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Basic Digital SLR Photography - The Elements of Exposure

Updated on February 1, 2011

Take Better Pictures with the Right Exposure Settings

The right exposure will give you whiter whites, brighter colors.
The right exposure will give you whiter whites, brighter colors.
Sunrise is a great time for photography, but the light may fool your camera. Knowing how to set your exposure settings will give you a lot of satisfaction when you get your images onto your computer.
Sunrise is a great time for photography, but the light may fool your camera. Knowing how to set your exposure settings will give you a lot of satisfaction when you get your images onto your computer.

Getting Started

When you buy your first Digital SLR, it is only natural to just start snapping pictures and checking to see how much better they are than your point and shoot digital camera. Many times new Digital SLR users are disappointed when they compare their photos to the ones from their former camera.

This happens more than you might believe.

It's OK to get excited about your new equipment and want to put it through its paces.


Don't get discouraged if the results are not stellar right out of the box.

After all, you don't know anything about the camera yet, and there are some things that can help you get better photos fairly quickly.

You really need to take a breath and consider taking some time to learn a few basic photography techniques.

This might apply even if you are not new to digital SLR photography.

Exposure is one of the ABC's of photography. And there are techniques related to image exposure you can take control of quickly in order to take better pictures with your Digital SLR camera.

The Definition of Exposure: exposure is the process of recording the light of an photograph on an image sensor inside the camera. The image sensor is similar to the film in older film cameras. It records the image.

In a Digital SLR camera this involves opening up the front of the camera by pressing the shutter release button and allowing the light to hit the CCD or CMOS image sensor.

Three elements of the picture taking process control the amount of light entering the camera .

  1. Aperture: aperture refers to the size or diameter of the lens opening. Aperture is also known as the F-stop. You may see F/4.0 or F/5.6 or F/22 when referring to F-stop. Each number designates how "open" the lens shutter is. The smaller the number, the wider the opening, hence, the more light. Larger numbers mean a smaller opening.
  2. Shutter Speed: Shutter Speed is the length of time the lens is allowed to remain open.
  3. ISO: ISO is an indication of how "sensitive" the image sensor is to the light that enters the inside of the camera. The higher the number, the more sensitive. Higher numbers, such as 800, mean you can use a faster shutter speed or a higher F-stop because not as much light is needed to record the image.

By controlling the three elements of exposure, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, a photographer gain a balance of color and light that is the best possible combination for that image.

The effects on the right are totally different. In one image, there is lots of light, while in the other, the light is very selective. Knowing your camera's exposure settings can help you create the image you want.

The image of the camera settings on the right indicate that the photographer has taken full control of the camera.

She has chosen Manual - M - which means she can chose any Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO setting.

The Aperture is set to F/4.5

The shutter speed is set to 1/4 second

The ISO is set at 100

The goal of exposure is to be able to obtain the exact effect you desire when you press the shutter button. If you get the exposure settings correct you can get many different effects and a wide range of color and brightness values.

The wider the range of color and brightness values you are able to capture, the richer and more striking the image you record. This is why it is important to know the capabilities of your digital SLR and your lens.

The sensor contains light receptors that are affected by the light that enters the camera during exposure.

These light receptors are commonly know as pixels (short for picture element). The light entering the camera will cause the pixels to record information in the form of digital data which is converted into a photograph by a computer program, either inside your camera or in your computer after you have uploaded your images.

Guides to Help YOU Learn How to Use Your Camera

So many digital SLR owners rely on their camera's auto setting instead of using their amazing photographic tool to its fullest capacity.

That camera is a marvel of technology. Yes, it does have the ability to automatically record correctly exposed pictures (most of the time). However, if you know how to use the settings on your camera in different lighting situations, you will be able to create many more pleasing photos.

Here are a few ways that you can use your DSLR's special abilities to take better pictures:

  • Start by reading the Camera Manual
  • As you read, try changing the settings and testing the results.
  • As you experiment with each setting, keep a journal of the results so you can duplicate them when necessary.
  • Take a photography class. There may be a Photographic Society in your area, or try an online photography class.
  • Make friends with others who are passionate about photography.
  • Check online for tutorials and instructional websites. YouTube is becoming a very valuable resource for learning photography.

Do just a couple of these suggestions, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how much you can learn in a very short time.

All You Ever Want to Know About Exposure


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