A 2018 Beginners Guide to Exposure - Photography Basics

“The first photos I ever took were absolutely terrible hahaha I was a terrible photographer. Here’s the thing though every successful photographer started out terrible. Embrace the failures and learn from them, dedicate your focus & keep practicing. To be great you must first be terrible.”
Jacques

One of the first photo's Jacques ever took in Manual mode. Not bad.. but no NatGeo spread hahaha. I actually can't even tell what's in focus here! We all start somewhere guys/gals, persist!

One of the first photo's Jacques ever took in Manual mode. Not bad.. but no NatGeo spread hahaha. I actually can't even tell what's in focus here! We all start somewhere guys/gals, persist!

INTRODUCTION

Let’s dive right into the basics of photography- We are talking Exposure. To apply the theory and lessons of this blog into a practical situation we recommend you get your hands on a DSLR and that you have a basic understanding of the different modes, specifically Manual Mode. If you do not have a DSLR you can still apply the knowledge you gain from this blog to improve your photos and enhance your understanding of photography. For the entry level film makers out there this blog will also help your understanding of exposure but we will be putting together a more comprehensive guide to filmmaking within the next couple months. So let’s get into it, to start off… What is an Exposure in Photography terms?

 

But first a quick note to all the aspiring photographers, intermediate shooters and experienced professionals stuck for motivation. Photography is impossible to master! Photography itself is a form of artwork and art is subjective. There will always be people who don’t appreciate your work, listen to their valid points but don’t give up your unique style.
You may be the artistic type or you may be the photographer that wants to master the rules and nail the composition. You may not be a strong composer but your photos may be rich in storytelling, giving the viewer a gateway to another world.
Whatever your style is embrace it and make every attempt to learn, grow and pursue your creativity.

EXPOSURE EXPLAINED

Nope we ain’t talking marketing exposure or exposure of the adult kind. We are talking photography.
An ‘Exposure’ is essentially a photo. The true definition of an exposure is the amount of light per unit reaching the image sensor or (if you are shooting old school) the photographic film. The image sensor interprets this information and a photo is born. In the case of film, the image is burnt onto the photographic film. Depending on how long you take to fill the film reel you may only see the finished photo weeks or months later. Better learn how to get the Exposure right then.
One exposure refers to one complete shutter cycle, in the case of a ‘long exposure’ the shutter cycle is longer. There are three main factors that determine the result of your Exposure; Shutter Speed, Aperture & ISO. These three components work together to produce your exposure, you can think of them as a triangle. Each corner of the triangle is a component, if a component is adjusted the triangle changes. Your goal is to get the triangle as perfect as possible, so if you alter one corner then you may need to adjust the other corners to get your desired exposure. Does that make sense or are you a visual learner? Have a look at the diagram below to get a better understanding of the Exposure Triangle.

If this looks like giberish to you then yah best keep reading.

If this looks like giberish to you then yah best keep reading.

For the Visual learners among us.

For the Visual learners among us.

As you can see each component has an effect on your resulting exposure and every adjustment to one or more of these components will alter the end result. It makes sense then to understand how each of these components works (ISO, Aperture & Shutter Speed) and how changing the settings of each component affects the exposure. I wonder how many times we can mention exposure in this blog..

 

For those readers who have just gotten into photography and you are beginning to feel quite overwhelmed with the learnings ahead of you. Just break it down and take things one step at a time and above all be grateful that DSLR’s have the ability to manually adjust these settings. You might be thinking, Why? Why should I be grateful for having to change the settings? Why can’t the settings just be set to the perfect exposure for me?
In the last century that is exactly how it was; fixed apertures, fixed shutter speeds and limited ISO film options for your camera. This makes photography very limiting and takes a lot of the creativity out of your images. So embrace it and get learning.

Let’s get into the first corner of our triangle… Aperture.

APERTURE

Aperture is controlled by a somewhat circular opening in your lense which can be adjusted in width from very small to an opening almost as large as your lense width. The larger the opening becomes the more light is allowed into the lense. This results in more light hitting the image sensor. Struggling to understand? Think of it this way.
Its 6am and your alarm just went off, you begrudgingly lift yourself out of the covers and begin to open your blinds. Image the wall opposite your blinds is the image sensor. The blinds resemble your Aperture as it opens up. You will notice that as the blinds open the wall fills with more light.

The smaller the opening (higher Aperture) the less light gets in.

The smaller the opening (higher Aperture) the less light gets in.

Just like those morning blinds slowly opening and allowing the light to strike your walls, eyes and sleepy face. As your aperture drops it allows more light to enter the lens and hit the image sensor.

