The Three Basics of Photography

Spiral Staircase Light
Getting started in the world of digital photography today can seem overwhelming. Our digital SLRs have more buttons, dials, and menu options than any person can reasonably be expected to keep track of.

Don’t be fooled. If we brush aside the terminology and sales gimmicks, photography today is just as simple as it was 50 years ago; maybe even simpler.

There are really only three things that you need to learn to understand photography. Once you understand these three basic elements, and how they relate to each other, you’ll only be limited by your own creativity and desire to practice. These things are:

  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO / Film Speed

That’s it. Once you understand how these things affect your images and how they relate to each other, everything else just falls into place. Each of these three elements affects your image in two ways: one is physical, and one is creative.

Shutter Speed

From a mechanical perspective, shutter-speed is pretty simple. I think we all know that in order to make a photo, our camera’s sensor (or film) needs a certain amount of light, and the shutter is simply a door to let light into an otherwise light-proof box where the sensor resides. Shutter Speed is the duration that the shutter is open, and as you’d expect, the longer it says open, the more light is able to get to the sensor. If the shutter stays open for 2 seconds, twice as much light gets through as if it were only open for 1 second, for example, and 1/2 of a second lets in twice as much light as 1/4.

From a creative perspective, the effect of shutter speed is also pretty easy to understand. Since the sensor is exposed to light for as long as the shutter is open, it records an image of how far the subject moves during that time. A human can move quite a bit during one second, or even a half-second, so a 1 or 1/2 second shutter speed will record a blurry image of a moving person. On the other hand, even the fastest person can’t move very far in 1/1000th of a second, so that shutter speed will be great for stopping action.

Examples of Shutter Speed

These two photos of moving water make use of different shutter speeds. The photo on the left was shot at 1/750th sec. to stop the motion, while the photo on the right used a 1/3rd sec. shutter speed to blur the water. (Click to Enlarge)

Aperture

Nikon 50mm f/22 Aperture Example

The aperture of this lens is at it’s smallest setting, but can still easily be seen in the center of the lens. The 8 blades that form the aperture can also been seen.

Not as many people are familiar with what a camera’s aperture is, but there’s nothing difficult about it, either, once you see what it is. If you look into an SLR lens, you’ll see a set of blades that form a hole in the middle to let light pass through. That hole is the aperture, and the lens can move those blades to make the hole smaller or larger. The larger the hole, the more light gets through, obviously. Your camera’s aperture control, then, is another way to change how much light gets to the sensor.

Changes in the aperture also change how your photos look. The size of the aperture controls how much of the image appears to be in focus behind and in front of what you’re focused on. For example, suppose that you’re taking a picture of somebody who is standing across the room from you, and you can see trees through the big window behind them. If you take the picture with the lens’ smallest aperture (which lets in the LEAST amount of light), the trees in the background will also be relatively sharp in focus. However, if you take the photo using the lens’s largest aperture, the trees in the background will be very blurry, maybe not even recognizable as trees.

This effect is called “Depth of Field”. When the background gets blurry very quickly as it gets further from the subject, we call it “shallow” depth of field.  If most of the picture appears to be in focus, from near to far, we call it “deep” instead. Although I’ve been talking about the background of the subject, the same thing is true of the foreground; in fact, foreground objects go out of focus even more quickly than background when depth of field is shallow. The term “Depth of Field” is frequently shortened to “DoF” on this website and on the internet in general. So to summarize, we can say that the use of small apertures creates greater (deeper) DoF, while using larger apertures creates shallow DoF.

Aperture creates differences in depth of field

In both pictures, the camera is focused on the front face of the teapot, and both are sharp there. However, on the left, the aperture was set to a very small size, so the containers behind and in front are close to being in focus, too. On the right, though, a large aperture was used, so the containers are very blurry.

