The Exposure Triangle

So you’re interested in shooting a camera in a setting other than auto, huh? Cheers to you my friend! Exploring different camera settings will help you grow as a photographer and truly appreciate the challenge of capturing the perfect shot. Now that you’ve decided to stray away from the green printed ‘AUTO’ with an image of a camera on your dial, you’re probably wondering: what does “M, A, S, and P stand for?”. Have no fear, I’m here to help.

Shooting in Manual Mode

Manual mode is as true as it gets. Early film cameras were the origin of manual mode. For instance, my Pentax K1000 is strictly manual; there are no automatic settings whatsoever. When you’re in manual mode, three key parts are taken into account: Aperture, ISO/ASA, and Shutter Speed. Hence the catchphrase: exposure triangle. BOOM.


This rule is a quick reference guide to helping you remember the most important part of the correlation amongst the triangle. All photos should begin with the thought of your aperture setting. Most lenses have settings somewhere between 1.4 and 22. When choosing your aperture setting, reference the Sunny 16 rule, in that the surrounding light will dictate where you want it to be. The lower the number, the darker the surroundings – and on the contrary, the lighter your surroundings the higher your aperture.

F16 = Sunny with no cover

F8 = Sunny/Cloudy

F4 = Cloudy/Evening

F1.4 – 2.8 = Dark

The lighting conditions are not the only key to aperture; these settings also dictate the makeup of the image. The higher your aperture setting, the more “sharp” your image will appear. You’ll get a nice, crisp picture of everything in frame. Now as your f-stop lowers, your image will start to fade the surrounding areas of your focal point. This is commonly referred to as the bokeh effect. Think of a portrait of a model with the background completely blurred. These types of images were shot at a very low aperture setting (for optimal results 1.4 or lower). As we progress I will explain to you how we’re able to manipulate your settings to gain this bokeh effect in direct sunlight.


Next up. This really is relative to whether or not you’re shooting film or digital. When shooting film, you’re ASA is printed on the box and roll. For instance, Kodak Portra 400 is a 400 ASA film speed. You can manipulate the speed of your film by pushing or pulling the film, for needed or preferred results. However, when you shoot a roll of film, the film speed or ASA stays the same throughout the entire roll. Digital gives you much more flexibility and the ease of shooting in constantly changing conditions. Here’s a quick guide:

100/200 = Sunny no cover

400 = Cloudy/Indoors

800 = Indoors / Low Light

1600+ = Dark

This will help you begin to spin that dial or push those buttons even faster to get your shot. I will write in a forthcoming post, “Beginner’s Guide to Film”, the beauties of manipulating film speed, as I’m assuming you likely have a DSLR sitting next to you as you read this. Your DSLR camera has A LOT more ISO options than my guide above. I wrote this guide based off of popular film speeds because that’s where it all stems from. Much like your aperture settings, the ISO/ASA does more for your image than lighting. The higher your ISO/ASA, the more grain or noise will be present in your picture.

Shutter Speed

The last, but not least! I said f-stop was the most important part of the triangle but I lied. Your shutter speed is super freaking important, but only if you understand how to use it. What is shutter speed? Exactly what it sounds like. The speed at which your shutter closes to capture a picture. Typically marked as something like 1/1000th, 1/250th, 1/60th, 3, 8 or my personal new demon: B. These all have to do with lighting too, so here’s another reference guide:

1/1000th = Sunny no Cover

1/500th = Sunny with Clouds

1/250th = Cloudy / Low Light

1/60th = Dark

1″, 2″, 3″ etc. or B = Long Exposure

You’re probably thinking: but Alex my camera goes all the way to 1/4000th what does that mean? That’s dope as hell honestly, you can do a lot with that. This means your shutter can close insanely fast. FLASH BACK: remember when I said you could manipulate your f-stop to shoot the bokeh effect in sunlight? Here we go: drop that aperture ring all the way down to 1.4 (if you can’t get there it’s ok, you’ll get a faster lens eventually, but for now drop it as low as it will go) and crank that shutter speed all the way up to 1/4000th (or as high as you can) and pull the trigger. Mind you that if you’re in the sun your ISO/ASA should be in the ballpark of 100 – 400 depending on preference.

Finally, keep in mind that the lower your shutter speed, the less camera shake your image can handle without blur. Anything sub 1/60th is recommended to be shot on a tripod. Some might even argue anything sub 1/125th should be on a tripod, but hey – who likes to lug those around everywhere? Not me. Long exposure can be tried by setting your shutter speed to anything 1″ or lower. This literally means 1 second, 2 seconds, etc. and will absolutely have to be shot on a tripod. Maybe I’ll write a bit on Long Exposure, it’s an entire other animal to wrangle. I don’t recommend you shoot in B, but if you do: understand that the shutter will stay open until you take your finger off the trigger.

So there you have the basics of manual mode. I implore you to give manual mode a try and let me know how it goes. I would love to see your images! Send them to me via email, instagram, facebook – whatever works for you!

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