Before we talk about manual exposure, let me make a brief analogy about our brains and memory...before I forget (grin).

I view our brains like they are lone "icebergs" in a vast sea of knowledge. As we get older...well...our "icebergs" melt and gets smaller and subsequently not able to support the same volume of "penguins" that we once could handle. So if two "penguins" hop up on the front of our crowded "bergs", then two or three "penguins" will drop off the back to make some room.

In other words, we have to pick and choose what is important for us to remember because we have limits of what we can humanly recall from memory. Does this analogy ring home with you? It certainly does for me, so this is my motivation for keeping things simple; thereby freeing up my mental capacity for other complications like syncing my iPad to my TV or learning how to connect my cell phone to my car via bluetooth….technology...I love it!


After reading a lot of reviews online you may have the impression that the more features a camera has, the better the camera must be. Right?!

Well manufacturers want to sell cameras, and if features are what sell more cameras, then it's a rediculous list of "features" you shall get. Each new model "leap-frogs" their competitors model and more "features" get squezed into each new camera. Some might argue that this is progress, but how many people need their camera to have an "egg timer" or "32 MP sensors"? All these new "features" further complicate things by making each new manual progressively thicker.

Things that used to be "Leica-simple" with a 30 page manual have morphed into a Nikon D800 with a camera manual exceeding 472 total english pages! And that's not the only manual for that camera body. Crazy, huh?


It's important to understand your camera and read the manuals, but not cover-to-cover like a novel. I know people that do this and I have tried tried it...penguins were dropping off the back of my berg like global warming was imminent! I kid...but what I am suggesting is simplifying YOUR needs by learning and focusing on Manual Exposure. How liberating! Instead I focus on the 20 or so pages of Manual Exposure and browse the remaining 452 pages to become familiar with other capabilities...and how to undo something if I hit the wrong button. When I buy a new flash, I focus on understanding the 5 pages on manual controls and browse the remaining 105 pages. Do you see my pattern!?

I do this for two reasons, I like to simplify things and I appreciate the creative control that I get as a result. Manual Exposure allows me to take fewer, more thought out photos and when you get into flash photography...again...manual settings give you a lot more control of the off-camera lighting too. Anybody can compose a photo in Automatic mode, but to really tackle photography a good understanding of what is going on will really help you step up your creativity and produce better pictures as a result.


Light creeps into the camera and exposes it's sensor for a certain period of time. If the sensor is exposed to too much light, then the photo will be over-exposed (too bright). If the sensor is NOT exposed to enough light, then the photo will be under-exposed (too dark).

How do you know how much light is needed? Well, this is where you will need that "egg timer"...just kidding...thankfully, when you are shooting in Manual mode, your camera has a built-in light meter to show you if your exposure is going to be too dark, too bright, or just right. You simply need to know how to control the amount of light that enters your camera, and for how long the sensor is exposed to that light.


There are three ways to control the amount of light that enters your camera, and all three are used to make your photograph either brighter or darker. The first is the size of the opening through which light enters, called the aperture of your lens. The next is the duration of time that your camera sensor is exposed to the light, referred to as the shutter speed. The final option controls how sensitive the camera is to light, known as the ISO. These three controls all interact with one another in a give-and-take relationship, and the following “Exposure Triangle” is a great tool to help you understand the dynamics of these relationships.


"Exposure Triangle"
© VisualVoodoo.Com

Now, the trick is to balance these three options to achieve a "balanced" exposure. Typically, you will choose two ways of controlling how light enters the camera, and then compromise on the third. As a general rule, I want the ISO as low as possible so I start with 200 as that is as low as the Fujifilm X-T1 goes. So "right off the bat" in well lit situations the ISO never changes and that leaves just two other variables to mess with. The two choices you make are solely dictated by the aesthetic you would like to achieve. Aperture size, shutter-speed, and ISO all have individual benefits, but they also produce side-effects that lend an aesthetic component of their own. So now let’s explore what these three controls do and what their side-effects are on our photography.


