What aperture to use? What is aperture priority? Understanding aperture, shutter speed and ISO

Updated: 2021-07-07

The word photography has its roots in two Greek words, “photos” (light) and “graphos” (to write). So, photography is the art of writing with light. We can trace the history of photography back to the early 1800s. It is considered the first art form to be developed for mass production.

When starting with photography, once I’d understood the meaning of photography (write with light), I instantly realized the importance of excellent light sources when taking pictures. Still, at the same time, I knew that I didn’t understand certain settings on my camera like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO readings, which I knew I’d need to master to shoot great images in low light conditions.

As I had progressed in photography, I did have some great initial success with capturing daytime pictures. Still, as the sun was going down, my photos seemed to look worse and worse, and I soon realized that I didn’t know how to shoot great images without an effective light source, and it began to bother me.

The problem was that I could not find any books or articles on lighting that authors targeted for beginners. So I searched for a book that would explain the lighting techniques that many of the pros use to develop my style, and I could not find one.

I often found myself taking bad pictures indoors, too, especially when shadows covered my subject, and similar to outdoor conditions when the sun was going down.

If you, like me, want to pursue photography, as a hobby or as a profession, you will be encountering such poor lighting instances, but as not all low light situations are the same, we will need to explore the essence of light a bit more.

The importance of light in photography

Light is traditionally divided into three categories: Hard, Soft, and Diffused.

Hard light is the direct light that we get from a spotlight or from the sun itself. It is used to create a spot on a subject or to illuminate a background.

Soft light is the light that we get from a household light bulb or a cloudy sky. It is used to create a very smooth but still focused light.

And the diffused light is used to create a soft, hazy feel.

So, I started to learn how a camera works in various light conditions and implemented them in my photography. I took many pictures once I started to get the hang of it and found that I wasn’t getting bad shots anymore.

Everyone starts photography as a newbie. Somehow, most of the people I know did have the same problem when they first started learning about photography, i.e., they didn’t know how to take amazing pictures in low light conditions. But, we can learn every skill with a little patience, practice, and some knowledge, so to save you time from having to find out what you will need to know, I have put together the following light pointers, which certainly helped me to get on course.

So, let’s get a bit technical… this is the worst part of learning digital photography, the technical terms. But don’t worry; I will simplify it as much as I can. Anyway, I’m assuming that you have already read your camera manual and that you do know how to adjust the settings in manual mode. But, you will need to learn them eventually, so why not start now, right? It will certainly help you to explore the settings that your camera already has built-in to help poor light scenarios.

understanding Aperture Measurement

Aperture is the size of the opening of the lens. A bigger opening introduces more light. If the aperture is smaller, less light will enter; hence the image will be darker. Aperture is measured in “f-stops,” and you will see that there are f/numbers like f/22, f/16/, f/8, f/5.6, or f/2.8. A small f/number represents a bigger aperture, so f/2.8 is a bigger aperture. A smaller aperture is defined by a big f/number like f/22. In short, f/2.8 is bigger than f/22. I know it’s a bit confusing, but eventually, you’ll get used to it. Having a bigger aperture will produce brighter images, while a smaller aperture will do the opposite. 

What is aperture priority?

Aperture priority (often A, Av, or Aperture Value) is a semi-automatic mode where you select the aperture, and the camera will choose the right shutter speed for you. It’s good for beginners to use aperture priority mode because it makes things easier for you, and at the same time, you can learn about apertures and shutter speeds.

Understanding Shutter Speed

To understand shutter speed, we must first learn what a shutter is. A shutter is a device in the camera which limits the amount of light on a determined period. That determined period is the shutter speed.

Shutter speed is expressed in seconds and fractions of a second like 2 s, 1 s, ¼ s, 1/8 s, 1/15 s, 1/30 s, 1/60 s, 1/125 s, 1/250 s, 1/500 s, 1/1000 s, 1/2000 s, 1/4000 s, 1/8000 s, etc. The shutter speed dictates the amount of exposure. A faster shutter speed means that the exposure will be less, while a slower shutter speed will increase the amount of exposure.

A fast shutter speed like 1/8000 s will close faster than 2 s of exposure time. So we need to understand from this that a slower shutter speed like 2 s or 1 s will allow more light, which makes our pictures brighter, while faster shutter speeds like 1/8000 s and 1/4000 s will greatly limit the light that enters the lens producing a dimmer image.

And what is ISO?

In simple terms, ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. The normal ISO level in digital cameras is 100. When you increase the ISO level, the camera’s sensitivity also increases, which just means that it can accommodate more light which in turn makes the image much brighter.

But on the downside, if you increase the ISO level too much, your pictures will be grainier or noisier, so use caution when adjusting your ISO as too high of an ISO can definitely have a negative effect on your pictures. If you see the ISO option on your camera screen or in your menu then you have the ability to change it yourself. For most cameras, the auto ISO level is set at some sort of default.

So why should we increase the ISO then? Increasing your ISO also increases your shutter speed which in turn allows more light to be captured. By adjusting the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, we can manipulate the amount of light that enters the lens, and by doing this, we can create better pictures in low light conditions.

And I have some additional lighting tips for you.

Ambient Light

Ambient light means naturally available light. It is the light that was not added to the scene by the photographer.

The best thing to do in these conditions where light is sparse is to get the most out of the existing light or ambient light. Position your subject to a point where the subject is exposed to the most light. If you are shooting an immovable object, focus on a spot where most light is concentrated.

When taking photographs indoors, an open door or window with the curtains open may help you produce better images. Be creative! If you can find additional light sources like the TV, the headlights of a car, or a gas lamp, then, by all means, do use your imagination.

Working Against the Light Source

You can also experiment with silhouettes. An image of a silhouette is made by capturing the subject between the camera and the light source, not focusing on the subject itself. Again, the effects will be somehow dramatic and mysterious, and you do have a unique chance to take advantage of a low-light situation to your advantage.

Using your Flash

If you have been using your camera for quite some time now, you may have discovered that using your flash doesn’t always make the image better. In my experience as a newbie, using my flash created unwanted shadows, unnecessary additional light, and a change in colors of my subject, which made the image appear unrealistic and poor quality looking. So I started to use the built-in flashless and less because I thought it was just for situations when a badly needed light source is required. But I was wrong.

Using your flash in low light situations can enhance your images, but you need to know-how. For example, when your background is brightly lit but the subject is not, you can use your built-in flash to give the required illumination. Just adjust your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for the best results.