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Release your inner artist: Break the "P" barrier

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg)

Keywords: basics, modes, iso, shutter, aperture, exposure, depth_of_field, settings

Show pages (3 Pages)

So you got a new DSLR, maybe for the holidays, and you’ve now been using it a couple of months. It’s got all sorts of knobs and buttons on it, and it looks a bit intimidating. Good for you, you’re using it! You have quickly learned that autofocus, auto-exposure and auto-ISO gives you very nice photos.

You will soon realize that DSLR can do so much more than just act as a bigger and heavier point and shoot camera. It is a machine that, in conjunction with your use of it, creates art. It can create beauty. But where do you start?

How do you go about learning to use your camera and understanding the concepts that are the foundation of photography? The answer is, as with everything, one step at a time

In this article we will discuss a way, by changing the exposure mode, which will make the camera less completely automatic. It will still do most things on its own, but this will begin to give you more control over how your images look, and send you on your way towards releasing your inner artist.

Exposure Mode dial on Nikon D3100

Figure 1. Exposure Mode dial on Nikon D3100. Most of these modes are not standard. The only ones that are important are M, A, S, and P. Note that they are separated off. Those four are the only ones you need to learn, and they are universal. More advanced cameras have only a mode button instead of a dial, and only let you select from these four basic modes.



Before we can talk about how to change exposure controls, we need to talk a little about what exposure is. Exposure is the amount of light reaching your digital sensor. It is determined by:


  • Shutter speed, which is the amount of time that light is allowed to hit the sensor. It’s like your eyelid. You open and shut your eyelid and let in light. Cameras typically have shutter speed that can range from as short as 1/8000 of a second to many seconds long.
  • Aperture, which is the size of the opening inside your lens that lets in light through to your sensor or film. It works like the pupil (or really, the iris) of your eye. The larger the opening, the more light is let in.


The combination of the shutter speed and aperture is called an “Exposure Value,” or EV. EVs work in conjunction with one other part of exposure, the ISO setting. The ISO setting is a measure of light sensitivity of your sensor. The higher the number, the more sensitive it is to light For any particular ISO setting, there will be an appropriate amount (aperture) and duration (shutter speed) of light for a certain exposure.

Another thing to remember is that there is not just one setting for any particular exposure, but an entire range of equivalent shutter speeds and apertures. All combinations that yield the same exposure amount have the same EV.

It works like this: If you open up your aperture bigger, you need less time for the light to hit the sensor. If you make the aperture smaller (also called stopping down), you need more time. While each of these combinations give an equivalent exposure and EV, they also can give a different appearance to your final image. We’ll explore these differences further on.



When a camera determines all or part of your exposure, it’s called auto-exposure. Cameras equipped with auto-exposure have the ability to measure the amount of light coming in through the lens and to compute an appropriate middle of the road aperture and shutter speed combination, based on your ISO setting. It doesn’t know what you are taking a picture of, or how you want it to look, so it will generally pick some average setting that will be acceptable for typical situations. Some cameras do this better than others, but this is what all auto-exposure features do. There are four main levels of auto-exposure mode:


  • Program mode. The camera chooses both the aperture and shutter speed for you.
  • Shutter Priority mode. You select the shutter speed; the camera chooses the aperture.
  • Aperture Priority mode. You select the aperture; the camera chooses the shutter speed.
  • Manual mode. You choose both the shutter speed and aperture. In this mode, the camera may give you some feedback as to whether it thinks you are exposing the image correctly, but it takes no other action.

Note how the names match the modes in the mode dial in figure 1 (P,S,A, and M). In addition to the above, your camera likely also has an Auto-ISO function, which will adjust the sensor’s sensitivity to light for a proper exposure based on the shutter speed, aperture, and light level.

Using your camera in Program mode (or one of the various automatic modes it might have) allows it to make all these decisions. What we are going to do is take your camera out of Program mode, and put it in Aperture Priority mode and examine what this control can do for your photos. The camera will still be selecting a shutter speed and ISO value, but you’ll be controlling this one aspect of previously automatic function.


Aperture and f/Stops

As mentioned before, aperture refers to the size of the opening within the lens that lets light through to the sensor. The various levels of light that lenses allow through are referred to as f/stops.

