The Three Pointed Shape of Photographic Thinking
F-Stop is a phrase that you hear many photographers using in conversations, then they often go on to include shutter speed and ISO settings. At this point many beginner photographers and non-photographers start to nod-off and lose the thread of conversation.
But these three points represent the balance of thought that every photographer must consider when looking at an object to photograph.
When we look at any object we think of how much light is hitting it, from which angle the light is coming, how that light also creates shadows that surround or block the main features of the object, and lots more.
Taking a photograph is about using light to capture the details of a subject. If we want we can use our artistic bent to play with shadows and light to leave enough space for the viewer to make up their own mind about the subject.
We allow shadows to envelop parts of the object so that the person looking at the image can interpret the impression in their own way. Or we can make sure that we include every detail and achieve a sharp focus all round. Such as product images that need to be understood quickly. Or an artistic interpretation of an everyday object where we use the light and darkness to create moods.
Without shadow to support the lighted areas of an image the photo will lose detail. This is what leads to a boring and pointless image.
White is a Colour
It’s good to bear in mind that highlights are not “white”, they are pure light and very delicate. White is a colour somewhere in the image, and it should be treated as colour with texture.
It’s for this reason that when you adjust the balance of light in processing software, you will see a slider for white, and another one for highlights. Knowing this, and working with this thought, will improve your photography enormously.
F-Stop will help determine the depth of focus and the point of focus of an image. The lens that you are using will also determine how “sharp” you can focus, and how deep you can get that focus to extend into the subject.
The point of focus could be so tight that it causes the viewer to enjoy the whole image but always be drawn back to that specific point of focus — as the photographer planned.
Depth of focus is how the focal point extends into the image, and it can be controlled by adjusting the F-stop, or aperture of the lens.
You can set your aperture to F 1.2. or F 1.8, and have a tight focal point that will cause the surrounding field in the photo to blur, even the subject of the photo might start to blur at the edges so that it appears separated from other objects in the photo.
Recently, lens technology has advanced so far that we can see journalists using such powerful lenses that they can make the subject in a photo appear as if they are a cut-out figure. It looks ugly, and it has nothing to do with interesting photography.
If you want to take great photos that reflect your own vision of life, then you should start thinking about the whole range of combinations between aperture / F stop, shutter speeds, and ISO settings.
Let me first point out that there is a lot of repetitive nonsense on the internet about ISO; you can often come across advice that tells you not to increase this setting above 100 ISO. This is rubbish. The whole point of ISO is to help you balance the sensitivity of the light-sensor in your camera.
Anything between 100 and 400 ISO shouldn’t present any problems. The problem with ISO is that when it is adjusted without thinking about the other settings you can end up with a “noisy” image — what in film photography is known as grainy images.
Image noise is not a bad thing. It can be used in a very gently way to enhance a photo’s aesthetic qualities. Remember, that there is more to a modern digital photograph than super-tack-sharp-bright-and-shiny-smiles.
The image below was taken quickly, in bright sunny conditions which caused the highlights to become slightly “blown-out”, I decided that it had an artistic quality and gave it some texture, then balanced the light against the darkness.
ISO settings make a huge difference to how much light the sensor will take in. The shutter speed controls for what duration that intensity of light will be exposed to the sensor, and the aperture setting/ F-stop, will control whether the aperture will open into a large hole, or a small hole, which will determine the point of focus and its depth.
If you set your camera lens at F22 while in an interior, household, or on a dull day, you’ll be forced to think about your shutter speed. It’s also near as impossible to adjust the other settings under these conditions and get a decent shot that’s worth keeping.
The lower the shutter speed, such as 50/100 and slower, right down to 1 second and so on, the more danger of camera shake.
You need to compensate for the low lighting and change the F stop to somewhere around F 2.8–5.6, depending on camera and lens quality.
F5.6 through F8 — F 11 is perfect for enough depth of field to ensure good quality, and capturing shots that include people and objects that are randomly placed together — not all lined up like soldiers on parade.
Use a camera tripod and flash unit, and it’ll work — my point is that if the lighting is too low, artificial light is extremely helpful in overcoming problems of feeling forced to use a wider aperture to get light into the camera. You might really want that deep focus that a tight aperture will help you achieve.
Think of F stop settings like a funnel which allows light to flow into the camera and become exposed to the sensor, or film.
The narrower the funnel of light, F16-22, the more focused are details that go beyond the first plane.
The broader the funnel of light, F1.2–11 the more “splashy” the light, therefore the point of focus will be tight but quickly become blurry around that point.
For example, a shot of a face with a 50 mm lens, at F1.8. might result in a sharpness in the features, then as the image recedes into the background the ears become a little fuzzy, the hair is also unfocused as it goes around the back of the head, and so on till the background is either blurred, or in “bokeh” — a nice type of blurriness that comes from good quality lenses.
Photography is an ongoing experiment just like all the other arts. Learning to take great photos takes time and patience, but the time spent experimenting with all types of subjects, colours, people, animals, the lovely feeling of being in a crowd and doing your best to make something of it with your camera, is a wonderful challenge.
Learning all about the technical side of F-stops, and light control, is a matter of practice. As you work things start to drop into place in your mind, then when you need to think on your feet and capture a fleeting moment, you discover that, somehow, you just set the camera of ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed perfectly for the shot you were looking at.