Then, let’s get started learning photography.
At times, learning photography can seem difficult, but when you boil it down to what matters most, photography is simply the capture of light. Light reflects off objects, enters the lens, and exposes a digital sensor in the camera to create an image. It really is that simple. Armed with this information, it becomes easy to understand that as you are learning photography, you must learn how to get enough light into the camera to create the images you want to create. This begins with exposure. Exposure is the amount of required light for a specific image. An image with too little light is called underexposed. An image with too much light, is called overexposed. When the amount of light is just what you want? Boom, perfect exposure. The same happens with us humans, and our eyes. Ever walk around at night? You’ve noticed that it is much harder to see in the dark. The reason is that the light reflecting off objects is too faint for our eyes to discern, leaving us stumbling around. Our eyes require a certain amount of light to be able to see the world around us, just as our camera needs a certain amount of light to create an image.
The exposure triangle.
There are three ways that you can control the amount of light that enters your camera and creates an image. They are, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. These three combine to create the exposure, or the amount of light in a particular image. They come together to form the exposure triangle.
If you’ve spent any time at all learning photography then you may be familiar with this term. The exposure triangle is simply a way for you to remember that three components determine the exposure of an image.
- The aperture is simply a hole in the lens that allows light to pass through.
- The shutter is a curtain that covers the digital sensor and opens and closes at certain speeds allowing light to enter.
- ISO is the sensitivity level of the digital sensor is to light.
I will explain each of these three components of exposure in more depth and then we will put them all together to learn how to master exposure. These three components are the most important things to understand when learning photography.
Stops of light.
Before I explain the three components of exposure, let me first explain the term, stops of light. This term, or the term, stops, is simply a way to speak about incremental steps of adding or subtracting light in an image. It is not a specific amount of light, because every lighting situation is very different. For example, adding a stop of light on a bright sunny day is a much different amount of light than adding a stop of light on a very dark evening. Don’t get bogged down trying to understand an amount of light associated with a stop of light, there isn’t one. Simply become familiar with the term and what it means. Let’s pretend you are learning photography from me (doesn’t seem to far fetched, right?), and you show me an image that is too dark. I may respond saying, “your image is two stops too dark.” What am I telling you? Am I telling you an exact amount of light to add? Not really. All I am saying is that it underexposed and needs to be lightened up by what I perceive to be two stops. Likewise, I could say that your image seems, “one stop too bright,” which again simply tells you that your image is overexposed and needs to be darkened by what I perceive to be is one stop of light. You with me? You’ll understand stops when you’re finished with this article, I just wanted to make sure you knew what they were before I begin as it is an important concept when learning photography.
The first component of exposure that I want to talk about is aperture, and as I mentioned above it is simply the hole in lens of the camera. For this hole to control light, it must be able to become different sizes. Common sense says that a larger hole will allow more light to enter the camera than a smaller hole will allow. It becomes important then, that you as the photographer learn to control the size of the aperture hole, which you do by adjusting the f-stop numbers.
The term f-stop comes from the phrase, stops of light. It’s so good we just talked about stops of light! These f-stops are measured in numbers and each f-stop coincides with a specific size of aperture hole in your lens. To adjust the size of the aperture hole, we adjust the f-stop numbers; down to make the hole larger, or up to make the hole smaller. The graphic below shows the size of the aperture hole in relation to the f-stop number that you select on your camera. These f-stop numbers are important to remember as you are learning photography.
Each step, from one number to the next is considered a stop of light. Remember, I mentioned that stops of light deal with light but not with a specific amount? Stops of light deal with the settings on the camera, and moving from f5.6 to f4.0 adds one stop of light. It adds light, because the hole is larger by one stop. See it all coming together now? You really are learning photography!
THE APERTURE CONTROLS TWO THINGS: LIGHT AND DEPTH OF FIELD
Aperture controls light.
The size of the aperture hole determines how much light enters the camera to expose the digital sensor. Easy enough to understand, a larger hole allows more light to enter the camera, and a smaller hole allows less light to enter. Something that can be tricky to remember, is that larger aperture holes have smaller f-stop numbers. This inverse relationship between the f-stop number and size of the hole can make it difficult to remember, but do commit it to memory. Because it is important as you are learning photography.