Nikon lens aperture ring

Figure 2. A Nikon lens with an aperture ring listing typical numbers representing f/stops. G type lenses do not have this ring. Above the ring, you can see the depth of field gauge for the lens. At f/16, and at the current focus, the depth of field will go from about 21 feet to 6 feet.

An f/stop represents the ratio of the focal length of the lens, (for example 50mm or 200mm) and the opening required for a certain amount of light to be let into that lens. The light levels are represented by progressive powers of the square root of 2. By taking a power of the square root of 2, and dividing it by the focal length of the lens, you determine how large the internal opening must be to let in the appropriate light level.

The chart below shows approximate values for a typical range of f/stops and the opening required on a 50mm lens.


f/Stop Derivation

x  2 x or f/Stop Aperture Opening Required On 50mm Lens (50/f-stop)
1 1.4 35mm
2 2 25mm
3 2.8 18mm
4 4 12mm
5 5.6 9mm
6 8 6mm
7 11 4mm
8 16 3mm



You may recognize the numbers in the center column from the f/stops in figure 2. These are whole f/stops. The formula provides that each number in this column either doubles or halves the amount of light from the next or previous f/stop. For example, f/1.4 lets in double the light as f/2, while f/8 lets in half the light as f/5.6. Doubling and halving like this makes calculating exposure simpler. You may also note that shutter speeds and ISO values also do the same sort of doubling and halving.

Numbers that are not in the above table usually represent either 1/3 or 1/2 stops that a lens or camera is capable of using. For example, f/1.8 (which is often seen as the maximum aperture of some lenses) is about 1/3 a stop smaller than f/1.4. You will always see lenses rated by their maximum f/stop value. (Some lenses have a variable maximum f/stop value due to the way they were constructed. In that case you’ll see lenses rated as something like f/3.5-5.6). The other thing to note is that because you divide the focal length of the lens by the f/stop value, as the f/stop increases in value, the opening actually gets smaller.

Do you need to ever know the actual opening size of the lens? No. Do you need to know which power of the square root of 2 you are using? No, although you can use the relationship between those numbers when saying something like “two stops lighter.” Otherwise there is almost no reason to talk about either. What you do need is the f/stop number. All cameras and lenses use this system. This means that f/5.6 on any lens is going to allow through the same level of light to the sensor regardless of its focal length. This is how the light meter in your camera is able to work, and how it can compute proper exposure regardless of lens focal length or manufacturer.

Remember: The lower the f/stop, the bigger the opening, and the more light it lets in, which is called a faster lens. The higher the f/stop number on a lens, the smaller the opening, and the less light it can let it, which is called a slower lens.  Faster lenses are harder to make well, and are generally more expensive to purchase than slower lenses.

Depth Of Field

You might be asking yourself exactly why any of this matters. What difference does it make if the lens opening is small or large? How does this affect anything? The answer to that is something called “depth of field.” Remember our mention of "different appearances" in the final image? This is one of those effects.

Depth of field is the area that remains in focus in front of and behind the distance you have set your lens to focus at. A lens only focuses on one set distance. You can see this distance on the focus ring of your lens. The aperture you set affects this depth of field:


  • The lower the f/stop, the larger the opening in the lens, and the LESS depth of field you have.
  • The higher the f/stop, the smaller the opening in the lens, and the MORE depth of field you have.


This is very crucial to making photos look the way you want them to. By controlling your aperture through Aperture Priority mode, you control what parts of your image are in or out of focus.

It might be counter-intuitive, but you don’t necessarily want everything to always be in focus in a photo. It depends on the subject matter. You generally want the main subject matter of your photo to be in sharp focus, and you want other items that may distract from your subject to be out of focus.

For example, if you are taking a portrait photo, you want to have the background be less in focus. If the background is in focus, it distracts from the portrait. In this case you want to open up the lens as wide as possible to get narrow depth of field, and keeping only the person in focus and the center of attention.

Nikon 135mm DC lens - Aperture f/16

Figure 3. Taken with the Nikon 135mm DC lens. Stopped down to f/16, there is a large depth of field. The background and the subject are competing with each other for attention. The background is just a yard plant.
Click on the image for larger view.

