Life & Work Skills

Photography 101: Exposure


This week we will be guiding you through how to maximize your DSLR—because a brush up on basics is never a bad idea! At the end of the week we will link all the features at the bottom so you can easily access these helpful tools. You’ll be a pro in no time!

Exposure is a very important aspect of photography. It is the amount of light that goes through your lens and camera and makes your images lighter and darker depending on how you adjust your camera settings. Exposure can be manipulated in your camera by three main variables: shutter speed, ISO, and aperture.

Whether you choose to under or overexpose your image depends on your preference and the context of the image. If you are going for a more serious, dramatic look, underexposing slightly will help you achieve that look. If you want a lighter brighter look, I would recommend overexposing your images. Play around with different photography styles to figure out what you like the most! Photography is by no means an exact science.

Before you start thinking that you can just adjust for exposure later in post-processing with Photoshop, here are a few tricks you can add to repertoire to save on editing time and obtain your desired exposure straight in your camera by shooting in manual mode.
Here are three different scenarios of how you would adjust for exposure directly in your camera. Note: These sample images were not edited at all and straight out of camera (SOOC).

Shutter Speed

This is the easiest and fastest way to adjust for exposure in camera. For me, this is the most intuitive and simplest way to adjust for exposure since it is the amount of time the shutter is open on your camera. The slower the shutter speed, the more exposure you will have. The faster the shutter speed, the less light you have.  

From my personal experience, usually anything under 1/150 per second starts to lean towards the slow side. Even though you get more light in your images, having a slower shutter speed can cause unwanted blurriness (especially if you have moving objects like a baby or pet). Consequently, having a faster shutter speed causes your images to be darker because the shutter is moving fast and has less opportunity to capture light.


SOOC settings:  ISO 400, f-stop 2.2, shutter speed 1/800 sec

SOOC settings:  ISO 400, f-stop 2.2, shutter speed 1/500 sec


ISO is also easy to adjust—it increases or decreases your camera’s sensitivity to light. To increase exposure, use a higher ISO and to decrease your exposure, use a lower ISO.  

In bright daytime, ISO 100 is a great starting point to set your camera. If you want to make images lighter, start dialing up your ISO steadily. In the images below I chose ISO 320 as a starting point since I was in a shaded area. As you can see, ISO 500 slightly brightens up the image even more.  

Beware, however! There is a tradeoff for using ISO. Anytime you go over a certain limit (this varies depending on your camera), the images start to get grainy. It looks like there are little speckles of sand in it. For example, on my Canon 5D Mark II I try not to go over ISO 2000 because I start to see graininess in the images. So when adjusting for exposure, ISO is a great option for shooting conditions with a good amount of light—and not ideal for dark, nighttime images.

SOOC settings:  ISO 320, f-stop 3.2, shutter speed 1/320 sec

SOOC settings:  ISO 500, f-stop 3.2, shutter speed 1/320 sec


Aperture is the third way to adjust for exposure in your camera. It is the opening of the lens that controls the amount of light reaching the camera sensor. The aperture setting controls how big the opening in the lens is.  

So this is the confusing part! The number portion of aperture is not intuitive at all. The lower the number (ex. f/2.0), the larger the aperture and more light. The higher the number (ex. f/22), the lower the aperture and less light.  

However, there is a very important aspect with aperture that you have to remember. When you adjust the aperture, it not only adjusts for the exposure in your image but also changes the depth of field.   Just remember, the aperture with the lower number increases the bokeh (blurry background) and adds more light while the aperture with the higher number decreases the bokeh—ensuring that all your objects are more in focus with less light.

I personally prefer to maintain my aperture between 2.0 and 4.5 on my digital camera. 


SOOC Settings:  ISO 320, f-stop 3.2, shutter speed 1/320 sec

SOOC settings:  ISO 320, f-stop 2.5, shutter speed 1/320 sec

The most important thing is to not be afraid of trying new things with your camera. Practice, practice, practice! Try different lighting conditions, different types of subjects (flowers, animals, family members, etc), and don’t be intimated of setting your camera to manual mode. It gets easier the more you practice!

Additional Photography 101



Shutter Speed