Exposure Control

dslr camera exposure settings

Exposure Control: Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO

Getting the right exposure is fundamental in photography. It’s like getting your balance in riding a bike. You’re never going to win a competition unless you have an awareness of your balance from the get-go.

Three settings will factor into your exposure: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. So the question then becomes, “How do we achieve correct exposure?“.

Under Exposure
Under Exposure
Correct Exposure
Over Exposure
Over Exposure

How to Control Exposure

Exposure diagram with subject, lens, and camera exposure control

Okay, remember how the lens bends the light rays into the camera and onto the sensor? Good. Between the lens and the sensor are two devices we use for exposure control, to control the exact amount of light hitting the sensor.


THE SHUTTER – is usually a curtain-like device just in front of the sensor. Think of a shade pulled down on a window, and then quickly open it and close it. FOR AN INSTANT, THE ROOM WAS FILLED WITH LIGHT, and the length of time that burst of light filled the room is shutter speed!

That is basically how a shutter controls the amount of light getting to the sensor. The time the shade was open determined – to some extent – how much light came into the room – but so did the SIZE of the window! That window opening acted as…

THE APERTURE – which is built inside each lens and controls how much light enters the lens. Now for some clarification on shutter speeds. Looking at the photo below, you will see the changing numbers are the shutter speeds in fractions of a second (i.e., 30 = 1/30, 60 = 1/60). This is the time taken from when the shutter opens to when the shutter closes after you press the shutter release.

Moving from one speed to the next one halves the amount of light that enters the camera. Moving the other way to a slower shutter speed doubles the amount of light that enters the camera. This change from one speed to another is called moving a stop. For instance, moving from a speed of 1/30th to 1/60th of a second is going 1 stop faster, and from 1/60th of a second to 1/250th of a second is moving 2 stops.


First, take the ISO as your shutter speed (100 ISO = 1/125th of a second or, if the ISO is 400, then the shutter speed would be 1/500th of a second for instance), your aperture setting is:

  • For bright sunny days and the sun is on the subject (f16)
  • For overcast, cloudy (f8)
  • Sunsets and sunrises, low light, wide open @ 1/30th

These are basic starting points that usually work. Your camera’s user manual may also have some excellent, basic exposure suggestions.

So, you have two methods of controlling exactly how many light rays get on the sensor, and if you understand the above, you then understand how to control exposure for different ISO settings. Re-read it until you understand it because this is the crux of exposure for daylight photographs.

To become more sophisticated with exposure control, you need to learn how to use a light meter. This can get very complicated because there are so many light metering systems out there and many ways of using those meters. After 40 years of shooting, I submit that the only true metering system you NEED to master is the light metering system offered in any good SLR camera.

dslr camera viewfinder for exposure control.

The light meter reads the light coming off the subject matter through the lens you are using and is controlled by the ISO you have already set that meter to. It simply is the most sensible, accurate way to meter those light rays.

SLR meters are getting more advanced all the time, offering “spot” metering (you can zero in on one particular spot on the subject, get the right exposure, and lock in that setting and make your photo) … overall metering, reflected metering, incident metering, ……and on and on. It is no longer necessary to “bracket” your exposure ( shoot one frame over by one stop, one frame at the indicated exposure, and one-stop under the recommended exposure). I quit bracketing twenty years ago and have not exposed a frame improperly.

Therefore, I will not get into other methods of metering. All of the recommended exposures from now on will be based on through-the-lens metering with an SLR camera.


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