How to Get Correct Exposure in Photography | Exposure Triangle, Pt. 1
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Video: How to Get Correct Exposure in Photograph | Exposure Triangle, Part 1
How do you get to the perfect exposure? I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the years, so I decided to put together a series on the topic and answer it once and for all. Why a series? Another great question! There are a few different things you’ll need to understand as we talk about how to arrive at a perfect exposure.
In this article (the first in a series of four), we’ll look at the artistic components of the exposure triangle while we show you how to use it to get correct exposure in photography. We also explore this concept in detail in our Photography 101 workshop.
What Is the Exposure Triangle?
Most of you are probably familiar with this concept and know that the triangle consists of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. You probably also know that the combined effect of how you set each of these components determines the exposure for your image.
What we often forget, however, is that each of these settings contribute an artistic component as well. It’s important to understand the exposure triangle and its dual functionality as a tool for getting correct exposure as well as contributing to the artistic aesthetic of your imagery. By the end of this series, I want you to prioritize the artistic component of each setting in the exposure triangle, but we’ll work on that as we go.
Exposure Component of Shutter Speed
The basic function of the shutter speed in terms of exposure is pretty easy to understand. The slower the shutter speed, the brighter the image. Slow shutter speeds allow for brighter exposures because the longer duration of the shutter being open allows more light to reach the sensor (or film).
On the flip side, faster shutter speeds yield darker images because less light is able to reach the sensor or film.
Artistic Component of Shutter Speed
The artistic component of shutter speed has to do with motion. You can choose to show motion or freeze it by adjusting your shutter speed. A quick shutter speed of 1/4000, for example, will freeze the motion of a crashing wave, while a slower, seconds-long shutter speed may be needed to show motion in the waves. Panning with a moving subject at a slower speed (1/100 or slower) will allow you to capture the subject sharply while blurring the background to reveal motion (see the image below).
[Related Reading: How to Shoot and Edit a Natural Light Long Exposure Portrait]
Exposure Component of Aperture
Aperture controls how much light is getting through the lens and reaching the sensor at any particular time. Think of it like the faucet on your kitchen sink. When you “open” it all the way up, you allow more water to flow. In photography, a wide aperture allows more light into the lens. Closing off the faucet is like stopping down your lens and allowing less light to flow through the lens and reach the sensor.
To reiterate the above points, shutter speed controls how long the sensor is exposed to light whereas aperture controls how much light reaches the sensor.
Artistic Component of Aperture
The artistic component of aperture has to do with depth of field. A wider aperture setting (f/1.2 to f/2.8) will produce a shallow depth of field, while a narrow aperture setting (f/4-f/22) will increase depth of field. With a shallow depth of field, you’ll quickly notice more separation between the subjects in focus and the blurry background. If you want more of the details in a scene to remain in focus, you’ll need to close or stop down your aperture for a wider depth of field.
Exposure Component of ISO
In terms of exposure, ISO refers to the sensor’s sensitivity to light. While deep, technical discussions can be had here as to how this works, I want to keep it simple. Let’s say that you’ve set your shutter speed to freeze an expression on your subject’s face and your aperture is set to f/2.8 to separate your subject from the background, but the image is underexposed. When you increase your ISO, you simulate* increasing your sensor’s sensitivity to light. Therefore, you can increase your ISO to brighten your exposure.
*The sensitivity doesn’t ACTUALLY change; it has to do with the physics of how a sensor collects and counts photons, and then how it amplifies or increases that signal. The key is, if you raise your ISO, your images get both brighter and “noisier.”
That said, you’ll usually use lower ISO settings when working in brighter environments and higher ISO settings when working in darker environments.
Artistic Component of ISO
Like the other settings in the exposure triangle, ISO also has an artistic component. In terms of artistry, ISO controls the amount of detail and color in an image. If you shoot at the lowest native ISO setting for your camera (which you can look up online), you will yield the maximum amount of detail, dynamic range, and color possible for your camera body.
There are occasions in which it may make sense to intentionally shoot at higher ISO settings for artistic effect. Some scenes or sessions have a softer, more vintage appeal, and it’s in these situations that I shoot at a higher ISO to add a subtle bit of graininess and softer detail to the images. Some people may wonder, “Why not just replicate the look of film with a preset?” Yes, you can do this and it’s a solid option; however, in my experience, I have found that when I shoot with a higher ISO with the artistic component in mind, I get much more organic results when I apply the final look in post production.
[Related Reading: 5 Natural Light Techniques Before You Flash]
We hope you enjoyed this video and lesson (the first of a four-part series) on the exposure triangle and how to get correct exposure in photography. Going forward, I want you to bias the artistic components of the exposure triangle and then focus on how to get correct exposure in photography.
In the next article, we’ll continue to work through the process of getting to that place. 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!