Shutter Speed, Aperture, & ISO

Travel Photography Tips
11 min read

I’m assuming you’ve heard of the cliche that goes, “A picture is worth 1,000 words,” right? How many times have you taken a picture of an epic landscape and some of those words were, “Welp, this doesn’t do it justice at all?”

This has happened to me SO many times, and I shoot photos professionally! It’s difficult enough to take a shot worth the 992 words left over, but it’s damn near impossible if you don’t know the basic camera settings. Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m here to help you out as best I can! We’ll have you taking sweet portraits and travel shots in no time.

Andrew Uncharted Sahara Portrait

Shot at / Shutter Speed: 1/2000s, Aperture: ƒ-3.2, ISO: 400

In part 1 of my Travel Photography Tips series, we’re going to learn about the Exposure Trio. Now, what I’m about to tell you next is primarily focused towards DSLR & Mirrorless cameras, but that doesn’t mean the concepts can’t be used with other camera equipment!

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the Exposure Trio is the relationship between your three most important camera settings: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Does that sound like a dead language to you? Fear not! It’ll all make sense soon (and I won’t have to get distracted Googling dead languages. I’m looking at you, Ancient Greek).

To adjust these three settings, you’ll need to set your camera to Manual. You can do this via the rotator selector on the top left of the camera. Most cameras also have an Aperture Priority Mode and Shutter Priority Mode as well. If your camera has these options, you’ll see them as “A” and “S” on the rotator. These modes allow you to adjust the shutter speed or the aperture only while the camera automatically adjusts the other two settings. As useful as those modes can be, it’s best to learn on Manual, since it will help you learn how all three settings interact. Manual is, you guessed it, designated with an “M.” Set your camera to M and let’s begin!

I’ll be showing example photos of my Canon 5D Mark II. These are universal settings we’ll be dealing with, but the placement of each will depend on which camera brand and model you’re using. If you get lost, Youtube it! There are plenty of guides for your specific camera. For my example photos, I’ve listed the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO for you to better understand how to get certain shots. 

Make sure the “M” is matched up with the line and we’re golden!

Intro: Understanding the Numbers

How do you know if your photo is properly exposed? Well, it’s easy to tell by snapping a quick photo and viewing it, but there’s an easier way. In most DSLR and mirrorless cameras, there’s an exposure meter in your camera! If you look through your viewfinder or the rear-facing screen, you should see a horizontal line, the following numbers: -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, and a triangle-shaped icon. You’ll also see your ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and more, but I’ll explain those in a second.

Don’t mind the mess

Focus on this info for now

1. Aperture

Let’s start with learning about your camera’s aperture (we’re starting with this since it’s my favorite.). The aperture is what controls how much light is going to hit the sensor of your camera. That helps regulate how bright, or dark, your photo is going to be!

The aperture itself is made up of individual blades that form a hole inside of the lens. When you adjust the aperture, that hole gets bigger or smaller. That hole is what allows light to hit the sensor when the shutter clicks open!

Your lens has the aperture marked on the outside

The aperture is measured in a unit called an ƒ-stop. The symbol looks like almost like a cursive f, like this [ƒ]. The ƒ-stop differs depending on what camera lens you’re using. The aperture itself is measured at its most wide-open. The lower the number, the wider and more open the aperture can go. For example, my Sigma 35mm lens has an ƒ-1.4 aperture, one of the wider options available on a lens. This is because it’s a prime lens, but that’s a tidbit for future lesson.

Now, when you have an aperture wide open (think lower numbers: ƒ-1.4, ƒ-1.8, etc.) that allows much more light to hit your sensor, but it also makes the depth-of-field much narrower than when the aperture is more closed (ƒ-9+).

What does that mean, you ask? Well, have you ever seen a photo where the background and/or foreground is blurry, but the subject is in focus? Sometimes, the lights in the background are glowing circles (protip: that’s called “bokeh” and it’s what portrait photographers love). That type of photo is taken with an open aperture, somewhere in the ƒ-1.4 – ƒ-2.8 range, and that’s what I mean by shallow depth-of-field.

