The camera on an iPhone.
Apple

As smartphone cameras become more capable, technical photography jargon is slipping into mainstream conversations. An “f-stop” (or “f-number”) is a word you’re going to see more as smartphone manufacturers try to one-up each other when bragging about specs. Here’s what you need to know.

Aperture and the Exposure Triangle

Aperture is one of the three legs of the exposure triangle, along with shutter speed and ISO. It’s a measurement of how wide the hole is at the front of a lens and, thereby, how much light it allows in. Shutter speed measures how long light is allowed to hit the sensor and ISO measures how sensitive the sensor is.

While shutter speed is measured somewhat intuitively in fractions of a second, aperture is measured in f-stops, such as f/1.6, f/11, and f/22. Most lenses allow you to adjust the f-stop, although smartphone cameras are an exception; they have a fixed aperture. Lowering the f-stop makes images brighter, while increasing it makes them darker.

But how does it do this?

RELATED: What Is Aperture?

F-Stops Simplified

A diagram of lens aperture values from f/1-f/32.
Oleksii Arseniuk/Shutterstock

The f-stop is the ratio of the focal length of a lens to the lens aperture (the hole through which the light enters). So, an f-stop of 2 (f/2) means the lens aperture is half the focal length. In a lens with a focal length of 100mm, the aperture would be 50mm (100/50 = 2); in a lens with a focal length of 200mm, the aperture would be 100mm (200/100 = 2).

An f-stop is measured as a ratio due to some of the fun quirks in the physics of optics.

The wider the aperture of a lens is, the more light it allows through. This makes the image it projects on the film plane—or, realistically, the digital sensor—brighter. So, the lower the f-number, the brighter the image.

However, lenses with longer focal lengths have narrower fields of view. That’s why the images they project are relatively larger and spread the light thinner. The way the effects balance out means the ratio of focal length to the aperture (or f-number) creates photos that are equivalently bright with all lenses. It ignores any differences in light transmission.

Two images of a man fishing at sunset shot at different focal lengths, but with the same amount of light.
Both of these photos were shot at f/8, but at different focal lengths. They used the same shutter speed because the bigger aperture of the longer lens was offset by its narrower field of view. Harry Guinness

For example, say you’re taking a photo of a tree. If you use a 100mm lens at f/2, the aperture will be 50mm wide. If you use a 200mm lens at f/2, the aperture will be 100mm wide. Both photos, however, will be just as bright.

This is because even though the 200mm lens has an aperture that’s twice as wide (and thus, four times as large), its field of view is half that of the 100mm lens. Therefore, it has to project everything four times larger on the sensor, so the two effects cancel each other out.

F-Stops in Photography

Now that we’ve covered the technical details, let’s look at how f-stops apply in practical photography.

Taking a photo involves balancing the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You want enough light to hit the sensor so it records the scene properly, but not so much that it’s too dark (underexposed) or bright (overexposed).

The amount of light that hits the sensor is measured in a dimensionless quantity called a “stop.” Increasing the exposure (the brightness of the photo) by one stop means you double the amount of light hitting the sensor. (Other things that affect exposure, like image stabilization, are also measured in stops.)

There are a few ways you can do this. One method is to allow light to hit the sensor for a longer amount of time, such as using a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second instead of 1/100. You could also just use a wider aperture, but this comes with some trade-offs.

A portrait of a woman on the left and a man skiing down a mountain on the right.
In DSLRs and other dedicated cameras, aperture controls the depth of field. Harry Guinness

In addition to allowing in more light, images shot with a wider aperture have less depth of field, meaning more of the scene will be out of focus. Sometimes, such as when shooting a portrait, this is desirable. Other times, it’s a problem you have to work around.

To make matters even more confusing, aperture isn’t measured on a linear scale. F-stops are logarithmic. In other words, going from f/4 to f/2 doesn’t double the amount of light entering the camera, it quadruples it. To double the amount of light, you’d need to go to f/2.8.

Yes, that’s a lot of information to process. Fortunately, though, because smartphones have fixed aperture lenses, you don’t have to fully understand this to use them effectively (more on this below).

However, if you also use a dedicated camera, you might want to learn more about how you can use aperture creatively in photography.

F-stops and Your Phone

The specs of the telephoto lens on an iPhone 11 Pro.
That doesn’t look like a 26mm aperture hole to me. Apple

Both amateur and professional photographers have had to come to terms with f-stops and aperture over the years. Now that smartphone manufacturers are using these terms in their marketing, here are a few things everyone should keep in mind:

  • F-stops are calculated from a lens’s real focal length: While the f-numbers manufacturers list are real, the focal lengths they boast for their lenses are normally a full-frame equivalent. For example, Apple claimed the telephoto lens in the iPhone 11 Pro was 52mm with an aperture of f/2. This would mean light would pass through a hole over 1 in. wide. However, the real focal length was just 6mm, so the hole was only 3mm wide.
  • A wider aperture means better low-light photography: Due to how smartphone cameras are designed, the fixed aperture’s biggest effect is on the shutter speed and ISO the camera can use in different situations. The wider the fixed aperture of the lens, the better the images in low light. This is because it can use faster shutter speeds (for less blur) and lower ISO (for less noise).
  • Specs don’t take photos: As companies continue to throw around crazy numbers, just remember those aren’t what creates a good photo. The iPhone Photography Awards started 13 years ago because people have been shooting awesome photos with smartphones for as long as they’ve been around. The fact that the camera on your phone can go from f/1.8 to f/1.6 isn’t going to drastically improve your photography—only time and effort can do that.

RELATED: How to Develop a Better Eye for Taking Good Photos

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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