Tips & Tutorials

Aperture Cheat Sheet: Tips That Will Improve Your Photographs

This Aperture Cheat Sheet and guide is aimed at complete beginners and those who already have some experience in photography, but want to learn a little bit more about the fundamentals.

If you want to know what the aperture is, how to control it properly and how it affects your photographs, this is the right post for you.

The guide is also available below as a short infographic with quick lessons to get you understand what the aperture does.

If you’re looking for more information check out our in-depth Aperture Tutorial.

Quick summary: The aperture size controls how much is in focus, and also how much light hits the sensor. Use the aperture to let your viewers know where to look at.

What is Aperture?

Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the 3 most important settings every photographer should know about.

They control the final look of your photograph, and if you change one to something bigger/smaller, you can change how your image will look like.

Before diving into the aperture tutorial, we first advise you to check out our shutter speed tutorial here. Don’t worry, there’s also an infographic. You don’t have to read it right now, but it will help in the long run.

What does the aperture do and where is it?

The term aperture is a nice name for a hole inside of the lens. That’s it.

You can make that hole bigger or smaller, and doing so will affect your image in different ways. The camera can also adjust the size automatically if you shoot in auto mode (or with your phone).

Here are the most common aperture sizes:

  • f/1.4
  • f/2.0
  • f/2.8
  • f/4.0
  • f/5.6
  • f/8
  • f/11
  • f/16
  • f/22
  • f/32

Confusing, isn’t it? Don’t worry, it’s really simple to understand.

  • The higher the number, the smaller the aperture. So, f/32 is a lot smaller than f/1.4

If you’re shooting with f/8 and someone tells you to make your aperture bigger, you change it to f/5.6, f/4 or any lower number.

How Aperture Affects Your Photographs

This is all you need to remember:

The aperture size changes 2 things: how much is in focus + how much light hits the sensor.

1. When to use a big aperture?


Taken with f/2.8

A big aperture is anything under f/5.6 (which is f/4, f/2.8 and so on).

Use a large aperture in any of these 2 situations:

  • When you’re in a dark place and want to let in more light
  • When you want to blur the background and isolate your subject

Perfect examples would be portraits, weddings and macro photography, where making your subject stand out feels a lot more professional.

You can also use a big aperture for low light, night time, indoor photos when you can’t use a flash.

2. When to use a small aperture?


Taken with f/8

A small aperture is anything over f/5.6

  • When you want everything to be in focus and sharp

Examples are landscape photography, architecture, travel shots etc. Anytime where you want more than just one thing in focus.

Think of aperture as the tool to show the viewer what you think is important.

When your background is blurred, it means you don’t want anything else distracting your main subject because it’s the most important part of the shot.

When everything is sharp on your shots, it means you want to show the viewer everything you saw, and not just focus on one particular thing. The image of the lake with mountains above would be a lot different if only the rock in front was sharp.

There are obviously no rules in photography, but it’s usually how it goes. Just look at a few tight portrait or wedding shots and you will see your eyes naturally go towards the sharp part, while the blurry background only makes it appear nicer, but doesn’t steal any attention.

3. Time to Experiment

Now that you’ve read all about aperture, it’s time to try different settings on your own.

Change your camera into Av/A mode, find an interesting static subject and go somewhere bright enough. Why? Because when you’ll make the aperture small, your shot might look too dark, so make sure to do this during the day.

Simply focus on your subject and start taking pictures using all the different aperture values we listed above.

Take one shot at f/16, then at f/8, then at f/5.6 and as much as the lens allows you to go. Your camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed in this mode, so you only have to worry about the aperture.

Look at the difference in brightness as well as how much is in focus on all shots.

4. Aperture Sizes in Different Lenses

Canon 50mm f/1.8 (left) vs Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6

Different lenses have different maximum openings.

You won’t find super big aperture sizes in most cheap zoom lenses, simply because making a high quality lens that can go up to f/2.8 or bigger is not that easy.

This is why most people get a prime lens; there’s no zoom, which means the max. aperture can be way bigger, sometimes even up to f/1.2. These lenses cost a lot more, but they offer unmatched quality and background blur.

The majority of affordable zoom lenses start at f/4, which is still good enough for all different types of photography, but not so much for extreme indoor low light conditions. Other than raising your ISO or choosing a shutter speed, there’s no much else to do other than buy a better lens.

If you don’t know how to “read” lens names, here’s a simple breakdown.

One on side, we have the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and on the other we have the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM.

The Canon 50mm f/1.8 is a prime lens, which means there’s no zoom. The f/1.8 states its biggest aperture possible is f/1.8. You can still choose something smaller (f/2.8, f/4, …), but not anything bigger.

On the other hand, the Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 has a maximum opening of f/4 when it’s at 70mm, and a maximum of f/5.6 when you zoom to 300mm. The first number relates to the first aperture size, same for the latter numbers.

Another example would be a Sigma 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3. At 150mm, you can’t go bigger than f/5.6, while at 600mm, you can’t go bigger than f/6.3. There are certain physical limitations, which is why companies don’t just make all lenses have super big apertures. It would be enormous, heavy, and not to mention really expensive.

Related Articles