Just like those morning blinds slowly opening and allowing the light to strike your walls, eyes and sleepy face. As your aperture drops it allows more light to enter the lens and hit the image sensor.

Fully open the Aperture and the light will flood into the lens. Similar to a fully lit room in the morning.

Fully open the Aperture and the light will flood into the lens. Similar to a fully lit room in the morning.

So why are the smaller apertures attached to the larger numbers? That makes no sense at all right.. I will tell you why. Aperture is set up like fractions of a whole. 1 being the whole let's use f4 & f8 as examples. F4 is actually 1/4 and f8 is 1/8. So 1/4 is a larger number than 1/8 ...right? haha sorry maths is not my strong suit. But, if you turn the Aperture settings into fractions I think you will have an easier time understanding which apertures are larger.

 

BeginnersExposureFive.jpg

You will notice that the numbers in the diagram above do not go up by the same amount each time but what they do represent is a doubling/halving of the amount of light entering the lens. ‘Whole Stops’, as they are referred to, represent doubles/halves of light being allowed to hit the sensor. So f1.4 will let in double the amount of light that f2.0 does, f2.0 will let in double the amount of light as f2.8. Or you could say that f2.8 lets in half the amount of light that f2.0 does. Make sense?
 

Now depending on what camera and lense you are using you will have more than just ‘Whole Stops’ to play with. You will have aperture settings in between the whole stops giving you more artistic freedom to create the shot you want. Great so we have all these aperture settings to choose from but so what? What can I do with them?

Let's get into how you can use aperture and how aperture affects your image and overall exposure.

Depth of Field

When you take a photo you will have a section of the image that is in perfect focus and then other areas of the image that are out of the focal range. You can adjust your aperture to change your depth of field. Choosing between a small Depth Of Field (DOF) that only has the subject of your image in focus or a large DOF that practically has everything in focus.

Depth of Field is determined by Aperture and two other factors; distance to your subject and the lense focal length(35mm, 85mm, 200mm etc). Aperture has the most dramatic effect on DOF but combined with the right focal length and distance you can create some incredible images.
Here are some visual examples of how Aperture affects DOF.

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f2

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f2

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f1.4

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f1.4

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f2.8

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f2.8

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f4

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f4

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f5.6

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f5.6

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f11

Shot at 35mm Focal- Aperture f11

If you are shooting portraits you may find shooting with a lower aperture (smaller DOF) draws your viewers attention to your subject and therefore results in a more effective and artistic exposure. When shooting landscapes you are probably going to want to show the grandeur of the landscape so what Aperture would you use? ...yep you got it, a higher aperture with a larger DOF. But… but just remember this is not a fixed rule, get creative and find what works best for your scene, shoot or model. Here is an example: If you have an amazing background that contrasts well with your subject use a larger aperture and include the background in your portrait.

Shooting in Low Light

So we already know that a low aperture will allow more light into the sensor. So altering your aperture can affect how bright your final exposure will be. Lowering your aperture allows you to shoot in lower light situations without having to sacrifice image quality by upping the ISO. So having a lense with a lower aperture rating offers you far more options when shooting in lower light. Here are a couple examples of images shot in low light with different apertures.

Same scene- Shot at f1.4

Same scene- Shot at f1.4

Same scene- Shot at f22

Same scene- Shot at f22

Same scene- Shot at f4

Same scene- Shot at f4

As you can see Aperture has a substantial effect on Exposure. That is just one corner of the triangle, let’s explore our second corner.

SHUTTER SPEED

So Aperture controls the amount of light hitting the sensor but Shutter Speed is like the gatekeeper of your DSLR castle. Your Shutter Speed controls how long that light is being exposed to the sensor.
Shutter Speed can also be used in an artistic way to create or freeze motion in your subjects or scene. Shutter Speed is also expressed in fractions, in this case the are fractions of a second; 1/8, 1/125, 1/1000 etc. Most DSLR’s will drop the 1/ though so you will see the shutter speed displayed as 8,125,1000.

Now before you get excited about creating a long exposure like you see in all those stunning Nat Geo posts you need to know what you can realistically shoot at handheld and when you are going to need a tripod. A general rule of thumb is 1/60 as your slowest handheld shutter speed, as you grow in confidence this number will probably drop. Another rule of thumb is to shoot at the focal length of your lense (a higher focal length makes it easier to disrupt the image with movement). For example a 200mm Telephoto lense would need a tripod for any shutter speeds below 200 (1/200).

The lower the shutter speed the more motion blur you introduce but.. this also allows more time for the light to hit the image sensor. To avoid over exposure you might need to adjust your Aperture and ISO.