This was taken at ƒ-1.4. See the bokeh from the Christmas lights? Shot at / Shutter Speed: 1/125s, Aperture: ƒ-1.4, ISO: 200

Protip: My ideal aperture for a shallow depth-of-field shot (mostly portraits or detail photos) is ƒ-1.4. Sometimes that isn’t sharp enough though. If I want superb clarity paired with a little less background-blur, I narrow the aperture to ƒ-2.8 and fire away.

Now that you know about aperture, you’re basically 1/3rd a pro photographer. Let’s move on to…

2. Shutter Speed

While aperture might have been a word you’re unfamiliar with (unless you’ve played Portal), shutter speed should be pretty self-explanatory. It’s the speed at which your shutter opens. Basic, right?

The aperture is an internal part of your lens, but the shutter is inside of the camera body itself. By adjusting the shutter speed, you’re controlling the amount of time the shutter flips up for and how much light is allowed to hit the sensor.

In most DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you can adjust the shutter speed with a scroll wheel next to the shutter release (picture-taker-button – what you push to focus and take the photo). The shutter speed limits vary from camera to camera, but normally it ranges from 1/8000 of a second to 30 seconds. You would use the faster shutter speeds (1/8000, 1/4000, etc.) for moving objects and when you’re shooting in a bright environment.

You can see the scroller used to adjust many of your settings next to the shutter release

A lower shutter speed is useful primarily for low-light situations. Once you start moving towards 1/40 of a second and slower, you’ll need to use a tripod or else your shots will most likely come out blurry. Slow shutter speeds are super useful for astrophotography though! These types of shots often require a moon-less sky, a wide-open aperture, a tripod, and a shutter speed of 20-30 seconds. This allows the camera to read the light coming from the stars themselves! Crazy, right? Eat that, Neil Degrasse Tyson.

JK, I love you Neil. Shot at / Shutter Speed: 30s, Aperture: ƒ-2.8, ISO: 4000

3. ISO

Our last setting to learn about is ISO! It stands for the International Organization of Standardization. You don’t need to know that because I had no idea that’s what it stood for until this very second. What you do need to know is that the ISO is essentially your camera’s light sensitivity.

Are you starting to see how the Exposure Trio works? The aperture is the hole that lets light into your camera, the shutter speed controls just how much time the light has to hit the sensor, and the ISO determines how sensitive the sensor is to that light. Make sense? Yeah photog science!

Jesse approves

Your camera’s ISO ranges between 200 on the low side, to up to 64000! The lower the number, the less receptive the sensor is to light. The higher your ISO goes, the grainier your image will become. It also decreases contrast and detail and can make your shadows pretty gross when you edit your shots.

This was taken at ISO 2000. See how grainy it gets when you look closely?

A high ISO can be used when you’re in a dark setting and have no other choice, or you’re wanting to purposely add grain as part of your style. There isn’t a set ISO where your photos will start degrading, it depends on the camera. For instance, my Canon starts wetting the bed once it gets past 1600 ISO, so I know not to rarely push it beyond that if I want usable shots.

What do these mean?

I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah, I understand the Exposure Trio, thanks to your impeccable teaching methods, but how do I put this knowledge into practice?” Don’t worry, Photog-Padawan, I’ll explain.

Trust Yoda

What settings you use depend on what photo you’re trying to take and what environment you are shooting in. Each of the Exposure Trio is inversely related to one another.

If you increase the shutter speed (decreasing the amount of light allowed to hit the sensor) you will need to either open the aperture (larger entry for more light) or bump up the ISO (increase the sensitivity to light).

For example, if you want to take a long exposure (pictures of the stars or have smooth, blurry, moving water) the settings will change. Your shutter speed could be around 1/20 and slower (remember, use a tripod), your aperture at a narrower ƒ-8, and your ISO in the 500s. It’ll require some tinkering, but keep an eye on your exposure meter and you’ll be fine!

I know this can be confusing, so I’ve created an infographic for you! Click the download button below and it’s all yours.

That’s the Exposure Trio!

They’re the most basic, but most important settings to learn about your camera. Take some shots with this new knowledge and tag me in your photos on Instagram! I’d love to see what you come up with.

Until next time!