Choosing The Correct Aperture For Animal Photography

Aperture? Hey cool…we know what that is… we can deal…that was one of the plant eating ferns in Avatar, wasn’t it?

Ok, ok….er’…what the heck is aperture anyway?

Well for starters, aperture is used to control the depth of field in your photographs, so it’s a very important component of any animal portrait where we want to blur out the background.

Secondly, it’s one of three elements in every photograph that is used to control exposure (shutter speed, aperture and the ISO speed). Obviously we need to have a good understanding of all three, but for today, let’s study up on the aperture.

The aperture setting determines how much of the subject, in front of and behind the point of focus is sharp in the final photograph. This sharpness is referred to as the depth of field in the photograph. When you choose large aperture numbers, you are going to get a lot of depth in your photographs and when you choose small aperture numbers, you will get shallow depth.

As always, you get to choose. If you are making a scenic shot, you want a lot of depth in your image, but if you are making an animal photograph, you’ll want to choose a shallow depth so the animal will stand out. You want, in effect, that 3D Avatar look.

The concept is much easier to understand by studying photographs. Look at these two images of my favorite subject. I posed my Irish terrier with a fence directly behind his head and exposed two images, one at f 5.6 and one at f 11. See how much more the fence shows up in the photograph labeled f11? That’s the whole concept behind depth of field!

(above) Irish Terrier f 5.6 – (below) Irish Terrier f 11

But be careful. Study these two images of the Great Dane. In the one labeled f 5.6 notice how the nose is in sharp focus, but the rest of the head is too soft—it’s beyond the depth of field that the photographer chose to use.

(above) f 5.6

In the photograph below, labeled f 11, the entire face is in focus.

(above)  f 11

Beginners take note:

If you are not sure what camera settings to set, use your camera icons to help fine tune exposure. Choose the PORTRAIT icon for close up shots. The camera will automatically set your depth of field to a smaller number. Conversely, if you are taking a scenic shot and want a lot of depth in your photo, choose the LANDSCAPE icon. The camera will automatically set your depth to a larger number.

Practice playing with the depth of field in your portraits this month, being careful to always focus on the eyes.

Good shooting!