Photography 101: Beginner’s Guide in Understanding the Exposure Triangle

Photography is an art of capturing light.

DSLR, mirrorless, and higher-end point-and-shoot cameras provide manual mode to allow photographers manipulate the amount of light entering the camera’s sensor by adjusting 3 parameters: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

Triangle of Light

Look at above illustration. Imagine ISO, shutter speed, and aperture as 3 points that form a triangle. The size of the triangle has to always be maintained. Whenever you adjust a parameter, the triangle will enlarge or shrink. A very large triangle will result in overexposed photo, while a very small triangle results in underexposed photo. Therefore, to compensate change in one parameter, the other parameters need to be adjusted to maintain the triangle’s size.

Manipulating Triangle of Light

Adjusting the Parameters and Their Effects to Photo

  1. ISO or sensor’s sensitivity
    Boosting sensor’s sensitivity will increase the amount of light received. However, it will introduce noise to the photo.
  2. Shutter speed
    Fast shutter speed will capture very little amount of light and enable you to freeze moving objects. Meanwhile, slow shutter speed will cause motion blur if objects are moving faster than your shutter speed.
  3. Aperture or lens’ opening
    Greater amount of light can enter through larger lens’ opening. It will also result in noticeable depth of field, also called bokeh, separating your point of interest from background.
Parameter Less Light
Effect
More Light
Effect
ISO 100, 200, …
Clean photo
1600, 3200, …
Noise
Shutter speed 1/4000, 1/8000, …
Freezing object
1/15, 1″, 15″, 30″, …
Motion blur
Aperture 1/8, 1/11, …
Shallow depth of field
1/2.8, 1/1.4, …
Greater depth of field

Manipulating Parameters to Achieve Different Photography Effect
Each effect of parameter changes should be taken into account when you take photo. Are you taking landscape, portrait, travel, sports, or night photography?

See below cheat sheet as a reference.

Photography Style ISO Shutter speed Aperture
Landscape Low Narrow
Portrait Large
Sports or wildlife High Fast
Night with motion blur Low Slow
Stars High Extremely slow Large

You may be overwhelmed initially and feel tempted to switch back to auto. However, with enough practice, you’ll soon get used to it. Learning how to manipulate the exposure triangle will enable you to experiment with effects and produce stunning images! It’ll be worthwhile and enrich your photography experience.

Author: Fiona Wijaya

Full-time product manager, seasoned globetrotter, and photographer. The pursuit of greater knowledge piques my intellectual curiosity.

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