As outdoor photographers, we are fortunate to have so many different subjects and types of compositions that we can create with the natural world. Don’t you agree? However, the array of choices we need make for proper exposure and creative composition can be a little overwhelming or confusing at times.
If you are new to aperture and f-stops, then be sure to also check out What is Aperture in Photography? Key Concepts Explained and Aperture and F-Stops Explained to get a full understanding of this key camera setting.
As with many settings in photography, the “best” aperture isn’t always going to be the same one every time. You may get tired of hearing, “it depends” as the answer to “what is the best setting for ____”, but it is true that the available light, the subject, and your creative decisions change from image to image.
That said, below are general guidelines and starting places to help you choose apertures appropriate for different kinds of outdoor images. Just keep in mind the adage, “it depends”.
General Rule of Thumb
Generally speaking, when things like depth of field, freezing motion, and low light are not issues you need to consider for your composition, then it is best to use the f-stop that results in the sharpest image. Most lenses have an f-stop or f-stops where they are the sharpest, called the “sweet spot“. Typically, this is 2-3 stops down from the maximum aperture.
For example – on a f/2.8 lens, the sweet spot is likely f/5.6 or f/8, whereas, on an f/4 lens, the sweet spot is likely f/8 or f/11.
If the sweet spot gives you the exposure and depth of field you desire, then, by all means, use it. But if not, then you may need to choose a different aperture.
Which Aperture is Best for Landscapes?
You may have heard that the best aperture for landscapes is around f/14-f/18. This is because most landscape images attempt to capture a sense of depth by having a very close foreground element and a distant subject both in focus.
This compositional technique requires a deep depth of field and is called “near-far focus”. Using the hyperfocal distance also helps to get everything in a landscape image acceptably sharp.
For the majority of cases when you want to create a deep depth of field, then using narrow apertures around f/14-f/18 makes sense. You usually don’t want to go higher than about f/22 because, at higher apertures, light can become diffracted resulting in degradation of image quality.
The one situation where using an f-stop higher than f/22 is ok is when you want to create a sunstar or sunburst effect in your landscape image.
Yes, you will trade some image quality, but light diffraction is actually your friend in this case because it’s the bending of light (diffraction) that creates the sunstar in the first place. This diffraction can either be created in the lens using a high aperture and/or by partially blocking the sun with something in the scene (like a tree, mountain, leaf, clouds, etc.).
However, using a high aperture isn’t always the answer for landscapes. Here are a few things to consider when choosing the f-stop for your landscape image:
- How far away is your nearest object (foreground)?
- Are you trying to get the whole scene in focus or just a portion?
- Can you properly expose the image at a high aperture without slowing your shutter speed too much (risking unwanted motion blur) or increasing the ISO (risking noise)?
Alternatively, you could use your lens’ sweet spot and focus stack a series of images to also achieve a sense of deep depth in the final image. This is a useful technique if you need to open the aperture to achieve proper exposure.
It is also helpful if the distance between the foreground element and the background is too great to get them all in focus in a single shot. Check out my focus stacking video below if you are not familiar with this technique.
Now, if everything in your scene is far away, so effectively at infinity, then you can choose a wider aperture (perhaps the sweet spot!) since you aren’t trying to capture a sense of depth by including a nearby foreground element.
Which Aperture is Best for Intimate Landscape or Nature Scenes?
You might be wondering, what is an intimate landscape shot anyway? It’s nothing raunchy, but rather a composition that focuses on the finer details of a vast landscape or woodland scene.
Intimate landscape images are not as close-up as a macro shot, but they are a way of drawing attention to parts of a scene that may otherwise go unnoticed. I love looking for intimate landscape compositions because they often tell their own story outside of the context of the grander landscape.
As before, if your desired depth of field and proper exposure work well at your lens’ sweet spot, then, by all means, use that aperture. Otherwise, adjust the aperture accordingly.
One way to draw attention to a small detail in a large scene is to use a shallow depth of field. In this case, choose a wide aperture (f/2.8-f/5.6) to blur the background and get some separation from the subject.
Keep in mind that using a wide aperture doesn’t always equate to a shallow depth of field. Depth of field also depends on how close you are to your subject and how close the subject is to the background.
For example, in the image I took below, the mountains were across a valley from where I was, so they were effectively at infinity. I used a telephoto lens to zoom in on the peaks where an isolated rainstorm hit. The sense of depth in this image is created by the layering effect of the peaks, rather than by depth of field.
I used the maximum aperture (f/6.3) of the lens so that I could use a faster shutter speed since I was hand holding the camera and not using a tripod. Although I used the maximum aperture, everything in the scene was in focus.
Which Aperture is Best for Aerial Shots?
If you ever have the opportunity to do photography from a bush plane or helicopter – take it! It’s an incredible experience to see the landscape from such a different vantage point.
Just be forewarned – if you get motion sick like me, take measures to help prevent it if possible… it can definitely make or break the trip.
Shooting aerial landscapes breaks a few “standard practices” of landscape photography.
First, because small planes and helicopters vibrate, you must use an unusually fast shutter speed than is typically used for landscapes to achieve sharp images. For example, on a recent flight over Kluane National Park and Reserve, my shutter speeds were never slower than 1/1000 second.
