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[Part 1] Camera Functions Useful for Composition

Composition and camera functions, though seemingly unrelated, are in fact closely associated with each other. If we define composition as how an image is constructed, then camera functions are the hidden techniques to help emphasise the atmosphere or the intended image of the photographer. In this article, I will give an introduction to some must-know features. (Written by: Tatsuya Tanaka Illustrations by: Atsushi Matsubara)

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Aperture, shutter speed and exposure also affect your composition

Camera functions such as "aperture" and "shutter speed" play a vital role in the composition of a shot. For example, setting the aperture to a different value changes the depth of field (area that appears to be in focus), and the impression would vary depending on whether focus is established only on a point or throughout the entire image. Meanwhile, shutter speed is directly associated with the dynamic depiction of a moving subject, and the resulting composition changes according to whether the subject appears "frozen" or whether motion blur is created. Similarly, exposure also affects the composition of a shot such as when brightness and colour tone are adjusted according to the intended expression. In the following, let's take a look at the different camera features.

A backlit shot of a seaplane. By selecting an exposure level according to the backlight, you can get a low-key expression with the plane appearing in a silhouette. In contrast, adjusting the brightness according to the plane body produces a high-key look. In other words, the impression created by the same composition changes with the brightness of your expression.

"Aperture" effect: Photographic intention varies with the area in focus

Adjust the aperture setting

Compare the three photos of a pavement below. The area that is in focus varies considerably when the aperture is set to the maximum (f/2.8 in this case), or when it is at f/5.6 or f/11. The impression created by the image also changes as a result. The shot of the flower below is an example of a composition that utilises such changes caused by the aperture. Here, a large background blur is created to bring out the main theme, which is the flower. I used the "Rule of Thirds" composition to add stability and create a stronger impression. In contrast, to express the expanse in the landscape photo, I increased the aperture value so that focus is established throughout the entire image.

Only the aperture value is changed




This example is a comparison of the effect when the aperture value on an APS-C size camera is altered. At f/2.8, only a small area is in focus, and the background appears blurry. By stopping down the aperture to f/5.6 and f/11, a wider area up to the background comes into focus, creating a sharper impression.

Large background blur to bring out the flower

If you want to produce a dramatic shot of a flower, form a contrast between the sharp and blurry areas. Doing so helps to create a distinctive atmosphere.

Capture a landscape with a sharp focus throughout

When the aperture value is increased to create a pan-focus effect, the resulting expression will have a high apparent resolution as focus is established throughout the entire image.

"Exposure" effect: Adjusting the brightness changes the impression of a photo

Adjust the exposure setting

In the same way that the standard exposure varies with the subject, the appropriate exposure is also different depending on the composition. While some photos can be taken using the exposure value automatically calculated by the camera, there are also cases where you want to produce intentionally overexposed or underexposed shots. In the photo of the mountain below, I employed a diagonal composition and decreased the exposure to create a calm atmoshphere. In the photo of the rose at the bottom, I selected an increased exposure and a centred composition. Brightening the entire image helps to bring out the crystal clear feel and suppleness of the flower. As illustrated, the impression of the subject and the surroundings changes under different brightness.

Only the brightness is changed

±0EV: Standard Exposure

+1EV: Brightened

-1EV: Darkened

A shot of a farm field featuring a shed for storing farm equipment. Here, I have adjusted the exposure for comparison. While different colours and tones can be chosen for the same photo depending on the photographer's preferences, we can find the right exposure with the subject as the basis for consideration. If the exposure is set based on your expressive intention, it will influence the composition, so it is also necessary to select a composition according to the exposure.

Decreased exposure to express the stately presence of the mountain

Sunlight falling on the surface of a mountain that extends into the lake forms a strong contrast. Here, I adjusted the exposure based on the mountain slope where light falls upon to darken the areas that are in the shade. The result is a composition that exudes a calm atmosphere. The points to take note of are the proportion between the light and the shade, and also the proportion of the lake, which plays a supporting role. For cases like this, choosing a composition can be a rather challenging task.


The effect of exposure compensation may vary even when you are using different auto exposure mode. In the Aperture-priority AE mode, for example, the exposure and shutter speed are adjusted with the preset aperture value remaining constant, so changes are observed mainly in the brightness. In the Shutter-priority AE mode, on the other hand, the aperture value is altered while the preset shutter speed remains unchanged, so it is mainly the area in focus that varies, not only the brightness. In landscape photography, there are very few occasions where the subject is moving, so Aperture-priority AE is the preferred mode.

Increased exposure to bring out the soft feeling

By capturing the rose in a close-up and pan-focus shot, you can bring out the realistic expression of the flower while adding a soft feeling. To do so, you need to pay attention to the colour of the flower, and the gradation of the petals from the shadows to the highlights. By performing exposure compensation and composing a shot with such a photographic intention in mind, you will be able to produce works with a high level of perfection.

Tatsuya Tanaka

Born in 1956, Tanaka is one of the rare photographers who produce works across a wide variety of genres from an original perspective. These genres range from objects in our daily lives, such as insects and flowers, to landscapes, skyscapes, and celestial bodies. Besides photography, Tanaka has also developed his own approach in post processes including retouch and printing.