The “opening” through which light enters your camera is called the aperture. This aperture is a little diaphragm inside the lens that you can adjust its size by setting your camera to a specific f-stop of your choosing. The f-number is a funky measurement because a small number equates to a wide opening (i.e., f/2.8), whereas a large f-number equates to a small opening (i.e., f/22). As you would imagine, a large opening allows more light to enter the camera resulting in a brighter image, and a small opening lets in less light resulting in a darker photograph.

If you are new to Manual Controls, this would be a good time to check your camera's manual to learn how to adjust the aperture.


The aesthetic effect of varying the aperture is that light entering a wide aperture (i.e., f/2.8) translates into less focus between the foreground and the background of the photograph. This is how photographers blur out the backgrounds in their photos. When you want to isolate a subject by blurring out the background, you would use a wide aperture (i.e., f/2.8).

Light that enters through a smaller, tighter, aperture (i.e., f/22) is more focused than light entering a wider aperture (i.e., f/2.8), and that light that is more focused translates into sharper focused images from the foreground-to-background depth. This is also known as Depth of Field (DoF). So if you want everything as sharp as possible through the depth of your scene, you would want to use a narrow aperture (i.e., f/22).

The easiest way of remembering what effect the aperture's f-number has on your images is to think of it in terms of Depth of Field. A bigger f-number (i.e., f22) has a bigger Depth of Field. A smaller f-number (i.e., f/2.8) has a shallower Depth of Field.

In the photo below, I knew I wanted a shallow Depth of Field so I set the aperture to f/2.8. The lighting was good, so I kept the ISO as low as possible; 100 in this case. To properly expose the photo, I adjusted the shutter speed until the camera's light meter was balanced; 1/1000 of a second in this case. See how the shallow Depth of Field compresses the subject? You can see both the foreground and background are out of focus...maybe 10" is the area in focus (Depth of Field).

Golden Retriever Dog Resumes the Play Position

"Shallow Depth of Field" - Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA
Canon EOS 5D MKII, Manual, 1/1000s, f2.8, ISO 100, 200mm :: © VisualVoodoo.Com


Think of the camera's shutter as a little curtain that opens and closes behind the aperture. It can be open for a long period of time (like 1/60 of a second or 60 minutes), or a short amount of time (like 1/1000 of a second). The shorter the shutter speed, the less light is captured resulting in a darker image. As the shutter stays open longer, more light is captured by the sensor resulting in a brighter image.

If you are new to Manual Controls, this would be a good time to check your camera's manual to learn how to adjust the shutter speed.


The aesthetic effect here is that a fast shutter speed allows you to “freeze” any motion in the scene (i.e., 1/1000 of a second...usually represented as a "1000" on most cameras), whereas a slower shutter speed may blur if the subject is moving (i.e., 1/60 of a second...usually represented as a "60" on most cameras). Imagine taking a photograph of a moving cab in London. If your shutter speed was set to 1/1000th of a second, the shutter is open for such a brief fraction of time that the car would appear to be stopped.

Alternatively, if you set a much slower shutter-speed such as 1/60 of a second, then the movement of the cab would be captured as a blur. Now if you can pan your camera in the direction of movement while clicking the shot, it gives recognition of what the item is with a little bit of action or blur included in with the image.

The easiest way of remembering what effect the shutter speed has on your images is to think of it in terms of blur. A slower shutter speed (i.e., 1/60 of a second) may introduce image blur if it is a moving subject. A faster shutter speed (i.e., 1/1000 of a second) will freeze most moving subjects.


Typically, fast shutter speeds require a larger aperture for the sensor to capture enough light to produce a well-exposed photograph. Conversely, slow shutter speeds tend to require a smaller aperture to limit the amount of light coming in over the longer duration. You can see in the image below how I balanced these factors.

