Vocabulary & Concepts



  • Exposure [or lightness and darkness in the picture] is a combination of the aperture, or “f-stop”, which is the size of the hole in the lens, and the shutter speed, which is the length of time that the shutter is open. So, if you leave the shutter open longer, you’re getting more light to the film or more light to the digital sensor, and the picture gets brighter, or lighter. If you shorten the exposure (give less light to the film or to the digital sensor), the exposure gets darker. Longer shutter speed: more exposure, more light; shorter shutter speed: less exposure, less light.

Equivalent Exposure:

  • Adjusting the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed to obtain an “equivalent” exposure according to your environment/situational needs. For example, increasing the shutter speed and also increasing ISO in order to properly expose and capture sporting events (fast shutter speed needed, therefore ISO is increase to get equivalent brightness in photo as you would with a slower shutter speed).


exposure triangle

Each setting controls exposure differently:

Aperture: controls the area over which light can enter your camera
Shutter speed: controls the duration of the exposure
ISO speed: controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to a given amount of light

One can therefore use many combinations of the above three settings to achieve the same exposure. The key, however, is knowing which trade-offs to make, since each setting also influences other image properties. For example, aperture affects depth of field, shutter speed affects motion blur and ISO speed affectsimage noise.

The next few sections will describe how each setting is specified, what it looks like, and how a given camera exposure mode affects their combination.


A camera’s shutter determines when the camera sensor will be open or closed to incoming light from the camera lens. The shutter speed specifically refers to how long this light is permitted to enter the camera. “Shutter speed” and “exposure time” refer to the same concept, where a faster shutter speed means a shorter exposure time.

By the Numbers. Shutter speed’s influence on exposure is perhaps the simplest of the three camera settings: it correlates exactly 1:1 with the amount of light entering the camera. For example, when the exposure time doubles the amount of light entering the camera doubles. It’s also the setting that has the widest range of possibilities:

Shutter Speed Typical Examples
1 – 30+ seconds Specialty night and low-light photos on a tripod
2 – 1/2 second To add a silky look to flowing water
Landscape photos on a tripod for enhanced depth of field
1/2 to 1/30 second To add motion blur to the background of a moving subject
Carefully taken hand-held photos with stabilization
1/50 – 1/100 second Typical hand-held photos without substantial zoom
1/250 – 1/500 second To freeze everyday sports/action subject movement
Hand-held photos with substantial zoom (telephoto lens)
1/1000 – 1/4000 second To freeze extremely fast, up-close subject motion

How it Appears. Shutter speed is a powerful tool for freezing or exaggerating the appearance of motion:

shutter-speed-example1 shutter-speed

With waterfalls and other creative shots, motion blur is sometimes desirable, but for most other shots this is avoided. Therefore all one usually cares about with shutter speed is whether it results in a sharp photo — either by freezing movement or because the shot can be taken hand-held without camera shake.

How do you know which shutter speed will provide a sharp hand-held shot? With digital cameras, the best way to find out is to just experiment and look at the results on your camera’s rear LCD screen (at full zoom). If a properly focused photo comes out blurred, then you’ll usually need to either increase the shutter speed, keep your hands steadier or use a camera tripod.

For more on this topic, see the tutorial on Using Camera Shutter Speed Creatively.


A camera’s aperture setting controls the area over which light can pass through your camera lens. It is specified in terms of an f-stop value, which can at times be counterintuitive, because the area of the opening increases as the f-stop decreases. In photographer slang, when someone says they are “stopping down” or “opening up” their lens, they are referring to increasing and decreasing the f-stop value, respectively.

lens aperture settings

By the Numbers. Every time the f-stop value halves, the light-collecting area quadruples. There’s a formula for this, but most photographers just memorize the f-stop numbers that correspond to each doubling/halving of light:

Aperture Setting Relative Light Example Shutter Speed
f/22 1X 16 seconds
f/16 2X 8 seconds
f/11 4X 4 seconds
f/8.0 8X 2 seconds
f/5.6 16X 1 second
f/4.0 32X 1/2 second
f/2.8 64X 1/4 second
f/2.0 128X 1/8 second
f/1.4 256X 1/15 second

The above aperture and shutter speed combinations all result in the same exposure.

