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How-to's

Exposure variables – Making the most out of your camera

Hal Becker (HBB)


Keywords: photography, aperture, shutter, speed, iso, illumination, luminance, dof, blur, digital, sensor, film, camera, mode, metering, sekonic, candela, lumens, lux, ev, hbb

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Section II:  Discussion

The four exposure variables may exist in seemingly endless combinations, as a function of the conditions confronting the photographer.  Some of the conditions may be under the photographer's control, shutter speed, aperture and ISO, for example.  Illumination may be completely beyond the photographer/s control, shooting outdoors with cloud cover changing rapidly for example.  This forces the photographer to select different combinations of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to adapt to the changing illumination.  In some situations, photographers may elect to add supplemental illumination to overcome exposure difficulties presented by dim or changing illumination.  Studio photographers, on the other hand, have control over all four variables and can configure them precisely to achieve the desired exposures.

Most cameras today can be operated in a number of automatic modes, whereby the photographer selects one or more of the camera controlled variables, and the camera calculates the value for the remaining variables.  Examples include:

Shutter Priority (S): In this mode, shutter speed is more important than aperture. The photographer selects an ISO value appropriate for the situation, then selects the desired shutter speed, and places the camera in the shutter preferred mode, where the camera is forced to use the shutter speed selected by the photographer.  When the shutter is opened, the camera measures the intensity of the illumination coming through the lens and calculates an aperture that will provide the desired exposure.  Shutter preferred mode is often used to maintain a shutter speed necessary to capture a rapidly moving subject.

Aperture Priority (A):  In this mode, aperture is more important than shutter speed.  The photographer selects an appropriate ISO value, then selects the desired aperture and places the camera in the aperture preferred mode.  When the shutter is opened, the camera measures the intensity of the illumination coming through the lens and calculates a shutter speed that will provide the desired exposure.  Aperture preferred mode is often used when the desired depth of field (DOF) provided by the selected aperture is to be maintained.  It can also be used to keep the subject in sharp focus, while blurring the background for artistic effects.

Manual Mode (M): For unusual situations, photographers may elect to shoot in total manual mode, where they will select three, and possibly all four, variables.  When working with ambient illumination, they will select Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.  In studio or other environments where supplemental illumination is available, they will select the power settings to achieve the desired effect.

Programmed Auto (P):  There are several variants of this mode.  The Nikon D800e, for example, includes a Programmed Auto Mode (P), where the photographer is willing to let the camera make the Shutter Speed and Aperture decisions under the given illumination and ISO values.

Cameras capable of this mode will usually provide a chart in the instruction manual indicating the range of values that will be used in determining exposure.  When the shutter is opened, the camera's metering system determines the illumination level, and then selects a shutter speed and aperture that will produce an acceptably exposed image.

Automatic ISO:  In this mode, the photographer selects a desired shutter speed and aperture, and is willing to let the camera select the ISO required for the desired exposure.  When the shutter is opened, the camera's metering system evaluates the reflected illumination passing through the lens and selects an appropriate ISO value that renders the desired exposure.  The mode would be used when the photographer is working in dim illumination that may be changing rapidly, while shooting moving subjects (faster shutter speed) with a desired depth of field (selected aperture).

Photographers just beginning their journey may have difficulty understanding the relationship between the four exposure variables: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and illumination, and the various combinations and tradeoffs that can be made in producing an acceptable exposure.  To simplify, Chart One, below, provides a simple, non-numeric method for understanding the four variables and their relationships.

To use this chart, select one of the four variables in the "Selected Variable" column, and one of its two values in the "Value" column.  Then select one of the three remaining variables under the heading "Relationship to Other Variables" you wish to evaluate.  Finally, assume that the two remaining variables will remain constant.

The chart and examples below compare Aperture with Illumination, ISO, and Shutter Speed.

image1

Chart One

Click for an enlargement

 

Aperture and Illumination Relationship

For a Small lens Aperture (large f/number), at a given ISO and Shutter Speed, a brighter source of Illumination is required.  For a Large lens Aperture (small f/number) at a given ISO and Shutter Speed, a dimmer source of Illumination is required.

Aperture and ISO Relationship

For a Small lens Aperture (large f/number), at a given Illumination and Shutter Speed, a faster ISO is required.  For a Large Aperture, at a given Illumination and Shutter Speed, a Slow ISO is required.

Aperture and Shutter Speed Relationship

For a Small lens Aperture (larger f/number), at a given Illumination and ISO, a slower Shutter Speed is required.  For a Large Aperture, at a given Illumination and ISO, a faster Shutter Speed is required.

Similar relationships can be explored by selecting the other exposure variables in the left column:  Illumination, ISO, and Shutter Speed.

Those interested only in this non-numeric exploration of the relationship between the four exposure variables can stop reading here.  For those interested in pursuing the numeric details, continue on to Section III, below.

(21 Votes )
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Originally written on January 25, 2016

Last updated on April 25, 2016

Hal Becker Hal Becker (HBB)

Hal is an expert in several areas, including CLS Awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Resources. Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Phoenix, USA
Basic, 8923 posts

18 comments

Gina Loria (Gina8) on April 17, 2020

Easy to grasp, short but good.

