How to Improve Your Photography for Beginners: Exposure and Settings That Affect It


Those new to photography may find their venture beyond their point and shoot camera very confusing and challenging. Having control of the settings that used to be handled by your camera can be a bit daunting at first, but if you learn about exposure and what it is affected by, you can take way better pictures than any camera can for you.

Photography is just a process of gathering light with a camera resulting in an image.  Exposure refers to how much light you’ve collected,  which determines how dark or bright the picture turns out. A “proper” exposure is subjective; it depends on your preference for how light or dark you want your image to be.


Settings that Affect Exposure

Exposure is affected only by three settings known as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. We can think of exposure as a bag (camera) collecting jelly beans (light) from a dispenser. The dispenser represents all the available light in the scene you’re trying to take. When taking a picture, you are using these three settings in harmony to collect the right amount of light.  Each setting controls how much light a camera can collect with different effects to your picture. Master these settings and you will have a strong platform to work with in photography.

Shutter speed is the time the bag (camera) spends collecting jelly beans. The longer the shutter speed, the more light the camera collects.

Aperture is how wide the bag is. The larger the aperture, the more light the camera can collect at any given time.

ISO is the quantity of jelly beans being released out of the dispenser. The higher the ISO, the more light the camera is receiving at any given time.

Each setting has its own benefits and limitations. You want to balance these 3 settings to fill the exposure with the right amount of light.  Collect too little light and the photo comes out too dark (underexposed). Collect too much light and the photo comes out too bright (overexposed).  Surprisingly simple, but mastering exposure is a very crucial step to learning how to take great photos! Go ahead and put your camera in manual drive mode (the “M” on the control dial of your camera) and try adjusting these settings!


Shutter Speed

The most critical setting for night photography will be shutter speed.  With a fast(short) shutter speed, less light is taken in by the camera and the resulting exposure will be on the darker side. Objects in motion can be frozen with faster shutter speeds. However, if the shutter speed is too fast, the exposure will be underexposed (too dark) because the camera cannot take in adequate light during that time frame. Conversely, setting the camera at a slower shutter speed (long exposure) will allow the camera to take in more light, making the image brighter. Since the camera is continuously taking in light throughout the set shutter speed, moving objects will show up as a blur. If you have unsteady hands, longer shutter speeds will make your photos more likely to have blurring. Having a tripod to stabilize the camera during a long exposure will eliminate this type of blurring, but moving objects such as an ocean will still be blurred out. Luckily, the ocean becomes more pleasant to look at when the shutter speed is set long enough, because the blurring actually smooths it out.


8 seconds @ f/5.6 ISO 200: Water is harsh due to relatively short shutter speed

Shutter Speed: 8 seconds – Water is harsh due to relatively short shutter speed. Everything else is properly exposed, but having a smoothed out ocean will add a more pleasant look. (8 seconds @ f5.6 ISO 200)



30 seconds @ f/5.6 ISO 200: A longer shutter speed smooth out the water and creates a more lit sky.

Shutter speed: 30 seconds – A longer shutter speed smooths out the water and creates a more appealing ocean. (30 seconds @ f5.6 ISO 200)


Technical: Higher-end cameras (i.e. dslr) typically can shoot as fast as 1/8000’s of a second, to just about as long as the user desires the shutter speed to last. It is important to note that most cameras have to be set to bulb mode in order to get really long exposure times (I.e. over 30 seconds). Bulb mode can be accessed by moving the dial that controls shutter speed past the longest available shutter speed. Bulb mode allows you to activate the camera by pressing the shutter release and ending the exposure when you let go of the shutter release. The best method is to use a remote camera trigger to prevent your hands from accidentally moving the camera and adding blur to your image. Activating the camera in bulb mode with your hands is prone to destabilizing the camera and leaving your images blurry. You can buy a remote camera trigger for fairly cheap and there are many options available, from basic one function remotes to cellphone activated remotes such as Triggertrap.



Every lens has an opening/closing mechanism called the aperture. When a picture is taken, the aperture closes and leaves a small opening allowing light to pass and reach the camera. If we took 2 shots at the same shutter speed, the exposure with the larger aperture setting will come out brighter. The aperture size can be adjusted and is measured in f-stops. The larger the aperture, the smaller the f-stop number will be. So f1.4, would be a much larger aperture than an f16. Once again, aperture controls how much light is allowed to enter the camera at any given shutter speed. The larger the aperture setting is, the more light can enter the camera.  All lenses have limitations to how small/large the aperture can be.

