Understand Exposure in Under 10 Minutes

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DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-perfect-exposure-exampleThere are countless Photography books and classes that explain exposure, yet after reading or attending them, your photos may not have improved because…well, let’s be honest… some of us Right-Brainers aren’t super technical!

I recently taught a small photography class to newbies. I thought hard about how I could explain exposure in the simplest way possible. I found that a parallel example of something relatable was the best way to convey the different aspects that impact exposure.

I tested this theory by explaining exposure to my 8-year old daughter and then quizzed her. She proved the theory was a success by grasping the concepts within 10 minutes. So I’d like to share my lesson with you so you can understand exposure in under 10 minutes!

A 10-minute lesson that will change your Photography

Your DSLR camera is like your head with the LENS being your vision and the camera BODY is your brain. Your vision sees things and your brain records the details.

DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-camera-metaphor

Just like when you look at something – let’s say, a flower – your eyes see it and send information to your brain that the flower has long petals and that it is yellow. If you looked at it too quickly or it was too dark, for example, the information your brain records is compromised.

The “exposure triangle” is about how 3 things — aperture, shutter speed and ISO — work together to provide enough light for your brain (the camera) to record what you see. You need the right combination of these 3 components to have perfect exposure.

DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-perfect-exposure-example

Good exposure

For example, if you don’t let in enough light, you won’t see things very well because it’ll be too dark (underexposure).

DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-underexposure-example

Too dark, or underexposed

If you let in too much light, then it’ll be too bright and you can’t see a lot of the details (overexposure).

DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-overexposure-example

Too bright, or overexposed

APERTURE = how WIDE you open your eyes

A small aperture (a large f-stop or f-number, like f/22) is like squinting. A large aperture (a small f-stop or f-number, like f/1.4) is like having “bug eyes”.

Quiz:  If you are shooting in low light, how wide do you open your eyes? Will you see well at night if you are squinting (small aperture)?

Quiz:  What happens on a super bright day if your eyes are wide open and they’re open for a long time (slow shutter and large aperture)? Can you see well then?

DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-fish-with-eyes-open-wide-and-squinting

Aperture is how wide you open your eyes – bug eyes, or squinting

SHUTTER SPEED = how LONG you open your eyes

A fast shutter, like 1/1000th of a second, is blinking super fast. A slow shutter speed, like 2 seconds, is keeping your eyes open and then blinking. The thing to remember is:  your brain is recording everything when your eyes are open. So if you or something you’re looking at is moving, and your eyes are open a long time (slow shutter), then your brain will record a blurry image.

Quiz:  If you want a crisp shot of someone jumping, how long do you need your eyes open? What will freeze the shot:  a quick blink (fast shutter) or a slow one (slow shutter)?

DPS-Annie-Tao-Exposure-article-moonglasses

ISO = special glasses

ISO = special glasses that help you see in the dark

ISO is like the opposite of sunglasses. Let’s call them MOONglasses!  😉

The higher the ISO, the thicker your moonglasses, so the more you are able to see in low light. You need thick moonglasses (high ISO) when shooting indoors or at dusk. You need very thin moonglasses (low ISO) when it’s a sunny day.

Quiz:  do I need thick, thin or medium moonglasses if I’m shooting at the beach on my lunch break?

All 3 of these things work together

Here is an example:  You are photographing your sleeping cat who is snuggled on the couch. There is not much light coming through the windows or additional ambient light. To see well, you have medium-to-thick moonglasses on (such as ISO 600). You need to have your eyes open pretty wide (large aperture, such as f/1.4). However, you don’t have great vision (you have a kit lens that only goes up to f/4.5), so you need more light to see. Thus, you leave your eyes open longer (slow shutter speed, such as 1/30th sec).

