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Understanding the 3 Basic Elements of Photography by Laura Jeeves

Understanding the 3 Basic Elements of Photography by
Article Posted: 03/18/2021
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Understanding the 3 Basic Elements of Photography

There’s a big difference between taking a happy snap and really being able to call yourself a photographer. Those who learn the craft from the ground up have the potential to produce images that inspire, inform and, in some cases, become iconic.

For a beginner, the amount of information out there can be daunting – but by the same token, there’s a lot to learn. Those just starting out might want to consider signing up to one of the free online photography courses to get a basic grounding.

You’ll have a huge advantage if you understand a little about the most basic elements of exposure.

It’s All About Exposure

In a nutshell, exposure is the amount of light a photograph is exposed to and, therefore, determines what we see in the finished product. So, not enough light and we won’t see anything (under exposed); too much and the image will be blown out (over exposed).

There are three components that control exposure.


Think of the aperture as a hole that controls the amount of light coming through the lens – because that’s exactly what it is. The smaller the hole, the less light can get in, and the larger the hole, the more can get in. The aperture is measured in ‘f-stops’ and (this is where it might get a little confusing) the larger the opening, the smaller the f-stop number. So f/2.0 lets in more light than f/4.0, for example. For every one f-stop, the amount of light let in is doubled or halved, depending on whether you stop up or down.

The aperture also controls the depth of field (how much of the image is in focus) and the higher the f-stop (and therefore the less light getting in) the more of the image will be in focus. That’s why in landscape photography, generally speaking a high number f-stop is desirable, ensuring that everything from the foreground through to the background is in focus.

(This is a very basic explanation of aperture and to learn more you could consider one of the free online photography courses.)

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed controls the time the camera is allowed to let in the light to create the image. It is fairly self-explanatory in that it’s measured in fractions of a second, so 1/125 means the shutter will be open for 1/125th of a second. You can also use shutter speed to control action or movement – depending on the effect you want you can freeze the action pin-sharp, with a fast shutter speed, or blur it artistically, with a slow one.

It’s very important to note that the aperture and shutter speed work together, so if you change one, you need to change the other to compensate.


ISO relates to the sensitivity and ability to ‘gather light’ and is measured in numbers: 100, 200, 400, up to 3200 and even higher. In the days of film cameras it meant using different rated films: a ‘fast ‘ film had a higher ISO number and a ‘slow’ film had a lower one. (A film with a high ISO rating was ideal for low light situations because it didn’t need as much exposure time.) With digital cameras we can simply dial in the ISO, and in many cases now it will automatically kick in when you set the aperture and shutter speed. However, just as in the film days where a fast film resulted in ‘grainy’ images, in digital it can have the same effect, which we call ‘noise.’ (If you want to understand more about ISO and the effect it has on the image it will be covered in topics about exposure in a good free online photography course.)

Learn More About Exposure and Improve Your Images

Anyone can set a DSLR to automatic and take perfectly good images, but the more you learn, understand and experiment with exposure, the better your work will be. As the very foundation of the craft this is one of the major topics covered in the best free online photography courses.

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Adam Harper is a Photography Consultant at Masters of Photography. If you’re looking for the best Masterclasses or a free online photography courses they offer lessons and tips from some of the world’s greatest photographers. Suitable for all levels, the courses provide lifetime access to easy to follow classes, allowing participants to learn valuable tips and tricks and take big steps to improve their photography. The online community affords the opportunity to find inspiration from both the Masters and fellow students.

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