Estimated reading time: 21 minutes
Do you want to know all about basic camera settings?
You’ve come to the right place.
Because in this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about choosing the right camera settings–so that you can start capturing gorgeous photos, immediately.
You’re going to discover:
- The importance of aperture, and how you can use it for artistic photos
- How to choose a shutter speed that will ensure tack-sharp shots
- How your ISO affects photo quality and the rule for selecting the perfect ISO setting
- How to choose the perfect camera mode for every situation
Let’s get started.
Table of contents
- Basic Camera Settings: What Do You Need to Know?
- Shutter Speed
- Putting It All Together
- Camera Modes
- Best Camera Settings: Next Steps
Basic Camera Settings: What Do You Need to Know?
If you’re hoping to capture amazing photos as soon as possible, you’re going to need to master your basic camera settings.
Fortunately, this doesn’t involve too much knowledge.
You just have to understand three settings:
Together, these variables determine the exposure of your images. In other words, they determine the relative brightness of your shots.
If you choose the proper aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you’ll get an image like this:
It has detail in the brights and in the darks. And the midtones look very well rendered.
But if you choose the wrong aperture, shutter speed, or ISO, you can easily end up with a photo that’s far too dark, like this:
Or a photo that’s far too light, like this:
Do you see what I mean? By changing these three settings, you have the potential to capture a stunning photo–or a bad one.
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO also affect other aspects of your photos. For instance, aperture affects the amount of your scene that’s actually in focus. This shot was taken with one aperture:
While this shot was taken with a completely different aperture:
Whereas shutter speed determines whether your shots are sharp. It’s the difference between this:
Finally, ISO affects the overall graininess of your photo. Boost your ISO too high, and you’ll end up with a “grainy” (or “noisy”) shot, one that looks muddy and unpleasant.
That’s why these three settings are key. And that’s why they’re so important to great photography. If you can master aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you’ll end up with sharp, artistic, well-exposed, gorgeous images.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the ins-and-outs of aperture.
The aperture refers to a diaphragm that exists inside every camera lens.
It’s essentially a hole that opens and closes on command–depending on the f-stop you dial into your camera.
Now, f-stops, also known as f-numbers, are written like this:
f/1.2, f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8, etc, where the smaller f-numbers (e.g., f/1.2) correspond to the wider apertures.
Note that every lens has a maximum aperture, which is the widest that the lens’s aperture can actually open. This is generally somewhere in the area of f/1.2 to f/5.6, though there are some lenses with unusually wide maximum apertures and some lenses with unusually narrow maximum apertures.
Also note that every lens has a minimum aperture. This is usually in the f/22 to f/32 range, though I don’t ever recommend actually shooting at your lens’s minimum aperture; an optical phenomenon called diffraction will ensure that any shots taken at f/22 and beyond will turn out far too soft.
Now that you know what aperture actually is, let’s talk about what it actually does.
By dialing in low f-stops, you cause the aperture to open wide. And this causes the camera sensor to read a lot of light, and give a bright image:
Whereas by dialing in high f-stops, you cause the aperture to close down. This lets in very little light, thus producing a darker image.
As discussed in the previous section, aperture isn’t the only variable affecting the exposure of your images. So you can still use a narrow aperture and get a good exposure, and you can still use a wide aperture and end up with a too-dark image.
But why would you even want to change the aperture? Why not just set it on a middle value and leave it be?
Aperture matters to photographers for one huge additional reason:
Depth of field.
You see, the aperture influences the depth of field in your images–which is the amount of your photo that’s actually sharp.
So an image like this, with very little in focus, has a shallow depth of field:
Whereas an image like this, which is in focus from front to back, has a deep depth of field:
Both shallow depth of field and deep depth of field have their place. You can create wonderfully artistic images with shallow depth of field, and you can create gorgeously realistic images with a deep depth of field.
But the two looks are very different, which means that you’ll sometimes want to work with one, and you’ll sometimes want to work with the other.
Which is why aperture becomes so important.
Now, here’s all you need to know regarding aperture and depth of field:
The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.
And the narrower the aperture, the deeper the depth of field.
So, to recap:
The aperture controls both the exposure and the depth of field. Widening the aperture results in a brighter exposure and a shallow depth of field effect. Narrowing the aperture results in a darker exposure and a deeper depth of field effect.
But how do you decide which aperture is best for the type of scene you’re shooting?
Basic Camera Settings: Choosing the Right Aperture
While selecting the proper aperture is really an artistic and personal choice, it’s worth memorizing a few guidelines that’ll help you quickly make a choice when you’re out shooting.
First, if you have a very sweeping, gorgeous vista that’s interesting all throughout the scene, use a narrow aperture. You’ll want to show off everything in the shot, which means keeping everything sharp. This is very common in landscape photography, where a narrow aperture and a deep depth of field is the norm.
Second, if you want to create a more realistic shot that really draws the viewer in, a deep depth of field is also the way to go. You can use this for more intimate, engrossing images, like this one:
Third, if you’re shooting with a distracting background and you want to make sure that your subject stands out, go with a wide aperture. This will ensure that you blur out the unwanted background elements so the viewer focuses on the subject.