Second, to keep your shutter speed fast and your ISO low, the aperture then needs to be wide open, or pretty close to it (typically f/2.8-f/5.6). It’s usually best to be a stop or two down (higher f-number) from the maximum aperture, but only if doing so allows you to achieve proper exposure and freeze motion, which is important when doing aerial photography.
But wait, doesn’t a wide aperture lead to a shallow depth of field and for landscapes, you want a deep depth of field?
Generally – yes and yes (remember, “it depends”).
However, when you shoot from an airplane, everything in the scene is effectively at infinity. There is no foreground element (unless of course, you are purposely trying to get some part of the plane in the shot), and so there is no depth of field to worry about in this case.
The more important setting you need to prioritize in aerial photography is shutter speed. The more open your aperture, the more light you will let into the lens. This allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds and maintain a low ISO so as to not introduce noise into the image.
Which Aperture is Best for Wildlife?
Typically when photographing wildlife, we are attempting to create a portrait of the animal. And like with human portraits, the composition tends to be more appealing when the background is blurred.
Therefore, a shallow depth of field is often used in wildlife photography. If you use the maximum aperture to achieve the shallowest depth of field, you will get the most separation from the background.
Advantages of using a wide aperture for wildlife images:
- Wide apertures let in more light
- Wide apertures allow you to use a faster shutter speed and freeze motion
- Wide apertures create a shallow depth of field, so the background appears softer and out of focus
Disadvantages of using a wide aperture for wildlife images:
- If you are close to your subject or using a telephoto lens, too wide of an aperture could result in parts of the animal’s face or body being out of focus because the depth of field is too narrow.
- Small differences in sharpness can be difficult to notice in the field, and you may come home with important parts of the animal portrait out of focus.
Some wildlife photographers use aperture priority (A, Av) mode to have control over depth of field. However, in some situations, such as low light or photographing birds, it’s actually better to use shutter priority (S, Tv) mode.
The reason for this is that the camera will need to keep the aperture fairly wide open for proper exposure anyway, and you can choose the appropriate shutter speed to freeze motion and still get a shallow depth of field.
Personally, I’ve found that my go-to wildlife photography settings are to use manual mode with Auto ISO. This way I maintain full control over my shutter speed and aperture, and I put the camera in charge of achieving proper exposure by adjusting ISO.
Often, the camera will choose ISO much higher than I ever would have chosen myself, and the noise is minimal. In my book, it’s better to get the shot with a little noise than to miss it completely.
Not all wildlife images are close-up portraits. Some are environmental portraits where the animal’s natural surroundings are used to help tell the story about the animal. In this case, using a narrower aperture to get a deeper depth of field is the better choice.
The Thing About Using Teleconverters For Wildlife Images
Keep in mind, if you use a teleconverter to extend the reach of your lens for wildlife photography, then your maximum relative aperture will increase (higher f-number) by the same multiplier because of the change in focal length.
It’s important to remember that the physical opening of the aperture is no different with or without the teleconverter, but the light has to travel farther through the lens + teleconverter combination to reach the sensor. Because of this, teleconverters don’t affect the depth of field, but they do affect exposure.
For example, when I use a 2x teleconverter on my Sigma 50-500 f/4-f/6.3, a 2x teleconverter increases my effective maximum focal length from 500mm to 1000mm and decreases my maximum aperture at the longest focal length from f/6.3 to f/13. However, the depth of field is the same at 500mm f/6.3 as it is at 1000mm f/13 using the 2x teleconverter.
Which Aperture is Best for Night Sky Photography?
Ok – last but not least! Let’s talk about night sky photography, specifically photographing the Milky Way and the stars.
To cut to the chase, the best aperture for photographing the Milky Way or stars is the maximum aperture of your lens. Ideally, you would use a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider.
When trying to get pinpoint stars, the goal is to let in as much light as possible (the stars are not that bright, after all). The way to increase exposure is to open up the aperture, slow down the shutter speed, and increase the ISO.
If you increase exposure by using a shutter speed that is too slow, you’ll get a star trailing effect, and the stars will appear blurry or oblong. If you use an ISO that is too high, you will get a bunch of digital noise that will be difficult to remove in post-processing.
So, in the case of photographing the stars, you are more likely to get a crummy image with the wrong shutter speed or ISO than you are by using the maximum aperture of the lens. In this way, the aperture is very forgiving in night sky photography.
I did a three-part video series on how to photograph the Milky Way, so if you want all the details, be sure to check them out if you haven’t already.
You might be wondering whether opening up the aperture to its maximum size will affect the depth of field in your night sky images. If your composition contains nearby foreground elements, it might.
In this case, I recommend taking an image focused on the foreground and then another of the sky and then blend the images in post-production for the best sharpness.
If you want to capture it all in-camera, then put some distance between you and your foreground element of choice so that depth of field isn’t an issue. You can always crop the image later.
I hope these guidelines on which aperture to choose for different types of outdoor photography was helpful! And don’t forget – it really all depends. So go out and experiment and have some fun!
What are some of your favorite ways to use aperture creatively in outdoor photography? Please share them with us below.