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Video: How to Get Correct Exposure in Photography | Exposure Triangle, Part 2

We’ve put together a series within the “Master Your Craft” series to answer the age-old question: How to get to the perfect exposure? In this article (the second of four), we’re going to walk you through a series of images to help you gain a practical understanding of the exposure triangle and how it relates to composition in the real world.

If you missed the first article, we looked at the artistic components of the exposure triangle to show you how to use it to get correct exposure in photography; like part one of this series, this article also expands on concepts covered in our Photography 101 workshop.

Prioritize the Artistic Component of Your Image

A lot of people might say there’s a “right way” to get a proper exposure using the exposure triangle (start with shutter speed, then move to aperture, and set your ISO last, for example), but I feel the “right” way has more to do with following a compositional approach that matches your vision for the final photograph.

Case Study #1: Objective – Capture Motion in the Water

Compositional Approach to Exposure Triangle: Shutter Speed > ISO > Aperture

Get correct exposure composition case study one
16-35mm at 35mm, 1 Second, f/9, ISO 50

Before taking this photograph, I already knew that I wanted to capture motion in the water as the waves crashed and retreated on the sand. Here is my process for and thoughts behind setting up this shot:

Step 1: Set Up a Tripod

Get correct exposure composition bts motion in water

Capturing motion requires using a slow shutter speed (also know as shutter drag), so you’ll need to set your camera up on a tripod to stabilize the camera. While we want to capture motion in the water, we don’t want to capture motion caused by shaky handling of the camera.

Step 2: Dial in Shutter Speed

get correct exposure using composition water motion shutter drag

At this point, focus more on getting the right shutter speed to capture adequate motion and don’t worry too much about perfecting your exposure. For this photo, I found that a shutter speed of 1″ worked well for showing the water as it pulled through the frame.

Step 3: Set ISO

The slow shutter speed we’re using to capture motion is also going to let in a lot of light and really bump up the exposure, so we need to cut some light. One of the best ways to do this is to lower your ISO. In this shot, I went to my camera’s lowest possible ISO setting: 50.

Step 4: Adjust Aperture

Turning to the last piece of the exposure triangle puzzle, I adjusted the aperture so that I could maximize dynamic range and get the depth of field I wanted. Luckily, everything was beautiful in this scene, so an aperture of f/9 worked well to cut enough light and give me a wide depth of field to keep everything in focus. I recommend referring to your histogram to ensure that you’ve maintained an adequate amount of highlights and shadows in your image.

[Related Reading: How to Shoot and Edit a Natural Light, Long Exposure Portrait]

Case Study #2: Objective – Depth

Compositional Approach to Exposure Triangle: Aperture > ISO > Shutter Speed

get correct exposure depth
50mm, 1/500, f/1.4, ISO 100

When I first walked up to this scene in downtown Laguna Beach, my first thought was to use the magazine racks to create depth.

Step 1: Place the Subject

get correct exposure aperture bts for depth of field

I started setting up for this shot by placing my subject in the scene. I used the magazine racks in front of and behind her to help create depth in the image.

Step 2: Adjust Aperture

Of the three components of the exposure triangle, the piece that most directly influences depth is aperture, which controls in part the depth of field in an image; distance between the camera and the subject as well as the space between the subject and the background also contribute to the depth of field in a photo.

I wanted a shallow depth of field to separate my subject from the magazine racks, so I set the aperture wide open, which in this case was f/1.4 on my Sigma 50mm Art lens. This was a busy scene, so it helped to use a shallow depth of field to blur the details and minimize the distractions.

Step 3: Set ISO

It was a fairly bright day and my ISO was already set to 100 (the lowest native ISO setting on my camera), which seemed to be working for this shot. I didn’t need to make any adjustments.

Step 4: Dial in Shutter Speed

Lastly, I used my histogram and live view to dial in my shutter speed and maximize dynamic range, which means I maintained as many highlight and shadow details in the image as possible. Once the exposure was dialed in, I asked myself if my shutter speed (1/500) was fast enough to freeze the action in a way that aligned with my vision for the shot. At 1/500, my shutter speed was indeed fast enough, so I could shift my focus to capturing great expressions without having to make any further adjustments.

Case Study #3: Objective – Some Depth of Field with Blurry Foreground to Lead to Subjects

Compositional Approach to Exposure Triangle: Aperture > ISO > Shutter Speed

get proper exposure case study three bloom backlit 01
24mm, 1/200, f/4, ISO 100

This image required a mixed compositional approach to get a correct exposure. Basically, I wanted to use a wider depth of field (leaving more of the frame in focus) while blurring the foreground to draw the viewer’s focus to the couple standing on the horizon.