The lower the shutter speed the more motion blur you introduce but.. this also allows more time for the light to hit the image sensor. To avoid over exposure you might need to adjust your Aperture and ISO.

Once you understand the basic ‘rules of thumb’ when it comes to setting the right shutter speed you can begin to use Shutter Speeds artistically to create or freeze movement in your images. Don’t be scared to experiment with your shutter speed. Here are a couple images showing how shutter speed can create or freeze motion in your image.

It is up to you what kind of motion you want to create in your images. Freezing motion will offer a very different feeling to creating motion. Play around and find what works for you and your shoot. Here are a few more examples of motion through shutter speed.

Shutter Speed set at 1/4sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/4sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/10sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/10sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/30sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/30sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/100sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/100sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/400sec

Shutter Speed set at 1/400sec



ISO

Unlike Aperture and Shutter Speed ISO does not control light coming into the camera. ISO bypasses light all together, instead it is used to alter the sensitivity of your image sensor or film to the incoming light. ISO settings will vary depending on what DSLR you are using, entry levels normally cap the ISO at no more than 6400. Some high end DSLR’s can go much higher, Canon even released a camera back in 2015 that goes as high as 1,000,000 ISO! It can literally capture more than the human eye is capable of seeing!

ISO LEVELS- A Snapshot
100-200- No Noise/Low light sensitivity
200-400- Minimal Noise/Minimal Light Sensitivity
400-800- A little Noise/Moderate Light Sensitivity
800-1600- Moderate Noise/More Light Sensitivity
1600-3200- Higher Noise Levels/ High Light Sensitivity
3200 Plus- Depending on your DSLR this will result in too much noise with very high light sensitivity. Remember more advanced DSLR's will have much higher tolerance to noise levels at higher ISO's.

Now you might be thinking, ‘Sweet! I can just pump up the ISO when it gets dark. Who needs Aperture & Shutter Speed.” Sorry but that is not a good option. The higher you lift the ISO the more noise your image will contain. Noise is that grainy distorted look you sometimes see in images that have been blown up. Similar to grandma’s old school computer that doesn’t go any higher than 360P video quality. Ain’t no Nat geo image thats for sure.
Be sure to research the specs on what ISO levels work for your camera. In general you want to keep your ISO as low as possible to create the cleanist image possible.
-In daylight outdoor settings you won’t need anything higher than 200. (Cloudy or overcast days may require higher ISO’s around 400)
-If you are indoors your ISO will probably range between 400-1600. This may be less if the area is well lit. If you are using an external flash this will change again.
-As the light drops you may need to lift the ISO as high (or higher) as 3200. But remember to work to your DSLR’s recommended ISO settings and be aware that you are sacrificing your image quality.

Here are a few images showing the effects of ISO.

ISO set at 200

ISO set at 200

ISO set at 400

ISO set at 400

ISO set at 1600

ISO set at 1600

ISO set at 3200

ISO set at 3200

ISO set at 6400

ISO set at 6400

ISO set at 32000

ISO set at 32000

COMBINING THE THREE PILLARS TO CREATE THE PERFECT EXPOSURE

Sorry to disappoint you but there is no such thing as the perfect exposure. Exposure is completely subjective, remember this is art and just like painters photography has plenty of Jackson Pollocks.

But, for the sake of this blog let’s cover the ideal exposure. Every photo you are trying to take will have its own dynamic range(the range of light from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows). We are aiming to capture this dynamic range without blowing out the highlights and without having the shadows too dark.

The majority of the scenes we are aiming to capture will have a much larger dynamic range than our cameras can capture. There are more advanced methods that can be employed to capture the whole dynamic range but for now let's keep it simple. Shadows are a lot easier to bring back in post so I suggest shooting slightly underexposed. If you shoot overexposed and blow out your highlights you WILL NOT be able to bring them back in post.

Now this rule can change when shooting portraits. We want our subject to be perfectly exposed no matter what. If your subject is backlit by the setting sun for example, it is better to have the subject exposed correctly with the sun blown out in the background. If you expose the background correctly instead of your subject then your subject is going to be a silhouette (great if that’s what you are going for).

Here are some examples to sink your teeth into.

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eb_006_023.jpg
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CONCLUSION

This is not a quick fix. Nailing the right exposure takes practice and experimentation so don’t be discouraged if your images are a bit messed up to begin with. Apply what you have learnt in this blog, learn MORE IN THIS BLOG then practice, practice, practice. Have fun with it and get creative.

Happy Shooting & Keep The Dream Alive.
Paulo & Jacques - The Massie Bros