When you take a picture, the camera focuses on to an object. Other objects that are a different (closer or further) distance between the object in focus and the camera will have less focus. The larger the difference in distance, the more out of focus these objects will be. This concept is called the depth of field, which is an indicator of how far an object has to be from the main subject before it goes out of focus. The larger the aperture, the more likely you will have out of focus elements in your image due to a shallower depth of field. Having a really shallow depth of field is very desirable for portraits and any kind of photography where you would want to isolate a subject from distracting backgrounds. Using a smaller aperture will result in having a larger depth of field, which means objects around the main subject will be significantly more in focus.

Lenses tend to have an optimal aperture for when an image is sharpest. If you can imagine when you squint your eyes to some degree, you will actually be able to see things more clearly than if they were wide open. The same principle applies to aperture. However, just like if you were to squint your eyes too much, the overall image sharpness will decline if you use too small of an aperture due to diffraction. Sometimes you want to sacrifice image sharpness if you want a larger depth of field, which is common in landscape shots. The optimal aperture for overall image sharpness will vary with lenses, but is typically around f5.6-f10.


Shot @f/1.4: Notice how even the pens behind the blue pen in focus are blurred. Backgrounds are hardly distinguishable.

Shot @f/1.4: Notice how even the pens behind the blue pen in focus are blurred. Backgrounds are hardly distinguishable.

Shot @f/4: Background pens are more distinguishable due to increasing depth of field.

Shot @f/4: Background pens are more distinguishable due to increasing depth of field.

Shot @f/16: Background is very visible and all pens appear to be in focus.

Shot @f/16: Background is very visible and all pens appear to be in focus.



ISO is the setting that makes our cameras more sensitive to light. Just like a radio, music will play louder if we turn the volume knob. However, if we turn it up too high, we begin to hear “static” and other undesirable “noise”. The same applies for ISO. Turning up the ISO will mean the camera can gather more light, but turn it up too high and your picture will develop grainy, often undesirable pixels known as noise.


Shot @ISO200 Noise Free

Shot @ISO200 Noise Free

Shot @ISO25600: Noise

Shot @ISO25600: Noise


Balancing the Camera’s Settings

Increasing any of these 3 settings will bring in more light, each with certain advantages and disadvantages over the other. When trying to set up your exposure, it is important to know the limitations of each and create a balance between the three:

Shutter: Motion Blur

Aperture: Depth of Field

ISO: Noise

You can think of exposure as a triangle and the settings as a way to make the right sized triangle without showing any of the negative side effects of each setting.


exposure balanced with settings

Getting the right exposure can be obtained by using any combination of settings, but they should be balanced so there are no unwanted side effects.



Every digital camera has a metering system. A metering system allows the camera to judge whether the current shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are adequate enough for a decent exposure. If the camera finds that the current settings will create an underexposed or overexposed image, the metering gauge will be closer to the “-” and “+” sign respectively. If the metering gauge is on the “-” side such as in the diagram below, you can either increase shutter speed, increase aperture, or increase ISO until the meter balances to the middle of the gauge. Conversely, you will want to shorten shutter speed, decrease aperture, or decrease ISO if it is on the “+” side. You can use this metering gauge to help you judge if your current settings will create an image that is properly exposed, but being overly dependent on the gauge is unadvised. There are times when the camera does not meter properly, so if your metering gauge was center on the “o” and your image still came out too dark for your liking, you can adjust the settings until you get a desired exposure. When I shoot, I often create a test shot based on the metering gauge and adjust the settings to fine tune the exposure. There will be times when glare makes it impossible to determine if your test shot is properly exposed, in which you can use your camera’s histogram to aid you.



Metering system (circled in red) as viewed from the back lcd of a Nikon D90. Looking through the viewfinder should also have the metering gauge.


Exposure is controlled solely by shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. While each setting will help create a better exposure, there are downsides to using any one setting too extensively. The settings should have an overall balance. Metering can be used as a guide to if your camera’s settings are correct or not. To see the second part of this tutorial about utilizing natural light, click here!! Also, don’t forget to check out Pashadelic for inspiring photos that can help you practice exposure! If you have any questions or comments about this article, please leave them below!


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