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What Is an F-Stop? (And Why Stops Matter in Photography)

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 9 min read
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So what is an f-stop? It is one of the basic camera terms you must be aware of in photography. An “f-stop” is also called “f-number.” And perhaps “number” is a better way to think of it because it’s expressed as one. You will see “f/2.8” or “f/5.6” in articles about photos or lenses. In simple terms, the f-stop tells you how large the lens aperture is at any given moment. 

Understanding how it works is key to correct exposure for beautiful pictures. But don’t worry… Our article will tell you everything you need to know about f-stops. Then you can use it to your advantage in your photography.

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What Is an F-Stop on a Camera?

So what does the “f” stand for in f-stop? The “f” stands for focal length. The number following it is a fraction of the focal length.

But before we would jump in further, it’s essential to understand how the aperture works. We’ll keep it short… The aperture blades, also known as a diaphragm in your lens, work just like the pupil of a human eye. In low light, the pupil gets larger to let in as much light as possible. The same goes for your camera’s aperture. But why is it so important? It’s because the f-stop scale is what helps you to measure and understand the aperture size.

You’ll see “f/” or “f” on your camera, followed by a number. This denotes how wide the aperture is. So the lower the number, the wider the aperture. And you can adjust these settings in aperture priority and manual modes in your camera.

This may be confusing. Why does a low number represent the max aperture? The answer is simple. But first, you need to know the f-stops scale as follows—f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22. This is what the aperture scale looks like from wide (left) to narrow (right):

Aperture sizes at certain f-stop settings showing what is an f-stop
A small f-number (left) is a large aperture. A large f-number (right) means a small aperture.

How Do You Calculate an F-Stop’s Aperture Size?

At this point, things get a little bit complicated and somewhat mathematical. To calculate the size of your aperture at a certain f-stop, you must divide the focal length by the fraction.

For example, if you are shooting with a 200mm lens at f/4, the diameter of the aperture is 200 ÷ 4 = 50mm.

Here are a couple more f-stop settings examples:

  • A 50mm lens with an aperture of f/2 is 50 ÷ 2. So it has a lens opening 25mm wide.
  • A 50mm lens with an aperture of f/8 is 50 ÷ 8. So it has a lens opening 6.25mm wide.

lizard resting on a stop sign


How F-stop Affects Your Image

So what’s the most important thing to know about these f-stop numbers? From each number to the next, the aperture decreases to half its size. So if you change from f/2 to f/2.8, you are halving the amount of light that hits your sensor or film.

In doing so, you’re halving the open area of the aperture in the lens. This allows 50% less light through the lens (one f-stop). This is because the f-stop numbers come from an equation. The lens’ focal length determines the aperture size.

Let’s say you are photographing portraits of someone at the beach during sunset. As the sun keeps going down, you have less and less light. So it would be best if you compensated for this. One possible solution is to open your aperture to let more light in through the lens and onto your camera’s sensor.

Jumping up an f-stop brightens your image. But it also changes your photo’s depth of field.

So what if you shoot with a wider aperture, such as f/2.8? You will notice that the area of focus is much smaller than if you were using a bigger f-stop, like an f/5.6 or f/8. So the wider the aperture is, the shallower the depth of field.

You can get creative with adjusting your f-stops for a different depth of field. But you also need to be aware of how to do it properly.

A wide aperture can easily blur your picture in undesirable areas. This is especially true in portraits, where if you use a very small f-stop such as f/1.8, your subject’s nose could be out of focus while their eyes are still sharp.

In this case, the area of focus can be less than 10mm. This is a very shallow depth of field.

Close up image of a girl's eye with a very shallow depth of field

Narrower apertures (such as f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22) are mostly used for landscape photography. That’s because they have a bigger area of focus to keep most of the environment sharp. But as explained earlier, these f-stops don’t let as much light in as wider ones. So your shot can come out underexposed.

All lenses have a limit to how wide you can open their apertures. These max apertures are usually the following f-stops—f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8, f/3.5, f/4, and f/5.6.

