Keys to Properly Exposing a Photograph Intro: The 3 Kings

16 02 2012

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers who are remarkably gifted photographers but they still rarely venture away from the automatic settings on the camera. I spent the first part of my “professional” career using automatic and sport modes. Modern cameras are very smart so these modes can help you get acquainted and comfortable while you’re learning how to compose a good picture, but, smart as your camera may be, chances are it isn’t very creative.

I found that when I went to events, or took pictures of my friends, I got great pictures. They looked clean most of the time, if they didn’t I just deleted them. Unfortunately, when I got passionate, I learned that it was hard to take a really creative picture. I controlled the composition, but the rest was really out of my hands. Sometimes I wanted a dark picture that felt really deep and heavy and wound up with something so bright it hurt my eyes.

I wish this one had been darker

Sometimes I wanted a bright happy picture only to see something that looked like an illustration of an Emily Dickinson poem.

I wish this image had been lighter

I resolved to learn how to be the master of my own fate, or at least my own exposure. After sifting through countless difficult articles and technically intense websites I learned that exposure, is basically governed by three things on a modern digital camera: f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO.

Properly Exposed

Adjusting each of these can help you make your photos brighter, or darker. Making an image darker is usually “free.” That is to say you don’t get a lot of negative quality impact if you want a darker image. Brighter images are going to cost you though. Here’s a simple description of the “3 Kings.”

  1. Shutter speed, which can also be called exposure time, is how long the shutter stays open. The longer your shutter is open, the more light it lets in, the brighter your image. The “price” is that if your shutter is open and anything moves, you can see the motion in your image in the form of a blur. If it’s a kid running across a field, the kid gets blurry. If your shooting something freehand (not on a tripod,) your hands will move a little, so the camera moves a little, so everything gets a little blurry. We’ll talk a bit more about shutter speed in the next part.
  2. F/stop is a source of confusion and distress for many learning photographers. There are complicated formulas, charts, and diagrams. But for now, here’s the simplest explanation I can offer: A lower f/stop means your aperture (the hole your light comes through) stays larger, and a higher f/stop means it closes more. So, the advantage of a low f/stop is a bigger hole which, you guessed it, lets more light in. The “price” here is a narrow depth of field, I’ll explain more about this and a few of the limitations of f/stop in part 2.
  3. ISO is a rating for “film speed.” It was a system that rated how sensitive film was to light. It basically means the same thing to us in the digital photography age. Increase your ISO and your sensor gets more sensitive to light. This means, your images get brighter. The trade-off here is you now have a hyper sensitive filter that records noise. We’ll talk more about ISO and noise in part 3.

I talk about Shutter Speed next, to view that post, click here!! This post has been a bit out of my norm and definitely geared toward more serious photographers. I’m just testing the waters here and I really want to hear from my readers about how you felt so don’t pull any punches. :) I would love to hear your feedback in the comments or on Twitter! If you enjoyed this post, consider clicking a share button below to let your friends know.

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74 responses

16 02 2012
16 02 2012
Mona

Well written, clear, and concise.

16 02 2012
96arley

Thanks Mona, I’m glad you liked it :)

17 02 2012
Mona

You are welcome.

16 02 2012
thisworldthrumyeyes

I am literally brand new to photography. I have been “playing” with my camera for about a year and recently I have decided to get “serious”; this is a great help to me. Thank u!

16 02 2012
96arley

I’m glad this was helpful. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while because I remember how long it took me to really work it all out on my own with mostly technical articles as references.

16 02 2012
modernzenphotos

Good explanation of the fundamentals of exposure. Another way to look at f-stops is this: the lower the f-stop number, the less of the image is in focus. The higher the number, the more that is in focus (in terms of depth of field). And you’re right, proper exposure is a triad of concepts that every photographer eventually has to come to terms with. Thanks for taking the time to share this.

16 02 2012
96arley

Later this weekend I’m going to be sharing a more in depth look at f/stop that will touch on DoF. Thanks for the feedback! I appreciate you stopping by!

