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GCSE Photography: A Student Revision Guide

Photography is a creative and technical art form that can be both rewarding and challenging.

If you are studying GCSE Photography, understanding the fundamental concepts and techniques is crucial. This guide will help you navigate basic photography settings, the exposure triangle, how to use a camera, depth of field, shutter speed, focal length, and more.

Whether you are a budding photographer or just looking to pass your GCSEs with flying colours, this article provides all the GCSE Photography help you need.

a young female photographer in a black jumper holding a camera taking a photo of plants

Understanding the Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle is a foundational concept in photography that explains how three settings—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—work together to control the exposure of a photograph. Understanding this triangle is crucial for anyone learning basic photography settings.


  • Aperture: The size of the opening in the lens, which controls the amount of light entering the camera. Measured in f-stops, a lower f-stop number means a larger aperture and more light.
  • Shutter Speed: The length of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. Measured in seconds or fractions of a second, a faster shutter speed means less light but sharper images.
  • ISO: The sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. A higher ISO number increases sensitivity, useful in low-light conditions but can introduce noise to the image.
diagram of the exposure triangle for photographers

How to Use the Exposure Triangle

To properly expose a photograph, you need to balance all three elements of the exposure triangle. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  • Set the ISO: Start by setting your ISO based on the lighting conditions. Use a low ISO (100-200) in bright conditions and a higher ISO (800-1600) in low light.
  • Adjust the Aperture: Choose an aperture based on the desired depth of field. For a blurry background, use a wide aperture (f/1.8 to f/3.5). For a sharp background, use a narrower aperture (f/8 to f/16).
  • Select the Shutter Speed: Set the shutter speed to ensure your image is sharp. For moving subjects, use a faster shutter speed (1/500th or faster). For still subjects, you can use a slower shutter speed (1/60th or slower).


By understanding and adjusting these three settings, you can achieve the correct exposure for any photograph.

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Nature Photography TIps man behind a camera screen

The Role of the Camera Sensor

A camera captures light through its lens and projects it onto a sensor, which records the image. The sensor’s size and quality significantly affect the image quality. There are two main sizes of sensors:

Full-Frame Sensors: Larger sensors that capture more light and detail, providing better image quality and lower noise.

Crop Sensors (APS-H, APS-C, MFT): Smaller sensors that are more affordable but capture less light, which can introduce more noise in low-light conditions.

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Image: CCD Sensor Sizes

How a Camera Captures Light

When you press the shutter button, the camera opens the shutter, allowing light to hit the sensor. The sensor then converts this light into an electrical signal, which the camera processes into a digital image. Here’s a simplified breakdown of the process:


  • Light Enters the Lens: The lens gathers light and focuses it onto the sensor.
  • Shutter Opens: The shutter mechanism opens for a specific duration, allowing light to reach the sensor.
  • Sensor Records Light: The sensor captures the light and converts it into an electrical signal.
  • Image Processing: The camera’s processor interprets the signal and converts it into a digital image file.

What is Depth of Field?

Depth of field (DoF) refers to the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. It is influenced by three main factors: aperture, focal length, and the distance from the subject.

A wide aperture (low f-stop number) creates a shallow depth of field, where only a small part of the image is in focus.

A narrow aperture (high f-stop number) results in a deeper depth of field, with more of the image in focus.

Longer focal lengths (telephoto lenses) naturally have a shallower depth of field compared to shorter focal lengths (wide-angle lenses).

The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field. Conversely, the further away you are, the deeper the depth of field.

Depth of Field Explained for Beginner Photographers Sam at F2Depth of Field Explained for Beginner Photographers Sam at F11

Controlling Depth of Field

To control the depth of field in your photographs, adjust the aperture, focal length, and your distance to the subject. Here are some tips:

For Portraits: Use a wide aperture (f/1.8 to f/3.5) to create a shallow depth of field and blur the background, making your subject stand out.

For Landscapes: Use a narrow aperture (f/8 to f/16) to ensure a deep depth of field, keeping the entire scene in focus.

Use different lenses to see how focal length affects depth of field. A telephoto lens (e.g., 85mm or longer) will provide a shallower depth of field, while a wide-angle lens (e.g., 24mm) will give a deeper depth of field.

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Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. It is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. Shutter speed affects both the exposure and the motion blur of an image.

Fast Shutter Speeds: (e.g., 1/1000th) Freeze motion and are ideal for action shots, such as sports or wildlife photography.

Slow Shutter Speeds: (e.g., 1/30th) Capture motion blur, useful for artistic effects like light trails or smooth water.

Fast Shutter Speed on a Water FountainSlow Shutter Speed on a Water Fountain

How to Use Shutter Speed

Selecting the appropriate shutter speed depends on the scene and your creative intent. Here’s how to choose the right shutter speed:

For Freezing Motion: Use a fast shutter speed (1/500th or faster) to capture sharp images of moving subjects. This is especially useful in sports and wildlife photography.

For Motion Blur: Use a slow shutter speed (1/30th or slower) to create a sense of movement. This technique is great for night photography, where you can capture light trails from cars or stars.

When using slow shutter speeds, a tripod is essential to prevent camera shake and ensure your image remains sharp.

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shutter dial

What is Focal Length?

Focal length is the distance between the lens and the camera’s sensor when the subject is in focus. It is measured in millimetres (mm) and affects the field of view and magnification of your images.

Wide-Angle Lenses: (e.g., 18-35mm) Capture a wider field of view, ideal for landscapes and architecture.

Standard Lenses: (e.g., 50mm) Provide a natural perspective similar to the human eye, suitable for portraits and everyday photography.

