exposure triangle infographic

Digital Photography: The Exposure Triangle

White can be a tricky color to photograph. It almost always comes out of camera looking like some other color. That’s because white reflects light, which is great, except when the light it’s reflecting is from the bright pink thing beside it or the green screen behind it. That’s when you get an awful color cast.

Temperature and exposure are two other things to watch. If your image is too cool/warm your whites look blue or yellow. If your exposure isn’t just right you have a gray or blown out white.

I’m going to start with this super quick capture of a white shirt from my closet. I photographed this in my dining room with only natural light from windows roughly ten feet from the subject. The background is a neutral gray photography paper.

If you don’t shoot on manual (and most DIY/beginnrers don’t), you’re auto settings should be able to correct a lot for tint and temperature, and it should do a fair job of sensing for exposure as well. If you do shoot in manual you want to watch your exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed and ISO [insert hover definitions]. These work together to get you that great photo. Your aperture determines your depth of field, your ISO is the light sensitivity of the image sensor, and your shutter speed is how fast your shutter opens and closes.

Here is a quick explanation of the exposure triangle:

Download the Exposure Triangle Printable

IDEAL SETTINGS

This will differ depending on what you’re shooting, your lighting situation and your preferences. These are my preferences, yours may be a bit different.

I shoot mostly portraits and commercial so, most of my subjects are relatively still.

SHUTTER SPEED

I don’t like to let my shutter speed get below 1/60. Even when shooting still items. There can still be camera shake if you’re not using a tripod, and I typically don’t.

APERTURE

I shoot “wide open” which means that my aperture is typically set at a really low number. For portraits and artistic stills I go 2.0 / 2.8 with a 50 mm lens. I’ll go as high as 5 – 7 if I need a wider focal length to be sure I get multiple faces / items in focus.

ISO

As for ISO it really depends on the available light. Lower ISO gives you less noise but a darker photo. You may have to slow down your shutter speed. Personally, a little noise doesn’t bother me so I’ll turn it up as high as 1200 to get a brighter image and faster shutter speed and reduce noise in post if necessary.

EXPOSURE

Each of the previous three settings determine your final exposure. In the end, I like my exposure to be within one step from center. I prefer my images slightly under exposed (on the dark side) because over exposure leads to information and detail loss that can’t be brought back.

It’s a balancing act. The sooner you get familiar with that relationship, the sooner you’ll be getting great shots SOOC (straight out of camera).

Here are my exposure settings for the images in this tutorial:

Shutter Speed 1/80
f 2.8
ISO 320

Shutter Speed 1/40
f 2.8
ISO 320

Shutter Speed 1/80
f 2.8
ISO 1250

If you’re shooting in RAW you’ll have a better time adjusting for things like tint and exposure in post production. If you’re still shooting in JPG then you can still tweak these settings, you just won’t have as much latitude because you didn’t collect as much information in camera.

Of course you’re not always going to get it right. Especially if this isn’t your professional. This is why I’m going to show you how to adjust for this stuff: reduce noise, adjust exposure, sharpen images and adjust for tint in editing.

First, the RAW editing:

Now, the Photoshop “hack” with a JPG image:

In the end it’s going to depend mostly on what you capture in camera so, it’s beneficial to understand your manual settings. Whether it’s a DSLR or your cell phone, you have manual settings and you should get familiar with them. I offer one-on-one workshops on DIY product photography or you can visit CreativeLive to brush up on your basic photography and editing skills.

Want more? Visit CreativeLive for tons of classes on Digital Photography and Photoshop.