Self-Taught Photography. THE ART OF EXPOSURE

I’ve been frustrated countless times in the past when I’ve tried to experiment with the manual mode in my Canon Rebel T3i and I didn’t get the results I was hoping for. ‘Why is the sky so bright? Mmm let’s change this setting and see what happens. Oh no! Why does everything look so dark now…?’. I got tired of guessing, and after devoting some time to reading good photography blogs and magazines I’m finally starting to understand these WHYs. It all comes down to the basics, my friends.

This week I have focused on teaching myself what is called ‘the exposure triangle’ – a basic concept to understand how light enters and interacts with the camera. Knowing which settings you should use in each situation can be tricky, and a lot of practice is needed in order to understand the interaction of the three elements that form the aforementioned triangle.

Once you read the theory, put cozy clothes on, go out and…shoot, shoot and shoot! Practice is always the key to success – don’t forget that! The more you do something, the better you get. After a while, it will be very satisfying to look at your first pictures and see the evolution of your photography skills over time. I’m really looking forward to that special moment!

So let’s get down to business. The three elements that we need to understand in order to master the art of the exposure are…

The exposure triangle

It is at the intersection of these three elements that a photo is properly exposed. It hasn’t been an easy task for me to completely grasp the relationship between Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO since there are a lot of different components involved. However, I read a metaphor about the exposure triangle on Digital Photography School that was very useful to get the big picture in mind. Let me share it with you (please note that this metaphor hasn’t been written by me, I got it from the Digital Photography School page).


Imagine your camera is like a window with shutters that open and close.

Aperture is the size of the window. If it’s bigger more light gets through and the room is brighter.

Shutter Speed is the amount of time that the shutters of the window are open. The longer you leave them open the more that comes in.

Now imagine that you’re inside the room and are wearing sunglasses. Your eyes become desensitized to the light that comes in (it’s like a low ISO). There are a number of ways of increasing the amount of light in the room (or at least how much it seems that there is. You could increase the time that the shutters are open (decrease shutter speed), you could increase the size of the window (increase aperture) or you could take off your sunglasses (make the ISO larger).


There is not a single combination of the three elements to achieve the same exposure. Different values of shutter speed, aperture and ISO can give the same exposure result. However, we need to keep in mind that every time we change one of our settings, the image will be affected in a different manner. Therefore, it is really important to understand the trade-offs of each element to know how to best play with them. In order to remember how each element can affect my shot, I carry a note like this one in my camera bag (at least for now!).

Triangle exposure note

As I’m not a professional in the field (yet!) and my main objective is to help others who like me are starting to learn photography, I’ll just sum up the main concepts that I have learned during this week. However, I strongly recommend carefully reading some of the professional websites that explain in more detail each of the elements of the triangle. I’ll also post some of the pics that I took as examples during my practice sessions.

 SHUTTER SPEED – how long the image sensor is exposed to light

  • Impact on how motion is captured
  • It is usually measured in fractions of seconds, meaning that the bigger the denominator the faster the speed (1/1000 > 1/30)
  • Important question to ask yourself: how do I want to capture this movement? (freeze it or blur it?)
  • To freeze movement –> choose a faster shutter speed
  • To let the movement blur –> choose a slower shutter speed
  • It is recommended to use a tripod to avoid camera shake when using 1/60 or slower

shutter both Differences in shutter speed settings

As you can see in the first picture, I wanted to blur the moving object (water) so I had to use a slower shutter speed. Unfortunately, I don’t own a tripod yet, so I had to rely on the lens image stabilization. I’m happy with the final result though – I barely can notice the image shake.  In the second pic I shot with a faster shutter speed in order to freeze the movement.

APERTURE – how much light the lens lets in

  • It is measured in ‘f-stops’ (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc) and every time we change the setting to the next f-stop it means that we are doubling or halving the size of the hole in our lens
  • The larger the hole the more light that gets in, and the other way around
  • Large apertures (more light gets in) –> f/stop smaller numbers (i.e. f/2.8)
  • Small apertures (less light gets in) –> f/stop larger numbers (i.e. f/22)
  • Depth of field (DOF): describes the distance in front of and behind a focus point that appears sharp in a photograph
    – Large aperture (small number) = shallow DOF (part of the image is focused, the rest is blurry)
    – Small aperture (large number) = large DOF (most of the image is in focus)

Different aperture settings

In this example you can see that with a large aperture the object in focus is the flower and the rest is fuzzy. However, in the second picture the whole image is in focus.

ISO – the camera’s sensitivity to light

  • The lower the number the less sensitive the camera is to light and the less noise the image has (less grain)
  • If we’re taking photos outside in sunny conditions we’ll want to use ISO of 100 or 200
  • If it’s a cloudy day or evening time, then we should use a higher ISO between 400 and 800
  • In darker situations (night or indoor activities) we will generally want to use an ISO of 1600 or more (the cost is noisier shots though)

Different ISO settings

When I took these pics it was still sunny outside, so you can see that using an ISO of 200 was the right choise. However, when I increased the ISO value my shot was way too bright.