ISO

Those of you who used to buy film will recall that you had a choice of different types. In most stores, you could buy 100, 200 and 400 speed films, and in a good camera shop, you could buy many more than that. These numbers are the film’s ISO rating, sometimes called the film-speed (or before the 1990s, it was called the ASA). With film, the higher the number (eg, 400, 800, 1600), the more sensitive the film was to light, so it could be used in darker environments. The lower the number (eg, 50, 100, 200), the less sensitive to light it was, making it better suited to use in bright daylight.

So why wouldn’t people just shoot ISO 1600 film all the time? Unfortunately, higher speed film was also more grainy and had duller colors.

Strangely enough, ISO is almost exactly the same in digital cameras. Most cameras have a base ISO setting of about 100. To increase the sensitivity of the sensor, the camera charges it with more electricity, and modern cameras can generally be pushed all the way up to ISO 6400 or higher. This gives them the ability to capture photos in pretty low light, but unfortunately, all of that extra charge in the sensor creates heat and instability, which make some of the sensor’s receptors fire when they’re not supposed to… or they fire at higher levels than they should. The result is a very grainy looking image, usually with  dull or inaccurate colors and lower detail resolution. This phenomenon is known as “digital noise”.

ISO and noise example

I pulled three boxes of film out of my freezer: ISO 25, 50, and 100, as you can see on the left. In the middle and right, I’ve enlarged the image to 100%, shot at ISO 100 and ISO 6400, using no noise reduction or sharpening. As you can see, the high ISO has resulted in a very rough, grainy image. (Click for full size)

Exposure: Working Together

To get a better grip on how these three elements work together to create a photograph, an analogy may be helpful. Think of it this way: taking a photograph is like filling a bucket with water from a hose. If you fill the bucket all the way but don’t overflow, we could say that we have a correct exposure. In photography, getting a correct exposure means that the right amount of light gets to the sensor for the ISO setting, creating a picture that is not too bright or too dark.

The shutter speed is like the valve on the faucet: you turn it on for a little while to let the water flow through, and then turn it off again. (For the sake of the analogy, assume that the valve only turns the water ON or OFF, like the motion-sensor activated faucets in public restrooms.) If you leave it on for too long, the bucket will overflow, but if you turn it off too quickly, it won’t fill up. Similarly, if you use a shutter speed that is too long, too much light will come through and the picture will be too bright, but if you use a shutter speed that’s too short, not enough light will get through and the picture will be too dark.

Diagram of Exposure and Plumbing Analogy

In this diagram I used rigid pipes rather than hoses (mostly because they’re easier to draw), but the idea is the same.

The aperture is like the size of the hose. If we use a standard garden hose to fill the bucket, it will take more time than if we use a fire hose. Even assuming that the water pressure is the same in each case (and we should, for this analogy), a hose that carries twice as much water will fill the bucket twice as fast. If, on the other hand, you use a tiny hose (like aquarium tubing), it will take quite a while longer to fill up the bucket. Aperture works the same way. If you double the size of the aperture, twice as much light will get through to the sensor in the same amount of time.

The ISO is like the size of the bucket. If you double the size of the bucket, it will take twice as long to fill it with the same size hose OR the same amount of time with a hose twice as big. Similarly, if you lower your ISO from 200 to 100, it takes twice as much light to expose the photo, so you need to double the duration of the shutter speed or double the size of the aperture.

Of course, there are many different ways to fill a bucket: you can use a small hose for a long time, or a big hose for a short time, or a small hose for a small time if you’re filling a small bucket, etc. The same thing is true in photography. There are lots of different ways to correctly expose a photograph, and since each way will also affect how the photo looks, choosing one way over another is part of the creative process.

A Game of Trade-Offs

As you can now understand, photography is a game of trade-offs between these three factors. Suppose you take a photo at a medium aperture, medium shutter speed, and medium ISO and its exposure is correct (fills the bucket), but the motion is a little blurry. We know that to stop action, you need to use a faster shutter speed (don’t leave the water on for so long). But if you ONLY change the shutter speed, then your “bucket” isn’t going to fill up. To make up for the change in shutter speed, you either need to let in more light with a larger aperture (bigger hose) or use a higher ISO (smaller bucket). But if you use a larger aperture, you get a shallower depth-of-field, and therefore, a more blurry background. If you use a higher ISO instead, you get more digital noise. In some cases a blurry background is desirable, so this may be an easy choice.

