Friday, 4 September 2015

The 3 Camera Settings You Need to Understand

Digital cameras are becoming cheaper and more accessible to the consumer than ever before. Almost everyone I know owns some sort of digital camera that allows them to manually control the exposure, yet they still leave the camera on ‘Auto’ mode nearly all the time. With a basic understanding of the exposure triangle and a little bit of practice, you can learn how to manually expose your images to get much better creative control over the process. Below are the three settings that make up the exposure triangle. Hopefully, this brief write-up will help you get out of auto mode and into some great photographs!

1. Shutter Speed is one of the three factors that make up the exposure triangle, along with Aperture and ISO. Its main function in photography is to control the amount of light let into the camera by way of leaving the shutter open for longer or shorter periods of time. It also controls the speed of the subject relative to the rest of the scene. If, for example, I were to use a fast shutter speed, let’s say something over 1/500th of a second, to capture a baseball player swinging at a pitch I’d get a nice sharp image with little to no blur. If I took the same photo at 1/30th of a second I would likely get an image with a sharp background but a blurry baseball player. That’s because the baseball player moves much less in 1/500th of a second than he does in 1/30th of a second.

Your hand can also cause blur in an image if you attempt to hand hold the camera at slow shutter speeds. A good rule of thumb to use is to not shoot at shutter speeds slower than one over the focal length. So if I’m using a 50mm lens, I probably shouldn’t use shutter speeds slower than 1/50th of a second. There are many lenses that attempt to give you a little wiggle room with internal image stabilization, but I’d still recommend sticking to this rule when possible.

The effects of shutter speed as seen above using a pinwheel. A fast shutter speed results in a crisp image, whereas slower shutter speeds capture the motion of the pinwheel.

2. Aperture, like shutter speed, also serves mainly to limit the amount of light entering the camera. The aperture blades are inside of the lens, usually in groups of five to eight blades, though some lenses have more. These blades form an opening that allows light to pass through the lens and into the camera. If you have a large opening, you’ll let in more light and conversely if you have a small opening, you’ll let in less light. Aperture also controls your depth of field, or the amount of your image that is sharp and in focus. Low, or fast, apertures like f/2.8 will result in a very shallow depth of field whereas apertures like f/8 or f/11 will give you a much larger depth of field.

This can be used creatively to determine which parts of the image you want to be in focus and which parts you don’t. For example, if you were shooting portraits, you’d likely want to use a large aperture so your subjects face was in focus but the background was not. This creates a very flattering look that forces the viewer to look at the subject of the photograph instead of any potentially distracting elements in the background. If you were photographing a landscape, you’d want the opposite; a smaller aperture would allow your foreground, midground, and background to all be in focus despite being very far away from one another. Be particularly careful when shooting group photos so that you don’t have some people in focus and some people out of focus. Stopping down on your aperture to f/4 or even f/5.6 can help a lot with this though this comes at the cost of losing some light.

Larger aperture results in a small, or shallow, depth of field. A smaller aperture will give you greater depth of field but also reduce the amount of light let into the camera.

3. ISO is the third and final part of the exposure triangle and has to do with how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Increasing your ISO can allow you to take photos in very low light settings but it comes at a cost: noise. Noise is extraneous data that appears in your images, usually in the shadow areas. Today a good bit of noise can be removed in post-processing via lightroom or photoshop, but you still want to minimize it whenever possible. Usually the best bet is to keep your ISO on the lowest setting and only increase it as a last resort when you cannot decrease your shutter speed or aperture any further to allow more light into the camera.

You’ll need to use higher ISOs mostly in darker scenarios, such as photos taken at night or at a concert. It doesn’t really matter what camera you have, the important thing is to know the limits it can handle. Some cameras will perform just fine at ISO 3200 or even above, other cameras will start to show signs of really bad noise at ISOs as low as 800. You’ll have to do some testing to determine what your particular camera’s tolerance is and how high you can go while still maintaining a relatively clean image.

Higher ISOs can allow you to take some incredible picture in low light environments, but they will add noise to your images. Be sure to test your camera’s limits to see how much noise can be removed in post.

I hope this has helped increase your understanding of photography and will encourage you to be bold and take your camera outside of the auto mode. You may struggle at first, but I promise with a little practice, you’ll find that you have much more creative control over your camera, resulting in better images for you and your friends!


  1. It should say aperture on the left of the pyramid where it currently says shutter speed.

  2. Great catch, we're updating that image now! I hope you enjoyed the article!