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Mastering Your Camera and Taking Great Pictures – "Stops" Demystified
Probably one of the most misunderstood terms in beginner photography is “stop”. Imagine hearing: “I need three stops of brightness. Raise the ISO sensitivity from 200 to 400, reduce the shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/30 and increase from (f-stop) 5.6 to 4.” It’s statements like this, and the mathematical explanation, that cause most people to leave their cameras in automatic mode and never venture into manual modes. The reality is that the math and “how it works” doesn’t really matter.
A 9-year-old can figure out how to use a microwave, but 1 in 5,000 people (if that) really understands how a microwave works. Many professional photographers have no idea about the inverse square law and how it works to calculate aperture size. However, each of them understands how stops are used. On the other hand, there are quite a few nerds out there who can spout the math, but absolutely can’t control a camera. The purpose of this article is NOT to explain how stops work, but rather to explain how they are used to become a better photographer.
One of the main reasons the term stop is so confusing is that it has multiple meanings (only two of which are important for this article). This is going to be a bold statement and I’m probably going to get some hate mail for saying this, but the ONLY MAJOR THING that really matters about the word stop (as far as taking better pictures is concerned) is that it indicates that something thing is doubled or cut in half. In our photo studio in Nashville and Louisville, we have all kinds of books and charts that talk about stops, but in the end, a stop really is that simple.
Memorize this: one stop means doubled or halved. 1 stop up is double. 1 stop means cut in half. 2 light stops means FOUR TIMES the amount of light (double then double again) and 3 light stops down means 1/8th the light (cut in half, then again in half, then in half for a third time).
For example, imagine you’re in the sun and need a pair of sunglasses that block exactly half of the sun that hits your eyes. You might say, “Hey, I need a pair of sunglasses that block 1 stop of light. After putting them on, the sun is still too bright, so you say, “Actually, I need a pair that only lets in a quarter of the light. In other words, two light stops. The first stop cuts the light in half, and the second cuts that half into another half, resulting in a quarter of the original. 1/8 is 3 stops, 1/16 is 4 stops, and 1/128 is 7 stops.
In photography, this is exactly what we mean when we talk about adjusting the light. If we need to double the amount of light entering the camera, we “plug” the light by one stop. If we need to cut the light in half, we “stop” the light from one stop. If we want to allow 16 times the amount of light that is already entering, we need 4 light stops (the first doubles it to 2x, then doubles it again to 4x, then 8x, then 16x). Remember that each stop doubles or halves the previous one.
The main reason photographers use this terminology is to have a common language for measuring light adjustments that everyone can agree on. (Again, I’m simplifying here and I’ll get more hate mail, but I’m not a purist and this is the easiest way to figure this out).
How to actually apply “one stop”.
There are three main controls on a camera: ISO (sensitivity), shutter speed, and aperture. EACH have different sets of numbers, but the one thing they have in common is that increasing or decreasing each of these controls has the effect of doubling or halving the final light. Tattoo this statement on your forehead and internalize it; this concept alone will completely revolutionize your ability to understand how to control the light in your photo (let’s face it, without light all your photos would be completely black and people would laugh at you).
ISO is the sensitivity of your camera’s film or sensor. It is usually measured in 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. Forget the technical reason these numbers exist, and just remember that going from 200 to 400 means 1 light stop UP, and going from, say, 1600 to 200 means 3 light stops down (reducing your number of half 3 times from 1600 to 800 to 400 to 200).
Shutter speed is the speed at which the aperture opens and closes. Thus, 1/30 of a second is twice as long as 1/60th of a second. Because the aperture is open twice as long, it lets in twice as much light. Therefore, 1/30 is a stop from 1/60. 1/240 is 4 stops below 1/15. (Again we go from 1/15 to 1/30, then from 1/60 to 1).
Aperture is the aperture of the camera that lets light in and it is measured in what are called f-stops and the numbers are displayed in a series like 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5,6, 8, 11, 16, 22. Again, forget for a moment why these numbers are in this series and just remember that 11 is two stops of 22 (here a smaller number means a bigger large aperture and more light). 5.6 is 4 stops below 1.4.
Bring it all together.
Understanding that the three commands are in increments of “stops” is the key to enlightenment. If you are shooting at ISO200, 1/60 and f8 and need an image 4 times brighter, you now understand that there are three options: 2 stops from ISO200 to ISO800, 2 stops from 1/ 60 to 1/15, or 2 stops from f8 to f4. Each of these decisions will have a creative visual effect, but they will all have one thing in common: allowing four times as much light into the final image.
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