9 Reasons to Take Photos With Small Apertures

By June 1, 2019 September 10th, 2019 Photography

Photographers often use small apertures to control depth-of-field. The depth of field determines how much of your image will be in focus.  It is the area between the nearest and farthest part of the image that appears sharp and in detail. 

This zone is much larger when you use a small aperture, which means a wider area of the image is sharp and in focus.

But, influencing the depth of field is not the only reason for choosing small apertures. In this article, we’ll talk about nine reasons why you’ll want to shoot with a small aperture.

1. To Photograph Sunburst

You have probably seen photos with star-shaped sunlight on them. That bursting effect is a result of light diffraction, which happens when you use a small aperture.

The narrower aperture opening obstructs the sunlight as it passes through your lens. This causes it to bend slightly around the aperture blades creating the star effect.

Something to bear in mind, the nature of your Sunstar is dependent on the quality of your lens.

The lens aperture is made up of several small blades that overlap to create different size holes. It is these blades that determine the number of rays in your sunburst.

If the lens has an even number of blades, it will produce the same amount of rays as the blades. However, if the lens has an odd number of blades, it will produce rays that are twice the number of the lens blades.

You can enhance the sunburst effect by partially blocking the sunlight. This exaggerates the sunburst by diffracting the light before it hits the camera lens.

To obstruct your light source, consider photographing it through objects like trees or rocks.

While at it, remember to frame your composition in different angles. A subtle change in framing can have a significant impact on the way sunlight is diffracted and the appearance of your Sunstar.

2. To Capture Starburst in Your Shots

Sometimes you may want to have the same star effect in your shots taken immediately after sundown, also known as the blue hour. This is possible and follows the same requirements as photographing sunburst during the daytime.

The starburst shots enjoy the advantage of multiple light colors, producing a breathtaking effect in the resulting image.  

The bright street lamps, glowing neon lights, and lit windows all work to make places that seem lackluster during the day come alive at night.

The blue hour usually is darker, with less ambient lighting compared to daytime. So it is essential that you shoot with a higher ISO value and acceptably slower shutter speed to meet the low light situation.

3. To Shoot Light Trails 

Another way to use small apertures during the blue hour is to capture light trails.

All you need to create light trails are moving lights. These are often created by moving traffic at night.

The blue hour is ideal for star trails since there are more moving vehicles and people; all that add interest to your shots.

To capture light trails, you’ll need a slow shutter speed. It is the prolonged exposure that will allow your camera to capture the moving lights at different points across the frame, creating those streaks of light.

The prolonged exposure will result in a lot of light entering your camera, so you’ll need to work with a tiny aperture. The aperture setting will vary depending on the amount of light in the scene, but f/8 is a good starting point.

As you take your first images, you can adjust the aperture to reach the exposure and effect you are trying to create.

For this kind of shots, it’s always best to shoot in manual mode. The three settings that will affect and determine your shots are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

The exact shutter speed will be determined by several factors such as the ambient light available at your chosen location and the type of light trails you’re looking for.

For longer light trails across the frame, you should shoot at longer shutter speeds. For shorter light trails, on the other hand, reduce the shutter speed to decrease the exposure times. But in most cases, you’ll find yourself working with shutter speeds between 10 and 30 seconds. 

The best way to go is to start with a setting within these ranges and take multiple test shots. Then adjust your settings accordingly to see what works better.

The more extensively you experiment, the better your chances of getting the best shots will be.

For ISO, you generally want to keep it as low as possible to avoid capturing much grain in your photos.

Also, pick a location that will give you a good view of the light trails, preferably a reasonably high ground by the roadside or on top of a bridge.

Finally, keep in mind that if you are shooting cars for your light trails, the headlights will be much brighter than the taillights. Pointing your camera dead on to the headlights could give you a lot of glare or overexposed highlights.

So, consider the direction of the lights and where you are pointing your camera when composing your images.

4. To Shoot Coastal Waves

I love freezing breaking waves.

To do this, I typically set my shutter speed to ¼ second. This allows me to capture the shape of the waves right before they collapse.

But, doing so also means that a lot of light will enter the camera, especially when shooting in a bright environment.

Reducing the aperture size is an excellent way to cut the amount of light passing through the lens in such cases. This is particularly helpful when you are not using an ND filter to block direct light.

As you start taking your photos, remember to be aware of how the water moves around you.

Focusing on the movement of the water will make it easier and quicker to anticipate necessary changes to your composition.

When shooting breaking waves, I like hitting the shutter button just when the wave reaches its crest; right before it overturns.

Also, I try to hold off on taking photos of the waves until they have receded. This way, I can plan and coordinate for the next wave.

Lastly, I typically shoot in manual mode when photographing action waves. This is because I try to keep my shutter speed constant, as to not alter the effect I am trying to capture. This leaves me with only aperture and ISO to get the best exposure.

In cases where there is a lot of sunlight, you may need to use ND filters to achieve the proper exposure. The small aperture alone might not be sufficient enough to control all the light.

5. Smooth Waves and Waterfall Streams


If you are looking to capture smoother-looking water, you will have to experiment with slower shutter speeds until you reach your desired effect.

Since slow shutter speeds can result in overexposed images, controlling the light via small apertures can be useful in these cases.