Final Quiz:

  1. In the same scenario, your cat notices you are snapping photos, so she starts walking away and leaps off the couch. You still want to photograph her. Which would you change:  how open your eyes are (aperture), how long you leave your eyes open (shutter speed), or thickness of your moonglasses (ISO)?
  2. If you increase your shutter speed because you want to freeze the image, what else would you need to change? (If you changed nothing else, the image would be too dark because you let in less light.)

Once you get the basic concept of exposure and how the three components of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) work together, turn your DSLR camera to “manual” and practice the specific settings based on different circumstances.

Want more on exposure?  Try these:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Annie Tao is a Professional Lifestyle Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is best known for capturing genuine smiles, emotions and stories of her subjects. You can visit Annie Tao Photography for more tips or inspiration. Stay connected with her on her Facebook page

  • keepntch

    Terrific, will have to read it again, “slow brained” neither right or left this time of day. Then I had to try and decide if that child was the 8 year old, no, then wanted to just enjoy the child. Sigh now I’ll read the article and maybe it will only take me 15″.

  • Anonymous

    third photo caption (of the kid) says: “Too bright, or underexposed” it should, however, read “Too bright, or overexposed”

  • Annie Tao Photography

    OMG. I’ll let the editor know! (I wrote the article, but the editor added the borders and text inside the borders.) Hopefully she can change it pronto!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are too funny. Not right-brained or left-brained, but it’s slow-brained! haha.

    The child was a toddler. And I said “10 minutes”, but the time may vary from person to person. 🙂

  • sorry about that, all fixed – thanks for catching it!

  • Rachel

    That’s a great way of describing the triangle for beginners, thank you for sharing!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I’m glad you liked it, Rachel! 🙂

  • yaro

    Not sure about the shutter speed example. It sort of indicates that if I stare at a walking tortoise for 2 s I won’t see it sharp. Nice try though. I recon the main problem is lots of people understand what aperture, shutter speed and ISO is they just don’t know how to use that knowledge in practice. They won’t get your well exposed image without understanding how and where to measure the reflected light and why in your example most of cameras would most likely underexpose and how to fix it so a little extra info would be appreciated.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Yaro. I think it’s obvious
    from the title and illustrations (some of them were drawn by my 8-year old) that this article is not a technical one. It is a
    CONCEPTUAL explanation of exposure. And like most metaphors, it doesn’t
    work perfectly.

    The article is meant to introduce the exposure triangle in a
    non-technical way to those who don’t know what it is. Without a base level
    understanding of this concept, people can’t get out of the Auto mode.

    For those who already know the basics, like yourself, there are more advanced articles that take a deeper dive into the details that may be more beneficial.

  • Michael Owens

    It’s a simple explanation that works well to aclimitise newbies to the exposure triangle.
    Helping them understand why ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture ALL play a vital roll together in piecing together the best possible image the camera can get!

    I for one thank you!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Michael! I’m glad you “got” what I was trying to accomplish. 🙂

  • Nice and simple. Good analogies. If only I had found this when I was learning the exposure triangle! A good understanding of this information allows for more creative possibilities with motion and depth of field.

    I always enjoy your posts on DPS Ms. Tao! I’ve referred several colleagues to your articles and website for information and inspiration. Thanks again!

  • Sotiria Vasileiou

    amazing metaphor! thank you for sharing!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Of course! It was my pleasure, Sotriria!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Josh, you are too kind! Thank you so much for telling me. That makes me happy to know my articles have been helpful. I write entierly because I love helping others and want to share what little (haha) that I know. 🙂 So hearing comments like yours make me want to continue writing!

  • Brad Allen Pelletier

    Thank you for posting this. It definanitly broke exposure down into a simpler form to understand.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Yay! I’m so glad to hear that, Brad. 🙂

  • Alex Muturi

    That’s a very nice and simple explanation. You are a good teacher and I appreciate it very much.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Being a painter, I use my photography the same way- sometimes I want a picture that would be considered under or over exposed; because of the mood/scene I want to convey. The trick is to balance it so it others might find it pleasing also. This was a really good explanation in explaining how I could achieve this happy medium. Here is an example, one that I love, but others are not sure of the lighting

  • Annie Tao Photography

    🙂 Thanks so much, Alex!