LARGE F-STOP NUMBER = SMALL APERTURE HOLE
SMALL F-STOP NUMBER = LARGE APERTURE HOLE
Look at the image below of the monkeys on a swing. I can increase or decrease the brightness of an image simply by adjusting the f-stop number on my camera.
Do you notice anything else about the monkeys besides brightness between, say the f5.6 image and the f2.8 image? I am focusing on the middle monkey in all of the images, and on the f2.8 image the monkey in front and the monkey in back are getting blurry. This is called depth of field, and it is also controlled by your aperture.
Aperture controls the depth of field.
You may be familiar with the term depth of field, but may not be able to explain what it means. Let us define it as “the zone of sharpness in front of, and behind the subject in an image.” This zone of sharpness is determined by the size of the opening in the aperture of the lens, and thus determined by the f-stop you select. I created the chart below to show you how depth of field is affected by the f-stop you select. Let’s pretend our hipster friend has asked us to take his photo in front of this beautiful mountain scene. As the photographer, it is up to you to determine how sharp you want the background to be. Obviously you’ll focus the camera on him, guaranteeing that he is in focus, and through the f-stop you select, you determine how much of the background is in focus as well. The depth of field gets more and more shallow as you select a smaller f-stop number. And, conversely, the depth of field gets more and more deep as you select a larger f-stop number.
LARGE F-STOP NUMBER = LARGE DEPTH OF FIELD
SMALL F-STOP NUMBER = SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD
How are you feeling about aperture? It really isn’t that difficult once you understand what it controls and how to control it. But it is very important when learning photography. From aperture, remember these keys:
- Aperture is a hole found in your lens that lets light into the camera.
- You control the size of the hole by adjusting the f-stop on your camera.
- A large f-stop number means a smaller hole and thus less light.
- A small f-stop number means a larger hole and thus more light.
- A large f-stop number yields a large depth of field.
- A small f-stop number yields a shallow depth of field.
The second component of exposure that I want to teach you is shutter speed, which is super important when learning photography. When you hear the word shutter, you probably think of a window covering that either lets light in or blocks it out. Perfect! Your camera has a shutter that does the exact same thing, allowing light or blocking it out. Only, it isn’t controlling the light coming through the window, it is controlling the light hitting your digital sensor and exposing an image. The length of time that the shutter curtain remains open is measured in fractions of a second, and those fractions tell us the shutter speed. When people see fractions, their brain immediately turns off; but don’t stress, this isn’t that hard. Faster shutter speeds are noted by the smaller fractions. Even though 1/4000 has a large number in it, 4000, that number falls at the bottom of the fraction which tells us that it is a fraction of 1, and therefore quite small. 1/4000 tells us that our shutter curtain will open and close at 4000th of a second. That’s fast! Slower shutter speeds are designated by larger fractions, 1/4, 1/2 or even 1/1. They can even move into full seconds, like 1″, 2″ and so on. The ” mark represents full seconds, which means 2″ is equal to the shutter staying open for two full seconds. Don’t let the fractions scare you, I know that this may seem tricky but it’s not, and it really is necessary when learning photography. Each step, from one shutter speed to the next is considered a stop of light, just like it is with f-stops. Moving your shutter speed setting from 1/4 to 1/2 adds a stop of light. Likewise, moving your shutter speed from 1/2 to 1/4 removes a stop of light. I hope your beginning to see that a stop of light is not a specific amount of light, simply a way to talk about how to adjust your camera settings to make your images brighter or darker.
SHUTTER SPEED CONTROLS TWO THINGS: LIGHT AND MOTION
Shutter speed controls light.
The length of time that the shutter curtain stays open determines the amount of light that enters the camera. If the shutter curtain stays open for a short period of time (a fast shutter speed), the amount of light reaching the sensor is small. If the shutter curtain stays open for a long period of time, the amount of light that reaches the sensor is large. Let’s once again look at my monkey friends swinging away on their swings. You’ll notice that I can control the light in these images by simply adjusting my shutter speed. If anyone asks, you can tell them that you are learning photography from some monkeys.
