My creative process begins with the aperture

June 15, 2020

Silhouette of amusement park swings

Some of the best photographers I’ve worked with and learned from employ a creative process that leads to stunning images.

The process is innate, like a muscle memory, learned over time and through hundreds of thousands of shutter clicks. Photography is a skill, and like any other skill, mastery of it requires practice. The more you practice, the more you develop instincts.

And those instincts serve you whenever you’re photographing a baby’s first steps or a  family vacation to the beach. Eventually, you learn a process that works best for you.

Josue and Michelle

Every photographer, I’ve learned, deploys a different creative process. They all seem to have unique starting points — some with the shutter speed, others with the lighting, others with the background.

For me, my creative process begins with the aperture.

Every shot, whether it’s of my children playing baseball or for a wedding or a landscape, my first thought the vast majority of the time goes to the aperture.

Shooting a portrait? I immediately figure out if it’s one person or a group then how can I have my subject(s) in focus and the background appropriately blurred? What’s the appropriate depth of field for this waterfall? What’s the right aperture setting for this soccer game?

Then I start to balance out the rest of the exposure triangle. If, let’s say, I’m shooting my son’s soccer game, and I know an f/4 with a 200mm lens gets me the depth of field I want, I also know I need at least a shutter speed of 1/500 or greater to freeze motion. If the image is under exposed, I adjust the ISO.

Diagram of exposure triangle
The exposure triangle showing the balance among shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

The exposure triangle, in case you’re fairly new to photography or just starting shooting in manual mode, is the balance between the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. Adjust one, and it affects the other two. If one part is out of balance, you can adjust it to find the right exposure.

Developing a creative process and mastery of the exposure triangle doesn’t happen right away. Photo legend Henri Cartier-Bresson once said a person’s first 10,000 photos are his/her worst. I don’t know about that, but I believe after your first 10,000 images, your rate of success — that is, your ability to make the images you want to create — is much higher.

That’s because, in my opinion, you’re beginning to develop your own creative process.

It evolves over time. I have no doubt there’s a real possibility I may depend less on starting with the aperture and rely instead on the shutter speed first. Experiment, tweak it, never stop evolving it.

Once you have an instinctual creative process, though, it’s a wonderful thing. It will guide you and serve you, especially when moments are happening fast you need to react quickly. Ever try to photograph your child’s basketball game? You’ll know what I mean.

One more thing. As your creative process takes structure, so too will your own personal style. You’ll begin to figure out the kind of images you enjoy making — light and airy, dark and moody, vibrant color, long exposure. Your creative process and your preferred style begin to converge, and then, my friend, the photography experience becomes even greater than imagined.

Dave Pidgeon tries to be a photographer and writer with varying degrees of success, but his family loves him anyway. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and their three sons. Contact him at

More about Dave Pidgeon

Dave is the author of and lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and their three sons.

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