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digital photography
slow shutter speed
shallow depth of field
aperture setting
digital photographer
understanding the relationship
camera sensor
three elements
soccer game
depth of field
fast shutter speed
length of time
Learn Digital Photography: How To Unlock Your Artistic Potential
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Learn Digital Photography: How to Unlock Your Artistic Potential

Knowing the basic terms of digital photography isn’t enough to make you a great photographer. You also need to understand the relationship between them. Remember that the essence of photography is light and the way cameras capture that light is through exposure. The quality of your digital photographs is determined by the camera settings you choose for each of the three elements that comprise exposure: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Understanding the relationship between these three, otherwise known as the Exposure Triangle, is the key to unlock your artistic potential as a digital photographer and the reason why this article will explain it in depth.

First, let’s review the individual components of exposure: shutter speed is the length of time that the camera’s shutter remains open, thus exposing the sensor to light; aperture is the size of the opening in the lens which determines how much light will reach the sensor; and finally, ISO is the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. Now that you have a firm grasp of what these three elements are, we can move on to talking about how they affect the appearance of a photograph.

Shutter speed determines how clear or blurry objects in motion will appear in your photograph. To illustrate, imagine that you are watching a soccer game and want to take a picture of your favorite player scoring a goal. If you choose a slow shutter speed, then the sprinting player and rolling ball will appear blurry but if you choose a fast shutter speed, then both will appear frozen in time and you will always be able to relive the moment in the same way that you saw it with your own two eyes.

The aperture setting determines the depth of field, or the range of distance that appears acceptably sharp in a picture. Here’s an easier way to think of it: have you ever seen a photo where the main subject is clearly in focus but everything in the background seems fuzzy? That is an example of shallow depth of field. On the other hand is deep depth of field, which is when you look at a photograph and everything appears crisp and in focus. The manipulation of aperture, as well as shutter speed, is an easy way to put your own artistic twist on a photograph.

Last but not least, your ISO value determines the amount of noise in a digital photograph. Noise is best described as the digital equivalent of film grain for analog cameras. Typically, you want the least amount of noise possible in a photograph. To accomplish this, you want to keep the ISO value as low as possible. For this reason, you may wish to set your ISO level first and then adjust your shutter speed and aperture accordingly. In order to figure out what your shutter speed and aperture settings should be, you can refer to the Exposure Triangle.

The Exposure Triangle is a tool that digital photographers use to explain how shutter speed, aperture and ISO affect one another and, ultimately, the quality of a photograph. Each point of the triangle represents one aspect of exposure. The goal is to keep all three points in balance so that your photograph will portray the light how you want it to appear and not be too bright or too dark.

It’s probably easiest to illustrate the Exposure Triangle using an example, so let’s go back to the soccer game and talk about the picture you want to take of your favorite player scoring a goal. Since you’re outside in direct sunlight, you want your ISO very low so that the camera’s sensor will not be offended by bright light. Next, you need to determine your shutter speed. You decide that you want to freeze the action in the shot, not blur it, so you pick a fast shutter speed. Finally, you think about how much of the background you want to appear crisp and clear and decide that you want everything to be in focus so you choose a high f stop (remember, that’s the aperture measurement). The Exposure Triangle dictates what the exact numbers for each setting will be because it represents the relationship between all three. For example, if you increase the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light (ISO), then you will need to increase the shutter speed or decrease the aperture opening in order to maintain a properly exposed shot. Otherwise, the picture will appear too bright because there would be too much light hitting the sensor given how receptive it is.

Understanding the Exposure Triangle will unlock your artistic side as a photographer because it gives you, not the camera, the power to choose what is most important in a shot. Is it action? Then choose a shutter speed that captures it the way you want it to be seen and set the aperture and ISO accordingly. Is it depth of field? Then choose an f stop that makes the foreground appear the way you want it to and play with the shutter speed and ISO until you get it right. Some digital cameras even have a shutter priority or aperture priority setting that calculates the remaining values for you. So don’t be shy – one advantage of digital photography is that you can instantly see your photograph and appreciate the difference between a fast versus slow shutter speed, large versus small aperture and high versus low ISO. Start experimenting with the Exposure Triangle and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your inner artiste comes out!

Street Talk


Hi Maria, I like how you articulated the effects of different camera settings such as noise and field of depth. If I might ask, do you have a preferred ceiling for setting ISO? What is the highest you would set it under normal circumstances before using shutter speed or aperture for compensation?

  about 1 decade ago
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