Tue. May 28th, 2024
DSLR Photography

So You Want To Learn Shoot in Manual: The Exposure Triangle

Part 1, The Basics of Aperture

When you buy a great camera it is with the intent of taking great photos, right? Why else spend the money? Now a days you could just simply use your camera phone for adequate everyday shots that document your memories. The fact that you own a great camera tells me that you want better photos than what your phone can provide. I’m here to do my best to teach you 3 fairly basic concepts that help you really put that camera to the edge so that you can create amazing photographs.

These 3 concepts make up what is called the “exposure triangle”, and they include Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Let me back up a bit and explain to you what Exposure means. Exposure is the quality of light entering the camera to create that perfect frame. If a photo comes out too dark we call it under exposed. If it is too light and bright we say it is over exposed. Being able to control exposure will give you the ability to create brilliant artistic photos whenever you like. Learning how to manipulate the 3 parts of the Exposure Triangle is the key.

Lots of cameras come with so many bells, and whistles, and buttons, and switches, and features that it seems as if you should be able to just turn it on and go. Cameras are smart right? It’ll take a great photo for you! Just click away. Well, that’s true. Cameras these days come with little computers that will look at what you are trying to photograph and make decisions. If you are taking photos in average places with average lighting conditions than your shot will probably come out just fine. I don’t know about you but my life is hardly average. I’m often in situations where the camera just isn’t smart enough to capture what I see in my mind’s eye. That’s when I switch to manual mode. Each time I do so I always set the Aperture or F-stop on my camera first. So that is what I will start with.

What is Aperture? To explain it simply, it is the size of the hole in lens when you snap a picture. When you hit that button to take a photo a hole is your camera pops open so that the sensor can get a view of what you are trying to photograph. How big that hole is determines who much light gets in. The larger the hole the more light will get into the camera. The smaller the hole the less light will enter your camera. So very simply speaking, if you are in a pretty dimly lit space you want that hole NICE AND BIG! If you are in a very brightly lit space then there is a good chance you want to make that hole small so that your photo won’t turn out too bright. Aperture is typically described in terms of F-Stops and they often look like this…. f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/22.

Now pick up your camera, put it in manual mode, and find the dial that lets you change the aperture. You may need to refer to your manual for these things. Slide that dial around and witness all of the f-stops available to you. Sliding the dial one spot either doubles or cuts in half the amount of light you are allowing into the camera (depending on which way you go). If your number is going up… f/8 to f/9 to f/10, then you are letting LESS light into your camera. If the number is going down then you are letting MORE light into your camera.

Try This…

Make sure the flash on your camera is off and then take a photo at f/5.6, then at f/10, then at f/14… Keep going. How does changing that dial impact your photo? The photo SHOULD be getting darker with each change. Now work your way back to smaller f/stops. Are your photos getting brighter? They should be!

Remember This…

The things that tripped me up forever, as it does most new photographers… the smaller number =’s MORE light into the camera, the bigger the number =’s LESS light. It seems backward to how we think. How Else Does Aperture Impact a Photo? The aperture does play another role in creating wonderful photos. Not only does it impact the exposure of the photo but it also impacts the Depth of Field. Sometimes you’ll see that referred to as DOFWhoa! What’s that? DOF is the amount of stuff in your photo that is in focus. Have you ever looked at a photo and noticed just the main subject was in focus and everything behind it was nicely and softly blurred out? This is done by manipulating the Aperture. Large DOF means that pretty much everything in your photo, no matter how close or how far from your camera, will be in focus. Shallow DOF means that only some of your photo will be in focus while everything else will be blurry. Take a look at the two photos below. The top one was shot with aperture of f/1.4. You can see that just the tower puzzle is in focus. Everything else is totally blurred out. Using a low f/stop like this can be an incredibly efficient tool for bringing the viewers eye directly to what you want them to see.

DSLR Photography

This second photo was shot at an aperture of f/16. Now almost everything in the shot is in focus. What a difference. You can also see that at f/1.4 my camera let in much more light from the room. In the above shot you can see that there are spotlights shining on the couch in the background. In the photo below it looks like those lights have been turned off even though the weren’t. At f/16 so little light is allowed into the camera that is just appears as if those lights were turned off.