This article is intended to give you a general understanding of the three most important concepts in photography and their relationship to each other. In the next article, I’ll explain the exact relationship between shutter speeds, apertures, and ISO so that when you change one of them in your camera, you can know instantly how to make up for it by changing another one.

Read the next article in the series: Photography’s Unifying Theory: The F-Stop

Please Comment! If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them… and I’m always interested to hear whether articles like this are helpful.

Avatar of Matthew Gore

Matthew Gore is the Editor in Chief and Administrator of Light & Matter.

56 Comments

  • Reply February 12, 2014

    Dana

    Finally! Someone who can explain this stuff in a way that really hits home. First, I came across the video explanation on youtube, after watching countless others. Then I followed the link to your site. Thanks so much for doing such an awesome job with the video and article. I will definitely explore your site in depth.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply February 12, 2014

      Matthew Gore

      Hi Dana,
      Glad you found it helpful! If you haven’t already found them, you might want to check out the articles under the “Learn Photography” tab on the main menu bar :)
      - Matthew

  • Reply October 8, 2013

    Sara Hellner

    Thank you! Very good and easy to understand… I have worked with pictures and video’s for years on a very amateur basis, letting the camera do most of the job.. bought a new more advanced lens yesterday ( Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM) wanting to take my photography to the next level. As I shot mostly animals, and a lot of time in motion, this is critical for me to understand…. I am now very inspired and will go out practice.. :-)

  • […] He put this video together to go with his article “The Three Basics of Photography”, which covers the same ground in more depth: lightandmatter.org/?p=3809 […]

  • […] tornado bem comum recentemente).  O artista que produziu esse vídeo chama-se Matthew Gore e, em sua página na internet, há também um texto muito útil sobre esses pilares da fotografia, também em […]

  • Reply August 13, 2013

    Rohan

    Really very useful. Good for beginners.
    It would be really helpful, if you can provide the .pdf copy of the contents.

  • Reply August 10, 2013

    Dusty

    V interesting , V useful .

  • Reply May 25, 2013

    Joe

    Thanks!! This was very helpful. Trying to bed down the basic of photography to eventually start with astrophotography.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    pe2rox

    Thank you so much for this. I found it very helpful and very encouraging to new photographers. I love your “calming” approach to teaching. #Bless

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    pe2rox

    Thank you so much for this site. It’s very helpful and encourages new photographers! God bless.

  • Reply February 1, 2013

    Naresh

    Really helped a lot to capture image with proper usage of 3 basic factors in a proportion.

  • Reply December 13, 2012

    Jim

    Great video on the relationship between ISO Aperture and Shutter Speed. Unfortunately the sound effects and music let it down.

    Thanks

  • Reply December 10, 2012

    Diler

    I’m lucky to find such a great and simple explanation : )

  • Reply December 9, 2012

    Nasser

    Simply brilliant, well done and many thanks. Nasser

  • Reply August 2, 2012

    Adam

    You rock man! Loved the video on Vimeo you need open a camera store 10x better than bh

  • Reply July 13, 2012

    bilge

    Great video and article, thank you!

  • Reply June 26, 2012

    Lordshot

    I want to properly learn how to use my SAmsung WB 150F its a pint and shoot camera but more like of a compact SLR.. please i need help for the proper settings please

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply June 26, 2012

      Matthew Gore

      Hi LS,

      I can’t help you with settings that are specific to a particular camera model… you’ll have to look at the manual for that. However, if your camera has semi-manual controls, shutterspeed can be controlled with “Shutter Priority” mode on the camera (which allows you to set the shutter speed, and the camera automatically sets the aperture) or “Aperture Priority” mode (which allows you to set the aperture and control depth of field, and it will automatically set the shutter speed). Many point and shoots, though, don’t give you that much control.

