photo exposure tips

What is Photo Exposure? By definition it is the total amount of light allowed to hit your digital camera's sensor.

With digital photography it's critical to start with the right exposure to get the best quality photo in the end. Under exposure can cause reduced details and increase in noise. Over exposure can destroy the highlights and cause an unnatural shift in colors.

That amount of light that hits the sensor is controlled by 3 variables.

  1. Shutter Speed, how long the shutter is open to let the light into the camera.

  2. Aperture, how big the opening is in the camera lens.  Detailed Explanation of Aperture

  3. ISO, how sensitive the sensor is, how much light does it need to get the right exposure.
Graphic of the Photo Exposure Equation

Each of these three exposure variables is explained in more detail below.

You can set your camera to automatically set all of these for you. In most cameras it may be called "Auto" or "P" for Program. However, if you want to become a better photographer, a basic understanding of the three elements that effect your picture exposure will help.

Adjusting anyone one of these three settings on your camera will effect your photo's exposure. See the Exposure Triangle Illustration below.

The words in white, inside the triangle tell you what will be effected by changing that camera setting. All three of the areas inside of the triangle may effect image sharpness in one way or another.

Classic Graphic of the Exposure Triangle - Use it to Help Your Understanding of Good Photo Exposure

You can see that under the ISO is the word NOISE.

Noise refers to random bits of data that effect the quality of your photo. A higher ISOsetting means more noise.

how shutter speed affects photo exposure

Shutter Speed can effect how much or how little blur may occur, pending on how long that door, called the shutter, is open.

A high shutter speed
may stop you from getting blurry photos. Sometimes you may want to create the feeling of motion on purpose by using a slow shutter speed to create motion blur.

You can see from the 4 photos below, how shutter speed effects motion blur. All 4 photos were taken almost immediately after impact of the cue ball into the rack of balls on the pool table.

Even though I didn't strike the cue ball very hard to break the rack, I had to use 1/200 of a second to freeze the action. The photo exposure stayed the same because the camera was set on automatic and it adjusted the aperture to compensate for the changes in shutter speed.

This camera setting is called Shutter Priority. It means I set the shutter and the camera automatically sets the aperture.

If you are forced to use a slow shutter speed to get a good exposure with your photo, consider using a monopod. It is probably one of the most convenient, but seldom used pieces of photography equipment that beginners don't know much about.

There are a lot of choices available and you should read up a bit on them to get the most out of Using a Monopod.

Photo of Blurry Billiard Balls

aperture and exposure

Aperture, also known as f-stop, effects depth of field. Depth of field is the range of close and far things that remain sharp and in focus. A small aperture is a small opening and will give you a large depth of field. This is a good camera setting when you want things close and far from the camera to be in focus.

Look below to see how the smaller aperture (f-22) gives you more depth of field. Remember that larger f-stop numbers mean smaller apertures. On the left I focused on the male mannequin.

At f-1.8 there is very little depth of field and the female mannequin is completely out of focus. In the middle photo, I focused on the female mannequin, again using a camera setting of f-1.8 for the aperture. Mr. Photo Mannequin is now out of focus.

Only at an aperture setting of f-22 were both in focus. To get them both sharp, I actually focused at a distance in between my two subjects using my Canon 85mm f-1.8 lens.

This camera setting is called Aperture Priority. It means I set the aperture and the camera automatically sets the shutter speed to get the right photo exposure.

Good Photo Exposure Using Different Apertures - Depth of Field Graphic

how iso affects photo exposure

ISO means sensitivity to light. It used to be called ASA. Both ISO and ASA are acronyms for organizations that set standards for sensitivity. The only thing you really need to know is that higher ISO mean more sensitive.

ISO 100 was considered the normal standard. The advancement in technology and improvements in camera sensors have changed the "normal" ISO to be much higher for digital cameras now. Correct photo exposure won't be effected by your ISO setting if you have your camera set on an automatic setting.

High ISO's create digital noise and lesser quality images. Depending on how high you set your ISO, it may not even be noticeable unless you are making very large prints. Lower ISO such as 100 or 50 will produce the finest quality, grain free images that your camera is capable of.

The variation of brightness in our visual world is amazing. Our eyes do such a great job of adjusting that we don't realize it. If we compare the amount of light when sunshine strikes snow with the amount of light there is in a darkened room , it is literally thousands of times brighter.

Camera sensors do not have as big of an exposure range as we humans do, so it's important to get the correct photo exposure for your pictures to come out their best.

Keep the photo exposure triangle in the back of your mind and you will understand how changing one digital camera setting will effect another.

Here is an easy to follow video produced by Canon - Australia that will add to your understanding of shutter speed, aperture and ISO and how they affect photo exposure.

If the video stops working, let me know at photo-tipman(at)

Most cameras will give you an adequate photo exposure that is close enough for the average snapshot in the majority of situations.

Remember, if you want to improve your photography in more unusual photographic situations, it is important to understand the photo exposure triangle and how shutter speed, aperture and ISO are related and the effect they have on each photograph.

Happy shooting!

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You can an in-depth understanding of this topic and more digital exposure tips by getting a good book on shutter speed, ISO settings and aperture.