There are many combinations of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO that will correctly expose an image. With all those combinations, which one is the right one? If you leave your camera in full program mode, your camera will pick a combination for you. However, letting your camera have complete control is not why you bought an expensive DSLR or mirrorless camera! Learning how to adjust the settings and modes on your camera before you click the shutter will give you the upper hand. You will end up capturing images creatively, rather than by chance. Read on to find out how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect the look and feel of a photograph and how to choose the best camera settings to take creative control of your images.
Table of Contents
In my last article on the Exposure Triangle, I talked about what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are and how they work together. Before I talk about how to choose a creative exposure, let’s discuss how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO visually affect the look of an image. For more technical information on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, take a look at Nasim’s excellent “Photography Basics” articles on the site. Also check out our more detailed article on exposure as a whole.
Out of the three exposure variables, aperture is the one that controls the depth of field in an image. That is, how much of the scene in front of, and behind what you focused on is acceptably sharp. The wider the aperture, the narrower the depth of field and the less of the scene that is in focus. A narrow depth of field works well to isolate a subject. Portrait photographers often use this technique to separate their subject from a busy background.
In these first two images, I was able to isolate the main subjects using a wide aperture (relative to the focal length of the lens). Notice how the backgrounds are completely blurred out.
In these next three images, I used selective focus to draw your eye to the subject while still leaving some details in the backgrounds. This helps to give a sense of context to the images.
A narrow aperture will give you a much greater depth of field. Landscape photographers often use a small aperture to create images that are in focus from foreground to background.
Here are some examples. Notice how objects in the foreground are sharp as well as objects in the distance.
You may have heard some photographers talk about the sweet spot of a lens. The sweet spot is the aperture that produces the sharpest images. Do not confuse sharpness with depth of field, though. When you shoot wide open (at the largest aperture) you may notice that the corners of the image might appear quite blurry and potentially even much darker compared to the center. That’s because most lenses are not optimized to yield extremely sharp images at their widest apertures. In addition, you have all kinds of optical aberrations that show up in images, such as chromatic aberration, field curvature and vignetting, many of them as a result of spherical aberration we see in optics. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, all this causes some loss of sharpness towards the edges of an image. On the other end, if you stop the lens down to too small of an aperture, you can also see a loss of sharpness around the edges of an image, but this time due to diffraction. If you find yourself in a situation where you do not need to isolate your subject, or want a large depth of field, then choose the sweet spot of the lens. The sweet spot usually occurs 1-2 stops above the widest aperture of the lens. Every lens is different, but the sweet spot is often in the neighborhood of f/5.6 to f/8, especially on typical zoom lenses. If you really want to get into the details about what the sharpest aperture you should be picking is, I would recommend to read Spencer’s excellent how to choose the sharpest aperture article.
These next three images do not have much depth to them. The distance from the closest object to the farthest is small. Since I didn’t need a large depth of field, and because I wasn’t trying to isolate part of the image with a shallow depth of field, I chose apertures around the sweet spot of my lens.
Stopping down far beyond the recommended range when diffraction kicks in (typically above f/8-f/11) can sometimes work in your favor. If you include a bright object in your image while using a small aperture, you will create a starburst. Although not to everyone’s taste, a starburst can add an interesting graphic element to a photo. Take care if you include the sun in your image, though. It can hurt your eyes and potentially even the internals of your camera if you are not careful.
3) Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is what controls the feeling of motion in an image. Depending on the shutter speed you select, you can either freeze moving subjects or blur their motion. You may not think that taking a blurry photo is a good thing, but it can add a very artistic look and feel to an image.
Very fast shutter speeds will freeze action. How fast a shutter speed do you need? Well, that depends on what you are trying to freeze. When I’m photographing birds in flight, I try and use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. However, I will often shoot at 1/2000s or higher if the light is bright. Fast shutter speeds like these will help ensure that feathers and water drops are captured motionless.
Here are three more images where I have chosen fast shutter speeds to freeze the action.
Slow shutter speeds, on the other hand, give more of an implied sense of motion by blurring the moving subject or the background. In each of these next four images, notice how the background is sharp, but the subject is blurred. In the second and third photograph, the shutter speed is so long that the people in the pictures appear ghosted. For the first image, I was hand-holding my camera. I took the last three on a tripod. With slow shutter speeds, camera technique is paramount. You will often need a tripod to prevent any unintentional blur.