Telephoto Lenses: (e.g., 70-200mm) Offer a narrow field of view with high magnification, perfect for wildlife and sports photography.

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Choosing the Right Focal Length

Selecting the appropriate focal length depends on your subject and the type of photograph you want to capture. Here are some guidelines:

For Landscapes: Use a wide-angle lens (18-35mm) to capture expansive scenes and include more of the environment in your shot.

For Portraits: A standard lens (50mm) or a short telephoto lens (85mm) is ideal for flattering portraits with natural-looking perspectives.

For Wildlife and Sports: A telephoto lens (70-200mm or longer) allows you to get close to your subject without physically moving closer, which is crucial for capturing distant subjects.

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Basic Photography Settings

To take great photographs, you need to understand and control your camera’s basic settings. 

Master Camera Dial: This allows you to select different shooting modes, such as Manual (M), Aperture Priority (A or Av), Shutter Priority (S or Tv), and Program (P).

White Balance: Adjusts the colour temperature of your images to match the lighting conditions. Use presets like Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, or Fluorescent, or set it manually for more precise control.

Choose between Auto Focus (AF) and Manual Focus (MF) to control how your camera focuses on the subject. AF is useful for quick shots, while MF gives you more control over focus.

How to Use a Camera

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to use a camera effectively:

  1. Choose a mode that suits your skill level and the type of photograph you want to take. Beginners can start with Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority before moving to Manual mode.
  2. Adjust the ISO based on the lighting conditions. Lower ISO for bright environments, higher ISO for low-light situations.
  3. Depending on your chosen mode, set the aperture or shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure.
  4. Use the camera’s autofocus or manual focus to ensure your subject is sharp. Select the appropriate focus point or mode based on the scene.
  5. Use the viewfinder or LCD screen to frame your shot, considering the rule of thirds, leading lines, and other compositional techniques.
  6. Press the shutter button gently to avoid camera shake, capturing the image at the optimal moment.
Camera on hand, Landscape photographer, Nature photographer, Professional photographer works

Composition Techniques

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a fundamental compositional technique that helps create balanced and visually appealing images. It involves dividing the frame into nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines. Place key elements of your composition along these lines or at their intersections.

Position important elements, like your subject’s eyes or the horizon, along the grid lines or at their intersections to create a more dynamic composition.

Use the rule of thirds to balance elements within the frame, avoiding placing your subject directly in the centre, which can create a static and less engaging image.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are natural or artificial lines that guide the viewer’s eye through the image and towards the main subject. These lines can be roads, rivers, fences, or architectural features.

Identify lines in your scene and position yourself to capture them leading towards your subject. This technique helps to create a sense of depth and directs the viewer’s attention.

By incorporating these composition techniques into your photography, you can create more visually appealing and engaging images.

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Rule of Thirds Photography Composition

Post-Processing Basics

Post-processing is the final step in creating a polished photograph. It involves editing your images using software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. Basic adjustments can significantly enhance the quality of your photographs.

Adjust the exposure to correct any under or overexposed areas. Increase contrast to add depth and make the image pop.

Fine-tune the white balance to ensure accurate colours that match the scene’s lighting conditions.

Increase sharpness to enhance details and clarity to improve mid-tone contrast, making the image appear crisper.

Crop the image to improve composition and straighten any crooked horizons. Save your edited image in the desired format, such as JPEG or TIFF, for sharing or printing.

GCSE Revision Summary: Glossary of Basic Photography Terms

DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex): Offers interchangeable lenses and manual controls, suitable for high-quality images.

Mirrorless Cameras: Compact, with no mirror mechanism, offering similar quality to DSLRs.

Aperture: Controls the size of the lens opening. Measured in f-stops (e.g., f/2.8, f/8); lower numbers mean a larger opening and more light.

Shutter Speed: Determines how long the sensor is exposed to light. Measured in seconds or fractions (e.g., 1/1000s, 1/30s); faster speeds freeze motion, slower speeds can blur.

ISO: Sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. Lower ISO (e.g., 100) for bright conditions, higher ISO (e.g., 1600) for low light but can add noise.

Auto Focus (AF): Camera automatically adjusts focus on the subject.

Manual Focus (MF): Photographer manually adjusts the lens to focus.

Controlling Depth of Field: Shallow Depth of Field: Achieved with a wide aperture (low f-stop); subject in focus, background blurred.

Deep Depth of Field: Achieved with a narrow aperture (high f-stop); everything in focus.

the screen of an Canon 80D EOS camera

Rule of Thirds: Divide the frame into a 3×3 grid. Place key elements along grid lines or intersections for balanced composition.

Leading Lines: Lines in the image that guide the viewer’s eye to the main subject. They can be roads, pathways, or natural lines in the environment.

Framing: Using elements like windows, doorways, or branches to frame the subject within the image.

Natural Light: Sunlight, which can vary in terms of colour temperature, light quality (hard or soft) and angle throughout the day.

Artificial Light: Lamps, studio lights, or flashes. A light source that is anything apart from the sun.

Soft Light: Diffused light, creates soft shadows, flattering for portraits. This can also be the sun shining through clouds.

Hard Light: Direct light, creates sharp shadows, dramatic effect. A cloudless sky.

Full A-Z Glossary of Photography Terms


Studying GCSE Photography is an exciting journey that combines creativity with technical skills. By mastering the exposure triangle, understanding how a camera captures light, controlling depth of field, and using basic photography settings, you can significantly improve your photography.

Additionally, learning composition techniques and post-processing will help you create polished and professional-looking images. Remember, practice is key, so keep experimenting and exploring different techniques to develop your unique photographic style.

For more detailed guides and tips, visit iPhotography. Good luck with your GCSE Photography studies!


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