3 Easy Steps to Set Exposure

     Congratulations! You have taken a huge leap in photography and finally decided to turn that switch from auto to manual. You have realized, "Hey, this isn't so bad" and want to take it a step farther. Well, I have three tips, or more of a process to make sure you are making photographs that you will be proud of. 

     I get the question all the time, "What do I set first, Aperture, ISO, Shutter Speed?" While this seems like an unimportant question, it actually digs at something a tad deeper. Sure, you could set these in any order, but you may not be making the image and just end up taking a snapshot. There is much more to photography than getting a right exposure, it is about capturing the moment exactly as imagined. 

Step 1

    Understand what you want to be in focus in the image. While this might seem obvious, it is actually the most messed up part of photography. I have seen many new photographers go out and buy the awesome Nikon 50mm 1.8 or Canon 50mm 1.8 and open that aperture wide open up for every photo because that want that delicious bokeh! Sadly, that doesn't make great images, it causes a lot of new focusers (making that work up), to miss focus on their subject and create blurry images. What you must understand is that f/1.8 on a 50mm lens can create a razor thin depth of field. This can be both helpful and hard to learn. Start by knowing exactly what you want in focus in the image and setting an appropriate aperture to get it.


1.8 = One person, eyes only, barely any nose and barely any ears. (distance from subject makes the difference. The more distance, the deeper a depth of field is a the same aperture.)

4.0 = One person, whole body depth and background out of focus. (again, distance between you and the subject will determine actual depth of field. Closer and the depth of field shrinks, farther and it will widen. 

8.0 - f11 = Groups of people, deep depth of field will be pretty wide on this level and you can get several rows of people in focus. 

f16+ = Large groups and landscapes. At this you should get just about everything in the viewfinder in focus. 

Step 2

     Now that you have set your aperture so your subject will be completely covered, you need to decide if want to freeze the subjects or have motion blur. Cameras range anywhere from 1/8000 of a second to freeze even high speed movement all the way to bulb mode which lets you keep shutter open as long as you like. The faster the shutter exposure (example) 1/8000, the less motion there will be in the image. Think of it as running a flashlight across the concert audience. If you run a flashlight across it in 1/8000 of a second, everything and everyone will appear completely frozen, kind of like a strobe light effect in freezing motion. If you run the same flashlight across the audience and take 4 seconds, you will see lots of movement and motion. This is true for the shutter. So deciding if you want motion blur or frozen motion is the second step. 


30 second or 30" - Tons of light. Used for stars photography and creating sweeping clouds and streaking lights. 

3 seconds or 3" - Great for clouds, flowing water, tons of motion in even slower moving objects. 

1/15" - Things start to stay put, but a lot of movement will cause motion blur. 

1/100" - Great place for subject that don't move too much and situations like shooting a drummer where you want the face solid but the sticks and moving hands near invisible form motion blur. 

1/200" - Great place for portraits with multiple people and every day shooting. 

1/400" - Freezes motion of even faster moving subjects like musicians and cars. 

1/1600" - This will freeze just about any movement you can see with your eye. Hummingbird wings would begin to lose motion blur at this speed. 

1/4000" - This will freeze just about everything. 

1/8000" - Everything. 

Step 3

     Now that you have set your aperture and shutter speed, you can now decide how sensitive your sensor is to light by adjusting your ISO. I always save this part for last because ISO can introduce noise and grain into an image if you go too high. In the exposure triangle there is always give and take and this is usually where it comes into play. Sometimes you have to lower ISO at lose some shutter speed so the image isn't as grainy. Its all about balance. Another detail to note when deciding on ISO is that if an image is balanced correctly with shutter speed and aperture, the grain is less apparent rather than trying to under or over expose and fix an image in post (so get it right in camera).

ISO examples on most full frames cameras-

100- Smooth as butter. For bright situations

800 - Decent but noise starts becoming visible, over cast days or shady areas. 

1600 - Noise is starting to become apparent on most regular camera bodies, but not degrading the image too bad. Good for low light situations like concerts. 

3200 - This is usually the threshold that separates cropped sensors and full frames. On cropped bodies, this is about the useable limit, on full frames this is getting there with noticeable noise. Great for very low light such as music and sky photos. 

6400+ -  This is where Ill stop because there is noticeable noise in most cameras at this point. While some cameras will out perform this, it gets into the specifics of the image. Color noise starts becoming an issue a this level and severe degradation of images is likely at this level. 


     These three steps are an order that I use to consciously think of the image I am trying to create. While some photographers may do these in different orders, this is the order I do it in and it allows my to capture the image I am after time and again. 


Thanks so much for reading have have a good one!