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Understanding Exposure And Color Balance

Everyone takes photographs at some point in their lives. Photography isn’t limited by things like age or where you come from. It’s so easy to snap a photo nowadays with our built-in cameras on our phones.

But maybe you want to take your photographs to the next level. Maybe you want to understand how a professional camera works rather than just sticking to your phone camera.

A great way to start learning is by understanding exposure, a key element of photography. Without proper exposure, our photographs can turn out blurry, dark, or noisy.

Another important and connected starting point for learning to use a professional camera is color balance.

In order to help you snap photographs perfect for framing or sending out as cards to loved ones on the holidays, we have a brief guide to understanding exposure and color balance basics.

A Quick Note for New Photographers

For this article, we are covering principles which are best applied to professional cameras – also called DSLRs. While cameras like the one built into your phone may have some features in common with a standard DSLR, it won’t have all of the gadgets and moving pieces.

If you don’t have your own a DSLR camera but are interested in purchasing one, we recommend starting by looking up Nikon or Canon. These two are a pair of the biggest names in the photography world.

Don’t let prices on the official sites scare you – these cameras can be purchased at many major retailers, including Amazon and Best Buy. You’ll be able to find deals when you shop around rather than just purchasing the first camera that you find and like.

And of course, Nikon and Canon are not the only great camera brands out there. Their popularity makes them a great starting point in your search for the best camera, but you certainly can find just as good cameras from other brands.

The Basics for Understanding Exposure and Color Balance

You don’t have to be an expert with a camera to capture life’s most precious and memorable moments. All you need is a willingness to learn, a good DSLR camera, and a photo editing program on your computer – like Photoshop.

Whether you’re completely new to the world of professional photography or a seasoned photographer looking for a refresher on some basic principles, we’ve got you covered.

1. Shedding Some Light on Exposure

Mountain And Lake With House

If you’re new to photography terms, you might be wondering what we mean when we use the term “exposure.”

According to Kelly on the Photography Hero website, exposure is “the amount of light that enters the camera hitting the camera sensor.”

Exposure is the foundation of photography and is made up of three aspects, all of which have to do with light entering the camera – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These three aspects make up what’s known as the exposure triangle.

In order to understand how the exposure triangle works, let’s look at each of the three features individually.

2. The Exposure Triangle and Its Moving Parts

corner of a building

Understanding exposure starts with knowledge of the 3 parts that make up the exposure triangle – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. All three aspects are adjustable and work together.

The first feature is aperture – a moving piece inside the camera lens that allows more or less light in via opening and closing. The larger the aperture number, the smaller the opening will be. A smaller opening means less light can get into the camera and vice versa.

Next is shutter speed. Have you ever seen the piece on the lens of the camera that clicks shut briefly when a picture is being taken? That’s the shutter, and much like a car, it has multiple speeds.

Shutter speed determines the duration of time light enters a camera and affects the amount of light coming in. A faster shutter speed means minimal light gets in – slow speeds allow a lot of light to pass into the camera.

Aperture and shutter speed have to be balanced rather than matched for the best results.

Our final feature of the exposure triangle is ISO. ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera to light. A low ISO number means the camera will be less light sensitive. Less light sensitivity means you’ll need to compensate with a wide aperture and slow shutter speed for the best image. A low ISO number can also be balanced out on a bright, sunny day.

Beware of high ISO – higher ISO can create noise in a photograph. According to Spencer Cox of Photography Life online, noise in a photograph is a “grainy veil that obscures details.” We absolutely don’t want noise in our pictures, just like we don’t enjoy unpleasant noises assaulting our ears.

3. Balancing the Exposure Triangle

light trails

Balance between aperture, ISO, and shutter speed is key to taking great photographs. Lucky for us, cameras have a nifty feature called the meter that helps us to maintain balance.

The meter judges and adjusts either the aperture or the shutter speed based on how we choose to set the ISO and shutter speed or the ISO and aperture.

But how do we know which to set? That depends on what type of photograph you want to take.

For scenic shots or portraits, you’ll want to set your aperture and ISO. Aperture determines what parts of a picture are in focus.

For pictures with motion, adjust the shutter speed and ISO. Shutter speed can either freeze motion or show it without blurring the person or object that is moving.

There are many tutorials online that can help you further determine how to adjust your exposure triangle for the type of image you’d like to snap. Check out Adorama’s YouTube video featuring professional photographer Mark Wallace for visuals and more help understanding exposure.

4. Color Balance and Temperature

couple doing yoga

Exposure isn’t the only aspect of photography that is affected by light.

Color balance – more commonly referred to as white balance – is defined by John Bosley of Photography Life as what “balances [the] color temperature of an image by adding the opposite color to it to neutralize it.”

What in the world is color temperature? Bosley says it best – it’s the color of white light from different sources such as the sun or incandescent light from certain types of bulbs.

Color temperature is measured using the Kelvin scale. A warmer light source will have more blue while a cooler source will produce an amber color. While our eyes automatically adjust to compensate for the color differences, our cameras do not. This is why certain, unbalanced images have unsightly orange, blue, or even green tints to them.

5. Adjusting Color Balance

landscape photography of a cloudy sky and rocky mountains

Never fear, most cameras allow for white balance adjustment. These steps may vary from brand to brand of camera, but they’re similar enough that a quick glance at the owner’s manual will tell you where the deviations from our article are.

Many cameras, according to Mark Wallace and his “Digital Photography 1 on 1 video, have both a white balance button and a menu adjustment option. Check out the YouTube video for visuals and follow along with our steps based on Wallace’s guidance.

When you select the white adjustment using the menu option, you’ll be presented with some choices. One of these is the auto setting, which allows your camera to automatically try and figure out what type of light you’re photographing in.

There will also be several options that list different types of light sources. Select one based on the light you’re subject is in. If you’re taking scenic photos on a sunny day, choose the direct sunlight option. If it’s cloudy, you can choose the cloud option and so on.

You might also see a “choose color temp” option, but Wallace recommends you only use this when you know exactly what temperature your lighting is set to. Usually, only professionals in studios have this kind of information.

Your final option will most likely be called preset option. This is where you can completely customize your white balance using some other tools. This takes even more additional steps, so don’t choose this one if you’re in a hurry. Wallace outlines these tools and steps in the video that was mentioned earlier.

Guide to Understanding Exposure and White Balance

There you have it – the basics of understanding exposure and color balance. We hope our article helped shine some light on these foundational photography concepts.

If you’re a beginner and this seems intimidating, don’t worry too much. Just get out there and practice. Adjust your camera’s features and take a bunch of photographs. Keep adjusting and snapping until you know your camera inside and out. Once you’re fully acquainted with how your camera operates, setting the features for exposure and fixing the white balance will come as second nature.

Remember to have fun while you capture memorable moments and stunning scenes.

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