How To Expose Your Images Like a Pro

How To Expose Your Images Like a Pro

There is nothing quite as misleading in the photography internet as exposure guides, triangles, life hacks, and all that noise of information. There isn’t a topic that is as widely discussed as exposure. In this article, I will describe my method of exposing images, which has not yet failed me.

I started off with photography in the digital era, using a film camera. While it might sound odd, it was simply the only option available to me. One of the things that film taught me was how to expose images correctly. Fortunately, I could look at the meter on the camera screen and figure out if I was off, but with enough practice, it became second nature. I could walk into a scene and know exactly what settings to use without thinking too much about it. As strange as it sounds, I no longer have the luxury of shooting everything on film and claiming to be a photography wizard. I now shoot digitally, tethered into Capture One, and the result is immediately visible. You don’t have to buy a film camera to learn how to expose properly. Here is my guide for exposing images.

Decide What Matters To You

I won't even discuss setting anything first. A camera is a tool for your creativity, which means that you have to approach everything intentionally or with thoughtful consideration. Deciding what matters to you could be something as simple as capturing motion or creating a hyper-realistic landscape where everything is in focus. You need to determine your creative goal with your camera. Don’t settle for a vague "take a picture." Decide what you want to capture, how you want to do it, and assess the tools at your disposal. These tools could include a wall, flash, good low-light performance, a fast lens, etc. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume you don’t have control over lighting, as exposing images with flash or constant light is a separate topic in itself. Next, we need to associate specific settings with particular creative goals.

Shutter Speed 

Freezes your subject. The higher the shutter speed, the easier it is to freeze motion. Keep in mind that different shutter speeds apply to different speeds of motion. A tractor moving through a field can be frozen in time with a shutter speed of 1/1,000th of a second, while an F1 car will require 1/8,000th. Shutter speed also controls the amount of light entering your camera. This becomes important later on.


This property controls how much light enters the lens. It's useful when you're trying to capture a scene with bokeh or one where everything is in focus. Remember that opening the aperture allows more light into the lens, enabling you to work with a faster shutter speed. This is why we refer to lenses as "fast" or "slow." A fast lens permits more light, allowing for a faster shutter speed. Aperture is tricky, as many photographers believe their lens captures the sharpest images at the narrowest aperture. This isn't the case.


This is the property that controls the sensitivity of the sensor to light. Lower ISO values mean the sensor is less sensitive to light. This is crucial when trying to capture a dark scene where you can't adjust properties like aperture or shutter speed. ISO amplifies your exposure digitally. While the general advice is to keep ISO as low as possible, it's not always true.

The Method

Now, let's get to the core of exposure. Typically, when exposing your image, you need to balance three of the properties mentioned above: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. To start, it might be helpful to consider only two: shutter speed and aperture. You can keep ISO at 400 while you're getting the hang of exposure.

When holding your camera, decide what matters more: capturing motion or achieving sharpness? This isn't to say you can't capture sharp images of motion, but for simplicity, let's suppose you need to choose between these two.

Consider a photoshoot where your friend wants you to photograph them in front of a building.

First, your friend wants an image of them doing a handstand in front of it. The key element here is the handstand, which involves capturing motion as the perfect moment only lasts a few instants. Increase your shutter speed and decrease your aperture if necessary.

Second, your friend asks for a portrait of them standing in front of the building, where both they and the building are in focus. Since neither subject is moving, you can lower the shutter speed and increase the aperture.

Third, your friend wants to be separated from the building using bokeh. This requires opening the aperture to the maximum. However, keeping the same shutter speed as in the second scenario would let in more light, causing overexposure. Here, you need to allow less light to reach the sensor by increasing the shutter speed (or ISO). Capture the third image this way.

What About ISO?

As I mentioned earlier, ISO controls how sensitive the sensor is to light. If you can't open the aperture further for some reason, or the shutter speed needs to be maintained for capturing motion, you can increase the ISO. This may result in grainier images, but grain can add a nostalgic feel to the photo and make it feel more authentic. Another situation when you should adjust ISO is when the scene is too bright. Suppose you're working with a lens that opens up to f/1.2 in the midday sun. ISO 400, f/1.2, 1/8,000 is unlikely to yield a properly exposed image. Decreasing ISO to 100 will resolve this issue.

Shot using constant light coming from my flash units. As the constant light is very low power, I used ISO 1600 to get the exposure right. the shutter speed was 1/160th and aperture was f/4.0 

Closing Thoughts

Exposure is a lot about intention and experimentation. Learning something that should become second nature is best accomplished through practice, rather than repeatedly reading educational material, no matter how good it is.

How do you expose your images? Does this guide align with your process or offer a new perspective? Let us know in the comments!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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"ISO amplifies your exposure digitally" - well, no. Amplification occurs in the analogue part before it is digitized. Anyway, modern sensors are ISO invariant, so there almost no difference between analogue amplification in camera and digital "amplification" in post process.

While we can quibble on technical terminology, the central idea here is right: the photographer must first decide what matters to them before adjusting settings.

Motion/sharpness, depth of field, and noise are all important creative choices, but the article skips an even more fundamental creative choice regarding exposure: what do you want people to see?

What should be dark, what should be visible, and what should be bright? Do you want everything to be visible or black silhouettes in front of a pure-white window? All are valid choices and the absolute starting point of exposure.

ISO does not affect how much light hits the sensor. It does control how sensitive the sensor is to the light it is given. Higher ISO is higher sensitivity and brighter images.