And fourth, if you want an especially artistic image with a modern, softer look, go with a shallow depth of field. It’ll allow you to get interesting shots like this:
Shutter speed refers to the length of time your camera sensor is exposed to the light.
And, like aperture, it affects two key image characteristics:
Regarding exposure: Shutter speed and exposure have a very simple relationship. The longer the shutter speed, the more light that hits the sensor, and the brighter your photo will turn out.
Whereas the shorter your shutter speed, the less light that hits the sensor, keeping your photo very dark.
Because the sun is bright, shutter speeds tend to be fast. Common shutter speed are between 1/100s to 1/2000s, though there are plenty of situations where they go up to 1/8000s and down to 30s (or longer).
Here’s the key takeaway:
The faster your shutter speed, the darker your overall exposure. As you can see, this goes hand in hand with your camera’s aperture setting, and you can use one to balance out the other; if you go with a fast shutter speed, you can use a wide aperture to compensate. And if you go with a narrow aperture, you can use a slow shutter speed to keep things looking good.
But, as I mentioned above, there’s another aspect of shutter speed that you should know:
Its affect on sharpness.
See, when you use a slow shutter speed, your camera sensor is exposed to the outside world for a longer period of time. And while the picture is being taken, a lot can happen: The scene can change, your camera can shake, etc.
All that movement will be rendered as blur.
Here’s what happens if you use a too-slow shutter speed when shooting moving subjects:
And it’s not just about moving subjects. Like I said, your camera can move, too (called camera shake), and this can completely mess up an image.
So if you want to get well-exposed images that are also sharp, you have to balance the need for a fast shutter speed (for sharpness) with the need for a slow shutter speed (for a bright exposure).
Basic Camera Settings: Choosing the Right Shutter Speed
The precise shutter speed you choose should depend on your image.
But there are two factors to take into account when thinking about shutter speed and its affects on sharpness:
And subject movement.
Now, camera shake is a lot easier to take care of, so I’ll address it first:
To prevent camera shake, you should use (roughly) a shutter speed that’s the reciprocal of your lens’s focal length. So if you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/100s. If you’re shooting with a 500mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/500s.
This rule is generally pretty good, though it’ll fail if you’re in very windy conditions or are working at high magnifications. In those cases, you’ll need to be extra cautious, and add on some extra speed.
But what if you’re working with a moving subject? What should you do then?
Unfortunately, there is no nifty rule for determining your shutter speed with fast-moving subjects.
But here are my general recommendations:
When shooting slow-moving things, such as walkers or branches moving in the wind, use a shutter speed of around 1/320s.
When shooting bikers, dancers, slow-moving cars, and slow-moving animals, go for a shutter speed in the area of 1/500s to 1/1000s.
When shooting fast moving cars and faster-moving animals, 1/1000s to 1/1600s is a good bet.
And when shooting very fast subjects, such as birds in flight or animals fighting, go for a shutter speed of 1/2000s and above.
ISO refers to the extent to which your camera amplifies the light signal it’s getting from the sensor.
A high ISO tells the camera to boost the signal for a brighter photo.
Whereas a low ISO tells the camera to leave the signal where it is, resulting in a darker image.
Now, ISO is written like this:
ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, all the way up to ISO 25600, ISO 51200, or (in some professional models) an ISO in the 100,000+ range.
So an ISO of 100 is going to get you a darker exposure compared to an ISO of ISO 25600.
What’s nice about ISO is that you can use it to balance out the other exposure variables–shutter speed, aperture–without having too much of an unwanted effect on the final image.
That said, ISO does have one unpleasant feature that you’ll need to bear in mind:
The higher your ISO, the noisier your images will become. I’m talking about an effect like this:
Do you see that graininess? At low ISOs, this isn’t a problem, and it’s hardly noticeable.
But at high ISOs, it can obliterate all the detail in an image, resulting in a shot that looks plain bad.
One thing to bear in mind is that the level of noise that is acceptable varies from photographer to photographer and photography genre to photography genre.
That’s part of the reason why they pay thousands of dollars for top-of-the-line cameras, which keep noise manageable, even at high ISOs.
One more thing:
It’s possible to reduce noise in post-processing. Lightroom offers very good noise-reduction algorithms, and there are other cool plugins that’ll get you even further.
But in general, it’s better to avoid noise in the first place; that’s how you’ll get the highest-quality images.
But how do you determine the best ISO for each situation?
Basic Camera Settings: Choosing the Right ISO
Generally speaking, you should always use the lowest ISO you can get away with.
In other words:
If you can shoot at ISO 100 (or ISO 50, or ISO 200–whatever your camera’s native ISO is), do it.
But before you decide on your ISO, set your aperture and shutter speed based on artistic and practical considerations. Choose the aperture that will get you the desired depth of field, and choose the shutter speed that will get you a tack-sharp image.
Only then should you choose your ISO, which should get you a nice, bright, noise-free exposure.
But what if this isn’t possible? What if you need to boost your ISO to get a good exposure?
Then I recommend you try to strike a balance between noise, blur (due to a lower shutter speed), and a shallow depth of field (due to a wider aperture).