Note: Shutter speed values are not always possible in increments of exactly double or half another shutter speed, but they’re always close enough that the difference is negligible.

The above f-stop numbers are all standard options in any camera, although most also allow finer adjustments of 1/2 or 1/3 stops, such as f/3.2 and f/6.3. The range of values may also vary from camera to camera (or lens to lens). For example, a compact camera might have an available range of f/2.8 to f/8.0, whereas a digital SLR camera might have a range of f/1.4 to f/32 with a portrait lens. A narrow aperture range usually isn’t a big problem, but a greater range does provide for more creative flexibility.

Technical Note: With many lenses, their light-gathering ability is also affected by their transmission efficiency, although this is almost always much less of a factor than aperture. It’s also beyond the photographer’s control. Differences in transmision efficiency are typically more pronounced with extreme zoom ranges. For example, Canon’s 24-105�mm f/4L IS lens gathers perhaps ~10-40% less light at f/4 than Canon’s similar 24-70�mm f/2.8L lens at f/4 (depending on the focal length).

How it Appears. A camera’s aperture setting is what determines a photo’s depth of field (the range of distance over which objects appear in sharp focus). Lower f-stop values correlate with a shallower depth of field:

example photo with a wide aperture settingWide Aperture
f/2.0 – low f-stop number
shallow depth of field
example photo with a narrow aperture settingNarrow Aperture
f/16 – high f-stop number
large depth of field


The ISO speed determines how sensitive the camera is to incoming light. Similar to shutter speed, it also correlates 1:1 with how much the exposure increases or decreases. However, unlike aperture and shutter speed, a lower ISO speed is almost always desirable, since higher ISO speeds dramatically increase image noise. As a result, ISO speed is usually only increased from its minimum value if the desired aperture and shutter speed aren’t otherwise obtainable.

low ISO speedLow ISO Speed
(low image noise)
high ISO speedHigh ISO Speed
(high image noise)

note: image noise is also known as “film grain” in traditional film photography

Common ISO speeds include 100, 200, 400 and 800, although many cameras also permit lower or higher values. With compact cameras, an ISO speed in the range of 50-200 generally produces acceptably low image noise, whereas with digital SLR cameras, a range of 50-800 (or higher) is often acceptable.


camera mode dial

Most digital cameras have one of the following standardized exposure modes: Auto (green rectangle), Program (P), Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv), Manual (M) and Bulb (B) mode. Av, Tv, and M are often called “creative modes” or “auto exposure (AE) modes.”

Exposure Cheat Sheet

Each of these modes influences how aperture, ISO and shutter speed are chosen for a given exposure. Some modes attempt to pick all three values for you, whereas others let you specify one setting and the camera picks the other two (if possible). The following table describes how each mode pertains to exposure:

Exposure Mode How It Works
Auto (green rectangle) Camera automatically selects all exposure settings.
Program (P) Camera automatically selects aperture & shutter speed; you can choose a corresponding ISO speed & exposure compensation. With some cameras, P can also act as a hybrid of the Av & Tv modes.
Aperture Priority (Av or A) You specify the aperture & ISO; the camera’s metering determines the corresponding shutter speed.
Shutter Priority (Tv or S) You specify the shutter speed & ISO; the camera’s metering determines the corresponding aperture.
Manual (M) You specify the aperture, ISO and shutter speed — regardless of whether these values lead to a correct exposure.
Bulb (B) Useful for exposures longer than 30 seconds. You specify the aperture and ISO; the shutter speed is determined by a remote release switch, or by the duration until you press the shutter button a second time.