Panning is a technique that also uses a slow shutter speed. For this technique, you move the camera in time to the subject’s motion. In these two images, I set a relatively slow shutter speed and panned the camera in time with the subject. That is why the car and motorcycle are sharp, but the stationary background is blurred. This technique takes lots of practice and patience! To start, try practicing on cars or large birds to fine tune your technique.
In this last image, I was panning with the bufflehead but was using a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/500s. Notice how the birds head is comparatively sharp, but you still get a sense of movement with the blurred wings and water splashes.
Whether you are freezing motion or blurring it, you will need to experiment with different shutter speeds. There is no formula for what speed will give a particular effect. Your subject and its speed will dictate what works best. The beauty of digital is that it will allow you to experiment. If 1/60s doesn’t give a look you want, try 1/30s or 1/15s.
ISO is a very complicated topic, and I’m not going to get into details here. In simple terms, think of ISO as the sensitivity of the sensor (although it is not technically true, but it makes it easy to understand). I was recently listening to the podcast “Tips from the Top Floor”. In episode 753, Chris Marquardt, the host, gave a great analogy. He says to imagine every pixel as a bucket and light photons as raindrops. If a bucket is full, the pixel is pure white. If it is empty, it is pure black. Anything in between is a shade of gray. He goes on to describe this as native ISO. For most cameras, this is ISO 100, but on some, it may be as high as 200 or as low as 50. For the sake of argument, let’s say that ISO 100 is the native ISO of your camera.
Now if you double the ISO to 200 you double the sensitivity of the sensor. An empty bucket is still pure black, but it only takes half a bucket to represent a pure white pixel.
Double the ISO to 400, and now you only need to fill the bucket 1⁄4 full for the pixel to be pure white. And so on. 800 ISO, 1⁄8 full, 1600 ISO 1⁄1600 full for a pixel to be pure white. Empty buckets still represent black pixels. For very high ISO’s you only need to fill a small fraction of the bucket to get a white pixel. Or in other words, you need much less light to expose your image.
But there is always a cost. At higher ISO’s it is much harder to measure the rain in the buckets. At ISO 100, think of measuring the depth in inches. But at higher ISO’s it gets harder to measure accurately. Imagine trying to fill a bucket to only a fraction of an inch; you lose precision. This lack of accuracy manifests itself as digital noise. By increasing your ISO, you require less light to expose your image. Higher ISO’s allow you to shoot without a flash, use faster shutter speeds, or use smaller apertures in low light. However, the trade-off is an increase in noise.
So how high can you push your ISO? To me, it is a personal choice. It depends on what camera I’m using and how I will be viewing my photos. Whenever I get a new camera, I spend some time testing the ISO. I’m not talking high-tech scientific studies. I’m talking subjective tests. I take series of pictures in different lighting conditions, changing the ISO after each shot. I like to test my ISO in both daylight and darker conditions. I look at my images on the computer and compare them. I also print out test shots in a couple of sizes and look at them at various distances. I’m not as concerned with what the photograph looks like zoomed into 100% on my computer because that is not how I will be looking at them in the end. The amount of noise that I can tolerate may be different than what someone else accepts. With my Nikon D800, I don’t like to shoot above ISO 1600 when there is a lot of shade, or ISO 3200 if the light is bright and I want a faster shutter speed. If I know that I’m going to be converting to black and white, I will venture as high as ISO 6400. On the other hand, I’m very comfortable using ISO 6400 on my Fuji X100T in any lighting conditions. Again, this is what I am happy with; you may feel differently. What’s important is that you know how much noise you feel comfortable with, and at what ISO level that occurs within your camera.
ISO does not affect a photo in as dramatic a way as aperture or shutter speed. However, it allows you to have more flexibility when choosing your aperture and shutter speed. By increasing the ISO, I was able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to capture sharp images handheld.
In this picture of a white morph reddish egret, the light was good, but not bright enough for a shutter speed fast enough to freeze his dance. I increased my ISO so I could use a faster shutter speed.
5) Putting It All Together
To create compelling images you have to shoot with intent. What do you want to portray in your image? Before you press the shutter, ask yourself what is important. Is depth of field going to allow you to capture the photograph you imagine, or do you want to evoke a feeling of movement? The answer to these questions will dictate what shooting mode to set on your camera.