  • Ankit

    If you expose it more, the background will get blown off.

  • swapie

    “Simple”ly Awsm!

  • sue

    Reading this is very easy to understand.Remembering it all while out shooting,Well,I have missed a lot of shots.Someday soon it will all come together quicker I hope!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Yes, it will all come together! Understanding the concept of all these 3 things (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) work together is the first step. Then you just need to practice with your camera in different settings. Have fun!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    🙂

  • Jorge Limon

    Great way to explain the concept. Thank you

  • Hema

    Wow wish I had you for teacher when I started, so articulate.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are too kind, Hema. Thank you!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are very welcome, Jorge!

  • Carla Renee

    This is Great! Thanks for this!! Very helpful to me! 🙂

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Yay! I am so happy to hear that!!!

  • satoshi y.

    wow! very simple to understand, thank you so much for sharing

  • Jared Lawson

    Nice visuals for this article! Understanding exposure basics can be done in 10 minutes but my tips for photographers would be to practice over and over with exposure to understand how you can manipulate images with it. California Photographer

  • joelle

    Thank you Annie I have learned something new to get a better image quality , and memorized it in your simple way .

  • ChevyAnswerMan

    I was taught there are four principles of LISA: L=light I=iso S=shutter speed and A=aperture. You have to be able to understand these concepts if you are going to shoot anything else other than Automatic.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    That’s a fantastic way to remember it: LISA!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I’m so glad it helped you, Joelle!!!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Yes, I agree 100%! Once you have the basic concept down, practice practice practice! 🙂

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are so very welcome, Satoshi!

  • Shafil

    Thank you very much for this piece of explanation. i have been trying to understand exposure from a long time but after reading this i believe i have my basics now. Thanks you very much once again. cheers

  • Annie Tao Photography

    YAY! I’m so glad this helped you! When I wrote the article, I truly came from the perspective that it needs to be simple enough for everyone to understand, which is why I taught the lesson to my 8 year old and then quizzed her to see if she understood. (And she did!)

    Now you just have to put it in practice by playing around with different camera settings and seeing how the change impacts the image.

  • Bhaumik Nayak

    for writing such a simple beautiful and unique article.. I already know what exposure is though i read it because of your unique explanation , Wishes to you and your 8 year old daughter for such a great doodles…. Keep writing….

  • Tiffany chapman

    Thank you for explaining this in a way I can finally understand it..

  • Grammy 23

    Thanks for great tips and a simple explanation. Something to keep in mind when giving these tips is that we all have a “learning style”. Some of us learn best by doing while others are happy to hear a lecture or read the instructions and feel like they understand perfectly . By encouraging your readers to actually put the tips into action, you cover the bases. I know once I actually practice what you taught in the lesson, I will “get it” much better than just reading it. Your comparisons to things we already understand were perfect! Thanks again.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I agree with you, Grammy 23! Everyone should learn things in the way that resonates most with them. With Photography, I think everyone needs to practice what they’ve learned — whether they went to Photography school, read books, attended a lecture, read an article online..or are self-taught. Practice practice practice. 🙂

  • Annie Tao Photography

    So happy to hear that, Tiffany!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    My daughter does have nice doodles! I thought it was fitting for this article to have some. 🙂

  • Bhaumik Nayak

    Theres a Picasso hidden inside your daughters hands…. 🙂 give your daughter love from me… And please do inspire her to keep doodling….

  • Jami Jennings

    Thanks, Annie, you’ve developed a great way of explaining all of this!
    As another painter, I usually play around with the exposure to enhance the mood of my photos, it is always good to know the basics, though!

  • Conserve

    The little model above is an absolute baby doll; precious; beautiful!!!

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