Do you notice anything else about the monkeys besides brightness between, say the 1/60 image and the 1/15 image? In the 1/15 image the monkeys are starting to get blurry! This happens because the shutter is staying open too long and beginning to capture the motion of the swinging monkeys.
Shutter speed controls motion.
I am pretty sure you have taking a blurry picture before, right? And it usually happens when taking pictures in the dark, or indoors. This is because there is not enough light to create the perfect exposure so your camera automatically is leaving the shutter open longer to let in enough light. As this happens, moving objects have a chance to move which blurs them in the image. If you find your images are blurry, simply raise the shutter speed to get rid of that blur. Take a look at the diagram below of the fella running. Notice that he gets continually more blurred as I set the shutter speed lower and lower. There will be times when you want to allow motion blur in your images, and you do this by using a slow shutter speed, also called dragging the shutter. An example of this is when you take pictures of water. The smooth, almost soft look to the water in the image below, is accomplished by shooting with a long shutter speed. But be careful, when using longer shutter speeds, you may need to use a tripod to steady the camera so your own personal shakiness doesn’t cause the image to become blurry. Understanding shutter speed is essential in learning photography.
Understanding shutter speed.
How are you feeling about shutter speed? It really isn’t that difficult once you understand what it controls and how to control it. But it is very important when learning photography. From shutter speed, remember these keys:
- The shutter is a curtain that opens and closes and controls light entering the camera.
- You control how long this curtain stays open by adjusting your shutter speed.
- Shutter speed deals in time by fractions of a second.
- A small fraction means the shutter will open and close quickly and thus less light.
- A larger fraction or a full number means the shutter will stay open longer and thus more light.
- Use small fractions, 1/60 or faster, to keep things from getting blurry
- Use large fractions, 1/30 or full numbers if you want to get motion blur in your images.
The final component of exposure that I are going to teach you is ISO. People sometimes think of ISO as something hard to understand, but it really isn’t. And to be honest, you need to understand it when learning photography. ISO is the sensitivity of your digital sensor to light. The more sensitive the digital sensor is to light, the less light is needed to create the perfect exposure. The less sensitive the digital sensor is to light, the more light is needed to create the perfect exposure. In this digram, you’ll see that when shooting outside in full sun, the ISO should be set somewhere between 100-400 ISO. This will make the digital sensor less sensitive to light and allow the capture of images even in bright sun. Conversely, if when shooting in the dark, the ISO should be set somewhere between 6400-25,600 ISO. This will cause the digital sensor of the camera to be more sensitive to light, allowing the capture of images when there is less light around. Each step, from one ISO setting to the next is considered a stop of light, just like with f-stops and shutter speeds. Moving the ISO from 400 to 800 adds a stop of light. Likewise, moving the ISO from 400 to 200 removes a stop of light.
ISO CONTROLS TWO THINGS: LIGHT AND DIGITAL NOISE
ISO controls light.
Light is controlled by the ISO because it causes the digital sensor of the camera to be more or less sensitive to light. As this happens, more or less light is needed to create the perfect exposure. Let’s look again at the swinging monkeys. In the images below, the light is controlled by simply adjusting my ISO. The lower the ISO, the darker the image becomes because the sensor is less sensitive to light. The images gradually get brighter as the ISO is increased.
Do you notice anything else about the monkeys besides brightness between, say the ISO 800 image and ISO 12,800 image? The image starts to contain digital noise; –little blue, red, and orange specs that can ruin an image. This happens because as the sensor becomes more sensitive to light, it also becomes more sensitive to the electrical currents found in the camera itself and those get recorded in the image as digital noise. As you are learning photography, understand that digital noise is not pretty. It is not grain. It is ugly specs of color spattered through the image.
ISO controls digital noise.
