Photography Advice

Use Purpose and Feeling for Correct Exposure In Every Frame

Rethinking Photography in the Mirrorless Digital Age - Part 4

“Choose your Shutter Speed with PURPOSE and your Aperture with FEELING.
Then adjust the BRIGHTNESS with ISO
 — Joe Edelman

Before you continue with this article, please read that quote about correct exposure one more time and ponder what it says for a few moments. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Thank you for rereading it. Now that you have freed up that extra memory by purging the exposure triangle from your brain, with just a little practice, you can remember that quote long enough to turn it into a workflow that will give you correct exposure in every frame. 

Eventually, you can forget the quote because it will have become a habit that helps ensure that you get consistent exposure with proper shutter speeds for the situation and the correct aperture to give your image the desired feeling.

Create a Workflow for Correct Exposure

First and foremost, the ability to achieve correct exposure every time you shoot is not really about shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (Hopefully, you weren’t having visions of a triangle there), and it is not about lining up a needle on an in-camera or handheld light meter.

Indeed, correct exposure does require understanding how to select the proper shutter speed and aperture for the photograph you are making. Still, you must develop a consistent workflow to ensure you achieve correct exposure every time you shoot.

A workflow, a set of habits, a system, a methodology, a protocol, a procedure, or a series of steps; call it what you may; it is about creating a discipline you apply to every photograph you make/take.

With some practice and discipline, achieving correct exposure will become almost instinctual.

At the top of each article in this four-part series, I mentioned that “our industry has yet to keep up with technological changes regarding how we think about, talk about, and teach exposure.” 

Those changes include EVFs (Electronic View Finders), better camera sensors, better handling of noise at higher ISO, better noise reduction software, AI noise reduction software, and image stabilization, to name just a few.

Real-Time Correct Exposure Simulation

For the first time in this series, I have just mentioned EVFs. Before I go any further, I want to touch on the fact that one of the most significant advancements in our camera technology is the ability of mirrorless cameras to provide real-time exposure feedback in the electronic viewfinder. 

This instant feedback (WYSIWYG = What You See Is What You Get) allows us to see the result of our settings and the finished photograph before taking the shot, a luxury that DSLR shooters and film photographers do not have.

It is important to note that this one feature is the tipping point that makes this simplified approach to exposure an option.

My quote at the top of the article is my recommended workflow for any images you create WITHOUT electronic flash. (Flash exposure done correctly requires an entirely different thought process, which I will write about soon.)

Step 1

I encourage you to always begin by choosing your shutter speed. (Take a DEEP BREATH) I know that some of you are already digging in your heels because you feel that the aperture is the most important setting for your type of photography. 

That’s ok. I didn’t say shutter speed was the most important; I recommended choosing it first.

Refer back to Part I of this series. Shutter Speed is a purpose-driven setting, a setting that is practical and primarily technical in nature.

Shutter Speed is the setting that ensures that you freeze the action in your scene and that you are working at a speed fast enough to ensure that there is no camera shake.

Step 2

Next, you will choose your aperture

Your aperture will have the most significant impact on the visual feeling of your photograph. 

Aperture is a tool that we use to impact the emotional response that people will have when they view our images.

A small aperture will create lots of depth of field that will ensure much, if not all, of the scene appears in focus.

A large aperture will create a shallow depth of field, which is excellent for those dreamy bokeh backgrounds with razor-thin focus.

Step 3

Adjust the brightness with ISO. 

By the time you have reached this third step, you have selected the shutter speed needed for your subject and shooting conditions, and you have chosen the aperture that will give you the depth of focus you desire for the emotional impact of your photo.

All that’s left is to adjust the ISO so that your image has the proper brightness. A lower number ISO will make the image darker and a higher number ISO will make the image brighter.

That’s all there is to it!

“Choose your Shutter Speed with PURPOSE and your Aperture with FEELING. Then adjust the BRIGHTNESS with ISO.”

It really couldn’t be any easier, or could it? Actually it CAN be even easier! 😳

Set your camera to AUTO ISO!

AUTO? Yes, you read that right. I will be the first to admit that I have been lecturing photographers about the perils of shooting on AUTO for years. 

As an industry, we have bullied photographers with the standard of manually setting exposure as the only way to create consistently good exposures – yet still, many photographers need help with achieving consistent exposures with manual settings.

Let me be clear: I am not throwing in the towel and going for an easier solution. I am acknowledging the changes in our cameras and embracing an easier and more effective way to get consistently good exposures.

The changes can be found in better sensors, processors, firmware/software, and, most importantly, mirrorless digital cameras with much higher resolution EVFs (electronic viewfinders).

How To Make Auto ISO Foolproof

I am not suggesting “set it and forget it” AUTO ISO. Definitely not!

Hopefully, you have completed the ISO Tolerance Test I outlined in Part III of this series and set your maximum ISO in your camera menu.

Now, the simple way to make AUTO ISO work, along with Steps 1 and 2 that I shared above, is to use the Exposure Compensation dial while looking through the EVF to compose your shot.

Top view of the Sony A7IV camera body with the Exposure Compensation Dial circled in green.

On my Sony A7IV, the exposure compensation dial is on the top right rear side of the camera – perfectly placed for my thumb to adjust left or right to make my photo lighter or darker in real time – for every shot I take.

Some camera brands allow you to do exposure compensation through the real thumbwheel.

Almost all mirrorless digital camera models on the market today will enable you to customize the functions of your camera’s dials to ensure that exposure compensation is convenient without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Refer to your camera manual for your options.

The Final Frame

A quote with a correct exposure on a black background.

It is worth sharing the quote again, but you will notice I added the word AUTO this time.

Unlike the triangle, which will help you remember three words at its best, this quote is a mnemonic.

If you are unfamiliar with that word, (Sounds like nuh·maa·nuhks) a mnemonic is a word, short poem, or sentence intended to help you remember things such as scientific rules or spelling rules. (For example, “i before e, except after c” is a mnemonic to help people remember how to spell words like ‘ believe’ and ‘ receive’.) Mnemonics work by tapping into how the brain naturally stores data.

The bonus is that this mnemonic also promotes an understanding of what Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO do.

I also realize that some old-timers who dislike change will think all of this is ridiculous and argue that their photos turn out just fine doing things the way they have been for decades. To them, I say, that’s great! There is no need to adopt this system then.

But to those same old-timers, I will point a finger and say don’t be the photographer who takes your old viewpoints and tries to impress them on new photographers (of any age). The world changes, and our industry is evolving. Don’t be a dinosaur. We all know how that turned out.

And that is why I have written this series. I embrace the evolution of our equipment and software because of its creative potential; I think it is a very exciting time to be a photographer.

But at some point, our industry needs to acknowledge that our gear and software have evolved way beyond what photography was in the last century. It is time to stop thinking about it in the same way and definitely time to stop teaching it the same old way.

Hopefully, you will realize that much thought, evaluation, and experimentation has gone into this proposal. It is not clickbait; it is intended to move the needle forward. 

It is just the beginning of the conversation – not the complete solution. More to come from myself and others.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

Have more questions about becoming a successful photographer? Would you like to continue the conversation? Join my TOGKnowledge Photographic Community, where you will find photographers from over 30 countries passionate about learning and sharing their photography as they develop their craft.

The Exposure Series

Part I: What the Exposure Triangle and Brooklyn Bridge Have in Common 

Part II: Demystifying Digital Camera Sensors: The Journey of Light to Pixel

Part III: The Must-Try ISO Tolerance Test: Max Out Your Mirrorless

Part IV: Use Purpose and Feeling for Correct Exposure In Every Frame

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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