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December 18, 2014

12 Days of Tips #9: Holiday Photos & Aperture

Now that we are only a week away from Christmas we’re going to focus on the most common type of photography for this time of year, indoor holiday portraits.  This could be anything from present opening to cookie making to family group shots.  Aperture and Shutter Speed play a big role in these types of photos and we’ll give a few guidelines about when each mode is most appropriate, starting with Aperture Priority.

Av (Canon) or A (Nikon) settings on your dial indicate Aperture Priority mode.  Without going into too much detail (we’ll save that for our classes) let’s just say that the lower the aperture number (f-stop) the more light that’s let into the camera and the shallower the ‘depth of field’ (how much of the photos is in focus).  Both of these effects benefit us greatly for indoor portraits, especially at night or in dim light. By using a wider aperture (lower number) we can better light the scene as well as put more focus on the subject by blurring the background and foreground (shallow depth of field). Letting more light in also means you can potentially avoid the use of your pop-up flash, which always a good thing.  We’ll talk more about using a different type of flash to get great results in an upcoming tip.  The idea right now is to avoid the ‘deer in the headlights’ look and capture some of the ambiance and mood of the scene using the available light.

Shooting in Aperture Priority mode and using a wide aperture (smaller number) is best when there is a single point you want to focus on. Such as when a single person is posing or you’re shooting still objects like ornaments or all the delicious food that’s sure to be had.

Aperture Example - Portrait

Aperture Example - Cookie Cutting

Aperture Example - Cranberries

While great for certain situations, shooting with a wide aperture can be a double edge sword because the depth of field is so shallow (less of the scene is in focus). Thus, when shooting groups of people where the subjects may be different distances from the camera it’s best to bump the aperture value (f-stop) up a little to help ensure they’re all in focus. The following photo gives an example of what can happen if this is not done.

Aperture Example - Portrait with f-stop too low

Shot at f/1.8 you can clearly see that the subject on the right is in focus while the subject on the left (who is slightly closer to the lens) is out of focus.

Prime lenses (those without zoom) have a much wider aperture than typical zoom lenses and thus do an even better job at letting in light and blurring the background. They also have the added bonus of increased sharpness over zoom lenses.  If you are lucky enough to already own a prime lens you’re one step ahead.  If not you’ll be happy to know that Exposure rents a whole array of prime lenses, perfect for this type of low light photography.  Check out our rentals page for a complete list.

What other creative ways can you come up with to use Aperture Priority?


Register for one of our Exposure 101 – 104 introductory series to learn about Exposure, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and even Manual mode so you can take control of your shots!


Enter the draw for a chance at today’s prizes… a hand crafter wooden camera with strap and functioning shutter button PLUS a camera stamp!  Great stocking stuffers for the photographer in your life or decorations for your photos work space.

Wooden Camera, Hand Crafted

Camera Stamp

Camera Stamp

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