Photography Advice

What the Exposure Triangle and Brooklyn Bridge Have in Common 

Rethinking Photography in the Mirrorless Digital Age - Part 1

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Are you still clinging to the Exposure Triangle like it’s the holy grail of photography? 

Well, I have a deal for you! Alongside this allegedly invaluable tidbit of photographic wisdom, I have a bridge in Brooklyn, NY, that I would like to sell you! 

Yes, you heard that right! Just as the Exposure Triangle has supposedly been the bedrock of photography education, the Brooklyn Bridge is available for sale for the fifth time in history, and I can give it to you at a bargain rate!

📸 Did you know?
The infamous conman George C. Parker found four buyers for the bridge after making sales of Grants Tomb and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Parker’s exploits gave rise to phrases such as “If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.”

Sadly, the exposure triangle is nothing more than a con played out in the photography industry. But unlike George C. Parker, its origins were much more innocent, and its adoption as the holy grail of learning exposure is a perfect example of misinformation spreading on the Internet. Not maliciously, definitely innocently, but WRONG nonetheless.

The Real History of the Exposure Triangle

The Exposure Triangle is a photography version of the Mandela effect.

📸 In case you didn’t know:
The Mandela Effect refers to a phenomenon where a large group of people remember something in a particular way, but it turns out to be incorrect. The term was coined from the belief by many that Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s in prison, although he actually passed away in 2013.  This collective misremembering of everyday events or details is often attributed to how memory works and how it can create false memories. The Mandela Effect highlights how unreliable and malleable human memory can be.
In his book "Understanding Exposure," Brian Peterson explains the concept of the Exposure Triangle.

The REAL history of the Exposure Triangle begins in 1990, just 10 years before Nikon released the D1, its first professional digital camera. 

American photographer and author Bryan Peterson published the first edition of his book Understanding Photography: How to Shoot Great Photographs.

In the introduction to his book, Peterson writes: “Throughout this book, I discuss the interrelationship between film, aperture, and shutter speed. These three elements are at the heart of every exposure, and together, they make up what I affectionately call the photographic triangle.”

In the book, Peterson stressed the importance of understanding the relationships between those three settings and how to use them creatively. There was no diagram or illustration with a triangle in the book.

Comprehensive guide to mastering digital photography and understanding the Exposure Triangle.

Fast forward to 2005, and a gentleman named Jim Miotke, employed full-time as a web developer for Alaska Airlines, published a book called The BetterPhoto Guide to Digital Photography. Miotke started the website in 1996, and he titled page 60 of his book The Exposure Triangle.

He began the page by referencing Petersons’ use of the phrase photographic triangle and suggested that a triangle made more sense, the first documented use of the “exposure triangle.”

Four pages later, Miotke talks about ISO and explains that changing the ISO “makes the camera more sensitive to the light coming into it.” Even in 2005, that was a completely false statement that mirrored the common language being used by camera companies – not how the cameras actually worked.

It is important to note that this first edition of Miotke’s book, like Peterson’s, did not include a triangle diagram.

The Image of The Exposure Triangle

Most of us can conjure up that image with the mere mention of the word – or can we?

The exposure triangle diagram first appeared on the Internet. Surprised? 

The oldest examples of the Exposure Triangle Diagram date back to 2006. From that time forward, it took off, and the Mandela Effect started to impact photographers.

Today, you will find thousands of images and variations if you Google the Exposure Triangle and click on the images tab. Many variations attempt to show the relationships between the settings: Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.

Unfortunately, those who tried to create a helpful example ultimately got it wrong.

Memorization vs. Understanding

Even in the film days, the Exposure Triangle did nothing to develop an understanding of the three settings. It was merely a reference or, at best, a memorization tip. Unfortunately for humans, memorization and understanding happen in two different brain areas. 

I should also point out that Miller’s law confirms we can easily recall seven plus or minus two names, labels, or numbers. In other words, if you can’t remember shutter speed, aperture, and ISO without drawing a triangle, you have more significant problems. Besides, remembering the names doesn’t help you know how to use them.

Understanding the function and purpose of each setting and the relationships between them is the key to creating consistently good exposures.

The Final Frame: A Bridge for Sale

So, there you have it, folks. If you’re still preaching the gospel of the Exposure Triangle, might I interest you in purchasing the Brooklyn Bridge? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime offer to cling to an outdated concept in an age of technological marvels. 

Embrace the future, leave the triangle in the past where it belongs, and let’s start talking numbers for that bridge, shall we?

The action steps at this point are simple: forget that you have ever heard about or learned about the exposure triangle. It was never meant to be anything more than a creative reference by two authors.

I do want to note that I don’t blame either of the authors mentioned. In fact, I own both of their books, and they are well-intentioned and contain quite a bit of useful information for film and DSLR camera owners.

I promised you a deeper understanding and a better way to handle exposure with your digital mirrorless cameras. Please read on to Part II to better understand how your camera’s sensor works. In Part III, I will introduce you to a new photography term that will give you more confidence in your camera’s ISO settings. In Part IV, I will share a quote that will forever change how you approach setting your exposure.

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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