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The 3 basic ingredients of a good photo

D.I.Y. Photography for beginners


(now, don't run will never be afraid of these things again if you read this!)

Whether you use your mobile phone or a digital camera for taking photos, it is essential that you understand the 3 basic ingredients for taking good photos. Now I know it is way more easy when you simply use the automatic settings on both mobile cameras and digital cameras, but when you know how these 3 things work, you will be able to explore with different settings on your camera to give you the most amazing effects and results.

When talking to different people I meet, I find that most of them are intimidated by the technical complexity of terms like aperture, ISO and shutter speed. This is also the main reason why most people who own a digital camera don't use the camera to it's full functionality. I myself started out my journey as a photographer many years ago with the greatest fear of the (M) "Manual" setting on my DSLR. It scared me because I did not understand it. And thus I did not use it...but then I decided to set out to make it a lot simpler for myself, and because I am a creative person, I always "think with pictures" in my mind. So I will share with you a very easy way to understand how it works.

In simple terms, let's look at it this way:

Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that allows light to travel through to the sensor. You can adjust the size of the opening in order to allow more light or less light in. I always remember it this way: "The bigger the number the smaller the hole (small hole = little light that comes through), the smaller the number the bigger the hole (big hole = lots of light coming through).

The lens opening is very visible here and demonstrates how the aperture works. (Photo by Dimitri Otis )

The measurement term for the size of the hole is called a F-stop, so when you hear the words "adjust your F-stop" you now know that you need to adjust the size of the opening.

You can now imagine that when the opening is large and a lot of light gets through, your photo will be super bright and might be over exposed. This brings me to the shutter speed.


Shutter speed is basically how fast or how slow the lens opens and closes. The purpose of this function is to once again allow the right amount of light to get through the lens opening and onto the sensor where the photo is captured.

I remember it like this: Fast shutter speed - lens opens and closes very quickly = little light comes in. Slow shutter speed - lens opens and stays open for a longer period before it closes = lots of light comes in.

Example of what happens when the shutter speed varies from slow at the top, to fast at the bottom. Photo by Sara Rodriguez Martinez.

When you look at this photo, you can see that the aperture was the same in all the photos, but the shutter speed was varied. Top left the shutter was open for a longer period than the photo on the right bottom side, thus more light came in on the top photo (too bright = overexposed) than in the bottom photo (very dark =underexposed).

You will learn how to marry the shutter speed with the aperture as this is a powerful combo. Generally when you decide to use a small aperture (Big hole) you will need to use a faster shutter speed so that the lens opens and closes very quickly to prevent too much light from getting in. Don't worry if it still feels a bit overwhelming, the only way to get on top of this is by practicing and experimenting.

3. ISO

The ISO is basically the sensitivity of the sensor (film) to light and is an extra tool for allowing light to get into the lens when you find yourself in a dark or low lit area and you need to use a very slow shutter speed to let sufficient light in. The problem with using a very slow shutter speed is that you normally end up with blurred photos. (I generally never use a shutter speed less than 1/50 without a tripod, but as a beginner I would suggest to try and not go slower than 1/80 or 1/100.) In this scenario, you could increase the ISO on your camera to help let in extra light. The only thing to keep in mind when increasing the ISO is that the photo will become grainy (noisy) and loose its crisp and clear look.

Here you will see how increasing the ISO can help get extra light in without changing the aperture or shutter speed. Photo by Vinai Prakash

(Higher ISO - more light = grainy look on the photo. Low ISO - less light = crisp and clear look on photo)

Here you can see the grainy effect on the photo when the ISO is increased. Photo by Megan O' Neil.

I hope you have a better understanding of what the exposure triangle means when you hear the term next time. In our next blog post I am going to introduce you to one of my favorite mentors in the field of photography, and share one of his videos with you that will explain aperture, ISO and shutter speed from a different perspective.

In the meantime... take a deep breath, switch your camera on manual mode and start experimenting with the aperture, ISO and shutter speed! (Yes, your mobile phone also has a manual setting and it is called "PRO")

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