The Exposure Triangle- How It Works And Why It’s Useful

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How To Use The Exposure Triangle

As you begin to learn your camera settings and step into the world of manual mode, it becomes essential to understand the three pillars of exposure. The three pillars of exposure are known as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Together these settings are in charge of making every image you take possible. Each has its own unique purposes, creative uses, and drawbacks, so it’s essential to know how they each work together. By learning how to use the exposure triangle, it becomes crystal clear how all three pillars work as one.

If you’re new to photography or starting to step into the world of manual mode, the exposure triangle is going to be a huge help. This tool creates a visual representation of the balancing act that plays out each time you choose your camera settings. In this article, you’ll learn exactly how to use the exposure triangle in photography, how it works, and why it matters. Let’s dive in!

What Is The Exposure Triangle In Photography?


The exposure triangle is a diagram that pieces together the three pillars of exposure. Each side of the triangle represents a different exposure setting of either shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The reason these three settings are so important is that they work to balance out the exposure on your image. Without these three settings, it would be impossible to freeze movement or limit the amount of light entering your camera. What many people struggle to comprehend at first is how these settings work together. When you learn about them individually, it’s challenging to see how they all relate. The exposure triangle fills that gap to help you visualize the relationship between each camera setting more effectively!

When To Use The Exposure Triangle

Unlike other creative tools, the exposure triangle is meant to represent an idea rather than a definitive answer. Learning how to read the exposure triangle will help you to remember the relationship between each of your exposure settings. As you begin to learn about shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, it can be useful to have the exposure triangle to consult in the field. This way, you can quickly remember how to adjust your settings for a specific result.

The three pillars of exposure displayed in the exposure triangle are used in every image you take. With that said, you likely won’t need to consult the exposure triangle every time you’re taking photos However, you do need to practice its teachings each time you pick up your camera. It’s best to use the exposure triangle when you are struggling to manage the exposure settings. If your image isn’t turning out like you had hoped, consulting the exposure triangle will help you solve the problem.

If you struggle to remember your camera settings, you’ll want to grab my manual mode cheat sheet. This cheat sheet is the perfect reference guide to help you nail your camera settings in any situation!

How To Understand The Exposure Triangle

To get the most of the exposure triangle, you need to learn how to read it. Luckily it’s quite simple! Each side of the triangle represents one setting. As you travel from end to end of each side, the exposure changes from light to dark. To better understand the exposure triangle, let’s break down each of the three pillars of exposure.

– Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the setting in charge of capturing motion. This little mechanism is found inside of your camera body just in front of the sensor. When you hit the capture button, it will open and close according to the shutter speed you had set. When the shutter opens, light can land on your camera’s sensor and create an image. The more time the light can reach your sensor, the brighter your image will become.

The shutter speed is measured in full seconds or fractions of a second. Common shutter speeds you might notice are: 1″, 0″5, 1/5, 1/50, 1/100, 1/250, 1/800.

If you aren’t familiar, those shutter speeds can seem a little confusing. A shutter speed such as 1/50 represents a fraction of a second. With a shutter speed of 1/50, the shutter will open and close within one-fiftieth of a second. If you are using a shutter speed such as 0″5, this means the shutter will open and close in half a second. The ” icon represents full seconds that your shutter will remain open.

Depending on how fast your subject is moving, you’ll have to choose a shutter speed accordingly. Some shutter speeds are too slow to capture movement resulting in nothing but a blurry streak across your photo. For example, if you were to capture a car speeding by, you’ll want to opt for a faster shutter speed like 1/250. This will freeze the fast motion in place and give you a sharp image!

If your subject is staying still, you can use a slower shutter speed like 1/80, for example. Your shutter speed is continuously changing depending on the subject or the amount of light in your scene.

Besides capturing movement, the shutter speed can be used to lighten or darken the exposure. As you can imagine, when light has less time to hit your sensor, the darker your photo will appear. Similarly, if there isn’t much available light in a scene, there won’t be enough to expose on your sensor at faster shutter speeds. That’s why you can’t use a shutter speed like 1/400 in a dimly lit room. Your photo would just look black!

To get more in-depth with shutter speed, click here.

– Aperture

Aperture-InfographicThe aperture is a small donut-shaped ring found inside of your lens. It’s made up of several ‘leaves’ that seamlessly slide together to make the inner hole smaller or larger. As the hole in your aperture decreases in size, it limits how much light can pass. This, in turn, will make your image darker. The opposite occurs with a wider aperture that allows more light to pass through your lens.

So how can you know exactly how big or small your aperture is? Well, that’s where F-stops come into play. F-stops are a way to measure the size of your aperture. Depending on the F-stop, you’ll know exactly how much light can pass through your lens.


F-stops are displayed as F/4, for example. The F can be ignored, but what you do need to focus on is the following number. This number will tell you how big or small your aperture is. The smaller the F-stop (such as F/2.8), the wider your aperture, and the more light can pass. The larger the F-stop (Such as F/16), the smaller your aperture, and the less light can pass.

Besides altering how much light can enter your camera (which changes the exposure), changing the aperture also affects the Depth Of Field (DOF). Depth of field is how much is in focus at one time. At wider apertures, there is a shallow depth of field, meaning only a small amount can be in focus at once. This is great when you want to incorporate background blur into your photo! When you use smaller apertures such as F/22, there is a large depth of field, allowing everything to be in focus. DOF is a key creative tool for all photographers to consider before taking a photo.

Most lenses have an aperture range of F/4 to F/22. Higher-end lenses may have even wider apertures such as F/2.8 or F/1.2. These lenses are fantastic for low light since they let in that much extra light. Although awesome, lenses with wider apertures often come at a higher cost.

