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Exposure Triangle in Photography (You’ll Finally Understand It)

Exposure triangle photography

In 2018, I was just like you—new camera in hand, excitement in the air, but utterly baffled by terms like Exposure Triangle, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. 

Fast forward to today, and I’ve turned those once-confusing concepts into my tools of the trade.

In this guide, I’ll simplify the Exposure Triangle in photography, making it both easy to understand and relatable.

What is The Exposure Triangle in Photography?

So, what is this mystical Exposure Triangle? Think of it as the Holy Trinity of photography, made up of three crucial elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

These three are like the best of friends, always hanging out together, affecting each other, and they’re the reason your photos can go from “meh” to “wow.”

Exposure triangle photography diagram
Exposure triangle diagram
  • Aperture is your recipe’s spice level—it controls how much light enters your camera, akin to how wide you open your windows at home. It also plays a pivotal role in the depth of field, deciding whether your background looks as sharp as the Sunday morning or as blurry as my memories of last New Year’s Eve.
  • Shutter Speed is all about timing. It dictates how long your camera’s shutter stays open to let light in. Imagine blinking; if you blink fast, you let in less light. Blink slowly, and the world turns brighter—or in your photo’s case, potentially a light-painted masterpiece or a motion blur disaster.
  • ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. Back in the pre-digital days, it was about choosing the right film for the right light. Now, it’s a button push away, allowing your camera to see in the dark like some kind of nocturnal superhero, albeit with the risk of inviting the grainy noise of the photo world—think of it as the uninvited party guest who shows up at high ISO levels.

Why the fancy name, “Exposure Triangle”?

Because like any good triangle (pizza slices, the pyramids, or those Bermuda mysteries), it combines elements that are equally important on their own but far more powerful together.

Egypt pyramid

Balancing these three is the art and science of photography. Get it right, and you’ll capture the world not as it is, but as you choose to see it—each photo a story, each story a memory preserved in light and shadow.

In essence, mastering the Exposure Triangle allows you to take control of your camera, telling it exactly how you want your images to look, rather than letting it guess. It’s about making deliberate choices to sculpt with light, creating photos that resonate with your artistic vision. 

So, buckle up! We’re about to turn you from an apprentice into a master chef of photography, one exposure at a time.

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How to Actually Apply the Exposure Triangle in Practice?

Diving into manual mode on your camera can feel like being handed the keys to a sports car when you’ve only ever driven an automatic. It’s thrilling but a tad overwhelming. 

The Exposure Triangle—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—is your roadmap to mastering this powerful machine. Here’s a step-by-step guide to navigating these settings, shaped by my personal experience and designed to align with your creative vision.

Step 1: Setting ISO

The first step in my photography workflow involves deciding on the ISO. This setting adjusts your camera’s sensitivity to light and is foundational for the rest of your exposure settings.

  • In bright conditions, I set the ISO low (100-200), minimizing noise for the cleanest image quality.
  • In low light or indoors, increasing the ISO helps capture well-exposed images without needing a flash. However, I’m cautious not to go too high to avoid grain or noise, which can detract from image quality.

Understanding how your camera handles different ISO levels is crucial. High-end models often manage higher ISOs better, producing less noise than entry-level cameras at the same settings.

Step 2: Deciding on the Depth of Field (DoF)

After setting the ISO, my next consideration is the depth of field. DoF determines how much of your image appears in focus from front to back, affecting the visual story you’re telling. Depth of field is controlled by the Aperture setting:

  • For a shallow depth of field (ideal for portraits with that dreamy blurred background), I choose a lower aperture f-number like f/2.0, which opens the aperture wide.
  • For a deep depth of field (great for landscapes where clarity throughout is key), a higher aperture f-number such as f/11.0 or f/16.0 narrows the aperture, keeping more of the scene in focus.

Selecting the aperture after ISO allows me to control the artistic depth of my image based on the light sensitivity I’ve already established.

Step 3: Capturing Motion with Shutter Speed

Lastly, I adjust the shutter speed to capture motion according to my creative vision, balancing the light exposure set by ISO and aperture decisions.

  • To freeze motion, like in sports photography, I select a faster shutter speed (1/250 sec or higher). This setting reduces exposure time, capturing crisp, clear moments without blur.
  • For motion blur, useful for creating a sense of movement or flow, I opt for a slower shutter speed.

This artistic choice can add dynamic elements to static images, such as blurring water or city lights.

The Order in Which I Set My Exposure Triangle Settings

This personalized sequence—ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed—can be easily remembered with the acronym “I Am Shooting” or IAS for short

It reflects a logical and effective approach to photography, ensuring that every shot is well-considered from a technical and artistic perspective.

Exposure triangle order. In which order to set your camera settings
The order in which I set my exposure triangle settings

Photography is as much about personal expression as it is about technique. While “I Am Shooting” (IAS) provides a memorable framework for setting up your camera, don’t hesitate to adapt this process as you grow more familiar with your equipment and develop your unique style.

How Do You Know When the Exposure Is Set Correctly?

Here are some actionable tips and insights to help you understand when your exposure is spot on, along with how to recognize and correct underexposure and overexposure in your photos.

How Do You Tell if a Photo Is Underexposed or Overexposed?

The key to identifying whether a photo is underexposed or overexposed lies in understanding the visual cues your image provides.

  • Underexposed photos appear too dark, losing detail in the shadows.
  • Overexposed photos are too bright, with details washed out in highlights.

Your camera’s histogram is an invaluable tool here. This graphical representation shows the tonal distribution of your image. 

Ideally, you want a balanced spread across the graph, without peaks pressing against the far left (shadows) or far right (highlights) edges, indicating lost details in those areas.

Histogram that shows correct exposure
Example of a histogram

What Does an Overexposed Photo Look Like?

