Now that you are starting to get comfortable with shooting your DSLR in Auto Mode and Scene Modes, let’s start learning the manual camera settings that control exposure. To keep things simple for now, when I am talking about a properly exposed picture, I am just referring to a photo in which the brightness of the subject and scene in the photograph mimics the brightness in real life as we see it through our own eyes.

All Images Copyright Lin and Jirsa Photography, Los Angeles

Understanding Exposure

Whether you are shooting film or digital, the principle of exposure remains the same. Exposure is the result of a three-way balancing act between three controllable camera settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I call it a three-way balancing act because when one factor shifts one way, at least one of the other two has to shift the other way to counterbalance the change.

I will go into each component in the next few articles, but for now, here is what you need to know about the three factors:

  • Shutter Speed: How long the camera shutter stays open to let light in
  • Aperture: How wide is the opening of your lens when the light passes through
  • ISO: How sensitive is your sensor to the light

Visualizing the Exposure Relationship

One of the best ways that I have learned in visualizing the relationship between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is to picture water pouring from a faucet into a cup. The water itself is the light and a full cup of water is considered the “correct” exposure.

Your aperture is going to be how wide you open the faucet. How long you leave the water running is your shutter speed. So let’s take a look at these two things in regards to filling the cup to the brim. If you have the faucet wide open (large aperture), it won’t take long to fill the cup up (short shutter speed). If you close down the faucet to only allow a small stream of water, it will take longer to fill the cup (long shutter speed).

That’s essentially how the aperture to shutter speed relationship works. The larger the aperture opening, the less time it takes for enough light to “fill up” a cup of exposure. The smaller the aperture opening, the longer it takes for the light to fill the same cup.
Aperture-Shutter Speed Relationship

Now to visualize ISO, imagine adding a pump to the faucet’s plumbing to force the water out faster. Just by increasing the flow rate of the water, you can fill the cup faster without having to adjust the opening of the faucet or extending the time to fill the cup. ISO is similar in that you are artificially “pushing” more light on the sensor by making the sensor more sensitive to the light.

Underexposure and Overexposure

Exposure Underexposed Overexposed

When an image is underexposed, that means that it is darker than a properly exposed image. Going back to our water faucet analogy, that means that you did not allow enough water to fill the cup all the way to the top. To correct this, you either have to open the faucet wider, give more time for the water to fill the cup, or force the water out faster. In camera terms, this means either opening up the aperture, having a longer shutter speed, or increasing the ISO.

If an image is overexposed, that means that it is way too bright. With our water faucet, that means letting too much water flow into the cup and having the excess water spill out into the sink. To adjust for this, simply close the faucet down a bit, shorten the amount of time allotted for the water, or slow the water’s flow rate. The camera equivalence would be closing down the aperture, having a shorter shutter speed, or lowering the ISO.

Under exposed, Over exposed

Conclusion

So, keeping things simple for now, exposure is simply a three-way balancing act between three controllable camera settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The right combination of the three leads to a “proper” exposure where the image looks like it has the right amount of brightness. If you change one of the three settings, then you have to change at least one of the other two settings to maintain the balance.

In the next set of articles, we will go more in depth to better understand shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Until then, stay creative!

CHAPTER 1: BASIC PHOTOGRAPHY CONCEPTS

CHAPTER 2: UNDERSTANDING EXPOSURE

CHAPTER 3: FROM AUTO MODES TO MANUAL

CHAPTER 4: SHARP IMAGES AND FOCUSING TECHNIQUES

Chapter 5: COMPOSITION, ARTISTRY, AND CREATING GREAT IMAGES

Chapter 6: LEARNING MORE ABOUT YOUR CAMERA

Chapter 7: BONUS

Total Course Run Time: 6H 30M 21S