7 min read

Basic Camera Settings

7 min read

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Basic Camera Settings

Did you recently purchase a new camera but are not sure which camera settings to use? You’re not alone. Most beginner photographers are initially overwhelmed by the endless buttons and menu functions on their DSLR cameras.

This beginner’s guide to basic camera settings will help you understand how to operate your camera and adjust it to the way you want it. Being able to capture great visuals requires a little bit of an introduction to the three most basic camera settings: Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed.

The combination of these three functions is present in most cameras and is imperative to operating your camera. We will go into greater detail about aperture, ISO, and the shutter speed in this article.

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Camera Settings Everyone Should Know

The extra features and camera modes vary from camera to camera, but we will go over the most common camera modes in digital cameras, including Auto Mode, Manual Mode, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Speed Priority.

Knowing all of these basic camera settings and modes is the key to unlocking your camera’s fullest potential and capabilities. Are you ready to get to know your camera better? Let’s get started!

What is Aperture?

Let’s start with one of the three main settings of exposure–the aperture setting. Understanding how aperture works will not only help you control your camera better but it will also give you more creative freedom when taking photos.

Have you ever noticed how some photos have a blurrier background than others? The “bokeh” you see in the photos is controlled by the aperture or the opening in your camera’s lens. Visit our article here to learn more about the relationship between aperture and depth of field.

range of aperture and how it works

This opening can range from f/1.4–f/29 and is measured in f-stops. When you press the shutter button, the shutter opens and allows light to enter the camera’s sensor. How you can control the amount of light entering the hole is by changing the f-stop, or the aperture. With that in mind, the smaller the aperture or hole, the less light you’re getting. The bigger the aperture, the more light is coming through the sensor.

Here comes the tricky part. As mentioned above, the opening of the hole is measured in f-stops. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the smaller the number of f-stops, the wider the aperture gets. An f-stop of f/1.4 means that the aperture hole is completely wide open, allowing maximum light to enter your camera sensor. On the other hand, an f-stop of f/22 means the hole is much smaller, with a lot less light entering the sensor.

So what does this mean? Aperture is a powerful setting that allows you to easily manipulate light in your photos. You can brighten up your photos by opening your aperture (smaller f-stop) or minimizing light entering the sensor by increasing your f-stop.

What is ISO?

Next up is ISO, which stands for “International Organization for Standardization”. You may have heard of ISO in the old school film days, but choosing film speed is something of the past. Nowadays with advanced digital cameras, ISO is more commonly referred to as your camera’s sensitivity to light and it is a much faster process in light manipulation.

camera image focusing on the ISO function button

Simply, adjusting ISO levels will help brighten up or darken your images. The higher the ISO number, the brighter your images will look. The lower the number, the darker the image. Dialing your ISO is a quick and easy way to get the exposure you want, but it does come with consequences.

When you increase your ISO to a higher number such as ISO 3200, it will create something known as grain or noise. When a photo has a lot of noise, the area of the image will contain lots of specks and a “grainy” appearance. Instead of obtaining a crisp and smooth image surface at ISO 100, you will get a noisy image at ISO 3200 but the photo will be brighter.

ISO camera settings

That’s why experienced photographers will make sure to adjust the aperture and shutter speed before making drastic adjustments to the ISO. Although it is an efficient and quick way to adjust brightness, it can take a toll on the quality of your images.

What is Shutter Speed?

Lastly, we have the shutter speed which allows us to control how long the shutter stays open. The faster the shutter speed, the bigger the denominator. For example, many cameras can shoot up to 1/4000 of a second which is very fast. A slower shutter speed such as 1/100 of a second will allow more light to enter the sensor. Keep in mind that using slow shutter speeds will usually require a tripod or image stabilization to avoid blurry photos and camera shake.

shutter speed settings to capture a waterfall

Depending on the look you want to achieve in your photos, you’ll want to choose the correct shutter speed for the particular photo opportunity. For instance, if you want to capture a waterfall with a silky water effect, you’ll want to use a slow shutter speed of 5 seconds to achieve the dreamy waterfall look (tripod is needed). On the other hand, if you want to “freeze” a moment, use a very fast shutter speed to capture the subject in that split second.

Auto Mode

Most digital cameras nowadays will have Auto Mode where the camera will control every aspect of the photograph, including the aperture, focus, shutter speed, and more. The photographer won’t be able to control the settings much in this setting.