In some cases, the focal length of your lens can affect the smallest f-stop you can use. Some zoom lenses don’t come with variable apertures. And the lowest f-stop you can use depends on your lens’s focal length.

Here’s an example. A 70-200mm variable aperture lens can use the smallest one at 70mm. But once you zoom out to 200mm, your aperture automatically sets itself to a larger aperture.

These lenses are usually cheaper than fixed aperture zoom or prime lenses. (A prime lens is when the focal length is not adjustable.) A lot of professional photographers tend to use prime lenses. Primes can usually produce a much wider aperture opening.

What happens when you use the widest possible aperture of your lens, but there’s still not as much light as you need? Your image will be underexposed.

Then you have two options to correct it. Either you get an additional light source or you can adjust other settings in your camera other than the aperture.

Understanding the Exposure Triangle

Camera exposure is dependent on three settings. These are the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings. These settings make up the exposure triangle.

As your photography skills improve, you can start shooting in manual mode more. That way, you gain more control over how the camera exposes the scene. Knowing what exposure stops can do for the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture affects how you change each one.

Shutter Speed and ISO Stops

Apart from the aperture f-stop scale, we can also measure the ISO and shutter speed in stops. The same concept works here with a small difference. You double or halve each value with each full ISO or shutter speed stop.

Another difference from the aperture f-stops is that ISO and shutter speed do not affect the depth of field. But by adjusting these two settings on your camera, you can control how much light your image has.

Besides controlling the exposure, ISO and shutter speed have other effects on your shot.

ISO Stops

Let’s start with the easiest to understand, which is ISO. One stop up from ISO 100 is 200. And one stop up from ISO 200 is 400. The intervals aren’t equal. Instead, the ISO doubles between stops. That’s easy enough to understand, so I’ll leave it at that.

Be careful, though. The higher you set the ISO, the more noise your image will have! Why? Because raising the ISO makes the camera sensor more sensitive to light. The camera does this with an increased electric charge. And the noise in the photo is the byproduct of this adjustment.

But don’t be afraid of stepping up your ISO. This can help you to be more flexible with adjusting shutter speed and aperture to achieve different effects in your photos.

For example, maybe you don’t have that much light. And perhaps your aperture is also as wide open as possible. In this case, increasing ISO can help you expose your shot correctly.

Cityscape at night
Adjusted ISO and shutter speed for a night shot

Shutter Speed Stops

The majority of the time you use your digital camera, you’re shooting at a fraction of a second. The same principle applies if you shoot at speeds of one second or longer. You double the time from one second to two, then from two seconds to four. Simple.

When shooting at a fraction of a second, such as 1/200 s, you double this number (halve the denominator—the number on the bottom of the fraction—which, in this case, is 200).

If you’re new to photography, don’t worry. This becomes second nature. 1/100 s is twice the time of 1/200 s. So that’s one stop. And the exposure is doubled. 1/50 s is twice the time as 1/100 s, and so on.

Adjusting F-stop, Shutter Speed, and ISO for Correct Exposure

Let me make this even simpler for you.

Say you’re shooting at f/2.8, at 1/100 s, with an ISO of 200, but you want a very shallow depth of field. You know that widening your aperture opening to f/2 produces a shallower depth of field. Perfect!

But it also doubles the amount of light entering your camera lens. You have jumped up an f-stop with your aperture and made the exposure brighter.

So you need to counter this with a change in shutter speed or ISO. You can halve the ISO to 100. Or you can double the shutter speed from 1/100 to 1/200 s.

As you can see, this is quite important to know to expose photos properly.

Blurry field with a castle in the background
Image with a wide aperture and shallow depth of field


To summarize, increasing the exposure by one stop doubles the exposure. And decreasing the exposure by a one-stop will halve it. But wait, there’s more!

With your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, there are more intervals than just doubling and halving exposures. For example, between f/1.4 and f/2, you find another f-stop… f/1.8. These are third f-stops that give you more control over your exposure.

We hope this article helped answer, “What is an f-stop?” Now you understand how the f-stop scale works and why it’s important. And it’s time to go out there and put everything you learned into practice.

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