If your answer is depth of field, then put your camera in Aperture Priority. In Aperture Priority, you select the aperture, and your camera will compute the required shutter speed. Next, ask yourself how much depth of field you want to capture. Are you trying to isolate your subject from the background? Do you want to have sharp focus from foreground to the background? Or, are you taking a relatively two-dimensional image without much depth? By answering these questions and setting your aperture appropriately, you are taking creative control of your image.
Don’t take the shot just yet, though. Press your shutter release half way to see what shutter speed the camera selects for your chosen aperture. If it is not fast enough, you will either have to bump up your ISO or place your camera on a tripod. This last step takes practice. It is important to pay attention to those numbers that appear in your viewfinder when you press the shutter, and more importantly to understand what they are telling you.
If you are trying to show motion, then set your camera to Shutter Speed Priority. In this mode, you select your shutter speed, and the camera computes the aperture.
Do you want to freeze motion or use creative blur? Depending on your answer, set a fast or slower shutter speed respectively. Make sure that you check the exposure before you shoot by pressing the shutter half way. If the light is low, you may need to bump up your ISO or risk an underexposed image. An underexposed image happens when the computed aperture is wider than the largest aperture of your lens. If you are paying attention, you will see a warning in your viewfinder, the exposure values will probably be flashing at you. This flashing is your warning to increase your ISO.
You may think this is a lot to remember, but it won’t take long before these questions and answers become second nature. Try to anticipate ahead of time what kind of shots you are going to be capturing and what kind of ISO’s you will need. The chances are that you won’t need to change the mode you are shooting in over the course of an outing.
6) Auto ISO
Most newer model cameras have a feature called “Auto ISO“. In auto ISO, the camera will adjust the ISO for you. You start by selecting the highest ISO you are comfortable using. The camera will always use the lowest possible ISO to expose the image correctly. But when the light levels drop, the camera will automatically raise the ISO, up to your chosen ceiling. In some cameras, you can also set a shutter speed that you do not want the camera to fall below. For example, if you are comfortable hand holding your lens down to 1/30s, then set the shutter speed limit here. If you are shooting wildlife and want to freeze motion, adjust the limit to 1/500s.
Auto ISO works differently in each of the shooting modes. In Aperture Priority, you set the aperture, and the camera computes the shutter speed. If the camera determines that a longer shutter speed than the limit you set is required, then it will trigger the Auto ISO to bump up your sensitivity.
In Shutter Priority, you set a shutter speed, and the camera determines the aperture. If the camera requires an aperture wider than the range of your lens, it will bump up the ISO for you. Auto ISO will decrease your chances of getting underexposed shots.
You can also take advantage of Auto ISO in full Manual Mode. Here you set both the aperture and shutter speed. The camera will determine the ISO required to expose the image with those settings correctly.
7) Outsmarting Your Meter – Exposure Compensation
Sometimes, even with your guidance, the camera gets the exposure wrong. Incorrect metering tends to happen in tricky lighting conditions. That’s when exposure compensation comes to the rescue. With exposure compensation, you can add or subtract up to three stops of light (some cameras will let you adjust the exposure by five stops). Exposure Compensation is very helpful when the light fools the sensor.
In this image of two ospreys mating, I wanted to make sure the birds were correctly exposed. The sky, although gray, was bright and was fooling my camera. The result was an image correctly exposed for the background, but the birds were too dark. I added two stops of light using the exposure compensation dial. Although this did blow out the background, my subjects were correctly exposed.
Here is another image where I did a similar thing. I added exposure using the compensation dial so that the bright background did not fool the meter. Adding exposure gave me the high key look that I wanted for this image.
Sunsets often benefit from using some exposure compensation, but this time in the opposite direction. If you notice that your picture looks washed out on the back of the camera, take away a stop or two of light. Decreasing the exposure will intensify the colors in the sky.
Silhouettes can make for some powerful and compelling images. For each of these photographs, I used my exposure compensation to dial back the exposure a stop. In Aperture Mode, negative compensation forced the camera to choose a faster shutter speed. Less light ensured that my subject ended up silhouetted against the background.
Each and every photograph in this article was taken with intent. I thought about my settings before I took the shots. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different exposures and settings. Trial and error is the best way to learn. If you see an image you like, ask yourself why you like it and try to figure out what camera settings were used. Don’t just shoot without having a vision in mind first. You will end up with far more keepers this way, and they will be much more creative.