Finally, we always need to keep in mind that thinking about one element in isolation from the other two of the triangle is not going to give us the perfect exposed picture. As you change one of the elements you’ll need to change one or both of the other ones to compensate.

If you are an amateur like me, my recommendation is to find some time to understand each element in detail. You don’t need to spend hours and hours reading professional blogs and magazines; just pick one that you like and read the basic concepts to get a general idea. Once you’ve done that, grab your camera and experiment by playing with the different settings. Every time that you take a shot explain to yourself why the picture is too bright or too dark, why it has so much grain or why it is so fuzzy. Try to find the logic of it and eventually you’ll understand how the three elements work together to find the perfect exposure.

That’s exactly what I’ve done this week, and even though I still have a lot of practice ahead of me, I’m having so much fun along the way! Here is the proof – Dan being goofy while I was practicing with the aperture settings.

dan goofy

Feel free to share your advice or criticize my work. I really appreciate when people give me their honest opinion :).



16 thoughts on “Self-Taught Photography. THE ART OF EXPOSURE

    • Absolutely!!! It takes a little bit of time and patience to grasp the three concepts and how they interact together. But believe me, once you understand them, you’ll be amazed by the cool things you can do with the camera!
      I know how much you like to workout, so I was thinking that you should ask your fiance (and very soon husband, woo!) to take pics of you while you’re running using a slow shutter speed. Wouldn’t be cool to capture you in movement? (Like the water of the left pic of my first example!)

      • I never really thought of doing that but I love the idea. I guarantee he would be willing to do that for me. He kind of fancies himself a bit of a photographer (well he loves photography at least), but mainly does landscape and mountains, so that would be a good test for him. I’m going to mention this to him tonight, ha!

  1. Great post Yael! Very useful advice! As hard as it may be …always good to switch the DSLR to manual mode and experiment with the settings…you’ll get a lot of failures, but they’ll become less and less as you become more familiar. Plus, the great thing with DSLRs is that you don’t run out of film roll – if you don’t like the picture, just delete it and take another! 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by my blog Hari! I’m still in the process of getting to understand each setting and how to best apply them in each situation, but I know you’re absolutely right. If I keep practicing day after day eventually this stuff will be completely natural and intuitive for me. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Through The Lens | fotofreaksblog

  3. I have a Canon Rebel T3i too and your first paragraph sounded just like me with it – wondering why things had happened and how to fix it. I had taken photography courses years ago but seriously need a brushing up on everything now that I’m getting back into it. This post has been super helpful and easy to read (sometimes photography how-tos can be intimidating). I can’t wait to get out there this weekend and experiment some more!!

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read through the post! I document my progress in photography as I learn more about it, and I always try to make it easy to understand for me and for others who also love to learn! We have a great camera Samantha, it’s crazy how much progress I made just in a few months when I started to experiment with the manual mode. Can’t wait to see some of your pictures of the weekend! 🙂

  4. Awesome post–thanks! I am currently in the process of getting a better lens for my t3i. What kind of editing system do you use? Photoshop? Love your blog, btw! Such a sweet idea. Have a blessed day!

    Hot Tea & The Empty Seat

    • I’m so glad you find this post useful! Which lens do you own at this moment if you don’t mind me to ask? I mostly use Photoshop CS5 to edit my pictures, but before I had access to it I used free online photo editors like PicMonkey. Thanks for your sweet words Katie, they mean a lot to me 🙂

      • I am using the default lens that came when the canon camera when I bought it. So cool that we use the same camera, I was looking at your pictures like, “this must be a fancy camera she is using!” Haha, but it’s all about how you use it and the editing. I love editing pics so I am hoping to start a business here in TN. And awesome! Thanks for the referrals. I will definitely look those editing systems up! Thanks for following me btw! So thankful!

      • I had the exact same thoughts when I started to shot in manual mode 3 months ago and looked at other blogs – no way my Rebel can do this, I’m sure they took these pictures with a $3,000 camera! But the truth is that it all comes down to the basics – get to know your camera and don’t be afraid to experiment with it. Editing plays an important role as well, and Photoshop is the best software in the market (although it hurts a lot to pay what it costs). I heard Lightroom is really good as well if you’re looking for something more affordable. In terms of lenses, it all depends on the kind of photography you want to pursue and your budget. Unfortunately, I don’t have the economic means to buy expensive gear at this moment, so I got the 50mm 1.8 a few months ago and I’m in love with it! It’s a great lens to shot portraits, flowers and close subjects as it allows me to get nice blurred backgrounds very easily. I wish you the best of luck in your new business!! 🙂

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