perfect exposure

3 Step Guide to Perfect Exposure

Perfect exposure . It is one of the most important elements in creating a stunning photo, but it is also one of the most difficult concepts for many photographers to grasp. At its core, exposure is essentially how much light you let into the sensor on your camera.

Simply put, the more light you let in, the brighter the picture will be, while the less light you let in, the darker your image will be. Sounds simple, right? Well, as any photographer knows, it is rarely ever as simple as that.

What makes exposure so difficult is that it requires a lot of tweaking and a lot of balance between other settings in your camera. However, while figuring out exposure can seem tedious at first, it is something that over time gets much easier to figure out while shooting on-the-go.

Until you are more comfortable with adjusting exposure while out in the field, take a look at our easy three-step guide to figuring out the mystery behind perfect exposure.

The Three Steps to Perfect Exposure

Many beginning photographers get understandably frustrated with the task of capturing “perfect exposure.” It’s true, there is a lot of tweaking involved, but the best thing you can do when trying to figure all of this out is to stick to the basics.

One of the first things that every photographer is taught about exposure is that there are three things that impact exposure and three things that need to be adjusted in order to get that perfect exposure. They are: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Take a look at how these three settings can impact exposure and how you must adjust them in order to get that “perfect” exposure.

June Lake Fall Colors

Setting up the right scene requires shooting in Manual more often than not. Avoid the GREEN button (auto mode)

1.    Shutter Speed

The shutter speed impacts how much light is let into your camera’s sensor by timing how long the shutter is open (therefore allowing more light to come in). When looking at shutter speed, you want to remember that the bigger the number the less light will come in. This is because shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second.

So, a shutter speed of 1/200 will let in less light and result in a darker image. While a shutter speed of 1/10 will let in more light and allow for a brighter image.

However, shutter speeds come with a hand-off. You can’t just use 1/10 every time to get as bright of a photo as possible. The more light that comes in, the blurrier motion in the picture will be, while less light will result in crisper images.

This is why you also have to control aperture and ISO for that perfect exposure.

2.    Aperture

The aperture controls how much light is let in by changing the size of the opening through which the light must enter. Aperture is measured in terms of focal length, also known as f-stops. The smaller the number with the focal length, the greater the size of the hole—again these are measured in fractions.

So, an aperture setting of f/11 is a small hole that lets in less light and results in a darker image. An aperture of f/1.2 means there is a larger hole, which lets in more light and will give you a brighter image.

There, of course, is a hand-off with aperture as well. The lower the denominator on the focal length, or the larger the hole, the shallower the depth of field.

3.    ISO

The final piece of the exposure trifecta is ISO. The ISO setting on your camera will impact brightness along with quality. I could go on forever about the details of ISO, but the basic concept is, the higher the ISO the brighter the picture. However, the higher the ISO the more noise (or graininess) that is in that image as well.

So, again, there is a balance when it comes to ISO.

ISO is measured in full numbers, not in fractions. An ISO setting of 100 is going to be a darker image, but will have less noise and a higher quality, while an ISO of 3000 will be a brighter image with more noise and a lower quality.

Griffith Park Sunrise

Shot at 400 mm from Griffith Park Over Los Angeles. ISO 200

How to Meter in the Camera

If you shoot your photos in full auto mode, you don’t really have to worry much about the exposure trifecta. This is because the camera will attempt to make these judgement calls for you.

This is why it is best to switch to manual modes. Don’t worry, your camera won’t completely abandon you. It will still give you hints about what it thinks your exposure should be.

Just think about when you point your camera and press down on the release half-way. This is when your auto-focus typically clicks in. However, your camera is also attempting to choose the right exposure, aperture and ISO.

Start here and adjust your settings from there to find the right exposure for the type of photo you want.

Gem Lakes Fall Colors

The middle of the Gem Lakes Trail had the most vibrant colors. The sage were glowing yellow

Using AV and Auto Modes

If you are trying to move quickly from scene to scene, then changing your settings in manual mode can require a lot of time and adjusting. If you are struggling, try switching to auto mode, metering from there and then switching to manual to tweak.

You may also want to try shooting in AV Mode. This mode lets you set your own ISO and aperture so that you have control over your depth of field and the noise. With this setting, it will take care of the shutter speed itself.


Sometimes mastering the art of perfect exposure can seem like a rather daunting undertaking—but it doesn’t need to be. This three-step guide to understanding exposure can help make sure that you always get the perfect exposure, no matter what you are shooting.

If it still seems difficult at first, just keep with these three steps and keep shooting until finding the right balance becomes second-nature for you.

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