16 02 2012
Chloe deGravelle

Thanks for the tips!

16 02 2012
96arley

You’re welcome, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment

16 02 2012
Judy

Thank you! This is exactly what I’ve been working with for the past few weeks. I’ve been changing my ISO, aperture and shutter speed. I’m just glad I’m not taking photos of a bird, because they’d be gone before I got the right settings! At least a flower stays in one place! ;) Keep up the great posts!

16 02 2012
96arley

Thanks Judy, I’ve missed my fair share of moving subjects too. It’s not so bad once you get the hang of it though!

17 02 2012
fgassette

Thanks for the tips. I’m keeping all your instructions in a folder to refer back to when needed. i hope that is OK with you. You have helped me in so many ways.

BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

17 02 2012
96arley

Not a problem at all. Don’t forget to bookmark the page and check back for the follow up articles! :)

17 02 2012
Sonali Dalal

I enjoy reading your tips! You make everything sound so simple!! Thanks for visiting my blog. It was a great encouragement.

17 02 2012
96arley

You’re welcome Sonali, I’m glad it was easy to understand!

17 02 2012
Jim Crowley

Fundamentals!!!! show em how it’s done!

17 02 2012
96arley

Definitely, thanks Jim, I appreciate you stopping by

17 02 2012
blackrocket2000

Like others above, this is a useful post. I guess much of the confusion lies with the use of film camera terms on digital cameras. I grew up with film, and you had to learn about film speed and correct exposure if you wanted to get any result worth printing. The costs concentrated your mind, and you took time to get to know your camera. A modern digital has so many options. This post helps to focus on the 3 fundamentals.
One idea that might help on F/stops. You can make a basic film camera with a pin hole. Make the hole larger and the film ‘exposures’ more quickly with the same light, so shutter speed has to be faster. The lower the light level [darker scene] the larger ‘hole’ you need.
Depth of field is harder to understand, but great when you master it. Especially for portraits, picking people out from a crowd.

The best advice I have read recently is to get to know you camera really well, use it every day if possible. This will increase your confidence in the heat of the moment.

One tip is to use the Auto or Program settings initially and note the F/Stop and Shutter speed that camera suggests before switching to Manual. Also you can go back through your photos and read the data captured. This will show you the F/Stops, Shutter speeds and ISO used. This way you get use to the numbers.

And if this all sounds very confusing, just stick with Auto and progress to Program. Composition is key to any great shot.

17 02 2012
96arley

Thanks for the tips and feedback. I might have to work some of those points and suggestions into one of the follow up posts. I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment in so much detail

17 02 2012
blackrocket2000

Glad my ideas were useful – hope I didn’t say too much on your post. I’ll look out for sequel.

17 02 2012
96arley

Of course not, I thoroughly enjoy reading in depth comments. Thanks for the re-blog also!

18 02 2012
adrianpym

“Composition is key” – I agree, without good composition the technical aspects cannot save a poor picture. But can good composition compensate for poor technical aspects? Not sure that I know the answer to this.

20 02 2012
96arley

In my opinion, photography elements can’t compensate for each other. Poor exposure takes away from the overall quality of a picture. It may still have some appeal due to exceptional composition, but the effect is lessened by an obvious mistake on the part of the photographer.

17 02 2012
blackrocket2000

Reblogged this on Andrew Mitchell and commented:
A useful summary for anyone trying to master their digital camera [i.e. venture away from Auto to Manual]

17 02 2012
ametanoia

Thanks for the great article!

17 02 2012
96arley

You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping by!

17 02 2012
crweatherford

I was definitely afraid of venturing from Auto for the first few weeks with my DSLR. After learning about exposures and how the camera actually functions, I’ve never gone back to the Auto function! Great post, you explained it well!

