Trinity: the basics of exposure for toy photography

And we are back.
A little bit later than expected.
But we are back with the second theme of the year.
After composition, we now get our hands dirty with the real technical details of capturing the image on the digital canvas. The exposure triangle or the holy trinity of your camera.

Exposure Triangle

If you google for exposure triangle you will find hundreds of videos and articles explaining this simple mathematical principle, yet the power it gives you as a creative in your storytelling is sometimes not as well understood. Hence, today we take a deeper dive at the 101 of your camera and give you a little challenge to complete.


Before talking about the triangle, first, what is exposure?

A camera creates an image by exposing a surface with light. With traditional film photography, we would expose a film that chemically reacts to light. In the case of digital cameras, we have electronic sensors instead. Our digital canvas. And when we talk about exposure, we mean the amount of light that reaches this sensor when we press the shutter.

The exposure triangle is the combination of the three parameters that determine how much light is captured by the camera. Assuming the amount of light outside your camera (also known as ambient light) doesn’t change, changing one parameter without changing anything else results in a different image.
A different exposure. Depending on how we changed the parameters, the image will be either brighter or darker.

These three parameters are the aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity (commonly referred to as ISO). Our holy trinity.

The trinity explained.


Aperture is the lens opening and controls the amount of light that is exposed to the digital canvas (your sensor). If we were to compare light to water, the aperture would be the size of the valve. The hole or opening of the water tap. The bigger the opening, the more water will pour through over a given amount of time.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the time the canvas is exposed. If we take our comparison with water, shutter speed is how long the valve stays open. The longer it is open, the more water will be poured on our digital canvas.


And sensitivity (or ISO) is like the size of the water bucket that you want to fill (expose).

Over- and underexpose

If there is too much water (light) in the bucket, it will overflow. For our photo, it will be brighter and we say it is overexposed. Not enough water (light), and the bucket is not filled, or our image is darker and underexposed. And if you do not close the valve in time the bucket will overflow, and everything will be pure white.

Aperture is the opening of the valve (or hole), shutter speed is the time the valve stays open, and sensitivity how much water we capture with our device (bucket or camera).
Too much water and we get overexposed images.
Too little water and we have underexposed images.

And there is more to this.
Much more.
But the water analogy only goes this far…
So let’s get back to photography and some numbers.


Usually, talking about exposure ends up with numbers everywhere. So let’s have a quick look at the ones we use for measuring sensitivity, shutter speed, and aperture.

In the digital age, we measure sensitivity with ISO. 100 ISO is often the minimum or baseline value of a camera. The more we increase it, the more the camera is sensitive to light. With a value of 200 ISO, our camera reacts two times more to light than with 100 ISO. Thus we don’t need as much light going in to get the exposure we want, and can have a shorter shutter speed and/or smaller aperture opening.

Shutter speed or exposure time is measured… simply in time. Usually as a fraction of a second, for example, 1/100s which corresponds to 0.01 second. But we can also expose much longer, like 30 seconds or more for long exposure shots.

The confusing part

Where it usually gets complicated and confusing is when we talk about aperture and f-stops.

Measuring the amount of light coming inside the camera through the lens is actually quite tricky because lenses can be quite different. Thus, we use the f-stop as a general way to measure aperture for different lenses and still be able to compare the number in our triangle. For this to be possible, we measure the aperture as a ratio that goes down when the aperture goes up. Thus the bigger the aperture, the smaller the resulting f-stop number. Or in simple English, the bigger the opening of the lens, the smaller the number.

Big lens opening, small number.

Exposure is just the beginning

Changing the values of the exposure triangle is in the first place used to reach good or optimal exposure in the camera. There is no absolute rule on what is the right exposure. In general, a technically well-exposed image is where the blacks and whites don’t max out and the optimal exposure is reached. (But this is for a completely different post we may write later…) That said, it can be a creative choice to over- or underexpose in the camera.

However, there are also other, more creative consequences, to choosing certain values for the parameters of the exposure triangle. And these will have an even bigger influence on your final image regardless whether it is (slightly) over- or underexposed.

Let’s look at two examples.

Depth of Field

Most of us toy photographers like a beautiful bokeh and a shallow depth of field (or DoF) in our images. One way of getting that doffie look (everything nicely blurry in the background, and some friendly bokeh to top it up) is to use a very big lens opening or aperture. A very big opening gives a shallower depth of field. And a very small opening does exactly the opposite and gives a larger depth of field.

