What the F-Stop

Cutout images of a film camera, digital camera, iPhone, and polaroid. They all have a photo effect on them to make each a black and cream color and a textured shadow background. The cameras are all in a line on a cream-colored solid background.

A quick, not comprehensive, list of ways to improve your photo skills.

Witten by Brittany Norris

Odds are good not everyone reaching this page is an experienced photographer. Some of us will never be in a studio, fussing with strobe lights and taking readings by the light meter. But many of us will play Instagram photographer for our friends and family. And some of those photos will find their way onto our refrigerators because our mothers think photo magnets make for good stocking stuffers. (She’s not wrong.) So for the sake of scrapbook fridges, here are a few tips to elevate your picture-taking skills. 

Clean your lens.

Leave the lens flare to JJ Abrams and keep your equipment clean. Smartphones and cameras alike could use a little TLC. Invest in some good microfiber cleaning cloths and remove the smudges. 

Move around.

As mentioned before, the days of limited shots based on your roll of film are … gone. Don’t hesitate to take a bunch of photos of your subject from different angles. Get high and low. Maybe try a few up close and some from far away. And while you’re at it, mess around with the exposure settings too. 

Explore depth of field.

This term refers to how much of your photograph is in focus. Whatever the subject, there will be distance in front and behind and some of that will remain sharp. In portraits, the person stays sharp in the foreground and the background is often left soft and unfocused, creating a blur called the bokeh effect. Whereas the opposite takes place with landscape photos, where the goal is generally to keep as much of the foreground and background in focus and as sharp as possible. 

Know the resolution.

This applies primarily to digital photography and it refers to the number of pixels within an image. The higher the resolution, the more pixels, the more details. The measurement is given in pixels per inch (PPI) or dots per inch (DPI) (dots refers to the tiny droplets of ink created in printing). “High resolution” is a common term and doesn’t refer to a specific number, but generally means 300 PPI or more, which allows for quality reproduction in the final use (think framed print or magazine layout). 

Practice the rule of thirds.

Imagine two lines running horizontally across your image and then two more running vertically. (Some viewfinders and smartphones will have this grid already in place.) Play around with moving the subject of your photo off-center to align with either a vertical column or horizontal row and leave the other two-thirds of the shot open. This will create interest in the composition and draw the viewer’s eye throughout the whole image. 

Learn the exposure triangle.

Photography is the practice of capturing light and the exposure triangle is a combination of three variables, available on most cameras and maybe some smartphones, that controls that action. (The term “expose” comes from ye olden days when light-sensitive film was exposed to light via the camera and an impression was made. Wild how times have changed.) Please note, the relationship between these three varies on how you adjust each one. Super brief overview below (best accessed in manual mode)

Visual diagram showing the marker on your digital camera that will tell you if the shot has good light exposure. The number line goes from -3, 2, 1, 0, 1, 2, +3. Red handwritten text next to the -3 number read that if the maker line is on this end the photo will be underexposed. The red handwritten text next to the +3 on the right side reads that if the marker line is there the photo will be overexposed. Red text with an arrow points to the middle 0 and reads that this is where the marker line should sit for the photo to have the correct exposure.


Simply put, this is the size of the lens opening. The wider it is, the more light allowed in. Smaller openings mean less light. And it’s all measured in f-stops. It’ll feel a little strange because the smaller the number, the wider the opening. For example, f/1.8 is wide and f/22 is narrow. The setting also affects the focal length of the shot. Small f-stops result in a shorter depth of field and unfocused backgrounds while large ones keep more of the foreground and background sharp. 

This illustrated diagram shows the different camera aperture amounts. The diagram reads from left to right with the picture on the far left showing a camera lens that is very open with f/1.8 under it. The lens images show a progressively smaller opening the further right you go and have a corresponding number under each going from f/1.8, f/2, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, to f/22. There is red handwritten text on the left side near the f/1.8 image that reads that the photo will be brighter and have a shallow depth of field. The text on the right side next to the f/22 reads that the image will have a deeper depth but be darker.

Shutter Speed

We’ve set the size of the aperture with the f-stop, but how long do we leave it open to capture the photo? That’s called shutter speed. It’s displayed in fractions of a second, or seconds, on your camera (1/800 or 2s). The longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in. Trying to capture the night sky? You might be leaving the shutter open for 30 seconds or more. You’ll also need a tripod—for shutter speeds lower than 1/60, it’s good to stabilize the camera with something other than your hand. 

Visual diagram showing the difference in shutter speeds in relation to the quality of the photo. The line diagram reads left to right; bulb, 30", 20", 10", 1/4, 1/15, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000. Red handwritten text on the left side near the 'bulb' marker reads "longer exposure, more light gets in". Red text on the right side next to the 1/1000 marker read s" quicker speed, good for action shots". The text in the middle read s" a tripod is super necessary right here and below" and has an arrow pointing to the space in between the 1/15 and 1/60 markers.


This setting determines how sensitive the camera is to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive. The higher, the more sensitive. For shooting in full daylight, you’ll live closer to an ISO of 100. Is it super dark? Try 3200. But know there’s a trade-off here. The higher the number, the grainier and less detailed the final result will be. Aim to use the lowest ISO possible for the situation. 

A visual diagram showing the different ISO settings. There are seven squares that each have a simple flower icon inside. Each box also has a number underneath it, starting from left to right, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400. Red handwritten text on the left side near the 100 box reads "less sensitive to light and less noise". The text on the right side near the 6400 box reads "more sensitive to light, increased grain". From left to right each box has progressively more distressed texture inside each to represent the increased grain with increased ISO setting.