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Photography for Beginners - Exposure

Thursday, September 18, 2014

If you have an SLR camera, and you're still shooting in Auto, you might as well have a Point and Shoot camera because those are the types the images that you will be getting. It's definitely possible to get beautiful photos with a point and shoot camera if you understand the rules of composition, which I discussed last week. Read Part One on Composition here.

If you want to have more control and creativity over your photos, then you need to learn to shoot in Manual Mode. The very first thing that will help you shoot in Manual is understanding the exposure triangle or how your camera reads light.


A high ISO gives you a bright photo. A lower ISO gives you a darker photo. In order to determine which settings to use, you need to know what your light source is. If you're outdoors on a bright, sunny day, you can probably use ISO 100. If you're indoors but you have daylight coming through the windows, start at ISO 400. If you're indoors, and taking photos at night, then you'll need to crank your ISO very high, maybe even ISO 3200. 

The problem with the really high numbers is that you will get grainy photos (see photo below).

photo taken indoors with very high ISO
the grainy-ness is especially noticeable in the blacks
Settings: ISO 6400, f/4.5, 1/125 sec

photo taken outdoors under a patio
Settings: ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/80


The smaller the number, the more light you will let into your camera. This makes indoor photography MUCH easier because this can compensate for low levels of light. A larger number lets less light into the camera, so this setting works better when you're taking photos outdoors.

 photo taken outdoors with lots of natural light and larger aperture number to allow more in focus
Canon 35mm (this is my lens), Settings: ISO 100, f/7.1 (this number is the aperture), 1/250 sec

photo taken indoors with smaller aperture number to get a blurry background
Canon 50mm (my lens), Settings: ISO 1600, f/1.8 (the aperture setting), 1/200 sec

The aperture also controls the depth of field, which will give you those blurry background photos that bloggers love so much.

Note: Most kit lenses that come with your camera won't let you set your aperture below f/3.5, which won't give you much background blur.

Small number = more light = background blur
Larger number = less light = more in focus

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed controls motion in a photo.

Fast shutter speed (smaller fraction) = darker photo = less motion
Slow shutter speed (larger fraction) = brighter photo = more motion

Finnegan was dashing around so quickly in this photo, and in order to get an image that wasn't blurry I had to use a very fast shutter speed.  A fast shutter speed freezes motion. A fast shutter speed lets less light into the camera, so I had to compensate by using a very high ISO. 

Settings: ISO 3200 (this is extremely high considering that I was taking this photo outdoors), f/5.6, 1/800 sec (fast shutter speed)

Sometimes you want to capture a sense of movement in your photos, so in those situations you would use a slow shutter speed.
Settings: ISO 800, f/1.8, 1/13 sec (slow shutter speed)

Another situation where a slow shutter speed is useful is when you're taking photos in a dark area and you want to let more light into the camera.
Settings: ISO 1600, f/5.0, 0.6 sec (very slow to allow in light)

Our apartment is very dark because our windows face North. In order to get bright photos of our apartment, I have to use a slow shutter speed to allow as much light in as possible. To minimize camera shake, it's a good idea to utilize a tripod when you're using a slow shutter speed or you will get a blurry photo.

Next week I'm going to explain the steps I go through to shoot in manual using ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

If you're new here, please check out my other photography tutorials:
Improve composition
How to meter and adjust shutter speed
How to change focus points and focus modes
Taking sharper photos
Get out of Auto Mode & When to use aperture priority
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7 Responses to “Photography for Beginners - Exposure”

  1. Thanks you so much for sharing those! I actually went and got my camera and played around with the ISO settings. The quality of my photos is already noticeably better :)

  2. I shoot mostly in aperture priority mode because I haven't quite gotten the hang of shutter speed yet. I'm good with ISO and good with Aperture, but I have a hard time figuring out what to set my shutter speed to. I'm going to get it right someday though! Thanks for the tips! :)

  3. Ashley, I was exactly the same when I first started! I could not figure out shutter speed. I would set the ISO and aperture and totally guess about the shutter speed. I took a photography class in February and I finally understood the concept of metering and it finally clicked for me! I'll probably go over metering in my post next week.

  4. This was very helpful! I'm awful at getting good pictures no matter how many tutorials I read/classes I take! Maybe it'll finally click!

  5. YAAYAYAYY this is PERFECT!! Thank you so much!! This is so much better than any manual! I'm pinning it right now.


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