      Maybe more important for a point and shoot is to find the “Exposure Compensation” controls. It at least allows you to make a picture brighter or darker.

      Good luck!

      - Matthew

  • Reply June 16, 2012

    Harry Turner

    Matthew

    Your video The Three Basics of Photography is brilliant. It is straight forward, concise and explains the fstop, shutter speed, ISO relationship in a very easy to understand manner. Your use of graphics to explain the relationship is inspired.

    I have been teaching basic digital photography evenings at a local college for years. This relationship is central to good photography and can be challenging to teach in a way that all can understand. Now at the end of the evening when I teach exposure I will be providing the link to your video to my classes. It will be a valuable asset that will further instill the information I cover in class.

    Together we shall get them through.

    Kudos and thanks

    Harry

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply June 17, 2012

      Matthew Gore

      Thanks Harry,

      That video was a lot of fun to make, and it sounds like it’s been helpful to a few people, at least. Hope it helps things click for some of your students, too :)

      - Matthew

  • Reply May 5, 2012

    Stephanie

    This was so helpful! I love the video version of it, really let the knowledge sink in and explained in a way so that I could absorb the concept instead of just terminology.

  • Reply May 1, 2012

    lucia

    great blog! congrats!

  • Reply May 1, 2012

    Sergio Bello

    Thanks so much, you are explaining easier with clear examples the Camera SLR functions…I use a 35mm film SRL

  • Avatar of Rich
    Reply May 1, 2012

    Rich

    Matthew, Thanks for make it easy to understand. This has by far been the best i have come across. Thank you!

     

  • Reply May 1, 2012

    Luis Silva

    Muy util el articulo LOS TRES FUNDAMENTOS DE LA FOTOGRAFIA, este articulo sirve de guia para los fotografos aficionados

  • Reply May 1, 2012

    Sandor

    Hi Matthew,

    I came across the video of this post on Gizmodo. I recently started a photography course so this was a good refresher for me. Most of the things explained in the first 3 lessons were explained in 9 minutes.

    Only one thing I’m missing though…
    For shutter speed and aperture you explain in what situations you can/will/should use them. Freeze motion and/or blur background. Only for the ISO you don’t provide that explanation.

    in my course it was explained at which lighting types you can typically use which ISO. 100 for bright sunny, 200 for sun and clouds, 400 clouds/insight, 800 insight/dusk etc…..

    I know it’s not an exact science but it helped me in quickly deciding the basic ISO setting in any situation and I think that piece of info would make the video even better for beginning photographers.

    After watching the video I’ve shared it with my fellow student so they can use it as a refresher too!

    Thanks!

    Regards,
    Sandor
    Rotterdam, Netherlands

  • Avatar of Moko M.
    Reply April 22, 2012

    Moko M.

    Wow, you are a genius in explaining the basics. All the time I have spent trying to understand the basic dynamics of ISO and shutter speed. I’m so happy I found this sight, im seriously ecstatic. I’m eager and excited to read more.
    Thank you

  • Avatar of weng
    Reply April 15, 2012

    weng

    HI,  i have T2i with EF-S 18-55mm lens i’ve been looking on how to make a bokeh using this camera and lens. I am new to dslr and not really know what im doing. Is it possible if you can teach me how to do bokeh with this lens? I wil appreciate it.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply April 15, 2012

      Matthew Gore

      Hi Weng,

      The 18-55 will be a hard lens to get good bokeh, but these are the important things to do.

      1. Set your camera to “Av” on the mode dial.
      2. Dial the aperture down to f/5.6 (or 3.5 if you’re zoomed to 18m)
      3. Zoom the lens to 55mm
      4. Focus on a subject that is as close to your camera as possible.  The closer the subject, the more the background will blur.