Nikon 135mm DC lens sample photo - Aperture f/2

Figure 4. Using the same lens and basic position. The aperture is opened up to f/2, and the depth of field is shallow. The background changes to a smooth blur, and the focus of attention is put on the subject directly. Note that even the rear shoulder is no longer in focus.
Click on the image for larger view.

Conversely, if you are taking a landscape photo, you often want to have much more of the image in focus, as the entire location is what you want to present as the focal point of the image. In this case, you stop down the lens to a smaller aperture to increase your depth of field, giving you more areas of the image that is in focus.

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 landscape

Figure 5. This landscape image was taken with a Tokina 11-16mm at f/2.8. It has very shallow depth of field. The rocks at the bottom of the image are in focus, but the rest of it is not.
Click on the image for larger view.

Tokina 11-16mm f/16 landscape

Figure 6. Using the same lens, focus, and basic position. However, the lens is stopped down to f/16. The depth of field is made larger, and more of the image is now in focus.
Click on the image for larger view.

f/2.8 landscape

Figure 7. A different landscape photo, using f/2.8. This time, a shallower depth of field is used to focus on this particular branch, and the foreground and background intentionally appear out of focus. There are no hard and fast rules; it all depends on how you want your photo to appear.
Click on the image for larger view.

Different lens types will have different depth of fields. A wide-angle lens will usually have more depth of field than a telephoto lens, and some macro lenses have very small depth of fields, as little as a few millimeters. Depth of field is one of the reasons you would choose one lens over another in a given situation.  Generally, wide-angle lenses are good for landscape photos, and telephoto lenses are better for portraits.

Between the two extremes of having very shallow depth of field and very large depth of field, there are other choices that might look better to you as well; all dependent on how you want your image to look. Each situation presents different challenges to you in creating the most compelling image.

Using Aperture Priority Mode

It is very simple to put your camera in Aperture Priority mode. Your camera probably has a knob that is set to P. Turn the knob to A, and that’s it. If your camera doesn’t have this dial, it might have a “mode” button. Consult your manual if you can’t find either (the Nikon D3100 has a dial, the Nikon D800 has a mode button). Once you do that, you will then be able to control your aperture. To set the aperture, you can either turn the aperture ring on the lens itself, or turn a knob on the camera body, depending on camera and lens type.

aperture priority mode on the camera display

Figure 8. When you put your camera in Aperture Priority mode, it will either indicate this on your exposure mode dial, or will display on your camera. This image is of a Nikon D800 rear panel displaying an “A” (in the upper left) for Aperture Priority mode.

When you open your aperture to allow more light to enter through the lens, you will need a faster shutter speed to compensate, thereby getting an equivalent EV. On the flip side, if you set your aperture smaller, less light comes through and your shutter speed must slow down.

If your camera has auto-ISO set, and it cannot compensate enough by adjusting the shutter speed, it will also adjust the ISO value to compensate. Your camera wants you to take a properly exposed photo.

Keep these things in mind when you adjust your aperture:


  • If you set your aperture so small that it requires the shutter speed to slow down to the point where your image will suffer from blur due to camera movement, you need to either adjust your ISO setting or open your aperture up until shutter speed increases. A handy rule of thumb for shutter speed is about 1/(lens focal length). So, if you are using a 50mm lens, you should probably not have a shutter speed much slower than 1/50th of a second for best results.  If you need a slower shutter speed, it’s best to use a tripod or brace yourself against a solid object.
  • If your camera has auto-ISO turned on and tries to compensate by increasing the ISO, note that if the ISO goes too high, you may introduce noise into your photo. In this case, you will need to open up your aperture to allow in more light.
  • If you set your aperture too small, to increase depth of field, you may start to notice that your photos look a little fuzzy, or “soft.” This is due to light diffraction, as the light has to bend around very small aperture openings. To avoid this, try to not use f/stops smaller than f/11, even if your lens can stop down to f/16 or f/22.
  • If you open up your aperture to get an appropriate depth of field, and your shutter speed is as fast as it can go, and the ISO setting is as low as it will go, you may need to use neutral density filters.   That’s another can of worms that we won’t go into here.  To fix this for right now, stop down on the aperture as little as possible to allow for a best exposure.