In addition, the camera may also have several pre-set modes; the most common include landscape, portrait, sports and night mode. The symbols used for each mode vary slightly from camera to camera, but will likely appear similar to those below:

Exposure Mode How It Works
portrait mode
Camera tries to pick the lowest f-stop value possible for a given exposure. This ensures the shallowest possible depth of field.
landscape mode
Camera tries to pick a high f-stop to ensure a large depth of field. Compact cameras also often set their focus distance to distant objects or infinity.
sports/action mode
Camera tries to achieve as fast a shutter speed as possible for a given exposure — ideally 1/250 seconds or faster. In addition to using a low f-stop, the fast shutter speed is usually achieved by increasing the ISO speed more than would otherwise be acceptable in portrait mode.
Night/Low-light Camera permits shutter speeds which are longer than ordinarily allowed for hand-held shots, and increases the ISO speed to near its maximum available value. However, for some cameras this setting means that a flash is used for the foreground, and a long shutter speed and high ISO are used to expose the background. Check your camera’s instruction manual for any unique characteristics.

However, keep in mind that most of the above settings rely on the camera’s metering system in order to know what’s a proper exposure. For tricky subject matter, metering can often be fooled, so it’s a good idea to also be aware of when it might go awry, and what you can do to compensate for such exposure errors (see section on exposure compensation within the camera metering tutorial).

Finally, some of the above modes may also control camera settings which are unrelated to exposure, although this varies from camera to camera. Such additional settings might include the autofocus points, metering mode and autofocus modes, amongst others.


Rule of Thirds

  • The rule of thirds is a powerful compositional technique for making photos more interesting and dynamic. It’s also perhaps one of the most well known.  It is the basis for well balanced and interesting shots.  It also encourages you to make creative use of negative space, the empty areas around your subject.
  • The rule of thirds states than an image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds — both vertically and horizontally.
  • The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guide lines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section. The main reason for observing the rule of thirds is to discourage placement of the subject at the center, or prevent a horizon from appearing to divide the picture in half.
  • rule of thirdsWhen filming or photographing people, it is common to line the body up to a vertical line and the person’s eyes to a horizontal line. If filming a moving subject, the same pattern is often followed, with the majority of the extra room being in front of the person (the way they are moving). Likewise, when photographing a still subject who is not directly facing the camera, the majority of the extra room should be in front of the subject with the vertical line running through their perceived center of mass.

Slide056-590x443 rule-of-thirds-grid rule-of-thirds-movement

Leading Lines: Using lines to lead the eye through the picture

IMG_4255 Photo_composition_tips_6



Knowing how to use contrast will help you create eye-catching images. Contrast is a tool that photographers use to direct viewer’s attention to their subject. There are two types: Tonal Contrastand Color Contrast. TC refers to the difference in tones from the lightest tone to the darkest tone, in other words, the difference in tones from white to gray to black. CC refers to the way colors interact with each other.

photography with contrast

Tones are normally described as high, normal or low. A high tone image mainly includes white and black with few or no middle grey tones. A normal tone image will have elements that are white, some that are black and many middle tones of grey. A low tone image is the one with almost no highlights or shadows; all the tones are very similar one to the other. High tone images are harsh while low contrast images are soft.

Color contrast is used to achieve great compositions. Colors with opposite characteristics, like blue and yellow, contrast strongly when placed together. When two opposing colors are placed together they complement and accentuate the qualities of the other color. Cold colors and warm colors almost always contrast, light colors contrast against dark ones and bold colors offset weak colors.

Composition in photographs is also classified as low and high key scenes. When an image contains mostly dark tones or colors it is referred to as low key, when it contains light tones or colors it is said to be high key. Low and high key images transmit moods. Normally a low-key image is serious and mysterious while a high-key image creates a feeling of lightness and delicate subjects.

Color Contrast

Color contrast is an effective compositional element in color photography, just as tone is in black-and-white photography. Colors with opposite characteristics contrast strongly when placed together. Each color accentuates the qualities of the other and makes the color images stand out dramatically. Color contrast is enhanced when you create the contrast of detail against mass. An example is a single, bright, red flower in a clear, glass vase photographed against a bright, green background.

