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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. Stop up the ISO 200 to 400, stop down the speed from 1/60 to 1/30, and stop up from (f-stop) 5.6 to 4”. It is statements like this, and the mathematical explanation, that cause most people to leave their camera 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 understand how to use a microwave, but 1 in 5,000 people (if that) actually understand how a microwave works. Many professional photographers have no idea about the inverse square law and how it works to calculate aperture size. However, every single one of them understands how to use the stops. On the other hand, there are a few nerds who can nail math but can’t control a camera. The purpose of this article is not to explain how they stop working, but instead to explain how they are used to become a better photographer.
One of the main reasons that the term stop is so confusing is that it has several meanings (only two of which are important for this article). This is going to be a bold statement and I’ll probably get hate mail for saying this, but the ONLY IMPORTANT THING that really matters about the word stop (in terms of taking better pictures) is that it indicates that something is doubled or cut in half. At our photography studio in Nashville and Louisville, we have all kinds of books and charts that talk about stops, but at the end of the day, a stop really is that simple.
Memorize this: A stop means doubled or halved. 1 stop up, means doubled. 1 stop down means cut in half. 2 stops of light up means FOUR TIMES the amount of light (double then double again) and 3 stops of light down means 1/8th the light (cut in half, then half again, then half for the third time ).
For example, imagine you are out in the sun and you need a pair of sunglasses that block exactly half of the sun hitting your eyes. You might say, “Hey. I need a pair of sunglasses that block 1 stop of light.” After you put them on, the sun is still too bright, so then you say: “Actually, I need a pair that only allow a quarter of the light.” In other words, two stages of light. The first stage cuts the light in half, and the second stage cuts half into another half, resulting in a quarter of the original. 1/8 is 3 stops down, 1/16 is 4 stops down, and 1/128 is 7 stops down.
In photography, this is exactly how we talk when we talk about adjusting the light. If we need to double the amount of light left in the camera, we “stop” the light by one stop. If we need to cut the light in half, “stop down” the light by a stop. If we want to allow in 16 times the amount of light that has already arrived, we need 4 stops of light (the first doubling to 2x, then doubling again to 4x, then 8x, then 16x). Remember, each stop either doubles or cuts the previous one in half.
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 that’s the easiest way to figure this out).
How to actually apply “one stop”.
There are three main controls on a camera: ISO (sensitivity), Speed and Aperture. EACH ONE has different sets of numbers, but the only thing they have in common is that increasing or decreasing each of these controls has the effect of doubling or cutting the final light in half. Tattoo this statement on your forehead and internalize it; this concept will completely revolutionize your ability to understand how to control the light in your picture (let’s face it, without light, all your pictures will be black, and people will make fun of you).
ISO is how sensitive your camera’s film or sensor is. It is commonly measured in 100, 200, 400, 800, etc… Forget the technicalities of why these numbers exist, and just remember that going from 200 to 400 means 1 stop of light UP, and going from, say 1600 to 200 it means 3 light stages (cut your number in half 3 times from 1600 to 800 to 400 to 200).
Shutter speed is how fast the aperture opens and closes. Therefore, 1/30 of a second is twice as long as 1/60 of a second. Because the aperture is open twice as long, it lets in twice as much light. So, 1/30 is one stop from 1/60. 1/240 is 4 stops from 1/15. (Again we go from 1/15 to 1/30, then 1/60 to 1).
Aperture is the opening in the camera that allows light and is measured in what is 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 steps from 22 (here a smaller number means a larger opening and more light). 5.6 is 4 stops from 1.4.
Bringing it all together.
Understanding that all three controls are in increments of “stops” is the key to enlightenment. If you take a picture at ISO200, 1/60 and f8 and you need the picture 4 times brighter, now you understand that there are three options: 2 stops from ISO200 to ISO800, 2 stops up 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 all have one thing in common: Allow four times the light in the final picture.
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