Instead of “Exposure compensation” can the image be over or under exposed at manual mode? will the same effect come?
Hi, Vijay. Absolutely! You can adjust either the aperture, shutter speed or a combination of both to “over” or “under” expose the image. I’m not sure what camera you are using, but when you are in manual mode, there should be some kind of scale visible in the viewfinder. Typically you would try to adjust the exposure so that the mark was pointing to 0. If you want to add or subtract a stop (or more) of light, just line the mark up with +/-1 (or higher). By doing this, you are exposing for the darker or lighter portions of the image instead of the average light in the frame.
Another thing you can do is switch your metering from average (matrix) to spot metering. Then meter off the part of the image that you want to be correctly exposed, like a face. Now the camera will not take into account the bright background for example.
Thanks for reading, and hope this makes sense!
Thank you so much for sharing !!
You are welcome, Mady!
Very interesting article for an enthusiast to boost creative photography.
Almost all articles in Photography Life are worth re-reading for a better understanding of photography Technics.
Thank you Elezabeth !!
Sorry for the late reply, Rabin! Thanks so much for your comments!
As a relative newcomer to photography this was without a doubt one of the easiest and most engaging reads I’ve had on the subject. I’ll keep following .
Happy New Years and thank you so much for your comment, Kwesi. I’m glad you found the article engaging. Keep shooting, the more you do, the more these points will become second nature.
Thank you and many happy returns to you and your family.
This is indeed a great article for the beginners. Trust me I have read a lot on the basics of photography being an amateur photographer. But the manifest clarity of each point here would entice any budding photographer. Thank you Elizabeth!
Forgot to mention, stunning images!
Thank you so much, Arun. And thank you for your comments.
Lovely pictures Elizabeth!
This article provides a very useful overview of exposure considerations for the beginning photographer.
I have three questions / suggestions:
(i) I would rename ‘Creative Process’ chart ‘Creative Exposure Process’. I know you know there’s more to a picture than correct exposure!
(ii) 200-400 v 80-400? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated, particularly with regards to sharpness in the 300-400 range and AF/VR performance.
(iii) Was the high-key flower see-through, or did you remove the petal near the camera? Love that shot.
Thanks very much for any feedback!
Thanks for your comments Burghclerebilly, and I like your suggestion for the title of the flow chart. So let me try and answer your two questions.
The 200-400 and 80-400 are completely different lenses. The 200-400 is a high priced pro lens with a constant f/4 aperture throughout all focal lengths. These features come at the cost of almost $7000 and a weight to match (almost 7 1/2 pounds). The 80-400 has a variable aperture of f/4.5 at 80mm and f/5.6 at 400mm. It also almost 4 pounds lighter (3.45 pounds). It is not a cheap lens, but relative to the 200-400 it is much less. It retails for just under $2300 at B&H.
I love both lenses, but use them in different ways. My 200-400 gets used when I am just shooting birds and wildlife. It is quite heavy for me, and although I can hand hold it for short periods, it really needs a tripod. If I’m going on a trip where I know that I won’t be shooting any travel or street shots, then I will take this lens. However, it is a pain to travel with. Because of where we live, I have to take a short commuter flight to get to a bigger hub. These planes have very small overhead bins and the lens will not fit up top. I take it as my secondary carry-on and put it under my seat. That means I can only take a very small bag to put in the overhead, and I mean VERY small. But if you are driving, that isn’t an issue.
I use my 80-400 when I’m travelling and I think I may need some reach, but also want versatility. I can easily fit it in my bag with another couple of lenses and two bodies when I fly. It is easy to hand hold too. It is a slower lens, and not quite as sharp. But you won’t notice a difference in sharpness unless you pixel peep. I have printed images from both these lenses up to 16×20 and can’t tell you which camera they are taken from.
Both lenses have images stabilization. I usually turn it off on the 200-400 because I use it on a tripod. However, it is always on for the 80-400. I have many good shots in the 1/60s -1/100s range at 400mm hand held on the 80-400.
The 200-400 does focus faster, especially in lower light.
As for the tulip shot. Yes, I took off a couple of petals closest to the lens.
Let me know if you still have questions. Sorry I can’t give you a decisive choice as to which of the lenses I like better. They are both great, but for different situations.
As always, very well written article with great pictures to support stated points. Greatly appreciated.