Cold colors (bluish) and warm colors (reddish) almost always contrast. Cold colors recede, while warm colors advance. Light colors contrast against dark ones, and a bold color offsets a weak color.


.–When a scene contains mostly dark tones or colors, it is low key (fig. 5-17). When the scene contains mostly light tones, it is high key (fig. 5-18). Low-key and high-key pictures convey mood and atmosphere. Low key often suggests seriousness and mystery and is often used in horror pictures, such as a dark-granite castle in a thunderstorm. High key creates a feeling of delicacy and lightness. A photograph of a fair-skinned, blond-haired mother dressed in a white gown against a light background nursing her baby is a good subject for a high-key picture.

fig0517.gif (74770 bytes)

fig0518.gif (37736 bytes)


.–High-key color pictures contain large areas of light desaturated colors (pastels) with very few middle colors or shadows. Intentionally overexposing color film (exposing for the shadows) helps to create a high-key effect.

A low-key effect is created when the scene is dominated by shadows and weak lighting. Low-key pictures tend to have large areas of shadow, few highlights, and degraded colors. Naturally dark subjects are best for low-key pictures. Low-key color pictures can be induced by exposing color film for the highlights.


Framing is another technique photographers use to direct the viewer’s attention to the primary subject of a picture. Positioned around the subject, a tree, an archway, or even people, for example, can create a frame within the picture area. Subjects enclosed by a frame become separated from the rest of the picture and are emphasized. Looking across a broad expanse of land or water at some object can make a rather dull uninteresting view. Moving back a few feet and framing the object between trees improves the composition.

An element used as a frame should not draw attention to itself. Ideally, the frame should relate to the theme of the picture; for example, a line of aircraft parked on the flight line framed by the wing and prop of another aircraft.

Not only is framing an effective means of directing the viewer’s attention, it can also be used to obscure undesirable foregrounds and backgrounds. The illusion of depth can be created in a picture by the effective use of framing (fig. 5-19).

fig0519.gif (56009 bytes)


A large percentage of otherwise good pictures is ruined, because they include unnecessary or distracting foreground. This common fault can result from the photographer standing too far away from their subject when they take a picture, or the fact that normal focal length or standard lenses cover a relatively wide angle of view.

Undesirable foreground can be eliminated by moving in closer to the subject, by making pictures with a longer than standard focal-length lens, or by changing viewpoint or camera angle. Many already existing pictures can be improved by enlarging only a section of the negative and by cropping out meaningless or distracting foreground. In most cases, the foreground should be sharply focused and of sufficient depth to furnish substantial support for the subject. No object in the foreground should ever be so prominent that it distracts from the subject. You should clear the foreground of items that have no connection with the picture. The ultimate example of carelessness on the part of the photographer is to leave his or her camera case where it shows in the picture. Generally, the foreground contains the leading line that is the line that leads the eye into the photograph and toward the point of interest. Whether this line is an object or series of objects or shadows, it should be sharply focused. A fuzzy, out-of-focus foreground usually irritates the senses and detracts from emphasis on the subject matter.


The background is almost as important an element in good composition as the camera angle. Too often it is overlooked when composing a scene since the photographer normally gives so much attention to the subject. Be particularly observant of the background to see that it contains nothing distracting. A tree or pole that was unnoticed in the distance behind a person when composing the scene may appear in the photograph to be growing out of his or her collar or supporting his or her head.

The background should be subordinate to the main subject in both tone and interest. It should also make the subject stand out and present it to best advantage. Unsharpness and blur are effective ways for separating the subject from the background. Unsharpness can be accomplished by using a relatively large f/stop to render the background out of focus. In the case of subjects in motion, the subject can be pictured sharply and the background blurred by panning the subject (fig. 5-20). Occasionally, you may want to reverse these effects and record the subject unsharp or blurred and the background sharp. This is done to create the impression of the subject being closer to the viewer or to express motion by holding the camera still as you use a shutter speed that is too slow to “stop” the motion.

fig0520.gif (89739 bytes)

Silhouettes are a good example of tonal contrast. Silhouettes are created through a sharp difference between dark and light areas. Color contrasted images contain complementary, or also called opposite, colors. Two colors on the opposite side of the color wheel create contrasting colors. Yellow & Blue or Green & Red create contrasting images that grab attention.


