Do You Make This Photography Mistake?

Do You Make This Photography Mistake?

Inside: New photographers often struggle to figure out what aperture to use.  This post gives you two questions to help you decide.  Read on to learn from my photography mistake!



Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!


At six weeks old my third baby had begun to smile in earnest and I knew I HAD to capture it.

I settled the baby in her bouncer with a pretty blanket draped over the seat to create a nice background and enlisted my husband to help me coax out a baby smile.

My camera settings were ready and I felt my heart beat faster as my husband chatted with the baby in sing-song tones.

The moment came – her daddy’s voice made her face light up with the sweetest grin and I snapped away.

I reviewed my images on the back of my camera and saw a beautiful photo of my baby’s smile.

Success!  A keeper!

what aperture to use

…or so I thought.

Later when I downloaded my photos to my computer I admired my capture.

The exposure looked perfect and her grin made me giddy.

I imagined how much everyone would love this photo on her birth announcement.

I zoomed in…

what aperture should I use

Wait, the eyes.

My heart sank.

Her left eye looked blurry.

My excitement shifted to deep disappointment.

What happened? Where did I go wrong?

I had no idea.

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What Aperture To Use

As a new photographer I’d read the rule of thumb:

choose your aperture based on the number of subjects in your photo.

That was easy enough to remember.

So I’d chosen an aperture of f/1.8 because I had one person in my photo. Shouldn’t that have worked?  Why didn’t it work?  

How do you know what aperture to use?

The fact is


It’s true.  The aperture you should use depends on how many people or subjects are in your photo.

But other factors also need to be considered when you decide what aperture to use.

photography cheat sheet

Aperture, also known as f/stop, is one of the legs of the exposure triangle.  Aperture helps photographers create the beautiful, blurry backgrounds most people want when they are learning how to use their DSLR.

 what aperture to use

photo with blurry background taken at f/2.5

Lower f/stop = Shallow Depth of Field

A photo taken at a lower f/stop setting has a “shallow depth of field.”  A small “slice” of your image is in focus.

Think of it like a pane of glass running on a vertical plane through your image.  A lower f/stop setting will create a “thin” pane of glass through your subject.

This imaginary window pane, or in-focus “sliver” of the photo is called the “depth of field.” 

Remember, a photo taken at a lower f/stop setting, like f/2 has a “shallow depth of field.”  A photo taken at a higher f/stop, like f/11 has a “wide depth of field.’   


I Made One Simple Change


Scroll through the photos below and see if you can spot what I changed from the first to the second photo.

Hint: It wasn’t my aperture setting.

In the first photo notice only the toes are in focus.

In the second image notice how all of both feet and part of the legs are in focus, even though I didn’t change the aperture.

Do you know what changed from the first photo to the second?  Click on the photo to see a larger version:


In the example with my daughter’s photo taken at f/1.8 the shallow depth of field could not encompass both eyes.

How to Fix It

To fix the problem I could’ve closed down my aperture to f/2.8 or f/3.2 to capture both of her eyes in focus.


I could’ve taken the photo from further away to get both eyes in focus without adjusting my f/stop setting.

In the example above I took a few steps back but didn’t change my settings. 

I cropped in closer on the second image (in Lightroom) to show the increased depth of field created when I moved further from my subject.

But you can see here how far back I was compared to the first photo, which was not cropped.

I learned three important lessons from my photography mistake:

  • Mistakes are good!  I learn something important from every mistake I make.  I’ve learned to embrace them because they always teach me a lesson I’ll remember.
  • When I’m close to my subject a wider aperture won’t be the best choice because I want to get both eyes and most of the facial features in focus.  A higher f/stop number such as f/3.2 or f/4.0 may be a better choice.
  • Zoom in on the camera’s LCD to check focus!  If I’d zoomed in on those photos of my daughter I’d have realized I needed to adjust my aperture setting or back up a bit to get both eyes in focus.

How Do I Know What Aperture To Use?