Overexposed photos have a predominance of bright areas, where the light parts of the image are “blown out” or appear pure white, lacking in detail.

Example of overexposed photo
Example of overexposed photo

This often happens in scenarios with abundant light or when the camera settings (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) allow too much light to hit the camera sensor. 

While some details can sometimes be recovered in post-processing, extreme overexposure can render areas of the photo irretrievably flat and detail-less.

What Does an Underexposed Photo Look Like?

Conversely, underexposed photos are characterized by an abundance of dark, indistinct areas. Details are lost in the shadows, making the image appear overall too dark. 

Example of underexposed portrait photo
Example of underexposed portrait photo

This is common in low-light conditions or when the camera settings don’t permit enough light to adequately expose the scene. 

Although raising the exposure in post-processing can help, it may introduce noise, especially in the shadow regions.

Achieving Perfect Exposure

To ensure your exposure is set correctly, start by using your camera’s internal light meter, aiming for a balanced reading. However, the “correct” exposure can also be subjective, influenced by the mood you’re aiming to convey.

photo of a camera viewfinder with internal camera light meter indication

It’s here that understanding and utilizing your camera’s internal light meter becomes crucial. For an in-depth look at optimizing your use of internal light meters for perfect exposure, check out my article “Expose Like a Pro: How Internal Light Meters Work.” This guide will provide you with a deeper understanding of leveraging this tool to achieve the exposure you desire, balancing the technical aspects with your artistic vision.

In practice, balancing the elements of the Exposure Triangle in harmony with your camera’s light meter readings, while keeping an eye on the histogram, will guide you towards achieving correctly exposed images.

Remember, photography is as much about expressing your vision as it is about precision. Experimentation, combined with these guidelines, will lead you to capture the world in your unique light.

Practical Exercises to Master the Exposure Triangle

Understanding the Exposure Triangle is one thing, but becoming proficient in manipulating aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to achieve your creative vision requires practice

To help you master these crucial aspects of photography, I’ve compiled practical exercises from my in-depth guides. 

These exercises are designed to be easy to follow and immensely beneficial for beginners. Let’s dive into some targeted exercises to hone your skills in aperture and shutter speed, two of the three pillars of the Exposure Triangle.

Mastering Aperture with Practical Exercises

Aperture controls the depth of field in your images, affecting how much of your photo is in sharp focus. To truly grasp the impact of aperture settings, I recommend exploring the exercises outlined in my in-depth guide: “7 Exercises to Master Aperture in Photography for Beginners.” 

Close up photo of a camera lens

Mastering Shutter Speed with Practical Exercises

Shutter speed affects how motion is captured in your photos, allowing you to freeze a moment or convey motion through blur. 

Dive into my in-depth guide: “6 Exercises to Master Shutter Speed in Photography for Beginners” for a comprehensive learning experience.

Integrating ISO into Your Practice

While the articles focus on aperture and shutter speed, don’t forget to integrate ISO adjustments into your exercises. Changing lighting conditions will require you to adjust ISO to maintain the desired exposure levels without compromising image quality.

Bringing It All Together

The best way to master the Exposure Triangle is by practicing in various scenarios. 

Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and experiment with different settings to see their direct impact on your images. 

These exercises are not just tasks but stepping stones to developing an intuitive understanding of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO interplay to shape your photographs.

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FAQ: Exposure Triangle in Photography

Start with ISO to establish your camera’s sensitivity to light based on the lighting conditions, then adjust aperture or shutter speed depending on whether depth of field or motion capture is your priority.

Balance ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to achieve your desired visual effect while maintaining correct light exposure. Use your camera’s metering modes and histogram as guides.

A correctly exposed photo has balanced highlights and shadows without loss of detail. Use the histogram for a visual guide; a well-exposed image typically shows a balanced distribution across the graph.

An exposure value (EV) of 0 is a starting point indicating a balanced exposure based on your camera’s metering. Adjust from 0 to achieve the creative effect you desire.

Practice in various lighting conditions, experiment with different settings, and learn to read your camera’s histogram. Remember the acronym “I Am Shooting” (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed) to recall the order for setting exposure.

The Exposure Triangle is crucial for understanding how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed work together to affect exposure, allowing you to take control over the artistic and technical aspects of your photos.

Yes, aperture refers to the lens opening size, while f-stop is the numerical value representing this size. Lower f-stops mean a larger aperture, and higher f-stops indicate a smaller aperture.

It depends on the situation and artistic intent. Overexposure can lose detail in highlights, while underexposure loses detail in shadows. Many photographers slightly underexpose to preserve detail, adjusting exposure in post-processing.

F-stop numbers indicate the aperture size: lower numbers mean a wider aperture, allowing more light in and creating a shallower depth of field; higher numbers mean a smaller aperture, reducing light and increasing depth of field.

A sequence or series of photographs can narrate a more complex story by showing progression, contrasting perspectives, or highlighting different aspects of the same subject or event, offering a richer narrative experience.

Context or background information can be crucial in understanding the deeper story behind a photograph, providing insight into the circumstances, culture, or emotions that may not be immediately apparent.

The digital age has expanded storytelling capabilities, offering photographers vast creative tools, instant sharing capabilities, and access to global audiences, though it also presents challenges in standing out amid the abundance of digital content.

Conclusion: Mastering the Exposure Triangle for Stunning Photography

Navigating the Exposure Triangle—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed—is more than just a technical exercise; it’s the pathway to transforming your photography from good to captivating. This trio of settings is your toolkit for controlling light, depth, and motion, opening up endless possibilities for artistic expression.

Embark on this photographic adventure with an open mind and a willingness to experiment. Each click of the shutter not only captures a moment but also marks your progress in mastering this art form. Happy shooting!


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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author


Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author


Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements.