F What? Understanding F Stops. DSLR Photography 101

This post is the second part of our DSLR Photography 101 series. Also check out Part 1 – It’s Not the Camera, It’s You , Part 3 – Be Aware of the Whole Picture: Composition and Part 4 – How To Photograph Outdoor Sports 

Photography, digital or not, can get overcomplicated in a hurry.

I hope to help bring some clarity to the subject through a series of posts and tips.

First, here is some jargon or photospeak lingo that goes in to taking a photo.

DSLR Photography Understanding F Stops

photo credit: JiyeRo via photopin cc

F-stop: the amount of light a lens will allow to pass through it. A high number, think F32, allows very little light. A low number like F1.8 allows much more light.

Shutter speed: the speed at which the shutter of the camera will fire (shoot) to take your photo. Action photos tends to require faster shutter speeds (1/250 of a second or 1/500 of a second) because of the movement of your subjects. Portraits can be shoot at 1/50 or 1/60 of a second as long as you have a steady hand.

With a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, you can typically control both these settings on the camera if it has a manual mode (most do, along with shutter priority and aperature or F-stop priority).

DSLR Photography 101 Understanding F Stops

An F-stop of 1.8 and shutter speed of 1/5000 of a second were used to capture this image of the aftermath of an ice storm which ravaged much of the northeastern parts of Canada in Dec. 2013. Using a lower F-stop number allowed only the sign and not the background to be the focus of the photo.

However, you are limited to what your camera and lens will allow your minimum and maximum settings can be.

Some cameras will allow you to take photos at 1/2000, others cap it at 1/8000 and some are in between.

Lenses can be more tricky. I have a 50mm Nikon D series lens (MSRP $199). It gives me options for my F stops starting at 1.8 (wide open, most light) and ending at 22 (least allowable light). There are other settings in between.

DSLR 101 Understanding F Stops

To capture the branch and show more of the ice drips, an F-stop of F9 and shutter speed of 1/125 were used. The first ice is the clearest but trailing from left to right in the image, more detail remains than with a an F-stop allowing more light.

I use this lens typically around the house, taking candid shots of my daughter, photos of projects my wife is doing and because it does not zoom, it is a good length which accurately records the world at a similar distance to what your eye actually sees.

There are many advantages to the lens which allow you to shoot at 1.4, 1.8 or even F2. The biggest advantage is the amount of light which passes through it. It means in a well lit room, you don’t need a flash. In a poorly lit room, if you take your photos at a mid-range shutter speed, you could still get away with not using a flash depending on the effect you are going for.

I’m sure you have seen photos where the whole background is blurry or a section of the photo looks in focus and the rest does not (shallow depth of field). This effect is most easily achieved by taking photos at a low F-stop. For example, if I was taking photos of my daughter playing in the yard but I don’t want the dead rose bushes showing in the background, I would shoot at 1.8.

DSLR Photography 101 Understanding F Stops Comparision

The image on the left was taken at F-1.8 and 1/2500 whereas on the right, it was F11 and 1/80. The left image shows great detail of the front of the dock but quickly fades to blur by the end of the dock and background land. The right image looks clearer throughout. At F22, you would notice even less difference between the foreground and background.

If you want the opposite effect, having everything in the photo seem like it was on the same plane, use a higher number. If my daughter was picking roses in a field and the rows of flowers went on for a great distance, I would use F22 or if the lens was capable, even higher.

As a photographer, it is completely up to you to decide how to take photos. Just remember, you can get a completely different photo conceptually shooting at F1.8 and 1/4000 or F22 and 1/60. There are infinite possibilities in between.

Understanding F Stops DSLR Photography 101

Shot with natural light at F1.8 and 1/640, the shadows are evident on the baby. The background is completely obscured making a dramatic shot.

Snap Shots: Tips from a (former) pro

When your paying hundreds of dollars (or more) for each camera lens, protect your investment. My dad, a seasoned photographer from the days of darkrooms and manually operated everything cameras shared this tip with me when I became a journalist. Invest in a UV filter and leave it permanently attached to each of your lenses. The filter changes nothing about your photos but it will be the layer or glass that gets scratched if something bad ever happens to you lens. Paying $20 for a filter is way cheaper than replacing a lens (full price) or repairing a lens (close to full price depending on shipping costs).

Did you enjoy this article?
Signup today and receive free updates straight in your inbox. We will never share or sell your email address.

26 Comments

  1. Linda B
  2. Karen
  3. Robin Gagnon
    • James Thom
  4. Donna
  5. robyn
    • James Thom
  6. Not So Average Mama
  7. Melissa
  8. Natalie
    • James Thom
  9. Katie
  10. Anne
  11. Jen
  12. Gary
  13. earn income online fast
  14. dating
  15. Beth Larson
    • Katrina
  16. weight loss hypnosis Philadelphia
  17. Diseño web Toledo paginas web toledo
  18. raja perabotan
  19. Kayleigh
  20. Mobile VR XXX
  21. sukhminder singh
  22. Stockholm Snickeri

Add Comment