Once you’ve experimented, look at the results based on how you created the image. What appeals to you and why? Learn what looks good to you, and learn why people prefer certain standard types of images. Important note: Don’t experiment with something crucial, like your cousin’s wedding. Trust me. Don’t.

After you feel you have learned enough about Aperture Priority mode, go to Shutter Priority mode and experiment using that. It is the same as Aperture Priority mode, but allows you to control shutter speed instead of aperture while the camera automatically chooses aperture. Adjusting shutter speed can bring a sense of movement into your photos through the use of specific movement blur.  Water, cars, or anything that moves can be enhanced with the proper use of shutter speed.

waterfall - shutter speed 1/1000

Figure 9. The shutter speed is set at 1/1000, freezing the waterfall so you can see individual drops.
Click on the image for larger view.

waterfall - shutter speed 1/13

Figure 10. Changing the shutter speed to 1/13, the water blurs, and gives more of sense of movement. The stream below the waterfall shows more of a blurred view, also giving more of an impression of movement. Neither this figure nor Figure 9 is better than the other one. What matters is controlling your camera to create what you want.
Click on the image for larger view.

Once you’ve gotten aperture and shutter speeds worked out, start changing ISO values. Examine how the different ISO levels affect your image quality. While exposure is the same across cameras and lenses, the image quality you get for different ISO values is very camera specific.

ISO 100

Figure 11. How ISO settings can affect your image. This photo was taken with a Nikon D200 using ISO 100.
Click on the image for larger view.

ISO 3200

Figure 12. Now using ISO 3200, the highest setting for the D200. Grain is very apparent, on the pathway and the tree trunks (you may have to click the image for the larger version to see it). Grain is usually not considered welcome in a photo, so you should keep your ISO rating as low as possible to avoid it. Don’t just set ISO to the highest level, unless noise is something you wish to have.
Click on the image for larger view.

Combining ISO, aperture, and shutter speed gives you the “Exposure Triangle,” which is a concept you should understand when trying to use fully manual mode. When you use manual mode, you use the camera’s light meter to guide you in choosing the appropriate exposure settings, based on how you want your final image to appear. After you’ve done this, you will be controlling all aspects of camera exposure settings for your images.

When you start experimenting with exposure in your photos, you not only take the first steps towards learning how to use a camera, but in how you shape your images to represent your vision of the world. You become not just a passive taker of snapshots, but instead a conscious creator of artistic expression. The camera you own gives you this ability and it is already in your hands. All you have to do is take advantage and use it.

(24 Votes )
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Originally written on April 30, 2015

Last updated on July 9, 2015

Jon Nadelberg Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg)

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

Foster City, USA
Silver, 205 posts


David H Dennis (davidhdennis) on May 21, 2016

If lighting conditions are changing, aperture or shutter priority mode may not be the best way to proceed, because the camera may need to adjust exposure past the boundaries you have set. I almost always take pictures of things happening in front of me for which I may not have time to precisely prepare. The bird is about to take off! The girl gives me an enchanting smile! Those moments may be over if I have to hesitate to correct exposure. So I like using program mode with creative control. Nikon DSLRs have a rotary control in back of the camera on the top right side. If you are in program mode, you can rotate that control left to increase the aperture and decrease the shutter speed, or right for the reverse. So if I want to maximize depth of field, as when I am shooting butterflies or other insects, I rotate the knob left. If I want to increase depth of field, as in separating out people or tree branches from the background, I move the knob right. In the mean time, if I'm suddenly shooting in a bright place form a dim one or vice versa, the camera will automatically override me if my settings would make things totally out of whack. Of course there are times when you absolutely need to force aperture or shutter speed to a specific value. For example, I use f/2.8 lenses. When shooting video, I need a wide depth of field range so I can shoot with manual focus. Otherwise the autofocus constantly switches, making horrible looking video. So I force aperture to f/5.6-8 using Aperture Priority. The really important thing, I believe, is to understand your camera and the impacts of various apertures and shutter speeds on focus. I really like the pictures the writer of this article took that show those effects very well. Hope that was of interest.