The next time you need to decide what aperture to use ask yourself two questions:

1.  How many people are in my photo? 

Use one aperture stop for every person in the photo.  For 5 people, for example, use at least f/5.  And if they are on different planes, such as in rows, you may need to raise your f/stop number even more to get everyone in focus.

2.  How close am I to my subject(s)?

If you’re close to your subject for a portrait, use a higher f/stop to increase your depth of field and get all the important parts of the subject’s face in focus.

NOTE:  your lens and the type of camera you have also impact a photo’s depth of field.  Check out this helpful article to better understand how these other factors affect the depth of field in a photo.

Practice with different lenses if you have more than one. Different lenses will affect your depth of field based on their focal length.

If you’re new to photography I recommend a lens like THIS or THIS.  It’s a great lens for beginners!

Learn From My Mistake

Learn from my photography mistake and take your distance from your subject into account when you choose what aperture to use.  You’ll avoid download disappointment and increase your keepers.


Need all these photography terms simplified? Click on the image below to download a Free Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet for Beginners:

Free Download – Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet

Free Download – Easy to Understand Photography Cheat Sheet

Inside: New to photography?  Start here!  Download my free DSLR photography for beginners PDF HERE.


Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). I only recommend tools and resources I use and love!

I looked down past my large, round belly, to the brand new DSLR sitting in my lap. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and I couldn’t wait to take beautiful photos of our new baby.  

But as I read the instruction manual and fumbled with the camera settings my excitement waned. I wanted to take great photos, but had no idea where to begin.  

“A photography class is what I need!” I mused.

A few days later a discount on a local photography class landed in my inbox and I registered right away. 

Surely this would unlock the mysteries of my camera and have me taking beautiful photos in no time.

I went to the class one week before my due date, larger and rounder.  I paid close attention and scribbled notes on ISO, aperture and shutter speed.  

I was sure I understood.

Then it was time to go out and test my new knowledge by taking photos in manual mode. And I was LOST.  

I couldn’t remember

-which setting to choose first,

-which setting controlled which aspect of the photo, or

-why I thought this class was a good idea in the first place!

How was I supposed to hold all this information in my head???

DSLR Photography for Beginners

I checked my notes again.  I was still lost.

In frustration I switched the camera back to Auto mode.  

The instructor came by to check my progress.  He saw that I’d reverted back to Auto.  I felt the heat creeping into my cheeks.  

“It’s challenging, isn’t it?”, he said. 

“Um, yeah, understatement of the year” I thought.  I was ashamed to admit I’d already given up.

My scribbled notes weren’t cutting it. This photography class didn’t deliver the results I’d hoped for.  

I needed someone to simplify this for me.

This article explains the exposure triangle in depth.  I want you to read it all.

But if you’re like I was and need a simple photography cheat sheet that will eliminate the overwhelm of choosing your camera settings, you can download it below:

DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF

If you’re new to photography, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to understand.  It’s the foundation for understanding how to use your dslr camera.


photography for dummies pdfEvery camera (even your camera phone) utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or image.

When you shoot in auto mode your camera makes the decisions for you of how to balance the three elements of the exposure triangle based on the scene you’re photographing and the light available.

When you shoot in manual mode you get to do the thinking and choose the best settings for the lighting you’re in and the effect you want to achieve.

Taking control of my camera settings and learning manual mode was the key to learning to take photos I love.  

Let’s look at the function of each leg of the exposure triangle.  We’ll start with ISO:

ISO Settings

ISO stands for “International Standards Organization.”  

That’s not important except to know there are internationally recognized standards for this camera setting.

Your ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor (the part inside your camera that captures an image) is to light.  The lower your ISO setting, the less sensitive.  The higher the setting, the more sensitive.

The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will be able to “gather”.

Most entry level DSLR’s have an ISO range from 100 to 3200 or 6400, while pro-level DSLR’s have ISO ranges up to 32,000 and even higher! 

A higher ISO setting has one major drawback.  The higher you set your ISO, the more “noise” you’ll get in your photos.

Higher end cameras can handle this noise better than entry level DSLR’s, so the better your camera, the better it’s ability to shoot in low light where you’ll need to use a higher ISO setting.