17 02 2012
96arley

Thanks, I was a bit slower to learn but I was glad I did :)

17 02 2012
blackrocket2000

96arley – I have also +1′d onto Google+

17 02 2012
96arley

Awesome, thanks!

17 02 2012
Kim

whispers * don’t tell them about composition* as there more like guide lines ;)

17 02 2012
96arley

lol, it’s hard to speak authoritatively on composition when you’ve broken every rule :)

17 02 2012
Kim

that what i was hoping you’d say… as my old man says there are no rules :) link to his blog
http://www.georgemunday.com/renaissance/

17 02 2012
Dezra Despain

When I got my first camera with manual controls I took a basic photography class in order to understand my camera better. It was a point-and-shoot camera with manual controls, fancy for a point-and-shoot but nothing compared to a SLR. The instructor was adamant about using manual mode so that is what I learned. I am so glad I learned manual first because when I finally got a DSLR I didn’t have a huge learning curve…at least in manual mode. Now I need to learn how to better use the “3 Kings” so that I can creatively expose my images to get the mood right. Great post.

17 02 2012
96arley

Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I wish I had learned photography in a more structured environment. Most of my training came from “tinkering” around and reading tutorials online

17 02 2012
Malc

It’s much easier to get your head around exposure settings when you start with a basic film slr. It’s far too easy these days lol :)

17 02 2012
96arley

:) Like I said easy but not very creative until you actually learn how to use your camera.

17 02 2012
Malc

That’s what I meant. No auto, you have to adjust everything.

17 02 2012
takingsnaps

I’m in the same boat as so many other, new dslr, taking a course, we’ve covered the iso and are now on the Aperture settings, even though I’ve understood the reasons so often I get a blurred shot and it annoys the hell out of me!! What am I doing wrong after all the camera is selecting the shutter speed so it should be fine….Aghhhh I WILL persevere!!! Looking forward to following your posts…I shall reblog…there must be so many people out there who’d appreciate it. Thank you.

17 02 2012
96arley

Sometimes the shutter speed the camera selects will care a lot more about the exposure than motion blur, after all, the camera doesn’t know you’re taking a picture of something moving. Try shooting in shutter priority or see if you can set a minimum shutter speed to freeze action. Hope this helps and thanks for re-blogging!

17 02 2012
takingsnaps

Will try this, thanks..

17 02 2012
takingsnaps

Reblogged this on takingsnaps and commented:
Ahh now this should help!!

17 02 2012
tearoomdelights

Very clearly explained. I know very little about photography and when I start to read technical articles I invariably lose interest because it gets too confusing for my tiny mind, but this was really helpful and easy to understand, thank you.

17 02 2012
96arley

You’re welcome, I’m glad it was an easy read for you. I know the feeling, as soon as a photography article starts to feel like a pointless game of listen to all the cool useless stuff I know I go back to browsing pictures :)

17 02 2012
tearoomdelights

Glad it’s not only me who does that! :)

17 02 2012
Theresa

Good information. For the past several months I have purposely taken my camera off auto and worked on exposure using either aperture or shutter priority. Last week I even used the manual mode and my images came out pretty good. The more you shoot the easier it gets.

17 02 2012
96arley

Absolutely, nothing like hands on experience to develop a feel for your camera and taste

17 02 2012
Colline

This is something I need to learn as I am one of those people who rely on the automatic settings of my camera. Reading more info like this may encourage me to finally shoot independently.

17 02 2012
96arley

That’s great to hear, best of luck to you!

17 02 2012
Aaron

Great article; I recently wrote a post on aperture and I think you nailed the other two points on exposure – shutter speed and iso. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about!

17 02 2012
Rich Green

Good job. There’s plenty of folks out there who would like a little help.

17 02 2012
Andra Watkins

Maybe the next iPhone will have adjustable thingies. It’s all I use as a camera these days. :)

17 02 2012
Mary Lou Rutledge

I’m going to learn this if it kills me and I’ve survived cancer!!!! YES, I CAN!!
Thanks for the info.