The drawback to ISO, is that as you raise it to cause the sensor to become more sensitive to light, you also make it more susceptible to electrical interference, which become part of your images as colorful speckles of discoloration. Software can fix some digital noise in images. Large amounts of digital noise will ruin your images, therefore to learn about Lightroom and fixing noise, check out my course, Essential Skills for Photographers in Lightroom. If you find that your images have too much digital noise in them, you will need to use a lower ISO setting to remove the noise from the pictures. Newer cameras are much better at delivering clean images, free from digital noise –even at higher ISO settings. If, even at lower ISO settings, you find the amount of digital noise unacceptable, it may be time to upgrade your digital camera.
ISO isn’t that difficult to learn, once you understand what it is and what it controls. But it is very important when learning photography. From ISO, remember these keys:
- ISO determines the sensitivity of the digital sensor to light.
- You control that sensitivity by adjusting the ISO.
- A lower ISO number means the sensor is less sensitive to light and thus more light is needed to create the correct exposure.
- A higher ISO number means the sensor is more sensitive to light and thus less light is needed to create the correct exposure.
- High ISO numbers introduce digital noise which can ruin the look of your images.
You now know the three components of exposure, and are well on your way to learning photography! Let’s put them all together to understand how to get the correct amount of light for your images. If your image is too dark, you can add light in three ways:
ADJUSTING APERTURE TO ADD LIGHT
If I add more light by adjusting the f-stop down thus creating a larger aperture hole, my image will definitely get brighter. Creating a larger aperture hole allows more light into the camera to expose the digital sensor. However, there is a side effect to adding light through adjusting the aperture. As the aperture hole gets larger to let more light in, you’ll notice that the image begins to have a more shallow depth of field. If my image goal is to keep all of the monkeys sharp, then adjusting the aperture to add more light and brighten the image may not be the best solution.
ADJUSTING SHUTTER SPEED TO ADD LIGHT
If I add more light by slowing the shutter speed, or ‘dragging the shutter,’ my image will definitely get brighter. Slowing the shutter allows more light into the camera to expose the digital sensor. However, there is a side effect to adding light through shutter speed. As the shutter slows to let more light in, you’ll notice that the monkeys begins to get motion blur (because the monkeys are swinging). If my image goal is to keep all of the monkeys sharp, then dragging the shutter to add more light and brighten the image, may not be the best solution.
ADJUSTING ISO TO ADD LIGHT
If I add more light by increasing the ISO, my image will definitely get brighter. Increasing the ISO, causes the camera’s digital sensor to be more sensitive to light, thus increasing the brightness of the image. However, there is a side effect to adding light through ISO. As the sensitivity of the camera’s digital sensor increases, it also becomes more sensitive to other electrical signals, so you’ll notice that the image begins to show digital noise. If my image goal is to keep the digital noise out of the picture, then increasing the ISO to add more light and brighten the image, may not be the best solution. So what becomes the best way to add light to your image? It all depends on your image goals.
With each of the components of exposure there are trade-offs. Adding light to your image by using aperture causes your depth of field to become more shallow, while adding light through shutter speeds causes objects in motion to become blurry. The decision has to come down to, “what are my image goals?” As you are learning photography, understanding what you want your images to look like will determine which component of exposure you will adjust to get the perfectly exposed image. If you are a learning photography to become a portrait photographer, then depth of field becomes most important. If you are shooting a group of people, you MUST keep the person in front, as well as the person in back, tack sharp. You do this by selecting a larger aperture number, which means if your image needs more light, you do not want to drop the aperture number.
You would add light using one of the other two components of exposure, namely shutter speed or ISO. If you are learning photography to be able to shoot moving objects, you would need a fast shutter speed to freeze and capture motion. You would accomplish this by setting your shutter speed to a fast shutter speed, which means if your image was too dark you would not add light by adjusting your shutter speed.
You would add light by adjusting one of the other two components of exposure, either aperture or ISO. And if having a clean image, free from digital noise is your goal, and your image is too dark, you would need to add light by adjusting one of the other two components of exposure, namely aperture or shutter speed. By understanding what each component of exposure controls, coupled with your image goals, you begin to understand which component to use to add or subtract light to help you create the perfect image.