Jeanne Walker (sailingne1) on April 28, 2016

Nicely done!

Hal Becker (HBB) on April 27, 2016

Hal is an expert in several areas, including CLS Awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Resources. Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Bo: Thanks for helping me correct the error in the chart. Try as I might, it seems to be impossible to catch every error in my lengthy articles. I will try and do better next time, which will be the article that I recently started on shutter and speedlight relationships, including the mysterious second curtain sync function used with moving subjects. Regards, Hal

Hal Becker (HBB) on April 27, 2016

Hal is an expert in several areas, including CLS Awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Resources. Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Bo: Thanks for helping me correct the error in the chart. Try as I might, it seems to be impossible to catch every error in my lengthy articles. I will try and do better next time, which will be the article that I recently started on shutter and speedlight relationships, including the mysterious second curtain sync function used with moving subjects. Regards, Hal

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on April 25, 2016

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Editorial note re wrong chart data "The Equations" has been removed. The chart is ok.

Hal Becker (HBB) on April 8, 2016

Hal is an expert in several areas, including CLS Awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Resources. Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Please Note: The Excel and conventional format equations for the Aperture in the above chart are both correct now. Please disregard the editors note at the bottom of the chart. Sorry for the confusion. Hal (HBB)

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on March 25, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

(Edited by jrp Friday, 25 March 2016 ) Paschal, just make your questions at the D7000 Series forum. We will get you answers.

Paschal Okoye (padosky4eva) on February 15, 2016

wow!!! I just improved to d7100 but am still finding it difficult to use can someone help me out

Hal Becker (HBB) on February 9, 2016

Hal is an expert in several areas, including CLS Awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Resources. Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Mike: Nice catch! I need to remember to engage brain before turning fingers on. Excel equation for Lens Aperture should be: ((L*S*T)/(K))^(2) Thanks for noticing. With a long post it is difficult to catch minor typos like this, no matter how many times I edit it. JRP or Rick: Any chance this can be corrected above? Regards, Hal

Somnath Adhikary (Somnath adhikary) on February 9, 2016

I have acquired lot of knowledge aboutfour components specially illuminstion

Mike Muyal (Mik) on February 9, 2016

In your last table, shouldn't the Excel formula be to the power of two ie (^2) instead of (^0.5) ?

User on January 28, 2016

Hal, Well done; you've obviously done some extensive research for this article. Something useful I found that dovetails perfectly with your article is this online animated version of the principles you've detailed. http://camerasim.com/apps/original-camerasim/web/ I look forward to your next article. ~ Greg

Tony Wright (karton) on January 27, 2016

Thanks Hal, for this masterfully written piece. My youngest granddaughter is just learning photography and I will certainly pass it along to her. Keep up the good work! Tony W.

Hong Chow (hongkchow) on January 27, 2016

Hi Hal, Thank you so much for your great article particular with the illumination. Hong

Kerry Standifer (Kerry S) on January 27, 2016

Very nice article. There is a lot of information in just 3 pages. I like the mathematic relationship which is often lost in the discussion of exposure but is certainly the basis. Also often lost as stated by the author is the variability of light. The camera is simply the instrument for the capture of light. Understanding the ways to control light (when practical), and the ways to find the best conditions are key. It is all about the light, and the earlier that is put in the mix the better.

Peter Stokes (PAStime) on January 27, 2016

Thanks Hal - a great refresher. Peter

Dianne Clark (Dianne340) on January 27, 2016

Thank you. The first time "illumination" has been introduced to the standard triangle equation and that provided the missing link in my understanding

KENT M. WHITNEY (KMWHITNEY) on January 26, 2016

Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Hal, Thank you for the refresher. It was a joy to go back a bit and rethink all that you provided. I remember when I was a Photog student and starting out with a pure Photography Corriculem in college and the blessing it was to learn from really great photography instructors, All Masters of the Art of Photography. For 3 years and 6 semesters later, they all had one thing in common, "Everything on our camera was in the manual mode, no exceptions...! While shooting film, if a student tried to cheat, our all knowing instructors always knew, they were amazing!! Then when we got into digital that ever present rascal of the embedded "Metadata" would tell the whole story, LOL After being required to shoot only in "Manual Mode" for 5 semesters and that becomming very natural by that time, we were allowed to start using the other Auto Options. I at the time found it more difficult to use the Auto modes except for ISO. Shooting manual became second nature and I didn't have to think much about it, just did it and the type of capture dictated the settings, be it low or high light levels, action or static, lens used and DOF needed or wanted. I enjoyed your lesson/refresher, had to use my noodle again, and that felt good, knocked off a bit of dust and rust I'd say :-) I must admit that there is one time that I usually set up in full Auto and that is when I am at a family function and do not want to be the photographer because when behind the camera we tend to miss the party, LOL! Thank you again Hal and many Blessings to you and your family... V/R Kent

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