Mistakes Were Made: Figuring Out the Exposure Triangle
Last week I attended an art exhibition. I went with some friends to see the Van Gogh Alive exhibition in Sydney. For those who are unfamiliar, the event involves a room full of projection screens that tell the story of Gogh’s life and death through his art. You walk into a dark room and watch this presentation unfold for about 10 minutes, and then there are some other minor attractions to see. It was really fun and absolutely beautiful. Naturally, I took a few photos. You can imagine my shock and shame when I came home, imported the photos from my camera, and realised that I butchered the photos so badly that the exhibition is entirely unrecognisable.
I lost an insane amount of detail. You might look at these photos thinking “I don’t recognise this Van Gogh work”. My settings were so unsuitable for the situation that I lost basically all range of colours. What you’re looking at is Van Gogh, but if he only owned 4 un-mixable paints. Or made art inspired by an infrared camera. It’s genuinely disastrous and borderline treasonous.
So, how did I go so wrong?
I’ve had a hefty couple of weeks in terms of photography work. I’ve been shooting a lot of images for a lot of my time, under someone else’s guidelines & creative briefs. Those close to me know I can be rather self-critical, even at the best of times. Employers and clients have consistently referred to me as ‘detail oriented’, and when I’m shooting images for someone else’s use, or a paying customer, of course, I am under pressure to ‘get it right’, as much as possible. Mostly, I’ve hit the mark. It seems, though, that I had a moment of extreme self-assurance, sitting there in that dark room thinking “oh yeah, whatever settings I’ve got is fine”. Maybe I’ve grown reliant on editing software, but to be frank, most of the photos are unsalvageable.
Here, I have absolutely no explanation for how I got it so wrong. It’s a cosmic mystery and an unmistakable anomaly, but in all honesty, I simply did not think to check my settings. Maybe I was excited, distracted, tired or plain ignorant. No big deal. It happens. We live and we learn. There have been plenty of instances where I thought VERY hard about my settings, and butchered it regardless. I always wind up figuring out where I went wrong, after a respectful mourning period and healthy identity crisis.
I’ve been using digital cameras since I was about 14 – and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve used a camera in auto mode. I have spent years wrapping my head around the science behind how photography works, and how each setting affects the others. As someone who basically only learns through experience, take it from me, you can read every article, watch every YouTube video, talk to everyone you know, and every time you think you’ve got it figured out, the vermin rat that is the exposure triangle, will still sneak in and ruin your work. It’s ridiculously complicated to understand the theoretical reality of it, and the mechanics of it, and then apply that to a variety of situations in real life. I’ve made many, many mistakes trying to figure it out.
In my mind, that all means that I am qualified to explain the things I am still always re-learning. So if you’ve been trying to figure it all out, read my dot-point explanation below – I hope some of it sticks for you.
- Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are interrelated – ideally, they would all align to create the perfect picture, but usually what happens is you have to decide what’s most important for the situation.
- If you’re shooting portraits, you’re most likely going to want to prioritise your aperture, to get what you need in focus, and get the bokeh where you want it.
- If you’re shooting a sporting event, you’re most likely going to want to prioritise your shutter speed, because things move fast.
- If you’re shooting astrophotography, you’re more likely to pay more attention to your ISO – you’re primarily after detail.
- Shoot RAW. The files are bigger, but they’re so much easier to edit than a JPEG. There’s more detail in a RAW photo, so when you mess up and overexpose, you’re a LOT more likely to recover it if the detail is there. Some cameras shoot JPEG and RAW at the same time. Do that, if you must, but don’t just shoot in JPEG. That’s too much pressure.
- If you’re shooting something that moves quickly and you want it in focus- (i.e., sporting events, animals, droplets of rain), you need to increase your shutter speed. If your subject, or your hand, moves in the time it takes for the camera to click the photo, it will not be in focus.
- When shooting handheld, try not to drop the shutter speed below the mm of the lens you’re using. i.e. if you’re shooting on a 50mm lens, don’t drop the shutter speed below 1/50. If you need it slower than that, use a tripod. Your hand movement will ruin your life.
- Creativity in photography comes from knowing when and how to break the rules. If you don’t want your subject in focus, or you want grain straight out of the camera, that’s cool. Figure out how to do it on purpose, though, so you have creative control.
- You can fix most things in editing, but it saves time and energy to get it right in the camera, so learn your camera before you even think about Photoshop/Lightroom.
- Your aperture dictates your depth of field. That is – the range of the photo that can be in focus. The smaller the aperture, the more narrow your depth of field will be. Get a depth-of-field calculator app on your phone. It’ll be helpful when you can’t figure out why your subject’s nose is in focus, but their eye isn’t.
- Don’t underestimate your other in camera settings. Look into spot metering. Understand what each focal mode means and when to use it. Don’t be afraid to use manual focus if your camera isn’t seeing your vision.
- Finally, and most importantly, remember to take the lens cap off (and keep track of it, lost lens caps are a true crime mystery).