Inside: New to photography? Start here! Download my free DSLR photography for beginners PDF HERE.
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I looked down past my large, round belly, to the brand new DSLR sitting in my lap. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and I couldn’t wait to take beautiful photos of our new baby.
But as I read the instruction manual and fumbled with the camera settings my excitement waned. I wanted to take great
“A photography class is what I need!” I mused.
A few days later a discount on a local photography class landed in my inbox and I registered right away.
Surely this would unlock the mysteries of my camera and have me taking beautiful photos in no time.
I went to the class one week before my due date, larger and rounder. I paid close attention and scribbled notes on ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
I was sure I understood.
Then it was time to go out and test my new knowledge by taking photos in manual mode. And I was LOST.
I couldn’t remember
-which setting to choose first,
-which setting controlled which aspect of the photo, or
-why I thought this class was a good idea in the first place!
How was I supposed to hold all this information in my head???
I checked my notes again. I was still lost.
The instructor came by to check my progress. He saw that I’d reverted back to Auto. I felt the heat creeping into my cheeks.
“It’s challenging, isn’t it?”, he said.
“Um, yeah, understatement of the year” I thought. I was ashamed to admit I’d already given up.
My scribbled notes weren’t cutting it. This photography class didn’t deliver the results I’d hoped for.
I needed someone to simplify this for me.
This article explains the exposure triangle in depth. I want you to read it all.
But if you’re like I was and need a simple photography cheat sheet, you can download it HERE.
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If you’re new to photography, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to understand. It’s the foundation for understanding how to use your
Every camera (even your camera phone) utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or image.
When you shoot in auto mode your camera makes the decisions for you of how to balance the three elements of the exposure triangle based on the scene you’re photographing and the light available.
When you shoot in manual mode you get to do the thinking and choose the best settings for the lighting you’re in and the effect you want to achieve.
Taking control of my camera settings and learning manual mode was the key to learning to take photos I love.
Let’s look at the function of each leg of the exposure triangle. We’ll start with ISO:
ISO stands for “International Standards Organization.”
That’s not important except to know there are internationally recognized standards for this camera setting.
Your ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor (the part inside your camera that captures an image) is to light. The lower your ISO setting, the less sensitive. The higher the setting, the more sensitive.
The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will be able to “gather”.
Most entry level DSLR’s have an ISO range from 100 to 3200 or 6400, while pro-level DSLR’s have ISO ranges up to 32,000 and even higher!
A higher ISO setting has one major drawback. The higher you set your ISO, the more “noise” you’ll get in your photos.
Higher end cameras can handle this noise better than entry level DSLR’s, so the better your camera, the better it’s ability to shoot in low light where you’ll need to use a higher ISO setting.
A higher ISO setting also limits the range of highlights and shadows (known as the dynamic range) your camera can capture.
For these reasons, it’s best to keep your ISO setting as low as possible.
I took this photo of my daughter watching fireworks under dark low light conditions. I have a higher-end DSLR and my ISO setting was at 20,000!
When I zoom in (below) you can see the noise caused by the high ISO setting. This noise is considered undesirable in terms of image quality.
To avoid this always keep your ISO setting as low as possible.
The next leg of the exposure triangle is SHUTTER SPEED.
Shutter speed refers to how long the camera’s shutter stays open when you snap a photo, expressed in fractions of a second.
For example, a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter will stay open for one one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second (which isn’t long at all)!
You’ll sometimes see shutter speed written as a whole number, like SS 125, but this can be confusing, so it’s best to write and think of it in fraction form.
The smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed.
For example, SS 1/800 (one 800th of a second) is faster than SS 1/50 (one 50th of a second).
Shutter speed can be used to capture motion blur. A slow shutter speed can make running water look silky, or lend a sense of movement to a photo. To achieve this look you would choose a longer shutter speed, such as 30 seconds.
This shutter speed is not written as a fraction, because it’s longer than a second.
This site has great examples showing how to create motion blur using a slow shutter speed.
In most cases, a faster shutter speed is better.
One important note:
set your shutter speed higher than the focal length of your lens. For example, if you have a long telephoto lens, such as a 200 mm, your minimum shutter speed would need to be 1/200.
Shutter Speed Examples
These photos illustrate how shutter speed can help you achieve a sharp photo.
This photo was taken at a fast shutter speed of 1/8000. That’s one eight-thousandth of a second. Note how sharp and in focus the flower is, even though the wind was blowing:
This next photo was taken at a slow shutter speed of 1/60 (that’s one 60th of a second).
1/60 is too slow for a handheld
For sharp photos, set your shutter speed at 1/125 or faster.
What Aperture to Use
The third leg of the exposure triangle is known as APERTURE, also referred to as f/stop. The aperture you use depends on the effect you’re going for. Let me explain.
Aperture means “opening”
The camera has an opening inside of it that allows light to pass through to the sensor. The f/stop
The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.
The more closed the camera’s aperture is, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.
Some situations call for having more of your photo in focus. Landscape photos, for example, should have the whole scene in focus and you’d need to use a narrower aperture to achieve this.
A photo of a large group of people may also call for a narrower aperture setting so everyone will be in focus.
The aperture you choose depends on what you’re photographing.
A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor. A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor.
The terms can get confusing!
I had a hard time keeping this one straight when I first started learning manual mode.
Think of it like the iris in your eye. When the light is dim your iris opens wider to let more light in. When the light is bright your iris closes down to let in less light.
In practice, the most important points to remember about aperture are:
A lower f/stop number will give you a blurrier background.
If you’re photographing a larger number of people or a landscape a higher f/stop number will be needed.
The photos below illustrate how your
This photo was taken at f/3.2. Notice the nice blurry background:
This photo was taken at f/16. Notice how the background is much more in focus and we see more of the distracting elements in the background. The photo taken at a wider aperture blurs them out for us.
If you want a blurry background, choose a lower f/stop number.
FREE DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF
Five years later after my third child was born I’d finally gained a good understanding of how to use the exposure triangle.
I don’t want you to struggle with it for as long as I did, so I have a simple photography cheat sheet for you. It will help you when you’re trying to decide on your camera settings.
You can print it and take it along with you when you’re out shooting.
I truly love my photos now that I’ve mastered shooting in manual mode and understand how the exposure triangle affects my photos.
Learning manual mode was the key that unlocked the mysteries of photography for me and allowed me to take beautiful photos I love.