2. Camera Shooting Modes
Exposure training was just the beginning because now you get to select the correct shooting mode for the type of photography are creating. Shooting modes let you control some or all of the components of exposure on your camera. Your image goals will help you determine which shooting mode is best for you. As you are learning photography, I would recommend you shoot in manual mode to get a feel for adjusting the settings three components of exposure. Sure you’ll mess some shots up, but that is what learning photography is all about! Take a look at the shooting mode dial above. The three most important shooting mode options are (M) Manual Mode, (A or Av) Aperture Priority Mode, and (S or Tv) Shutter Priority Mode. All the other modes on your camera are auto modes, so I will speak about those collectively at the end.
Shooting in manual mode.
Manual mode is exactly that, manual. You as the photographer choose the f-stop, shutter speed and ISO settings for your images. This is a great choice, especially if you truly want to become proficient with exposure. Shooting in manual mode is an excellent choice when learning photography. Everything taught in this article prepares you to shoot in manual mode.
Benefits of shooting in manual mode.
- Your understanding of exposure increases as you make exposure choices, excellent when learning photography.
- Your camera, its settings, and exposure becomes second nature to you.
- You chose all of the settings, no camera interference as you create beautiful images.
Negatives of shooting in manual mode.
- Often when shooting in manual mode, your attention is too much on the camera and too little on the client or subject.
- You get in the habit of ‘chimping’ too much. ‘Chimping’ is the act of looking at your screen after every shot.
- You may work slower because you must constantly be adjusting exposure settings.
Shooting in aperture priority mode.
When shooting in aperture priority mode, you select the f-stop, and the camera will choose the shutter speed and ISO. This mode is for those most concerned with the depth of field in their images. Aperture priority mode is the shooting mode I shoot in 95% of the time. As a portrait photographer, I am most concerned with depth of field and by shooting in aperture priority mode, it allows me to focus only on the aperture settings and let the camera do the rest. As I was learning photography this was the mode I began with, and I have never looked back. I can easily shoot in manual mode now, but choose not to very often.
Benefits of shooting in aperture priority mode.
- Allows you to pay less attention to the camera settings and more attention to creativity and the client.
- Work quicker without having to look at your camera after each shot to check exposure.
- You can quickly adjust the f-stop for the depth of field you desire without having to change the shutter speed.
Negatives of shooting in aperture priority mode.
- Your camera determines some of the settings for your exposure.
- You may not learn exposure as quickly because you’re not doing it all yourself.
- You MUST learn to use exposure compensation.
Shooting in shutter priority mode.
When shooting in shutter priority mode, you select the shutter speed, and the camera will choose the f-stop and the ISO. This mode is for people most concerned with showing motion or freezing motion in their images. Sports and nature photography would be two areas where the stopping of action is critical. This mode is also good for those learning photography of children. Kids running and playing may require a photographer to be most concerned with shutter speed when shooting.
Benefits of shooting in shutter priority mode.
- Allows you to pay less attention to the camera settings and more attention to creativity.
- Work quicker without having to look at your camera after each shot to check exposure.
- You can quickly adjust the shutter speed to capture motion without having to change the f-stop.
Negatives of shooting in shutter priority mode.
- Your camera determines some of the settings for your exposure.
- You may not learn exposure as quickly because you’re not doing it all yourself.
- You MUST learn to use exposure compensation.
Shooting in auto modes.
The remaining modes on the shooting mode dial are auto modes. I would not recommend using these modes as you are learning photography, because they take away creative control from you. The purpose of learning photography is to allow you to take what you see and translate it to an image. When the camera is making the exposure decisions, you are much less apt to truly be learning photography.
Part of learning photography is having a firm grasp of compositional techniques. I would like to teach you a few of these that can help you to create beautiful images. These techniques are not hard to do, they just require effort. To continue learning about composition and creativity, check out my book entitled, Create! As someone learning photography, you need to begin to consider yourself an artist. Photography is an art form and you are truly an artist as you create images. You are using your sense of composition, lighting, posing and expression to create an image using specific tools. Painters use paint and canvas; photographers use camera and lens. Different medium, same principle. As you learn these techniques and practice applying them in your photography, your images will become more pleasing to the eye, and you will become more confident in your skills as a photographer.
Balance and symmetry.