Thank you for your kind words, Ihor! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and images.
Elizabeth, I was struck by how these beautiful photos illustrate a foundational principle of artistic photography: “Sharp photos are boring. Photos that are sharp all over are usually amateur attempts, which glaringly show too much detail for many unrelated, confusing and distracting elements. A good photo has impact and a punch line. The fewer things a photo tries to say, the more powerfully it says them. Things need to stand out. Having everything sharp edge-to-edge rarely makes for a strong photo.” – Words of wisdom by, guess who? Ken Rockwell.
Thank you, George. It is often very hard for new photographers (and some pro’s) to get past the technical aspects of photography and focus more on the artistic/creative side. On a recent workshop that I took, I was worried about one of my photos not being “sharp enough.” It is now one of my favorite images!
Thank you for sharing these wonderful and unique images and the insight that went into making them.
As a photographer of 40+ years, I am familiar with these concepts.
However, it is refreshing to have another look and perspective from someone with your special talent.
I will share this article with my photography friends, from beginner to semi-pro.
Thank you so much for your comments and thanks for sharing!
Was looking forward to reading more after your last article Elizabeth. You made me go back to all the beginner articles posted here.
Intent is something i always thought about only after seeing a badly exposed pic on the back of the camera or a blurry image. I am now trying to keep the camera at hand where ever i go to get used to this new feeling / exercise for pre preparation.
Your pictures motivated me a lot.
Thank you for sharing.
Thank you, Sai! No time like the present to get motivated. The more images you take, the more comfortable you will be with the settings and changing them on the fly. I tell many of my students that your camera needs to be an extension of your hand and your eye. Anticipate, and understand when and how to change your settings. I try and hone these skills everyday by carrying my X100T with me all the time.
Thanks again for your comment and happy shooting!
I used shutter priority for the first time in my life! Taking pictures of my daughter playing in her bedroom. A friend happened to lend me his 85mm 1.8 and even this on my D40 could not give me usable shutter speeds of anything above 1/100. My intent was to have a acceptable “in focus” area compared to what i get at 1.8 but the shutter speed selected did not permit the aperture to go any smaller. The pictures got a little bearable once i increased the ISO to its max at 1600.
Observed a few things since i was trying my best to be patient in giving myself more time to be aware before clicking:
1) The 85mm on the D40 was too much for portraiture (i should have just stuck to my 50mm 1.8)
2) Its too much to ask of the D40 to take pictures of kids playing even in decent light. My LG G3 was taking better exposed pictures compared to the D40
I tried to understand what the camera will do if it were to decide every thing on its own. But it pops up the flash every time i switched to auto. So i am still trying to figure out how the LG G3 did better in this case.
At 85mm and f/1.8 you won’t have much depth of field, probably just a few inches depending on how far away from your daughter you are. So, it may not have been the shutter speed, it may be because the dof is so limited. You would get the same shutter speeds with the 50, but much more dof so the images will seem sharper.
The D40 if over 10 years old and its max iso of 1600 is pretty low compared to more recent cameras. I’m not surprised that you find your cell phone takes better pics! The LG G3 has a 13MP sensor, compared to only 6 on the D40. Although it is a much smaller sensor. The technology in your cell phone is superior to the camera unfortunately! I couldn’t find any specs on what ISO the phone shoots at, but my guess is that it shoots a higher ISO than the d40.
In low light and in auto, the camera just can’t get enough light, even at at iso 1600. That is why it pops the flash.
Let me know if this makes sense.
From that which I’ve been able to gather, the LG G3 has an f/2.4 lens and a maximum ISO of 2900.
2.4/1.8 squared times ISO 1600 = 2844 therefore the LG isn’t giving its advantage due to its higher ISO.
I think, but I may be wrong, that the LG is delivering better images to Sai due to:
1. f/2.4 on a small sensor yields a much greater depth of field — at the same subject-to-print magnification ratio, captured using the same perspective (subject-to-camera distance) — than does a D40 using an f/1.8 lens; therefore tiny focus errors will produce far more blur in the D40 images than those in the LG images.
2. The LG uses a laser rangefinder combined with x-, y-, and z-axis camera motion sensors to control its focus and its optical image stabilisation mechanisms.
I also think that the explanation is best summarized by your sentence: “The technology in your cell phone is superior to the [D40] camera unfortunately!”