A higher ISO setting also limits the range of highlights and shadows (known as the dynamic range) your camera can capture.

For these reasons, it’s best to keep your ISO setting as low as possible.

ISO Examples

I took this photo of my daughter watching fireworks under dark low light conditions. I have a higher-end DSLR and my ISO setting was at 20,000!

photo of girl watching fireworks at night illustrates digital noise caused by a high ISO setting

When I zoom in (below) you can see the noise caused by the high ISO setting. This noise is considered undesirable in terms of image quality.

To avoid this always keep your ISO setting as low as possible.

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Shutter Speed

The next leg of the exposure triangle is SHUTTER SPEED.

Shutter speed refers to how long the camera’s shutter stays open when you snap a photo, expressed in fractions of a second.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter will stay open for one one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second (which isn’t long at all)!  

You’ll sometimes see shutter speed written as a whole number, like SS 125, but this can be confusing, so it’s best to write and think of it in fraction form.

The smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed.  

For example, SS 1/800 (one 800th of a second) is faster than SS 1/50 (one 50th of a second).

Shutter speed can be used to capture motion blur.  A slow shutter speed can make running water look silky, or lend a sense of movement to a photo.  To achieve this look you would choose a longer shutter speed, such as 30 seconds.  

This shutter speed is not written as a fraction, because it’s longer than a second.

This site has great examples showing how to create motion blur using a slow shutter speed.

For handheld photography it’s best to set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster, especially if photographing a moving subject (like a child).  

In most cases, a faster shutter speed is better.

One important note:

set your shutter speed higher than the focal length of your lens.  For example, if you have a long telephoto lens, such as a 200 mm, your minimum shutter speed would need to be 1/200.

A slower shutter speed can lead to blurry photos.  This is known as “motion blur.” A fast shutter speed will be able to freeze the subject’s motion.

A faster shutter speed also allows less time for the camera to capture light, so with a faster shutter speed less light will reach the camera’s sensor.  A slower shutter speed gives the camera more time to gather light, so more light will reach the camera’s sensor.

Shutter Speed Examples

These photos illustrate how shutter speed can help you achieve a sharp photo.

This photo was taken at a fast shutter speed of 1/8000.  That’s one eight-thousandth of a second.  Note how sharp and in focus the flower is, even though the wind was blowing:

photo of flower taken at shutter speed 1/8000 shutter speed 1/8000

This next photo was taken at a slow shutter speed of 1/60 (that’s one 60th of a second). 

1/60 is too slow for a handheld shot, and too slow to capture an object blowing in the wind.

photo of flower taken with a slow shutter speed shows motion blur shutter speed 1/60

For sharp photos, set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster.

What Aperture to Use

The third leg of the exposure triangle is known as APERTURE, also referred to as f/stop. The aperture you use depends on the effect you’re going for.  Let me explain.

Aperture may be my favorite of the three legs because it’s what creates those beautiful blurry backgrounds that set a great photo apart from a snapshot.  This is what most people think of when they picture “professional photography.”

Aperture means “opening”  

The camera has an opening inside of it that allows light to pass through to the sensor.  The f/stop number, expressed as a fraction (yes, fractions again!) refers to how “wide open” or “closed down” the camera’s aperture is.

The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.  

The more closed the camera’s aperture is, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.

Some situations call for having more of your photo in focus.  Landscape photos, for example, should have the whole scene in focus and you’d need to use a narrower aperture to achieve this. 

A photo of a large group of people may also call for a narrower aperture setting so everyone will be in focus. 

The aperture you choose depends on what you’re photographing.

A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor.  A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor.

The terms can get confusing!

I had a hard time keeping this one straight when I first started learning manual mode.

Think of it like the iris in your eye. When the light is dim your iris opens wider to let more light in.  When the light is bright your iris closes down to let in less light.

In practice, the most important points to remember about aperture are:

A lower f/stop number will give you a blurrier background. 

If you’re photographing a larger number of people or a landscape a higher f/stop number will be needed.

Aperture Examples

The photos below illustrate how your aperture, or f/stop affects your photo.

