  3. Bryanna Dec 21 2017 at 8:22 am - Reply

    This is such a helpful post! I love seeing the difference in looks between apertures. I tend to almost always shoot close to wide open. This has convinced me to try new things and not be afraid to bump up that ISO. Thanks!

  4. Kristi Dec 28 2017 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    This was exactly the type of post I was expecting when joining this awesome community. I love the examples and explanations

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