Step 1: Adjust Aperture

get proper exposure case study three bloom backlit 02

I adjusted the aperture to capture the depth of field I was looking for, but I also used it to create a “bloom” effect around my subjects, who were backlit by the sun. Wider apertures allow for more of the backlight to wrap around the subjects’ faces. You can also close the aperture to reduce the effect. I found that f/4 provided the level of bloom and depth of field I was looking for in this image.

Step 2: Set ISO

I wanted to increase the dynamic range in the photo, so I lowered the ISO to the camera’s lowest native setting: 100.

Step 3: Dial in Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed did not really factor into the composition of this shot, so I simply adjusted it to get correct exposure based on my other settings (aperture and ISO). The subjects stood perfectly still, so 1/200 was plenty quick to capture a sharp image.

Case Study #4: Objective – Detail on Groom and Sharp Focus on the Bride

Compositional Approach to Exposure Triangle: Aperture > ISO > Shutter Speed

Get correct exposure triangle groom detail 01
24-70mm at 61mm, 1/320, f/4, ISO 400

I knew for this image that I wanted to capture detail in the groom’s face so that he would be immediately recognizable, even though his presence is limited to a closeup silhouette in the foreground. At the same time, I wanted the bride to draw the most attention in the image, so she would need to be tack sharp.

Step 1: Adjust Aperture

Get correct exposure triangle groom detail 02
Another angle that featured the groom with less dynamic lighting.

If I set the aperture too wide open, I would lose too much detail in the groom’s face and he would become harder (if not impossible) to recognize. Once again, I found a sweet spot with an aperture of f/4, which captured the bride with tack sharp focus and left enough detail of the groom to keep him recognizable.

Step 2: Set ISO

get correct exposure triangle higher iso for effect

I mentioned in the previous article that high ISO creates grain and overall image softness, so I wanted to set my ISO to achieve this look before finalizing my exposure with shutter speed. I often do this when I intend the image to be black and white or I want to include grain for a more filmic look. When shooting with this intention, the in-camera grain lends itself to creating a more organic look for a filmic-inspired photo/edit. I settle for an ISO for the groom shot, but the number will vary based on other circumstances, such as camera make & model, available light, etc. I recommend practicing and/or experimenting with your gear to get to know little nuances, such as knowing which ISO setting on your specific camera will produce a decent amount of grain.

Step 3: Dial in Shutter Speed

Because I had to hold the camera up and over the groom’s shoulder, I needed to set the shutter speed to be fast enough to freeze the action with tack sharp focus. For that reason, I settled on 1/320.

[Related Reading: How to Create Incredible Black and White Images in Lightroom]

Case Study #5: Objective – Freeze Motion in Water

Compositional Approach to Exposure Triangle: Shutter Speed > Aperture > ISO

get correct exposure triangle water works
Fujifilm X100V (23mm, 1/2000, f/2.8, ISO 800)

This is a series of portraits of my kids taken while playing during quarantine. I have a hose off camera spraying water up into the air and the sound is positioned just over the wall behind them, which is backlighting the water against the darker background.

Step 1: Dial in Shutter Speed

Because I wanted to freeze the motion of the backlit water falling on and around my kids, I knew I’d need a quick shutter speed, so that’s where I started. To capture water like this, you’re generally going to need a shutter speed of at least 1/4000 to 1/8000 (if you can pull it off and still get a decent exposure). After adjusting my aperture and setting my ISO, however, I realized I’d need to slow my shutter speed to 1/2000 to maintain a decent exposure. It ended up being fast enough to achieve the look I was after in this series of photos.

Step 2: Adjust Aperture

I wanted to capture the bokeh of the backlit water while also keeping my kids’ playful faces in focus, so I adjusted my aperture to f/2.8.

Step 3: Set ISO

With the combination of a super fast shutter speed and an aperture of f/2.8, I still wasn’t getting enough light at ISO 800 (where the camera was set). This is a situation in which it pays to know your gear so that you know whether or not you can keep pushing the ISO without losing too much detail in the grain and softness that often accompanies higher ISO settings. I didn’t want to push the ISO beyond 800, so I went back and adjusted my shutter speed.


We hope you enjoyed this video and lesson (the second of a four-part series) on taking a compositional approach to using the exposure triangle to get correct exposure in photography. Hopefully, moving forward, you can walk into a scene and start dialing in your exposure by choosing the artistic component of the exposure triangle that best matches your intention for the final image.

In the next article, we’ll continue to work through the process of getting a correct exposure. Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!