So choosing for a doffie look in your image can be achieved by actively choosing for a very big lens opening or aperture. And in order to not overexpose or overfill our bucket, we need to open the water valve (the shutter speed) for a shorter amount of time than we would have if we had chosen a much smaller opening but therefore not get that doffie look and bokeh we want to achieve.

Doffie and Pink exchanging notes…

So, it is all about you making an active choice.

Long Exposure

If we look at the iconic London Bus of Julien in Paris, you will not find that bokeh look and shallow depth of field. On the contrary, you will see star lights and red light trails crossing over a tack sharp background.

The London Bus in Paris

They were a creative choice, by selecting a long exposure approach first with a very small aperture opening (f16 or up), resulting in a very large depth of field, and really helping with a long shutter speed.
Just putting the ISO on a low value, the camera on a tripod, and the aperture to sweet sixteen and Julien was set for success.

Same location, different time, different light.

Getting ready to go outside ….

Now that we saw two creative examples of actively choosing one component of the exposure triangle and adjusting the other two to follow, let’s go outside with our model and let’s see how the exposure triangle gets influenced by the available water (read light) during the day and how it (actively) influences your shoot.

So here we are on a cloudy day, outside in the fields, and we want to take a nice close up portrait of our mini model. We select a very big opening (so we take the lowest aperture value F3.5) on our camera to get that doffie look. We get a shutter speed well above 1/60 of a second. It was 1/640 to be precise. And we are good to go to take the shot, as ISO will play nicely along to give us a good exposure at let’s say ISO 400.

Sun behind the clouds ….

Same scenario, same shoot when the sun breaks through the clouds. There is now much more light and some harsh shadows and more vivid colors. In order to keep the same aperture, we will need to increase the shutter speed and/or lower the sensitivity (ISO 100) to keep the same conditions. And maybe you will have to actually change the aperture so less light comes through the opening to get a good exposure.

Lots of light …

By changing the aperture to block the light, you have now changed the look and feel of your doffie shoot. If you wanted to keep the same depth of field you could use an ND filter. Or block some light by putting a diffuser in between the sun and your subject to keep that same doffie look by keeping your aperture constant.

Alternatively, if you wanted to get the eye of the flamingo also in focus (a creative choice), you would need to increase the depth of field. And thus choose a higher aperture like F8 or F16 in the same shoot. By doing so, you would need to increase the ISO or lower the shutter speed. Again, imagine the same location, but now we are at dusk and the available light is dropping rapidly. We don’t have a tripod at hand so we can’t go below 1/60 and pushing our ISO up will come eventually with some digital noise and quality loss. And we wanted that flamingo eye in focus …

A few hours later … ISO 1000, F16 1/200 sec

This is where bringing a tripod or additional light may come in handy to get a well-exposed shot while preserving the quality (sensitivity) of the image in good standing. Although I have to admit I like this last shot.

So, the ABC or Aperture, Shutter and ISO sensitivity control the exposure AND also determines the story you want to tell. The surrounding light and shooting conditions will impact these three elements.

And remember to experiment

Sometimes the external circumstances come as an accident or experiment and give you a magic unexpected shoot but knowing your exposure triangle very well and how it can help you tell your stories gives you an advantage when experimenting.

Playing with light by changing the shutter speed.

How to control exposure

There are different ways of controlling the exposure triangle with a camera, and the magic is hidden in that dialing wheel you will find on top of your camera.

Automatic mode

Nowadays, most cameras have an (eco-friendly) green automatic mode. Here you let the computer embedded in your camera make all the choices. And while you may have paid big bucks for your camera, giving full control to the camera on what you want to tell may not be the best way forward. Now, if you are in uncharted territory and you want to snap some good snapshots, then the green mode may save the day. In auto mode, the camera’s choice is based on the result of the analysis of thousands (if not millions) of existing images and finding one similar to the scene you are photographing and measuring the available light on the sensor.

On smartphones, this is usually the default. But even smartphones now often have the possibility to use manual or at least semi-automatic modes which gives you more control over the resulting exposure.

Meet M.

On the flip side of full eco-friendly green mode, we do find the letter M for manual mode. Historically, cameras had to be manually controlled. The sensitivity or ISO (ASA or DIN for those nostalgics under us) would be fixed based on the film you would use. And you would have to manually decide (and figure out) which shutter speed and aperture to use. And the lightmeter (built-in or external) would give you your exposure reading.

Good Old M.

And even today you find on most DSLR bodies the letter M to give you full control. And while it can be great fun to be fully in control of the total triangle there are the semi-automatic modes where you choose to command and control one parameter of the holy trinity and let the camera do the rest.