Processed with VSCOcam

Photo cred: Daniel S. Vincent



The important part is to learn how to combine and use to your advantage tonal contrast and color contrast or even how to compensate them when used separately. Great color contrast is a great way to compensate for tonal contrast. An image with low tonal contrast can be improved by incorporating a contrasting color into it.

A photo with low contrasting colors, for example, yellow and orange, can look great if a tonal contrast is accomplished by using lighter and darker yellows and oranges. Photos with low contrasting colors are quieter but generally great for seasonal and landscape images.

Improving Composition with Tonal Contrast

Tonal contrast 1

If you were to ask me for two ways that you could improve the composition of your photos, the first piece of advice I would give you is to keep the composition as simple as possible. Eliminate anything that isn’t part of the story from the frame.

The second part of the answer is to focus on tonal contrast. Now, many discussions of composition tend to concentrate on the basics, such as the rule-of-thirds, leading lines, use of colour and so on. Not many people seem to be talking about tonal contrast. That’s a shame, because it’s an element that can really improve your composition.

What is Tonal Contrast?

Tonal contrast is created when light tones and dark tones lie alongside each other. Here’s an example:

Tonal contrast 2

The tonal contrast in this photo is created by the difference in brightness between the white flower and the dark green background.

In any photo it is natural for the eye to go straight to the highlights. That is what is happening here – the viewer’s eye is pulled by the lightest tones in the image, the flower, and then travels slowly around the rest of the image, taking in the detail. It sets up a kind of visual dynamism between the light and dark tones.

Here’s another example of tonal contrast in action:

Tonal contrast 3

Here, the tonal contrast is provided by the difference in brightness between the white parts of the waterfall and my model’s clothing, and the dark tones of the water and the rocks.

Working in Black and White

Tonal contrast is the basis of many successful black and white images. Indeed, if you need help to see the tones in your colour photos an easy way to do so is to open them in Photoshop and reduce the colour saturation to zero. This is what happens to the two photos above when we do that:

Tonal contrast 4

Tonal contrast 5

It is easier to see tonal contrast in black and white images because there is no colour to distract your eye from the brightness values within the photo.

You will also notice that the composition of these images is very simple. Simplicity helps improve composition by eliminating distractions.

Let’s look at another example:

Tonal contrast 6

This is a photo that I took in an antiques market in Shanghai. You can see my two principles of composition in action here:

Simplicity: I moved in close to concentrate on the dominoes.

Tonal contrast: The ivory coloured dominoes are offset by the dark tones of the box they are in.

Tonal contrast 7

Here is the desaturated version. The tonal contrast is even clearer in this image.

There are a few more points I’d like to make here:

  1. Tonal contrast is a great basis for a successful black and white image. The desaturated versions of the above photos all work fairly well. It won’t take much more work to turn them into striking monochrome images.
  2. Images with strong tonal contrast tend to work well in both black and white and colour. An interesting exercise you could try is to go back through photos that you have already taken and select some that feature strong tonal contrast. Then convert them to black and white. I think you will be able to create some strong monochrome images if you do this.
  3. Keeping your compositions simple helps make the most out of tonal contrast. If you include too much within the frame, the impact of any tonal contrast is lessened.

Finally, please note that reducing the colour saturation to zero is usually not the best way to convert a colour image to monochrome. The aim here is purely to make the tones easier to recognise by eliminating the distraction of colour.

Does that mean that every image requires tonal contrast to be successful? No, it doesn’t. It is merely one tool of many at your disposal. The key concept to understand is that learning to recognise and utilise tonal contrast helps you create stronger photos.