As humans, we are naturally drawn to repeating shapes and patterns. This is why beautiful architecture and painting from years past have repeating patterns. These patterns bring a sense of completeness to the image and bring a calming effect to the brain. In photography, we can achieve this same sense of completeness by working on balance and symmetry in our images. When taking pictures of people, balance can help you know where to place your subject. For example, on our first image of the three windows, where do you think our subject should go? Hopefully you said in between the windows. You could pick either side, or you could place someone in each. By placing your subject between one set of windows, it would become a compositionally strong image.
Understand then, as you look for repeating shapes in architecture and nature, they give you a natural spot to place your subject and create a beautiful image with almost no effort. In the first image below, I placed the couple in the middle. It seems like the natural place to put them right? Sometimes it’s not so easy to find symmetry and balance in an image. And when you find you are struggling to find balance, an excellent way to draw attention to your subject and remove the distractions is to have a shallow depth of field, something we learned about when discussing aperture. By doing this, you eliminate the distractions all together and put the focus right on your subject. I often do this when I don’t get to choose the background, or if I am trying to capture action or a moment. Take a look at this image from a wedding reception. I can’t control my background, and it’s really not that awesome, so I make it fade away with depth of field.
BUT! Even though this image does not follow the balance and symmetry rule that we have discussed so far, our eye and mind still like it. And, for that, you could say that the image above is still in balance. What? How could it be?? They are shifted off to one side, instead of dead center. How could this image still be balanced? The answer lies in the next rule, the rule of thirds.
The Rule of thirds.
The rule of thirds is one of the most important compositional rules in photography and it is usually the first compositional rule taught when learning photography. It is the rule that you should be concerned with the very most, and tells us that, “we can create a more visually interesting and appealing image by placing our subject into a power position in our image.” So what is a power position? Think of a tic-tac-toe board. It has two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. Power positions are the lines themselves, or where those lines intersect. Here is the same image as above, except with a tic-tac-toe board placed over the top. You will see that our subject, the couple, and more importantly the face and eyes, are in a power position. This image follows the rule of thirds. On this next image, you’ll notice that her eyes are not perfectly on the line, and she is not in a power position -where the lines intersect, but the image still follows the rule of thirds. The key idea here is, don’t just center your subject! Move them to a line or to a power position, where the lines intersect. By doing this, your images will have a much greater impact. If you’re thinking she is centered, you are incorrect. Yes her body is in the center of the image, but the subject of a person is their face and her face falls into the upper quadrant of the image.
There are lines in almost every photograph, and when creating a pleasing composition we want to have those lines lead to our subject. Often, leading lines are easy to find and easy to use. For example, the classic railroad track shot. Now, because of the danger of trains, I would recommend you not shoot on live tracks, instead shoot on tracks that trains aren’t using anymore. Classic leading lines. Check out the image below of my son when he was much younger and loved trains. Notice how this image doesn’t follow the rule of thirds? He is in the very center of the picture. This image struggles with balance as well, as we have the different color trains on either side. But it does follow leading lines, which brings your eye into the image and leads the viewer directly to the subject. This picture is not a perfect shot, but it means a lot to me because it is my son. This is an important lesson for you while learning photography; –emotion and feel can conquer a lot of mistakes in an image. This is another shot with leading lines; –another easy one to spot. This image also follows the rule of thirds. Do you see how this photograph has impact? By using the compositional rules, leading lines, the rule of thirds AND by using a small f-stop number aperture to create a shallow depth of field, this image becomes very impactful. Following these rules as you practice your photography will help you start to develop your eye as a photographer. And as you practice, they will become second nature. I have a book that focuses completely on creativity and composition called Create! and it has tons of practice exercises to help you hone your compositions and create your own personal style of photography.
4. Conclusion: Learning Photography
By following what is taught in this article, you will increase your photographic skillsexponentially. These few things I have discussed are the main components that you need to understand when learning photography. If you are wanting to dive deeper into the basics of photography and your camera, check out my book, “Get the Picture: A Photographer’s Guide to Essential Camera Skills.” This book will cover everything we covered here in more depth, and much, much more. From the buttons and switches on your camera, to white balance and lenses. This book is a wonderful tool to help you as you get started learning photography.