What Is A ‘Stop’ In Photography And Why Do They Matter?

You’ve likely heard the word “stop” at some point in your photography. Whether it was to describe a ’10-stop ND Filter’ or to lighten your photo by ‘1 stop’, this word can seem extremely confusing without context. Learning what a ‘stop’ actually is in photography can make a massive difference in the speed you adjust your camera settings.

This article will answer the big question of ‘what is a stop in photography’. Stops are directly related to your exposure adjustments and are useful to measure changes in the brightness of your photo. By understanding how stops work across your different exposure settings, you’ll be surprised at how much easier it becomes to find the best exposure. Let’s jump in!

What Is Exposure In Photography

Before you can understand how stops work, you need to first understand exposure. Exposure is how bright or dark your photo looks. This is directly affected by the three pillars of exposure: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These three settings work together to balance the look and brightness of your photos.

The right exposure is continually changing depending on the amount of light in a scene. For example, as clouds cover the sun, that shift in the light means your exposure may appear darker than before. This requires further adjustments of your camera settings to account for this change in light.

The goal of any photo you take should be to capture a balanced exposure. A balanced exposure means there aren’t any areas that are too bright or too dark. Everything is evenly exposed, and your exposure indicator is sitting around the middle of your light meter.

What Are Stops In Photography

example of stops in photography

Stops in photography are the doubling or halving of your exposure. They can be used to help decide how much to adjust your settings for a proper exposure. Stops are applicable across all exposure settings on your camera and represent the same change in exposure, whether you’re changing the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.

To better understand what doubling or halving your exposure would look like, let’s go through a simple example with shutter speed. Let’s say you have a shutter speed of 1/100, and you want to make your exposure 1 stop brighter. This means you would need to half your shutter speed turning 1/100 into 1/50. At 1/50, you now gain 1 stop of brightness to your exposure.

Once again, starting with a shutter speed of 1/100, let’s say you want to darken your photo by one stop. This means you have to double your shutter speed, turning 1/100 into 1/200. At 1/200, your exposure is 1 stop darker than before.

The halving or doubling of your exposure will continuously change depending on the camera settings you start with. Starting with an easily divisible shutter speed like 1/100 makes the changes easier to visualize.

Why Are Stops Useful For Photographers

Learning about stops in photography is essential to make the most out of your light meter. The light meter will tell you if your current exposure settings are making your photo too bright or too dark. It even indicates exactly how many stops you are away from a balanced exposure. With this knowledge, you can quickly make accurate adjustments to your camera settings to find a balanced exposure.

Stops In Shutter Speed

slow shutter speed for long exposure photography

If you’re new to the main exposure settings of photography, be sure to download my free Photography Essentials Ebook to clear up any questions you may have going forward. This free ebook is a great starting ground to help you learn your camera settings and improve your photography!

Now, as mentioned before, stops are the doubling or halving of your exposure. When it comes to shutter speed, that just means doubling or halving the amount of time your shutter is open. Let’s go through a few examples of adding and subtracting stops from different shutter speeds.

Example 1: Darkening By 3 Stops

Imagine you’re shooting portrait photos on a bright sunny day and want to use a wide aperture. After setting your aperture to something like 2.8, your light meter says your exposure is 3 stops too bright. This means you need to double your exposure 3 times. Starting from a shutter speed of 1/80, darkening by 3 stops would look like this:

1/80 > 1/160 > 1/320

After double the original shutter speed 3 times, the new shutter speed is 1/320. This is 3 stops darker than the initial shutter speed of 1/80.

Example 2: Using An ND Filter

Let’s say you want to capture a long exposure with your 10-stop ND filter. You prepare your shot and find a balanced exposure with a shutter speed of 1/250 without the filter on your camera. Once you add your 10-stop ND filter, your photo is completely black. What shutter speed do you use to create the exact same exposure you had before, but this time with the ND filter?

Since you need to lighten your photo, you will need to half your shutter speed. Since you are using a 10-stop ND filter, you need to half your exposure 10 times. Starting with a shutter speed of 1/250 and halving the exposure 10 times, the process would look something like this:

1/250 > 1/125 > 1/60 > 1/30 > 1/15 > 1/6 > 0″3 > 0″6 > 1″3 > 2″5

After reducing the shutter speed by 10 stops, the new shutter speed is 2″5. A 2″5 shutter speed will give us an equal exposure with the 10-stop ND filter as 1/250 had without the ND filter.

Stops In Aperture

An aperture inside of a lens, an essential camera setting for beginner photographers

If you’re unfamiliar with aperture, I’d highly suggest downloading my free Photography Essential Ebook. It breaks down all the important exposure settings and how they work. It’s an especially valuable if the topics discussed here feel overwhelming at the moment!

Adjusting your exposure using aperture can be a little more confusing than shutter speed. With aperture, it’s much harder to half or double your exposure when you’re dealing with F-stops. To make things easy, it’s important to remember this series of F-stops:

F/1.8 > F/2.4 >F/2.8 >F/4 > F/5.6 > F/8  > F/11 > F16 > F22

Each of these apertures represents a full stop. Starting from F/1.8, the aperture increases by 1 stop in each increment.

F/1.8 + 1 stop = F/2.4

F/5.6 – 1 stop = F/4

Remembering this scale of stops in aperture can make it much easier to make full stop adjustments. There are also additional F-stop settings outside of this range, such as F/6.3 or F/13, to make a note of. By using one of these settings, you are adjusting your exposure by partial stops. There’s no problem with this, but these settings don’t represent an accurate doubling or halving of your exposure.

Stops In ISO

low light photography with high ISO setting

ISO is the third and final key exposure setting. I talk about it extensively in my free Photography Essential Ebook or in a post you can access by clicking here. On most cameras, the basic ISO range is ISO100 to ISO6400. Depending on the brand and model, you may have ISO ranges outside of this. For the sake of example, I’ll stick within the most common ISO range of 100 to 6400.

Just like before, a full stop in ISO is the doubling or halving of the setting. Luckily ISO is made up of numbers that are extremely easy to work with. The stop range in ISO goes like this:

ISO 100 > 200 > 400 > 800 > 1600 > 3200 > 6400

Each increment represents one full stop of exposure change. As the number increases, the photo becomes brighter. Just like with aperture, there are additional ISO settings in between these full stops. ISO’s like 640 or 1250 adjust your exposure by partial stops. Again, these are fine to use in your photography, but they will not change your exposure by a full stop, rather something in between.

The Importance Of Getting Your Exposure Right

If you want to take a good quality picture, you must get your exposure right. If your exposure is too bright or dark, you lose detail in parts of your image that can be unrecoverable, even with post-processing. By striving to capture an even exposure in every photo, you are improving the overall quality of your image. An even exposure will have the most detail and look more accurate to real life.

Learning how to use stops in photography is the easiest way to find a balanced exposure. Far too many people rely on fixing the exposure of their photos in post-processing. By learning how stops and exposure work hand in hand, you’ll be able to capture the perfect exposure in-camera. No photo editing required.

Conclusion

Trying to figure out what a stop is in photography can feel pretty confusing at first. What appears as a complicated way to figure out your exposure becomes an easy way to quickly adjust your camera settings. By remembering to double or half any exposure setting, you can easily find ways to balance out your light meter and find the perfect exposure in any situation.

If you’re new to manual mode and the three key exposure settings, make sure to download my free Photography Essential Ebook. This ebook is full of amazing tips to help decode your camera settings and make improving your photography easier than ever!

If you know someone who struggles to understand stops in photography, make sure to share this post with them!

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