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Mastering Your Camera and Taking Great Pictures – "Stops" Demystified
Probably one of the most misunderstood terms in photography for beginners is “stop”. Imagine hearing, “I need three stops of brightness. Stop down the ISO 200 to 400, stop down the speed from 1/60 to 1/30, and stop down from (f-stop) 5.6 to 4.” It’s statements like this, and the mathematical explanation, that make most people leave their camera in automatic mode and never venture into manual modes. The reality is that the math and “how it works” is unimportant.
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, each of them understands how stops are used. On the other hand, there are a few nerds who can screw up the math, but can’t control a camera in any way. The purpose of this article is NOT to explain how stops work, but to explain how to use them to be a better photographer.
One of the main reasons why the term stop is so confusing is that it has multiple meanings (only two of which are important to this article). This is going to be a bold statement and I’ll probably get hate mail for saying this, but the ONLY thing that really matters about the word stop (in terms of taking better photos) is that it indicates that something is doubled or cut off by the half In our Nashville and Louisville photo studio, 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 means bent. 1 stop means cut in half. 2 stops of light means four times the amount of light (double and then double again) and 3 stops of light down means 1/8 of the light (cut in half, then half again and then the half for the third time).
As an example, imagine you are out in the sun and you need sunglasses that block exactly half of the sun in 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 stoplights. The first stop cuts the light in half, and the second stop cuts that 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 what we talk about when we talk about adjusting the light. If we need to double the amount of light entering the camera, we “stop” the light by one stop. If we have to cut the light in half, we “stop” the light one stop. If we want to let in 16 times the amount of light that’s already coming in, we need 4 stops of light (the first doubles it to 2x, then doubles it again to 4x, then 8x, then 16x). Remember that each stop 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 this is the easiest way to understand it).
How to actually apply “a stop”.
There are three main controls on a camera: ISO (sensitivity), speed and aperture. Each has a different set of numbers, but the one thing they all 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 will completely revolutionize your ability to understand how to control the light in your image (let’s face it, without light, all your images would be black and people would make fun of you).
ISO is the sensitivity of the camera’s film or sensor. It’s usually measured in 100, 200, 400, 800, etc… Forget the technicality of why these numbers exist, and just remember that going from 200 to 400 means 1 light stop UP, and passing e.g. , 1600 to 200 means 3 light stops down (halving your number 3 times from 1600 to 800 to 400 to 200).
Shutter speed is the speed at which the aperture opens and closes. So 1/30 of a second is twice as long as 1/60 of a second. Because the opening is open twice as long, it lets in twice as much light. So 1/30 is one more stop than 1/60. 1/240 is 4 stops from 1/15. (Again we go from 1/15 to 1/30, then to 1/60 to 1).
Aperture is the opening of the camera that allows light in and is measured in what are called f-stops and the numbers are shown 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 more than 22 (a smaller number here means a larger aperture and more light). 5.6 is 4 stops below 1.4.
Putting it all together.
Understanding that all three controls are in “stop” increments is the key to lighting. If you shoot at ISO200, 1/60, and f8 and need the image to be 4x brighter, now you 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: letting the light pass through four times in the final image.
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