A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Exposure In Photography

picnic set on blanket

Every photographer today needs to learn how to use exposure. When you are starting out, the many buttons and menu options in your camera might confuse you. However, this is not a reason not to learn how to use each of them. Several buttons on your camera control exposure. By understanding how to play with them, you will find it easier to capture better pictures with ideal brightness and a high level of details in both the highlight areas and background.

Read on to learn more about exposure in photography and how three camera settings affect exposure- shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

What Is Exposure In Photography?

Exposure can be termed as the amount of light reaching your camera sensor. It dictates how dark or bright your photos will appear.

There are two things that affect exposure in your camera- shutter speed and the aperture. ISO also affects how bright your image will be and will discuss it too. Getting the right exposure for a photo is all about balancing these three settings. And this is where things get confusing, but we will simplify them.

Let’s talk about the three settings briefly and how to get the balance right;

Shutter speed

Of the three settings, shutter speed is the simplest to set. To define it, we can say that it is the time taken by your camera to capture a picture. This could be 1/10 of a second, 1/100 of a second, or more.

  • Shutter speed and exposure

Let’s talk about a practical scenario so that you can understand that fast and long shutter speed lets in a substantial amount of light in your camera sensor, which means that if you take your image in normal day time, it will be overly exposed (it will be white in most parts). Conversely, a quick shutter speed lets in a small amount of light, which means that a photo taken at night with quick shutter speed, of let’s say 1/80000 seconds, will be completely black.

TIP: Keep in mind that shutter speed also controls motion blur. Using long shutter speed to capture a moving object will create blurriness in your picture (motion blur). If you want to portray movement or speed, this will be okay. However, if you want to capture a sharp image of a moving object, you will need to use quick shutter speed to 'freeze' the object to have a sharper picture.

Aperture

Canva-Aperture

This operates in the same way as the pupil in your eye. It can be defined as the opening in a lens through which light enters your camera.

Keep in mind that aperture is a fraction. If you don't understand this, then you will get it wrong. If, for example, you are asked, which aperture is larger between f/2 and f/20? Of course, f/2 is larger than f/20 because even in elementary math, ½ is bigger than 1/20.

  • Aperture and exposure

The larger your aperture, the more light you let in, and thus the brighter your photo. Therefore, when you want to expose a subject properly, you need to pay close attention to your aperture setting. For instance, in a dark environment, you might need to use a larger aperture. By changing your aperture and shutter speed, you can capture the exact amount of light you want, resulting in a properly exposed photo.

TIP: Keep in mind that aperture controls the depth of the field too. Depth of field is the scene in photography that appears sharp. Therefore, keep in mind that changing the aperture also changes the depth of field in an image. If you want everything to look sharp, a small aperture like f/11 or f/16 can be ideal. Larger apertures capture a thinner depth of field, which means most of the things in your image will be blurred.

Therefore, as much as you want to use aperture to control exposure, have a clear purpose in mind of what you want to achieve. Sometimes, it is better to have a photo with proper depth of field, even if it has no ideal exposure. However, with patience and practice, you will learn to balance the two.

ISO

This camera setting is not part of the exposure, but it brightens your photos, which makes sense to talk about it in this topic. The reason for this is because exposure refers to the amount of light reaching your camera sensor, and ISO, brightens a photo in the camera.

You only raise ISO when there is no other way to brighten your image- for example, when a longer shutter speed will cause too much motion blur, and you are already using a wide aperture. Raising ISO might brighten your image, but it will emphasize noise (grain).

In most cases, keep your ISO at the base value, unless otherwise. We are advising to raise ISO when you don’t have enough light to correctly expose the image- only in darker situations.

Final Thoughts

Although exposure may seem a complicated topic, it is an important technical aspect of photography you must master if you want to take high-quality pictures. With these simplified tips, you can go out and test them for yourself. Don’t be afraid to play around with your camera exposure settings and ISO.

Remember that exposure is something that you will never stop learning and improving — even the most advanced photographers experiment with exposure at times.

Posted in: Camera basics