17 02 2012
Jennifer

Great write-up! Just started shooting manually, and wow, it can definitely be challenging and frustrating! Looking forward to reading more. Thanks!

18 02 2012
96arley

Glad you enjoyed it, hopefully my upcoming tutorials will help take the rest of the mystery out :)

18 02 2012
zelmare

Very informative. I’ve been wanting to try setting my camera up for shots instead of ‘auto’, but knows too little about all of this. So thanks, will read your follow-ups! :)
Zelmare

18 02 2012
96arley

Thanks Zelmare, I’m glad this has helped and I hope the future posts will continue to help you

19 02 2012
degraphics

This post help me understand more about photographs, thanks for posting such a great article! :)

20 02 2012
evilnymphstuff

Wow this is so helpful! Thanks for sharing :)

20 02 2012
Green is the word…….and a little bit of Purple | thegardenimpressionists

[...] per bulb! Gelli Galanthus nivalis, and golden Luzula sylvatica aurea.   Finally a thank you to Arley who has a photography blog in America, which is well worth following. He has very generously given [...]

22 02 2012
Saad Faruque

Nice blog!

22 02 2012
96arley

Thanks Saad, glad you’re enjoying it

23 02 2012
mntofhope

Thanks for the article.. I struggle with putting the 3kings together.. I understand each separately.. but..I feel like I have a block to putting them together.. I’ve been using aperature.. trying to work my way off auto..but sometimes.. it’s still over exposed.. not sure if it’s me or the camera.. :)
Btw.. thanks for the blog follow…it’s encouraging..
keep up the great work!!

23 02 2012
96arley

You’re welcome, I debated on doing a “put it all together” article but so much of that is just getting the feel for it. If you have your f/stop where you want it and are still getting over-exposed try running up your shutter speed though. Good luck, just keep playing around with it!

29 02 2012
namitalad

hey thanks for liking my posts and following my blog
i loved the last picture in this one…

29 02 2012
96arley

Thanks!

5 03 2012
Saved by The Mel (Post Processing Tips) « ShootAbout

[...] quality, especially when it felt like I was following all the technical rules about focus and exposure. Frustrated, I was continually putting my camera on the shelf, then taking it down, then putting it [...]

6 03 2012
kmpinkel

Very helpful. I find f/stop more cumbersome on my digital, as it seems so hard to adjust. I’ve got ISO down, white balance reigned in, no options for shutter speed on my camera-now what I really want is to figure out how to get really rich color in my shots-so it looks like it had just rained even though I took it in the desert. Got any tips for that?

6 03 2012
96arley

Have you played around with HDR at all? You may also be able to do a lot of what you want in post processing (Photoshop) but I suggest shooting in raw if you’re going to edit much. I’ll try to do some HDR work soon :)

27 05 2012
Hubcaps For Sale « ShootAbout

[...] I had to take a few pictures to get this shot the way I wanted. I have been cheating a bit lately. I have left my ISO set on auto so that I can do what I want with the f/stop and shutter speed then let the camera do the hard work. Fortunately, I haven’t lost my touch so the second frame here came out the way I wanted. The camera got a bit confused with the extreme lights and darks so I had to take over. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, the camera is very smart but it’s not particularly creative. If f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO are Greek to you, I have an excellent (if I do say so myself) blog post about it here. [...]

16 08 2012
The Motion of Old Indian « ShootAbout

[...] A simple fun exercise is to play around with the settings on your camera and see what happens. The better educated you become, the more often “what happens” will be really cool. If you aren’t familiar with terms like “shutter speed” or “f/stop” a legend in the photography world wrote a post about it here. [...]

16 08 2012
The Motion of Old Indian « ShootAbout

[...] A simple fun exercise is to play around with the settings on your camera and see what happens. The better educated you become, the more often “what happens” will be really cool. If you aren’t familiar with terms like “shutter speed” or “f/stop” a legend in the photography world wrote a post about it here. [...]

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