Imagine aperture as an eye: the more you open your aperture or eye, the more light comes in. The more you close your eye or aperture, the less light enters the camera.

Introduction to the exposure triangle, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Photography

Tokyo, 2017 #cindyproject

III. Technical settings in photography

Shot in a doorway with natural light, -1 exposure compensation in P mode

What is the best camera to shoot with? What are the best settings to use? When should I use a flash vs natural light? How to adjust exposure?

Set it and forget it

DARK SKIES OVER TOKYO, 2016. Shot on RICOH GR II and Program mode.

Personally, I’ve mastered shooting fully manual, and to be frank, it is overrated.

Most of my shooting now is just in P (program) mode, where your camera automatically chooses your aperture and shutter speed. All you do is manually select the ISO.

Why program mode?

Portrait of Cindy on Ricoh GR II, Program Mode,-1 exposure compensation.

It allows you to think less about the technical settings of photography, and more focus on making compositionally dynamic pictures, with good exposure, emotion, and soul.


Photograph of Cindy’s face In the bright sun, shot with -1 exposure compensation, to accentuate the circle around her face.

Exposure is how bright or dark your photos are.

My suggestion is to use “exposure compensation” on your camera and use the LCD screen to judge your exposure. Just make the exposure to look however you want the pictures to look like. Avoid nerdy stuff like “histograms” or other technical ways to judge exposure in your pictures.

Plus + Exposure compensation

Overexposed background shot with a flash on RICOH GR II in P (program) mode. Creates a strong figure to ground because Cindy’s face is well lit, the background is very bright. This picture is strong, because it creates a DYNAMIC CONTRAST between Cindy’s face and the backdrop.

Try to experiment taking pictures at +1 to +3 exposure compensation, and analyze how that affects your pictures. I generally recommend using plus exposure compensation when photographing bright lights behind your subject, or when photographing your subject in the shade.

Minus – exposure compensation

Street portrait with -1 2/3 exposure compensation. To make his face more dramatic and pop from the background. By using minus exposure compensation, the background turns totally black.

Try to experiment photographing your subjects in bright sunlight, but by using -1 to -3 exposure compensation.

This will cause the dark parts of the frame, or the shadows to turn black. This will create a more dramatic contrast on the face of your subject, without “blowing them out” (not ruining the skin tones of your subject).

Note how I worked the scene, to get the man to have the dramatic light on his face.

Also experiment using minus exposure compensation when shooting sunsets, for more dramatic colors:

Amsterdam sunset, 2017
Pink sunset in Bangkok, 2017
Sunset. Fort Lee, New Jersey 2017

Exposure settings

I recommend you to use “evaluative” metering mode.

Exposure triangle: Aperture, shutter speed, ISO

Exposure triangle: a relationship between Aperture, ISO, shutter speed

Exposure is dictated by a balance between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.


Imagine aperture as an eye: the more you open your aperture or eye, the more light comes in. The more you close your eye or aperture, the less light enters the camera.

The confusing thing about aperture is that two terms are used to refer to aperture:

  • Aperture
  • F-stop

They are the same thing.

  • Aperture: how much light enters the lens. By “opening up” the aperture, you let in more light. By “stopping down” the aperture, you let in less light.
  • F-stop: refers to how open or closed the aperture is. For example, the smaller the f-stop number (like f1.8) means a larger aperture (more light entering). However, the larger the f-stop number (like f16), the smaller the aperture (less light entering the lens).

If you want your pictures to be brighter (assuming you’re shooting fully manual) you must decrease your f-stop number (go from f16->f1.8). You can also “increase/open up” your aperture. It makes sense — if you’re stumbling around in the dark at night, you must open up your eyes larger, to let more light enter your pupils.

If you want your pictures to be darker, you must increase your f-stop number (f1.8->f16) or decrease/stop down your aperture. Imagine if you’re staring straight into the sun and don’t want the light to blind you, you must close and squint your eyes.

Shutter speed

Shot with a slower shutter speed. Blurry Cindy. Saigon, 2017. Often slower shutter speeds make for more emotional and abstract images.

Imagine shutter speed as blinking your eye.

  • If you blink your eye very fast, you will let in very little light.
  • If you blink your eyes slowly, you will let more light hit your pupils.

For exposure:

  • If you want a brighter photo, use a slower shutter speed (1/30th of a second)
  • If you want a darker photo, use a faster shutter speed (1/1000th of a second)
Shot with a slower shutter speed. You can feel the movement in this picture with the motion blur. Cindy, 2016

For sharpness or blueness:

  • If you want a sharper photo, use a faster shutter speed.
  • If you want a blurrier photo, use a slower shutter speed.


Cindy shot with Kodak Trix film pushed to 1600. More ISO leads to more grain, which I think looks more soulful.

The ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor. The higher the ISO, the faster the shutter speed, and the brighter the photo. The lower the ISO, the slower the shutter speed, and thus the darker the photo.

The way to imagine ISO: imagine the sensitivity of your eyes to ambient light. If you’re stuck in a pitch black/dark room for 10 hours and suddenly see a smartphone screen, you will be blinded (high ISO light sensitivity of your eyes). But if you’re outdoors all day in the bright light, a smartphone screen won’t blind you (your eyes have less sensitivity to the sun).

With digital, the higher the ISO, the more noise or grain the picture has. But personally, I think grit and grain is beautiful.

In practical terms: when you’re shooting pictures, if your photos are too blurry, increase the ISO of your camera.