When you first start photography, everything may seem overwhelming. So many rules, information, and techniques seem to be thrown at you all at once. As exciting as it is, it can also be frustrating.
In this short, yet super-informative video, Pat Kay managed to compress so much of photography basics into only 10 minutes. He explains the famous exposure triangle, breaking it down and teaching you every single aspect of it so you start taking sharp and properly lit photos as soon as possible.
To be clear, Pat’s video is about the technical side of photography: using your camera to control the exposure, sharpness, and depth of field of your images. And from there on, it will be up to you to use these techniques in all sorts of creative ways.
The exposure triangle
Photography is all about the light and how to control it and use it to your advantage. We measure this light in what’s called “stops of light”. To fine-tune these stops, we use a concept known as the exposure triangle. It consists of three key elements – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
First up, shutter speed. When we snap a photo, the light enters through the lens, hits the shutter, and then the sensor. The shutter is placed right in front of the sensor, it opens up to let light through, then quickly shuts to create our image.
A faster shutter speed means the shutter opens and shuts quicker, allowing less light onto the sensor because it’s open for less time. On the other hand, a slower shutter speed leaves the shutter open longer, letting more light onto the sensor.
Creative uses of shutter speed
Shutter speed dictates whether your image freezes the action or captures blur. Fast shutter speeds (like 1/400, 1/800, and above) freeze the action. This is perfect for street, portrait, sports, or wildlife photography. With slower shutter speeds, you can create blurry images, capture the sense of motion, or play with camera movement. Add a tripod to the equation and you can do night photography or landscapes with slow shutter speeds.
Common shutter speed mistake
A common complaint from photography newbies is that their photos aren’t sharp enough. More often than not, it’s not about the gear; it’s about not using the proper shutter speed. If it’s too slow, it captures every little camera shake, resulting in blurry images.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/double your focal length. For example, a 50mm lens requires at least 1/100 s shutter speed. An 80mm lens requires at least 1/160 s shutter speed etc.
Next, we’ve got your lens’ aperture, expressed in f-stops. A larger opening, or iris, lets in more light, and a smaller aperture less light. But don’t get confused like I did when I first started photography: larger f-numbers (like f/5.6, f/8, or f/11) denote smaller apertures, with less light entering through your lens. Small numbers (like f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8) mean a larger aperture, letting more light pass through.
Creative uses for aperture
The aperture is closely tied to the depth of field, or how much of your image is in focus. Larger apertures like f/1.4 give you a shallow depth of field, focusing on a thin area while the rest of the image blurs out. This is something you can use to your advantage when you want to highlight the main subject. On the other hand, landscape or architecture photographers prefer a deep depth of field, achieved with smaller apertures.
The final piece of the exposure triangle is ISO, which refers to the “gain” your image has. In simple terms, it’s like giving the sensor extra power to brighten up the image. However, increasing ISO also introduces more noise or visual artifacts and decreases dynamic range and color. Still, don’t make the mistake of keeping it at 100 at all times:
Common ISO mistake
Ideally, you want a lower ISO setting, but only once you’ve nailed your shutter speed and aperture. Think of the ISO as the last thing to change. An important point to remember is that you can remove noise from a noisy shot, but you can’t unblur a blurry image.
Bringing it all together
Before you start shooting, think about your shutter speed first. Decide if you want your subject blurry or frozen. Then adjust your shutter speed to the scene, and go a little faster than you think you need to. Next, consider your depth of field. Do you want many things in focus, or just one? Adjust your shutter speed accordingly. Lastly, look at your image and adjust the ISO so it’s exposed properly.
If your image is too dark, dial in your shutter speed and aperture based on your creative vision, then turn up the ISO until you get the exposure you want. If your image is too bright, and you’ve already set your aperture and your ISO is as low as it can go, adjust your shutter speed to be faster.
Of course, not everything about photography can fit in a 10-minute video. It can’t even fit in an entire lifetime, in my opinion. However, I think this is a great video for absolute beginners! Mastering the exposure triangle is just scratching the surface, but it’s essential. It’s the gateway to a deeper understanding of photography, and as you progress, you’ll find yourself bending these rules to create your unique creative style.
Make sure to check out our free photography guide to go more in-depth and learn different photography concepts.