That’s what I talk about in the next section:
Putting It All Together
So, you know all about aperture, which affects exposure and depth of field.
You know all about shutter speed, which affects exposure and sharpness.
And you know all about ISO, which affects exposure and noise levels.
Which means that the next step is to put it all together.
Remember, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the three exposure variables. Together, they determine your overall exposure.
And separately, they have their own affects (i.e., depth of field, sharpness, and noise).
So here’s what I recommend you do:
First, think about each variable on its own. Determine the aperture you need to produce the depth of field you’re after. Determine the shutter speed you need to keep your images looking tack-sharp. Determine the ISO you need to keep things noise-free (this should be your native ISO!).
Take a test shot.
If you’ve nailed the exposure, great.
If you’ve overexposed, just increase your shutter speed. Unless you’re going for a blurred effect (such as in the case of some nicely blurred water), there’s no harm in boosting the shutter speed all the way up to your camera’s maximum.
And if you’ve overexposed, take a good long look at your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. Think about which you can safely sacrifice.
I often widen my aperture before I drop my shutter speed or raise my ISO.
Then, once I’ve reached the maximum exposure I can use for the shot, I’ll consider dropping the shutter speed by a hair. I’ll also boost the ISO by a stop or two; it’s always better to get a noisy shot than a blurry one!
Now that you’re familiar with choosing different basic camera settings, there’s one more thing you should be familiar with:
You see, most cameras offer five basic modes:
These different modes allow you to control different basic exposure settings.
First, there’s Auto mode, which just autmatically chooses your camera settings for you. I never recommend Auto mode, because it gets things wrong too often; after all, it has no way to know whether you’re shooting a fast subject or a slow subject, nor can it tell what depth of field you want to produce.
Second, there’s Program mode. This allows you to set the ISO while your camera will do the rest of the work, picking the shutter speed and aperture for you.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of Program mode. Unless you’re shooting from a tripod and really don’t care about your depth of field, Program mode is just not the way to go.
Third, you have Aperture Priority mode. This option is super useful, because it allows you to set the aperture and the ISO, while your camera sets the shutter speed.
Fourth, you have Shutter Priority, which allows you to set the shutter speed and ISO while your camera sets the aperture.
And finally, you have Manual mode, which allows you to choose all three of your exposure settings. But note that you don’t have to choose the settings without guidance; your camera will put a bar across the bottom of the viewfinder that allows you to determine whether your shot will turn out well-exposed.
Basic Camera Settings: Choosing the Right Camera Mode
So how do you actually choose which mode to use?
As usual, it depends on the situation.
But here’s some guidance:
First, never use Auto mode. It’s just a recipe for bad photos, because you’re not going to be able to control the depth of field, sharpness, or noise levels.
Second, don’t use Program mode unless you really need it. As I said above, it really only makes sense in situations where you want to guarantee no noise, but don’t especially care about camera shake, subject movement, or depth of field.
Third, you can use Aperture Priority very often–whenever the aperture matters, but the shutter speed is less important, such as when photographing any type of still subject.
Fourth, you can use Shutter Priority when photographing subjects in motion. It will allow you to choose your ideal shutter speed, and then adjust the aperture to fit.
Finally, Manual mode is fine for pretty much all situations. It allows you to control all three variables, so if you feel comfortable with that, by all means, use it! The issue with Manual mode is that it can be slow (your camera doesn’t automatically make any adjustments). So if the light is changing rapidly or you’re quickly moving from scene to scene, switch to Shutter Priority or Aperture to Priority to ensure lightning-fast exposure adjustments.
Best Camera Settings: Next Steps
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about your basic camera settings:
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
You should also know about your different camera modes, and how you can use them to take control of your exposure variables.
Armed with this knowledge, you’re going to be able to get beautiful, well-exposed photos very consistently.
The basic camera settings every photographer should know are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These together determine the exposure of your images, as well as the depth of field, the overall sharpness, and the noise levels. If you can master these three settings, you’ll be well on your way to capturing stunning images that look really, really good.
Aperture refers to a diaphragm in the lens of your camera. It opens and closes depending on your f-stop (written as f-numbers, like this: f/2.8, f/8, f/16, etc.). A wider aperture lets in more light, resulting in brighter photos; a wider aperture also results in a shallower depth of field, which will give you interesting, artistic images.
You’ll need to choose a shutter speed that does three things. First, it should give you a nice exposure, one that maintains good detail without pushing things too bright or too dark. Second, it should be fast enough to prevent camera shake, which you can do with the reciprocal rule (for more on this, read the article!). And third, it should be fast enough to prevent any movement within the photo. This last point depends very much on the speed of the elements moving in the composition; if you’re dealing with a bird in flight, you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/2000s, compared to the (much slower) shutter speed you’ll need when shooting a person crossing the street.
There is no one best camera mode. You should pick the perfect mode based on the scene you’re shooting. I don’t really ever recommend Auto mode or Program mode, but Aperture Priority is good for situations where the aperture matters more than the shutter speed, and Shutter Priority is good for when the shutter speed matters more than the aperture. Manual mode is good in most situations, except when you have to change the exposure on the fly (e.g., the light is changing rapidly).