I Got My First DSLR! ...Now What?! | Part Two: Understanding Exposure

I'm very excited to continue this series on digital photography basics! I often have people contact me with questions after receiving their first DSLR camera and I hope this series will provide you what some helpful information to get you started on your photography journey! I received my first DSLR about six years ago and I felt pretty lost and overwhelmed in the beginning. There's so much to learn! But if you work hard and practice, I know you'll make progress and will be happy with the beautiful images you get as a result! I think photography is a skill that is so important to learn because it gives you the ability to capture important memories in a beautiful and artistic way! 

1. Part One: Getting Started
2. Part Two: Understanding Exposure

Understanding Exposure

Exposure is SO important! After getting my first DSLR, it took me several years to be able to shoot in manual. I felt so intimidated by it that I typically kept my camera in "Auto," "AV," or "TV." I wish I had challenged myself to learn how to shoot manually from the very beginning! It is overwhelming to learn at first, but once you get used to it, it's so worth it. When you can shoot in manual you have so much more control over your images and you can learn how to get clear, beautiful images in almost any situation. I promise you it's worth the effort!


1. Set Your Camera to "M"
Ok! Set your camera to "M" (Manual) and let's get started! Practice taking pictures in the shade and in full sun. Practice in a dark room a light room. Try out your settings and start to figure out what each one does by trial and error. 

2. Understand the Exposure Triangle
When I was first learning about exposure, two resources were game changers for me. The first was "Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson and the second was this article from Digital Photography School. I've pulled a lot from these resources for this part of my blog.

The three elements of the Exposure Triangle are:
1. ISO- the measure of a digital camera's sensitivity to light
2. Aperture- the size of the opening in the lens when a picture is taken
3. Shutter Speed- the amount of time the shutter is open

A correct exposure is simply the combination of all three elements of the exposure triangle. When you adjust one element of the triangle, you must adjust the other elements to compensate. You can use the light meter on your camera to determine whether your image is being properly exposed. Technically a "perfect" exposure is when your light meter is on 0 (you can see the light meter in the picture below). 


ISO- The ISO is listed as ISO 100 in the image above. One way to think about ISO is as a "worker bee." The job of the worker bee is to gather light. The more worker bees you have, the more light you have. So, the higher your ISO, the more light your image will have. When I'm outside, my ISO is almost always set on 100-200. When I'm inside, my ISO can vary from 100-3000 depending on how well lit the room is and whether it's night or day. Also, the higher your ISO gets, the more grainy your image will be. So depending on what type of camera you have, your images may start to get grainy when you get past about 1000. 

Aperture- Aperture is listed as F1.8, F2, etc. The aperture is listed as F5.6 in the image above. Each change in aperture is referred to as an "f-stop." The smaller the f-stop, the larger the lens opening and the larger the f-stop, the smaller the lens opening. This means that as your f-stop gets higher, less light gets into your image. So if i'm shooting at F1.8, there's going to be a lot of light in my image and if I'm shooting at F22, there won't be much light and I will have to compensate in other ways through ISO and shutter speed. Typically, for portraits and weddings, I'm shooting at 2.8 most often. Sometimes I go down to 2.0 or 1.8 for portraits (but its taken me a few years to go down that low and still have crisp, clear images so I'd recommend staying at 2.8 or above until you've had some practice). If I'm shooting larger groups or a large room and I want almost everything in my image to be in focus, I may shoot at 5.0 or a higher aperture. In addition, the aperture affects "depth of field," so the smaller your f-stop, the smaller your "depth of field." Depth of field is "the distance between the nearest and the furthest objects that give an image judged to be in focus in a camera." So the smaller your depth of field, the more blurred most of your image will be. If you're trying to get one small part of an image in focus and the rest blurred, you want a smaller depth of field and if you want your whole image to be in focus, you want a larger depth of field.

Shutter Speed- Shutter speed controls the amount of time that the volume of light coming through the lens is allowed to stay in the camera. Shutter speed is listed as listed as 1/13 in the image above. The higher your shutter speed, the less light is getting in your camera. So if your shutter speed is 1/500, you won't get nearly as much light as if it is 1/100. However, you must always keep your shutter speed at at least twice the length of your lens to avoid blurred images. So for example, if you're shooting with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed must always be at least 1/100. In addition, if you're shooting moving objects, you'll want your shutter speed to be quicker so that you can capture the action without blurring the image. 

3. Understand White Balance
Another important part of shooting manually is "White Balance." When you're just beginning to shoot in Manual, I recommend that you just keep your white balance in "Auto." However, once you become more familiar with your camera's manual settings, you may want to start adjusting your white balance to achieve the image color you want. White balance is also something that can easily be changed in post-processing in Adobe Lightroom (we'll discuss this in a later post). However, it's always good to get as much right in the camera as possible. You will notice different white balance options on your camera (cloudy, shade, tungsten, flash, etc.). I shoot in "cloudy" mode about 90% of the time because I like my images to be warmer (more yellowish and less blue). The main other white balance setting I use is "flash" when I have my flash on my camera. If you're shooting inside a lot, you may want to become more familiar with the other white balance options. See the pictures below to see the difference white balance makes in making your image "cooler" or "warmer":

Shot in "Auto White Balance" and "perfectly" exposed (i.e. light meter on 0) in camera

Shot in "Auto White Balance" and "perfectly" exposed (i.e. light meter on 0) in camera

White balance warmed up and changed to 5594 in Lightroom and exposure bumped up to +1.0 

White balance warmed up and changed to 5594 in Lightroom and exposure bumped up to +1.0 

Once you've mastered manual exposure, you can get a little more creative with your images! It's important to remember that photography is art and so a lot of it is left up to your own personal preferences and choices. For example, I almost always "over-expose" my images a little because that is the "look" that I love. I love bright and colorful images! Sometimes I also "blow out" (or overexpose) the sky in my images to great bright, evenly lit subjects. I'd rather have a blown out sky and bright, well-exposed people then a properly exposed sky and dark subjects. But the technical rule book would tell you your whole image needs to be properly exposed. So while it's very important to understand exposure, it's ok to break the rules sometimes to in order to produce the images and the art that you want!

I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful (and not too overwhelming!). Check back in two weeks for my next post in this series on understanding photography gear and lenses.