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on October 19, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

Art is in the eye of the beholder. I can't really speak to how to make something more artistic.

victor benedicto (benedicto) on August 11, 2015

HI. nice technical informative article. Maybe to get to the artistic side of photography, can you add some tips on how to make a foto artistic. Thanks. ( just signed up.)

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on May 13, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

That is all this is about. When I got my first camera, it was pretty much all manual. Manual focus, you had to set shutter speed and aperture. It was a Minolta SRT 202 (long since stolen, but I have a SRT 101 now. Fifty years old and still works!). You can't understand what to do in photography unless you turn off program mode, or worse some of these automatic modes, and set the camera yourself. The problem is the cameras are becoming so good, that they really know how to take pictures. Other than changing lenses, there is little difference between an SLR and a point and shoot. The simplest DSLR, say a D3100, can do so very much more. And people are always asking about "Why does my picture not look right." Of course most people reading this are going to know, but a lot, even those looking at this site and others, aren't going to know. I think it is important that articles like this, while very basic, are put out there so that people can understand the things that at one time were part and parcel of just using a camera. If I got a new camera today, I would have no clue how to move forward, nor would I understand what is going on with it. That is simply not any good. We have automated ourselves into helplessness. We should never forget that everyone has to learn, and that no one comes by photography with an innate understanding of how it works. It is not intuitive, but on the other hand it doesn't take a college class to learn. Just a few pointers and a bit of thought.

Mindaugas Pangonis (Hugatree) on May 12, 2015

Great simple article! Back to basics and encourages to think instead of leaving it all to robot within the camera :)

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 10, 2015

Thank you, Jon. You've made this very clear. I appreciate your time. Not sure how I got off-course, but you've helped immensely. (I had used spot to meter various areas. Perhaps I should let the camera have a go at it, and compare the mode using aperture or shutter priority.) Thanks again. You write very clearly and concisely. –Jan

Jon Nadelberg (jnadelberg) on May 9, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his multiple contributions to the Articles section

If you put your camera in manual mode then the camera does not set the exposure, you do. However, the camera still has a light meter on it, and will recommend what it thinks is the proper exposure based on the metering type. It will report back this information in the meter display in the viewfinder and other displays for your camera. So, yes, it has no direct effect because in manual mode it is not setting your exposure. However, it is telling you what it thinks is the proper exposure, which is information you can either use or ignore. What it is going to tell you is based on whether you have chosen spot, center-weighted, or matrix metering modes. If you want to expose your image, you can do one of three things, use the camera light meter, an off camera light meter, or take a guess based on things like the sunny 16 rule. From that information, you can then make whatever changes you want based on the conditions at the time, and what you wish your photograph to look like. None of these metering types affect your image in manual mode, because the camera is not setting your exposure. The only effect these modes then have is in telling you what it thinks would be the proper exposure. I hope that makes sense.

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 9, 2015

Sorry. You answer my query here: "Manual mode. You choose both the shutter speed and aperture. In this mode, the camera may give you some feedback as to whether it thinks you are exposing the image correctly, but it takes no other action."

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 9, 2015

Aha. I think I've lost the dispute. Darrell Young, in his "Master the Nikon D810” book, refers to manual mode in Chapter 8. Thanks.

Jan Timmons (Jan Timmons) on May 9, 2015

Thank you for your article. Perhaps you could help to settle a dispute? I shoot in RAW manual mode —now using a D810. An older and more experienced photographer than I, by several decades, states that using matrix, center-weighted, spot, or the highlight-weighted metering has no effect when shooting in manual mode. Is he correct? (If you referred to this in your article, I missed it. I apologize.)

User on May 7, 2015

Very good article. I typically shoot in manual mode (Nikon D5100), but I have experimented with the Aperture and Shutter priority settings on occasions. I get some awesome results in any of these modes. This article will encourage me to experiment more with A and P modes.

Owen De (rjpg) on May 4, 2015

As a new "Nikonian" I thought this article was very helpful. Will be using all of these techniques.

User on May 3, 2015

Easy information to understand and useful no matter what level of photographer you are.

User on May 3, 2015

Great information. I just got a D3300 a few months ago and have been experimenting with the modes other than auto. This article will help to transition beyond auto