When I first got the Fujifilm X-T1, I had read that the camera didn't do well with action and sports. So my first image was to test this complaint. I set the camera up ahead of time and waited for my subject...a woman on a Jet Ski buzzing down the Intercostal in South Florida. I wanted a photo where it communicated SPEED. So I wanted the foreground and the background blurred. It was bright out so I didn't mess with the ISO; 100 in this case. I wanted to track the watercraft to blur the background, so a slow shutter speed was needed; 1/30 of a second is SLOW for a fast moving watercraft. To balance the camera's light meter I adjusted the aperture until I balanced it. The aperture was set at f20. Now in theory I have a narrow aperture, so their should be a deep Depth of Field, right? Well the foreground and background are focused, but why the blurred background then? That is because of the slow shutter speed (1/30 of a second) with the camera tracking the moving subject. Cool, huh?

20140627_FUJIFILM_XT1_FIRST_SHOTS (1 of 2)

"First Shot with Camera to Test Action Shots" - Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA
Fujifilm X-T1, Manual, 1/30s, f20, ISO 100, 141.3mm :: © VisualVoodoo.Com

3) ISO

The third way of adjusting the overall brightness of your photograph is the ISO, which controls how sensitive the camera sensor is to light. A low ISO (like 100) results in a darker photograph, while a high ISO (like 6400) results in a brighter photograph.

If you are new to Manual Controls, this would be a good time to check your camera's manual to learn how to adjust the ISO.


Of course, there is a trade-off here too. The aesthetic compromise of using a higher ISO means that while you will produce a brighter image, a higher ISO also introduces more grain (or “noise”) into a digital photograph.

Usually, you will first decide upon your aperture and shutter speed based on the combination of their aesthetic effects to your vision for the final image, while aiming to keep your ISO as low as possible. If you know that you need a certain shutter speed along with a certain aperture and the resulting image is still too dark, that’s when you increase the ISO.

Generally speaking, when you’re shooting in an environment that is dark or dimly lit, you’ll want to raise the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive to light. When the lighting conditions are bright, you can keep the ISO low.

The easiest way of remembering what effect the ISO has on your images is to think of it in terms of image grain. A low ISO number (i.e., 100) produces the clearest images, grain free. A high ISO number (i.e., 6400) may help you see in the dark, but will introduce a lot of image grain, or dots. Above ISO 6400 is generally not a desirable goal if you want to print your images onto paper BIGGER than 4x6's.

Sometimes grain in photos adds an old school a trip back to the film days. I included the image below so that you can see what grain looks like. Do you see the tiny dots? I actually added this grain in the post-editing phase in Lightroom as a creative element. You wouldn't normally get grain at an ISO of 200! I just liked the old school film effect that grain can introduce to a photo.


The advantages to using Manual Controls is that it gives you full creative control for your final image's look. It also slows you down to think about how you want the image to look. Not only is this a good exercise for the brain, but it reduces the volume of photos that you may have to edit later! I am the total opposite to those photographers who "machine-gun" their camera's shutter at 4 - 8 photos a second, or have 8 images of the exact same thing on their SD or CF cards! I enjoy the challenge of first thinking about my shot, then setting it up and finally taking one shot. Then I MOVE ("zoom" in or out with my feet) or change lenses to get a variation or a different look to an image.

The Exposure Triangle is a great reference to demonstrate how increasing or decreasing any one of these three settings affects the exposure of your image. This skill can be learned quickly, but it’s best to experiment and practice with these settings to see how they operate in the real world. This will help you gain a technical understanding of how to use your camera, but there’s still a long way to go with regards to making photographs that communicate. Remember, photography is a visual language. Once you learn how to use the camera, you can then learn to translate your vision into captivating photographs.

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"Grain In Image" - Nice, France
Fujifilm X-T1, Manual, 1/2000s, f5.6, ISO 200, 23mm :: © VisualVoodoo.Com

About David Aronson

Photography & Videography For Real Estate, Interior Designers, Architects & Commercial Buildings - Fort Lauderdale - PhotoGuy.Com