      That’s about it :) If you really want to play around with bokeh, though, you’ll need to get a wide aperture lens, like an f/1.8, f/1.4, or at least f/2.8. Luckily, some of these are pretty inexpensive… you can get a 50mm f/1.8 lens for just over $100, though it doesn’t produce very smooth bokeh… the 50mm f/1.4 is better.

      Good luck! Let me know if my instructions need some further explanation. You might want to start a new topic in the forum on this subject :) Welcome to L&M, btw.

      - Matthew

      • Avatar of weng
        Reply April 15, 2012

        weng

        Thnks for the  recommendation Matthew, i will keep that in mind and thanks for the step-by-step lesson to do bokeh. I cannot wait wait to go outside to try it. I’ve been following your site for a week or so and foudt it very helpful thats why I decided to join. Also your site helped me decide what camera to buy. More power!

  • Avatar of Erika
    Reply March 9, 2012

    Erika

    wow this was literally the easiest explanation ever, i’ve been searching all over the web and it was extremely overwhelming,it was either too boring, or very difficult to understand, i have the worst time paying attention so half of the time i never finish reading anything. but this was great! ^.^ im deff going to stick to this site! very good!

  • Reply January 14, 2012

    Jasmine

    I just stumbled across this website as I was doing research on which camera to buy. After MUCH agonizing over whether to buy a Canon T2i or T3i, I finally decided on the T3i (the price difference was under 100 dollars on Amazon, so I figured I might as well!) I am looking forward to delving into the DSLR world and will be coming back to your website often. Keep up the great work!
    Jasmine

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply January 14, 2012

      Matthew Gore

      Hey Jasmine,

      Glad you found us :) Hope you enjoy the new camera!

      - Matthew

  • Reply October 22, 2011

    Janet Huff

    Thanks. This is the clearest explanation I’ve ever seen. I can’t say that I fully ‘get it’ yet, but I think that my efforts to master these 3 components of photography will be far more successful now, thanks to your analogies! I am encouraged because for the first time I can ‘see’ how it works.

    • Avatar of Bill Minton
      Reply October 22, 2011

      Bill Minton

      If you are new to all of the concepts Matthew is covering, I’d suggest playing with an SLR simulator like the one at http://camerasim.com/camera-simulator.html

      Set the lighting to “Bright Indoors” for example, and adjust your shutter speed to stop the pinwheel (about 1/250) and notice how the picture darkens. You can then increase ISO to brighten the photo up, but that introduces noise. Be sure to pay attention to the mode the camera is in shutter priority, aperture priority, etc.

      I found using that taught me much more quickly than reading guide after guide and tutorial after tutorial. Matthew does a fantastic job explaining things (look at his posts on histograms and raw vs jpg), but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. :-)

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply October 23, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Hi Janet,

      Glad you found the article useful :)

      Bill has a good suggestion. I actually find that the camera simulator is much more useful for people who already have a bit of a grasp on the theory (otherwise, it’s not really any different than just sitting somewhere with a camera, which we probably all have at this point). But it is a quick way of testing how changing different settings can affect an image.

      - Matthew

  • Reply October 18, 2011

    Gary

    Have been playing around with my 30D and this article refreshed what was some where buried in my head i haope you fine the time to follow up with your next article. The hurricane really set many of us back here on long island also, best gary

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply October 18, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Hi Gary,

      I’m still working on the next article… it has stalled somewhat; I think I’m making it more complicated than it needs to be. Need to simplify :) Shouldn’t be too long, though.

      Incidentally, I was in Wilton, CT for the hurricane, and then went up to the coast at Madison… the damage was awful there; it must have been even worse out on Long Island. Glad you made it through.