For example, if you have arranged a photo shoot with a model in a location with a dark background, you could ask her to wear something light in order to set up tonal contrast between her clothes and the background.

Lack of tonal Contrast

There are times when tonal contrast is not evident in a photo, yet the composition is still successful. Here’s an example:

Tonal contrast 8

Now let’s look at the desaturated version:

Tonal contrast 9

You can see that there isn’t much tonal contrast. Yet the photo works because the purple flower is complemented nicely by the green background. This is called colour contrast and in this image more than compensates for the lack of tonal contrast.



Hot air balloons at sunrise
Lighting during the golden hour is soft, diffused, and warm. Image by Martin Sojka.


  • In photography, the golden hour (sometimes known as magic hour, especially in cinematography) is a period shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which daylight is redder and softer compared to when the Sun is higher in the sky.
  • What Makes it Magical?There’s a reason — several reasons, actually — why the golden hour is also known as the magic hour. During each golden hour (morning and evening), you will find that the sun is low in the sky; when a light source is larger and closer relative to the subject, soft, diffused light is produced. Soft light is preferable for virtually any subject, as it doesn’t create harsh shadows and tends to be very dynamic-range-friendly, meaning you won’t lose any details to extreme shadows or blown-out highlights. Shadows themselves, though, aren’t necessarily a bad thing; the long shadows created by the sun at these times of day can help add texture, depth, and ultimately, interest to your final product. And let’s not forget that warm, golden glow. You’re not afforded any of these benefits when shooting under an oppressive midday sun.

    Simple. Your subject faces the sun. Golden hour is the perfect time to do this with natural light, since they won’t be super squinty. It’s even, gorgeous, and easy to shoot.



    You can also put the sun behind your subject to get backlighting going on.This is really awesome during golden hour, as it creates that warm, glowy effect. Expose for your subjects’ skin tones, and enjoy the magic.


    Then there are a couple of nifty things you can look for during golden hour!


    This happens when you’re using the sun in a backlit situation. If you have a dark background behind the subject, you can see a faint glow outlining them. This is called rim lighting, and it gives your subject sepration from the background. Why does that rock? Because it draws attention to your subject. Easy.



    Flare is that awesome glowy, rainbowy thing that happens when light hits your lens. It works especially well during golden hour, when the sun is at a great angle, and has lots of colour to play with. It happens in backlit situations, just like rim lighting.

    To get flare, just play around with how much sunlight actually hits your lens. You can see the photo below is the same scene as before. All I did was move a bit so the couple wasn’t completely covering up the sun. Bam. Flare.

    The neat thing about fla
    re is that it’s super unique. Different lenses at different apertures render flare differently. Different light at different intensities produces different effects. And when you change up the angle, yep, things get different. Play around. You’re going to have a lot of fun.


    Here are a couple more examples of magical golden light photos! 




Here is a collection of natural light portraits. They were all taken predominantly with natural light – in most cases at or near a window. Enjoy.


natural light portraits

natural light portraits

natural light portraits window light

natural light portraits window light


natural light portraits window light

natural light portraits window light

natural light portraits window light

natural light portraits window light

Tips For Awesome Window Light Shooting

  • Use your eyes. Think about the light in front of you. Does it look cool?
  • Shut off all other lights in the room so you only have one light source (otherwise white balancing is going to be a pain!)
  • Expose for the bright side of the subject to avoid blowing out your highlights
  • Expose for the subject when using backlighting (and the window is going to blow out. That’s ok)
  • If the sun is coming directly through the window, you’ll end up with harsh light instead of soft. You might want that, or you might want to use a different window to get the soft stuff
  • When shooting people, try to get catchlights in their eyes to brighten them up. Catchlights are the little white reflections of the light source that show up in eyes. They’re good things.

Different Types of Lighting To Try With A Window

  • Different positions along the window (back, middle, front)
  • Front lighting and backlighting
  • Adjust the angle that your subject is facing the window at
  • Adjust the distance your subject is from the window






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s