A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

7 May 2020

Shooting with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera is one of those things which we are often terrified of, without even knowing why. When inspecting all of those buttons and dials, it is easy to become overwhelmed, but have you ever actually taken the time to understand what they are and what they do?

Let’s take a look at some basics that will help you quickly overcome the initial hurdles and set you on the way to becoming a better photographer.

The Exposure Triangle

Commonly referred to as the ‘exposure Triangle’, the following three settings are the most basic and probably most important things to get your head around if you want to drastically improve your images and your control over your camera.

  • Aperture - This refers to the size of the hole which lets light into your camera
  • Shutter Speed - How long the shutter stays open when letting light into your camera
  • ISO - This refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor

It is important to remember that adjusting one of these settings will directly affect the others, so getting the right exposure can be thought of as a balancing act of sorts, which we will discuss a bit more below.

A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera SettingsA Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

Aperture Explained

A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera SettingsA Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

There are a few basic aspects to Aperture which if mastered will not only improve your exposures but also help you to gain a greater level of control over the overall appearance of your image, by adjusting the depth of field (how much of the image is in focus.) The feature that you adjust to change the aperture is referred to as an f-number. It is important to remember that a smaller f-number is, in fact, a larger aperture and visa-versa.

The following condensed points may help this sink in a little easier:

Larger Aperture (smaller f-number) = Shallow depth of field (Less of the image is in focus)

Smaller Aperture (larger f-number)  = Larger depth of field (More of the image is in focus)

Shutter Speed Explained

The shutter of your digital camera allows light to enter onto the image sensor to create an image. The shutter speed determines how long the shutter stays open, and therefore how much light is captured.

Shutter speeds are measured in increments of a second, such as 1/60 or 1/250. As well as increasing the amount of light captured and thus effecting exposure, shooting with a slower shutter speed leaves you more susceptible to capturing blurry images, both from subjects in your frame moving and small movements of your hands causing camera shake.

Understanding the effects of different shutter speeds can obviously be used to your advantage. If you are photographing a fast-moving subject that you wish to be captured still in your photograph, you will need to select a fast shutter speed. Conversely, if you wish to emphasise movement, which is popular in waterfall photography, your best bet is a slower shutter speed. If you are using slow shutter speeds however, a tripod is necessary for negating camera shake.

A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera SettingsA Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

ISO Explained

A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera SettingsA Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

The ISO setting of the camera adjusts the sensors ability to capture light. Shooting at a higher ISO will allow your camera to shoot in darker situations, but in a trade-off, this often results in more ‘noise’ within your images.

Certain types of photography will require a faster ISO in order for you to shoot at suitably fast shutter speeds, such as Sports and Wildlife shooting, or when you are shooting handheld in darker scenarios.

Photography could be described as a series of decisions, so ultimately it is up to you to decide when it is time to bump up the ISO, but a good tip would be to keep the ISO as low as possible to still allow you to shoot at acceptable shutter speeds to capture sharp images.

The Balancing Act

As we have touched on previously, adjusting any one of the three settings of the exposure triangle will directly affect your image and will require the adjustment of one or more of the other settings.

It is essential to inspect the exposure meter of your camera and when you decide to make an adjustment to one setting, counteract this change to exposure with the adjustment of another.

A real-world example of this would be as follows:

You are photographing a portrait in which you want the model to be the central focal point. You have decided to shoot at a larger aperture so your image will have a shallow depth of field (the background will be blurred). You set the aperture to f2.8, but in conjunction with your current shutter speed of 1/60, your images are now over-exposed.


A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera SettingsA Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

This situation will require you to shoot with a faster shutter speed to correct the exposure. If at a higher ISO the image is still over-exposed, you will then need to lower the ISO, if this is possible.

Using camera modes to make life easier

A Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera SettingsA Beginner's Guide to Basic Camera Settings

If jumping straight into the deep end and shooting with your camera in full manual seems a little too daunting, most modern cameras will have a few specialised ‘Modes’. These will allow you to take some control over the appearance of your images, while the camera helps out with the rest.

Some modes you might find on your camera are as follows:

Aperture Priority: You select the Aperture and your camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed. This setting is great for experimenting with depths of field.

Shutter Priority: You select the shutter speed and your camera automatically adjusts the aperture. This setting is perfect for experimenting with motion within your pictures. ie: Making your subjects sharp or intentionally blurred.

Program: This setting allows you to make adjustments to either the aperture or the shutter speed, while your camera will subsequently adjust the opposite feature. This setting allows you to take creative control without putting exposure to chance.

Manual: Once you are confident with how the exposure triangle works, you are ready to shoot in Manual mode, where you make all the necessary adjustments unaided.

Improve your happy-snaps from home today

With a basic understanding of the camera settings above, you are well on the way to mastering this art form called photography.

If you are on the lookout for new ways that you can grow your photography at home or abroad, keep an eye on our photography blog for more hints, advice and gear recommendations.

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