DSLR Photography

Try This…

Go back and take a look at all of those photos you took at different F-stops earlier and take note of how the focus changes. Choose a new subject and shoot again, at different f-stops and notice the changes. You may need to take this experiment outside where it is relatively bright to get the best results. Find a leaf or a flower and shoot away shifting the f/stop up and down.

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is actually pretty easy. It’s the one element of this triangle I found easiest to understand. Shutter speed is simply the amount of time the shutter is open. Aperture controls how BIG the opening is, shutter speed controls how LONG the shutter stays open. In the days of film it was really how long the film was exposed to the scene you were photographing. Today with digital photography it is how long your sensor is exposed to the scene. When we talk about shutter speeds we are talking about time. Shutter speeds are measured is seconds. Well, actually the shutter usually opens and closes so quickly that it is actually measured in fractions of seconds. You’ll see shutter speeds typically written as 1/20 or 1/60 or 1/100. The bigger that second number (the denominator) the faster the shutter speed. When we say the faster the shutter speed we mean, the less time the shutter stays open.

How Does Shutter Speed Impact Exposure?

When you are creating a photograph you want great exposure… this means you want the photo to come out just the way you see it in your brain… not to bright and not too dark. The longer the shutter is open the more light you let into the camera. If you are in a bright area and you use a long shutter speed you are going to get a photo that is over exposed (or too bright). You may want to use a very fast shutter speed a that time like this. Conversely, if you are in a very dark place a longer shutter speed will let more light into the camera and you will get a brighter photo.

Try this…

This exercise is similar to the one you did yesterday with aperture. Turn on your camera and set it to manual mode. Now find the dial that let’s you change the shutter speed. Try shooting the same subject at a variety of shutter speeds and take note of how the different settings impact your photo.

How To Use Shutter Speed to Get The Look You Want

The very cool thing about shutter speed is that you can use it to freeze movement or even to add movement to a photograph. Have you ever seen of a photograph of a diver diving into water complete with hundreds of water droplets seemingly suspended in mid air all around them? Or a skier making a perfect swish and you can nearly count the snow flakes they kicked up because everything is so sharp and crisp? This is done with FAST shutter speeds. Shutter speeds probably around 1/2000. Fast shutter speeds FREEZE motion in photos.

DSLR Photography

Here is a photo I took of an American Flag flapping in the breeze. I froze the flag right where it is with a fast shutter speed. Have you ever seen photos that show motion? Perhaps a photo that just barely shows the outline of a car that has zoomed fast. You know it’s fast because you can see the motion in the photo? This is done with a slow shutter speed. Slower shutter speeds capture the motion in photos.

This is a photo I took years when I was experimenting with shutter speeds myself… completing the very same exercises I’ve given you! You can see that I chose a slower shutter speed here. You can clearly see motion in his feet and hands as he is jumping. If I had gone with a faster shutter speed then he would have been completely in focus, as if frozen in mid air.

General Tip

Most of the time you will want to keep your shutter speed above 1/60 or so. Anything less and you might get blurry photos as a result of camera shake. Below 1/60 your involuntary body movements can cause the camera to move ever so slightly causing a blurry photo. You can overcome this issue by setting your camera on a tripod or something solid. Low shutter speeds should be used in very low light or when you are trying to achieve a special effect. Generally speaking I use a shutter speed of 1/125 when shooting people and perhaps a bit faster than that if I’m chasing after little children. That’s just my happy place. I can easily shoot people at 1/100th or less. I just happen to really like 1/125. Another tip to keep in mind is your focal length. Lens that zoom in close at long distances tend to exaggerate camera shake. If you are zooming in and getting some blur, up your shutter speed or place the camera on something stable and see if that helps.

Back to Exposure

Alright, you’ve experimented with aperture shutter speed and now you’d like to put them together? Now is the time to do it. Go ahead and set your camera to manual mode and then decide on the subject you want to experiment with. I suggest something that will hold still and won’t complain, such as a vase or a cup or a stuffed animal. Go ahead and determine where you’d like your aperture. Would you like the background creamy and blurred out? Then choose the smallest aperture your camera and lens allows. Snap your photo and go ahead and take a look. What do you think? Too dark or took light? Then lower or raise your shutter speed until you get the look you are searching for. Now if you are still struggling to get just what you want have no fear. There is a third part of the exposure triangle that I’ll discuss tomorrow called ISO. Hopefully that post will help you fill in the last missing pieces to the puzzle.