Aperture First Mode

Modern cameras often come with three semi-automatic modes: P-mode, A-mode (or Av) and S-mode (or Tv).
In P-mode (not the P in professional, but the P in Program), the camera chooses both the aperture and shutter speed for you. If you set your ISO to automatic, then you are basically back in an automatic green mode.

And while you can influence the parameters a little in P mode, controlling your narrative is more challenging as you cannot easily control the shutter speed or aperture. And these have important consequences like depth of field and motion blur on the result apart from exposure itself. While you may get some well-exposed snapshots, you might want to break free from these shackles. And ultimately be more in control when you tell your story.

Since we are a toy photography blog, and most of our toys are not flying or running at high speed, Aperture first is a very first good step in breaking out of the P mode. If you are already an avid Aperture first shooter then maybe you could try to go for a manual day. And if you are a sworn manual toyphotog, well be brave. And see if giving away some control to your expensive body may actually get you some extra creativity and use Aperture first mode for a day.

So what to think when you shoot Aperture first?

Set the ISO as low as the ambient light allows.
If you go for ISO in automatic mode, make sure to set a max ISO value you can live with later on to print.

Actively think of how much depth of field you want in your image.

A shallow depth.
Only the model in focus.
The rest blurry.

Then dial the aperture to the lowest number, highest opening, and keep an eye on your shutter speed. If you are shooting handheld, anything equal or above 1/120 should be good. Assuming you are not shooting this with a 500mm telelens of course.

Get everything in focus.
Then for sure go for a high aperture number.
F16 or up.
But remember, now you need much more light.
So longer exposure (think of a tripod) or higher ISO sensitivity.
Or bring in extra lights.
A reflector, a fill light.

And then there is Shutter First mode.

While this one is most probably not the most used in toy photography, it is important to keep an eye on the shutter speed as a creative control.

It is the shutter speed that allows you to add or freeze motion into the still image.

Freezing the water droplets …

Of course, first and foremost shutter speed is used to assist the creator of the image to not end up with blurry shots due to camera shake because the holder of the camera is moving, but if we just move to the next level it becomes a powerful in-camera control. Remember Julien’s London Bus. Or Boris’ raining umbrella series where the shutter speed played a crucial role in capturing and freezing the water droplets. Both were not shot in Shutter Speed first, yet they counted heavily on the creative powers of creating and freezing time and motion.

Recap. The Trinity

The holy trinity of your camera.
Aperture. Speed. Sensitivity.

All influencing each other …

And here comes the challenge

Padawan challenge

Take notes on the 3 images you selected earlier and look at the exposure triangle.
What was the ISO, the f-stop and the shutter speed?
Were any of these forced on you or did you choose them yourself?
Could you have altered any of the values to influence the image and the composition elements?

For example.
Could you have used a longer exposure to create movement inside the image?
Or increase the overall amount of light by changing one or more values so that, for example, the snow in your photo looks white rather than grey?
Is everything that you wanted to be in focus or not?
Could you have taken a different aperture to get them there?

Play around with the exposure triangle and the manual or semi-manual modes of your camera.
Take different pictures to understand the impact of changing one or more parameters.
Or look directly at the effect on the live view if your camera allows it.

Create an image where you explore the exposure triangle by playing with these values and try something new. Try to think in terms of composition and how the exposure, aperture and shutter speed affect it. And post your best works to #SiPgoesTT and #SiPgoesTT_exposure

Master challenge

Create two images of the same subject in the same location where you use the exposure triangle to tell two completely different stories. You may change the composition angle, but please use the same lens and same ambient light settings. And try to keep post to a minimum.

Post your best creative result as two sliding images in one post using the hashtag #SiPgoesTT #SiPgoesTT_exposure and share your experience.

Wanna Join?

Are you new to our SiP goes TT challenge and want to join in? You can do that at any time. We will be exploring twelve themes this year, and this is the second. If you want to start at the beginning then read the following three posts, or just jump right in.

The first post – Getting Ready for Twenty Twenty (and some homework)
The first theme – Composition Post 1 and post 2

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Stefan Matthies
4 years ago

I´ll have to admit that so far…a certain percentage… of my photography was the result of experimenting.
Now I´m sensing some M-days ahead of me to deepen the bonds with my camera. So yes:
Challenge accepted!
Thank you for the insights, Boris and crew.

4 years ago
Reply to  Boris

I find that luck is a good ingredient when it comes to learning lighting. Maybe we should talk about luck when we will get to that topic :-)

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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