Shooting with smaller apertures allow you to use slower shutter speeds without overexposing your images.

Then you can perfect your exposure by choosing a corresponding shutter speed and ISO value based on the size of the waterfall stream.

I typically use slower shutter speeds with small and delicate waterfalls and faster shutter speeds with a raging waterfall. Doing so will ensure that you capture the details perfectly in either case.

If a small aperture is not giving you the desired exposure, you may need an ND filter to reduce the amount of light entering your camera.

You could also opt for both or use them interchangeably. Then observe the images and see which option gives you the more perfectly exposed shots between the small aperture and ND filters.  

6. To Take Shots Using Zone Focused Settings

Zone focusing allows you to get the right focus fast, without relying on autofocus.  

This technique is particularly helpful when photographing in fast-paced environments such as street or wildlife photography.

In such cases, you may not have the luxury to wait for your camera’s autofocus to “lock-on” or to manually adjust your focus. 

Zone focusing is a simple and quick technique that you can use to improve your flexibility and speed when taking photos.  The technique involves using the smallest aperture given the lighting conditions. Once you have your aperture determine the hyperfocal distance. Finally, set your focus to the hyperfocal distance and begin shooting.

To easily determine the hyperfocal distance for your aperture, focal length, and sensor size you can apps or printable charts. Apps such as Photopills and Simple DOF will calculate your DOF for you after you have input the settings you are using.  You could also keep physical charts in your camera bag, which can be found easily online.

The hyperfocal distance is useful for two reasons. First, it tells you at what distance you need to focus on to capture your entire background in focus. Second,  it determines how much of your image will be sharp and in focus.

For example, if the hyperfocal distance for a 14mm lens at f/2.8 is 8 feet, your focus point should be 8 feet away and the image captured with will appear in focus from 4 feet until infinity. It is important to remember that the hyperfocal distance will vary based on the focal length, aperture, and sensor size.

With one less piece of the puzzle to deal with, you can quickly take your shots of volatile compositions and still end up with perfectly sharp images.

Thanks to the greater depth of field you get from using a small aperture, you’ll be able to shoot action with ease.

7. Forced Perspective

If you have seen photos of people sitting or standing on the palm of a hand, or supporting the Leaning Tower of Pisa with their hands, then you’ve seen a forced perspective shot.

This technique involves using optical illusion to create images with objects that appear larger or smaller than they are. Forced perspective can also make objects seem closer or farther away than they are in real sense.

This kind of optical illusion generally involves two different points of interest in working together.

To achieve this, one subject sits in the background, with the other in the foreground. A telephoto lens is then used to capture the scene harboring the two aligned objects. Because of its tendency to compress a scene into a sort of two-dimensional plane, the telephoto lens will make the objects appear closer together.

The technique requires that everything from the front to the back is in sharp focus. This is where a small aperture comes in. The deep depth-of-field from the small aperture allows for the effect to be exaggerated as desired.

Use this technique when you have any two elements that are distant apart, but you want them in a picture together. With a telephoto lens set to a deep depth of field, creating this result should be a breeze.

8. To Keep Everything in Focus

Small apertures allow you to place your foreground and background in focus.

The aperture in your camera gives you control over your depth of field. Depth of field is the distance between the farthest and closest objects that are in focus. Adjusting your aperture will give you the power to decide what is in focus and what is out of focus.

Elements that fall inside the depth of field will be in focus. That is, they will be sharp and have a high level of detail. On the other hand, those elements beyond the depth of field will be out of focus, meaning they will be blurry with very little detail.

Small apertures will produce a deep depth of field. A deep depth of field will place most of your image in focus. Large apertures, on the other hand, provide a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field will only place a small area of your image in focus while the rest is out of focus.

When shooting landscapes, you want to keep the entire scene in focus. To do this, use a small aperture which will create a large depth of field. Small apertures will allow you to capture little details throughout your scene.

How small is too small?

It is important to note that using small apertures can cause diffraction, which reduces the sharpness of your image. To avoid reducing sharpness, knowledge of your lens and camera is essential.

Every lens will have what is called an aperture “sweet spot.” At this aperture setting, a lens will have its widest depth of field without affecting the sharpness of the image. Aperture sweet spots are not universal; they are unique to each lens and camera combination.

A common rule of thumb is that the aperture sweet spot will be two to three stops away from the maximum aperture of your lens. For example, if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/4, then you should use an aperture between f/8 and f/11. This will create a deep depth of field without affecting the sharpness of your image. For a more in-depth look into the tradeoff between focus and sharpness read this article.

9. To Experiment

There is a great deal of knowledge to learn throughout your journey as a photographer. Having the best gear alone is never enough. 

More often than not, whether you are a new or old camera owner,  there are things about your camera that you have yet to learn.

It’s always good to experiment with your camera and the different images you can produce with it.

Take the time to experiment with small apertures and explore what kind of images you can create with them.

Learn the ropes on using your equipment; then you’ll be confident that you’re making the most of it. You’ll be impressed at how much education can impact your creativity.


There you have it: nine reasons to shoot photos with a small aperture setting. If you have not been keen on using small apertures in your photography, I hope this guide gave you all the reason to reconsider.

About The Author

Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.