To learn more about aperture and depth of field, click here.


The ISO setting controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The camera sensor is a small rectangle found within your camera body. Its sole purpose is to record light and turn it into the actual pictures you see. The ISO setting simply adjusts how the sensor reacts to incoming light.

This setting is best used to help fill the gaps in your exposure. After you’ve chosen a shutter speed and aperture setting, you can use the ISO to balance out the exposure. There aren’t any creative uses to the ISO, but it’s a real lifesaver when you need a little extra brightness.

It’s essential to keep in mind that as you adjust the ISO, the more noise will be visible in your photo. Noise is like a digital static that appears in a photo and can reduce the overall quality. It’s best to keep as little noise as possible in your images whenever you can help it. That means that the lower the ISO, the better!


The most typical ISO range is ISO100 to ISO6400. Depending on the level and brand of camera you’re using, your ISO range may differ. Put simply, the lower the ISO number, the less sensitive your sensor will be. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your sensor and the brighter your exposure.

To learn more about ISO and noise, click here.

Connecting The Exposure Triangle

When you combine all three sides of the exposure triangle, you get your overall exposure. So what can you do to choose the right exposure?

To measure the overall exposure of your image, there’s a little something called your exposure value. The exposure value, or EV for short, is the brightness of your image after the combined settings of your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. EV is measured in stops of light to indicate changes in exposure.

Understanding Stops In Your Photography

In the most basic sense, stops are the halving or doubling of your exposure. By using stops, you can be more accurate with how much you adjust your settings!

example of stops in photography

To give you an example of stops, let’s start with shutter speed. If you have a shutter speed of 1/100 and you want to lighten your exposure by one stop, you could half your shutter speed. That means that 1/100 turns into 1/50, allowing one stop of added brightness to your exposure. If you were to darken your shutter speed of 1/100 by one stop, you would double it. By adding one stop, 1/100 becomes a 1/200 shutter.

The same thing applies to ISO. If you were to add one stop of brightness to ISO100, you would end up with ISO200. If you were to darken two stops from ISO1000, you’d end up with ISO 250. This is because you half ISO1000 to ISO500 and once again to ISO250 for two stops of exposure change.

Where it starts to get confusing is with aperture. Since F-stops aren’t as easy to divide and multiply, it’s a bit unclear what counts as a full stop. With your aperture, there is a set range of F-stops that you need to remember. Each F-stop listed below represents a full stop of exposure change.

Full stops with aperture:

F/2.8, F/4, F/5.6, F/8, F/11, F/16, F/22

There are in between apertures such as F/3.2 or F/6.3. These apertures are called partial stops and are perfect for when you need to make smaller adjustments. There’s nothing wrong with using these partial stop apertures. They’re simply an added option when you don’t need a full stop of adjustment to your exposure value.

To learn more in-depth about stops and why they’re essential, click here.

How To Read Exposure Value And Stops

Stops are useful to understand, but how are you supposed to know the right exposure value for your photo? That’s where a tool called the internal light meter comes in! The internal light meter samples light in a scene to tell you how bright your image will be with your current settings. It takes this exposure reading and adds an indicator on your light meter. Depending on where this indicator sits on the light meter, you’ll know how much you need to adjust your settings.

light meter in photography, beginner photography tips

The light meter is a small line that can be found through your viewfinder or settings display. In the middle of this line is a 0, and stretching to either side are the numbers 1, 2, and 3. Beside each of the 3’s on the light meter, you’ll see a + or icon. The + indicates brightness while the indicates darkness. Each of the numbers you see indicates a full stop of brightness or darkness, depending on which side they sit on.

When you half-press your capture button, a small indicator will appear beneath the light meter. To ensure you have a good exposure, you want to keep the indicator as close to 0 on your light meter as possible. There are exceptions to this rule, and I talk about it more in-depth in this post.


By implementing what you learned about stops, you can make faster adjustments to balance your light meter. For example, if your exposure reads as 1 stop too bright, you know you could double your shutter speed to fix the issue. If your exposure was two stops too dark, you could open your aperture from F/8 to F/4 to balance the EV once again.

Using your internal light meter and knowledge of stops makes it easier to nail your camera settings!



Learning how the use the exposure triangle is an important part of learning the three pillars of exposure. The exposure triangle helps to visualize how your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together in a ‘balancing act’. It combines these settings to show you how they each work together to control the overall exposure of your photo.

The exposure triangle is handy for beginners or those first getting into manual mode. It doesn’t need to be consulted for every image you take, but it’s an easy way to build your knowledge of exposure settings. Use the exposure triangle as a tool to help figure out your camera settings if you ever feel stuck.

Another great tool to help you remember your camera settings is with my free Manual Mode Cheat Sheet. This PDF is such a handy tool to keep on your phone or computer as a  reference to camera settings when taking photos. Click here to download!

If you know someone who would benefit from learning the exposure triangle, make sure to share this post with them!

Photo of author
I'm a Canadian photographer and photo retoucher turned founder of bwillcreative.com. Around here I help you to decode the mystery of photo editing with no-fluff videos and written guides to help you achieve your creative goals. Outside of shooting photos and my passion for educating, you'll find me mountain biking or on the trails with my dog, Sunny!

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Bill Chance

Really good – complete, yet understandable explanation.

Thanks for sharing.

[…] If you have a particular creative intent or the automatic settings just aren’t quite doing it, Manual Mode will be your answer. To learn how to use Manual Mode in your photography, you must remember the three pillars of exposure. You can learn how these work by using the exposure triangle. […]