How do I Set the Proper Exposure on my Camera?

Patrick Roland

Whether you have a digital camera or a manual camera, being able to set the proper exposure will result in more professional-looking photos. A camera's exposure is dictated by its aperture and its shutter speed. Understanding what these two elements are and how to properly use them will help you set the proper exposure and never have to rely on the automatic settings again.

The slower you set your camera's shutter speed, the longer the shutter will stay open, allowing in more light.
The slower you set your camera's shutter speed, the longer the shutter will stay open, allowing in more light.

A camera's automatic exposure settings result in a clear picture most of the time. This setting normally picks a mid-level exposure, so everything comes out clear and mostly well lit. The problem is that vivid colors are often dulled, and the photo's crispness is sacrificed. The result is anything but a professional image.

The lower a camera lens' F-stop number, the more light is let in.
The lower a camera lens' F-stop number, the more light is let in.

Luckily, understanding proper exposure is a simple, two-step process. Begin by learning about your camera's aperture or how wide the lens opens when you snap a photo. This affects the image's depth of field and how much light reaches the film or light sensor.

On your camera's settings, aperture is determined by F-stops. These settings allow the lens to open wide or hardly at all. The rule of thumb is the lower the F-stop number, the more light that is allowed in. When shooting something in low light, use low F-stops to brighten the photo and avoid underexposure. In bright, outdoor lighting, use a high F-stop number to limit the amount of light and prevent overexposure.

Shutter speed is the other key ingredient to creating a proper exposure. Every photographer should know that this is simply the amount of time the shutter stays open when taking a photo. The slower the shutter speed, the more light is allowed. Shutter speeds are measured by what fraction of a second the shutter is open, for example 1/30th and 1/1000th. When lighting conditions are poor, you must keep the shutter open longer, and when lighting conditions are bright, the time must be shorter.

The tricky part about getting a proper exposure is finding the perfect balance of aperture and shutter speed. Every lighting condition is different, and there are no hard and fast rules about exposure. You must take a lot of pictures in different conditions and experiment with how much light is allowed in. Digital photography is a great testing ground, because you can take an unlimited number of photos and discover what does and does not work with different exposure settings. After you understand how to use aperture and shutter speed in various situations, you will have brighter, more professional-looking images.

Check the aperture of a lens, as a lower number -- such as 2 or 2.8 -- can allow for low-light photography and the ability to intentionally blur a photo's background.
Check the aperture of a lens, as a lower number -- such as 2 or 2.8 -- can allow for low-light photography and the ability to intentionally blur a photo's background.

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