This photo was taken at f/3.2.  Notice the nice blurry background:

photo of tulip with a blurry background taken at wide aperture f/3.2

In this photo I changed my aperture to f/7.1.  Notice how the background doesn’t look as smooth.

photo of tulip taken at narrower aperture f/7.1

This photo was taken at f/16.  Notice how the background is much more in focus and we see more of the distracting elements in the background.  The photo taken at a wider aperture blurs them out for us.

photo of tulip at f/16 f/16

If you want a blurry background, choose a lower f/stop number.

FREE DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF

Five years later after my third child was born I’d finally gained a good understanding of how to use the exposure triangle.  

I don’t want you to struggle with it for as long as I did, so I have a simple photography cheat sheet for you. It will help you when you’re trying to decide on your camera settings.  

You can print it and take it along with you when you’re out shooting.  Download it below.

I truly love my photos now that I’ve mastered shooting in manual mode and understand how the exposure triangle affects my photos.  

Learning manual mode was the key that unlocked the mysteries of photography for me and allowed me to take beautiful photos I love.

Eliminate the overwhelm and get help choosing your camera settings.  Download your FREE Photography Cheat Sheet for Beginners:

How I Learned To Take Photos I Love

How I Learned To Take Photos I Love

I would give almost anything to go back to this moment when my now pre-teen son was just four weeks old – not only so I could kiss his sweet baby cheeks – but so I could use the skills I have now to take a photo of him that doesn’t make me cringe today.

I loved this photo because I’d captured his sparkly eyes wide open and a hint of a newborn expression.  I even showed it off in a frame for many years.

Now when I look at it all I can see is how washed out his skin looks and how badly his right arm is chopped off.

Of course, I’m glad to have any photos of my first baby at all.  Those days in my life will never return.

But I wish I’d known then what I know now

Back then I didn’t have the skills to capture how beautiful my babies were to me.

Here’s another photo I loved.  Such a sweet gummy smile.

Too bad his skin looks orange/red, his hands are blurry, and his little feet got chopped off.

There’s that cute smile again, but this series of photos is oh-so-blue! And the harsh lighting – ack!

No problem – slap a sepia filter on it! 🙂

I didn’t know the first thing about how to get good color in a photo or proper exposure.

More funky skin tones and limb chops here…

Everyone starts somewhere

I share these photos not to make fun of myself, but to show that everybody starts somewhere.  

I’m living proof that it’s possible to go from being clueless about photography to taking photos you love.

After my third child was born things began to change as I learned how to use my camera.  

Check out these photos from her first year:

Can you see the difference?

I was just getting started and I still had a lot to learn, but I was light years ahead of the photos I used to take.

One skill I learned changed everything…

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pinterest image

With so much technology at our disposal today, activities requiring skill and artfulness are being lost.

Take bread, for instance. Homemade bread is yummier and usually healthier than store-bought bread, but so much less convenient.

In our quest for easy, we always lose something.

This holds true in photography. Our camera phones require no skill of us at all.  And for many moments, their convenience makes them the best choice…


once you get the hang of it, learning how to take control of your camera settings can be one of the most rewarding skills you will ever learn and can make the biggest difference in your photos.  It’s not as hard as you think,

and it’s well worth the effort.

As I look back over my photos over the past few years I can see my skills progressing:

Over time, I learned to see the light…

I learned how to compose and edit and polish my photos…

I learned how to capture authentic moments…

…but the turning point in 2012 was getting my camera off of auto mode and learning to shoot in manual mode.  This was the one thing that changed everything.

I learned that I’m smarter than my camera. My ability to see the light and choose what’s most important in my photo beats my camera’s auto settings every time.

My Only Regret?

-not learning sooner. 

I missed so many great photos of my first two babies because I didn’t have the skills I needed to capture their little years.

But I’m so thankful for every great photo I’ve captured since learning how to use my camera.

It feels great to look at the back of my camera now and feel a rush of excitement over what I’ve captured.  No more cringing.

I’ve never regretted the time and effort I’ve spent learning photography.

Want to improve your own photos right now?  Sign up for my free e-course:

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