      - Matthew

  • Avatar of Bill Minton
    Reply October 16, 2011

    Bill Minton

    It’s probably just me, but I’m still struggling w/the paragraph that states:

    “The ISO is like the size of the bucket. If you double the size of the bucket, it will take twice as long to fill it with the same size hose OR the same amount of time with a hose twice as big. Similarly, if you lower your ISO from 200 to 100, it takes twice as much light to expose the photo, so you need to double the duration of the shutter speed or double the size of the aperture.”

    Beginning with “Similarly…” is where I lose it. If ISO is the size of the bucket, and it’s going from 200 to 100 (being cut in half), then it would seem counter intuitive that twice the light (twice the water) would be needed to fill it. I understand actual photography portion, it just doesn’t seem like the bucket size analogy fits there.

    Again, it’s probably just me being slow. I’ll think about it some more.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply October 16, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      I see what you mean.

      As long as you think about it as “smaller number = bigger bucket” though, the analogy works. Granted, it’s not intuitive if you look at the numbers alone, but there are lots of things in life where bigger number = smaller things (ie, Aperture numbers, sandpaper grit, sheet metal/wire/shot-gun gauge, etc). So, you ignore the numbers, only pay attention to the bit where I proclaim that “it takes twice as much light to expose the photo”, and it makes sense… even if there may be a better analogy out there. :)

      - Matt

  • Reply October 9, 2011

    Dan Montgomery

    Many thanks. I will use this with my middle school photography club.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply October 9, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Thanks Dan. The follow-up is underway, which I think will also be useful. Good luck!

      - Matthew

      • Reply October 9, 2011

        Dan Montgomery

        Thanks. We’re talking 20-30 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, so I need all the luck I can get. But it’s a blast.

  • Reply August 28, 2011

    Daniel

    Very helpful.. Your diagrams, analogies, and explanations are very easy to translate, even for someone as new to photography as myself.. I look forward to reading the follow up to this article.. Thank you

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply August 31, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Glad you found it helpful :) I’ve gotten a bit behind over the past week or so… I’ve been traveling in New England and am currently without power and internet most of the time, due to the hurricane. However, I’ll get back to work on the next article shortly… and with any luck, it will be published by this time next week!

      - Matthew

  • Avatar of Alfred Lopez
    Reply August 23, 2011

    Alfred Lopez

    True story: I was asked to do a photography workshop here at work so that night I was trying to fall asleep and planning one of the things I was going to “workshop” about. I finally had it all in my head. When I woke up the following morning I saw this post. Which is about 98% of what I was going to present down to the text! So, I was wondering whether you were doing the “Dreamscape” or “Inception” thing the night before. :-)

    The workshop is tonight at 6pm.

  • Reply August 20, 2011

    Troy

    THANKS.  I'VE BEEN THINKING OF GOING DIGITAL.  THE BASICS ARE THE SAME AS FILM.  I'M STILL INTIMIDATED BUT I WILL MANAGE.
    TROY

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply August 21, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Hi Troy,

      I was reluctant to go digital at first, too (though it was 1994), but I think that it was one of the best things that has happened for photography. If for no other reason, it makes it a lot less expensive to take lots and lots of pictures, and that at least gives people a chance to practice a lot more. And practice, after all, is how we get better.  When I was in high school, I used to buy 35mm film in 100 foot rolls and roll my own film, and develop it 5 rolls at a time :) I miss darkroom work, but I really do like digital.

      - Matthew

       

  • Avatar of Mike Scott
    Reply August 14, 2011

    Mike Scott

    I love that bucket diagram. I’ve never seen it explained better.

  • Avatar of Suzy Richman
    Reply August 12, 2011

    Suzy Richman

    Very clear and helpful! Thanks.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply August 12, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Very happy to hear it :) I think the next one in this series will be just as important.

  • Reply August 12, 2011

    Lisa Compton

    Thanks so much for making this so easy to understand! I have felt really stupid having to ask questions about these things, you have given fantastic examples of what you are explaining. Thank you!

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply August 12, 2011

      Matthew Gore

      Hi Lisa,
      I’m glad you found it helpful :)
      - Matthew

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