In many circumstances, using Auto Mode is a very quick and easy option. Beginners will gravitate toward Auto Mode to get a feel for the camera without worrying too much about the controls. While this is perfectly normal, it may limit you from using the camera’s fullest capabilities.

It’s recommended that you use Auto Mode when the lighting is ideal so the camera can detect the proper settings and exposure automatically. In many cases, the Auto Mode gets the job done, producing high-quality photos when the lighting and settings are balanced. This is especially useful when you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to change specific settings. Most modern cameras do a very good job in Auto Mode.

photographer using shutter speed priority for low light

Manual Mode

In contrast, Manual Mode allows you to take full creative control of your camera and photos. Once you are comfortable with adjusting aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, using Manual Mode is an excellent way to improve your photography skills and allows you to shoot beautiful and controlled portraits and sceneries.

Using Manual Mode requires you to specify each setting, which can come in handy when the lighting isn’t ideal or if you are capturing images for artistic reasons. Some of the most experienced photographers shoot in Manual Mode for the reason that they can take full creative control. You can easily achieve creamy bokeh in your background by manually adjusting your aperture, or create stunning images of star trails with a long shutter speed.

The general rule of thumb is that if you have enough time to adjust the controls manually, then shoot in manual. If not, it’s recommended you stick with other modes such as Aperture or Shutter Speed Priority.

nikon camera on the aperture priority mode

Aperture Priority

If your camera has Aperture Priority mode, then you’re in luck. Being able to manually control the aperture is a great way to control the depth of field of an image. Remember when we talked about bokeh? In Aperture Priority mode, you can easily create the bokeh effect but opening up the aperture to the smallest f-stop.

In this mode, the photographer only controls the aperture value, and the camera controls the rest (shutter speed and ISO value). Sometimes you can also control the ISO value and the camera will choose the proper shutter speed automatically.

Aperture Priority mode is a popular favorite among photographers because you can control how much of the image is in sharp focus. The larger the opening of the aperture, the more shallow the depth of field will be. You can create some gorgeous looking bokeh shots in this mode. If you’re a landscape photographer, you will want most of your photo in focus. Aperture Priority allows you to select a smaller f-stop quickly so your images can come out tack sharp.

fast moving life image - shutter speed

Shutter Speed Priority

Lastly, we have Shutter Speed Priority which allows you to fully focus on the shutter speed. Like we talked about above, shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter remains open for light to enter the sensor. The faster the shutter speed, the less the light is entering the sensor. Slower shutter speeds allow more light in, and your images will come out brighter.

You’ll want to use Shutter Speed Priority when the focus of the image is on movement and “freezing” the subject. For example, if you are shooting a sports event and want to capture close-ups of athletes, your priority might be the shutter speed since you need to freeze the moment and capture the athlete in action. In contrast, if your goal is to capture movements like long exposure photography and light trails, you’ll want to adjust to a very slow shutter speed to achieve this effect.

Another indicator that you should switch to Shutter Speed Priority is when you’re in a low light situation. By controlling the shutter speed to a much lower number, you can brighten up the photo and increase the exposure easily. To summarize, Shutter Speed Priority can be used when you want to capture something specific and creative that focuses on movement, or when you are in a low light situation and need to slow down the shutter speed to balance out the exposure.


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Natch Anan is a full-time content writer specializing in Social Media Marketing and Brand Journalism. She holds a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from The University of New Mexico. When she’s not working, you can find her hopping around SE Asia, film camera in hand and ready to capture the next story.
Natch Anan is a full-time content writer specializing in Social Media Marketing and Brand Journalism. She holds a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from The University of New Mexico. When she’s not working, you can find her hopping around SE Asia, film camera in hand and ready to capture the next story.

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  1. Thanks a lot for your informative post. I love vlogging, and I usually make use of my iphone 7, but I would like to start using a camcorder or camera now.

    I’m using it mainly for personal every day vlogs and would occasionally upload on youtube or my blog, what would you recommend? Thank you. Also for any of your recommendations, would it also be able to take good pictures?


    1. You could use either mode. I prefer manual mode, but you need to be confident with your other settings to use manual. It’s not hard to learn and it gives you more control and greater accuracy in knowing how to expose your photos.

  2. Taking the time to looking all this again is helping me get my head back in the game. I have understood this, but never looked at it from such a basic level before.

  3. Hello Natch your lesson is a five star collection. By the way can I stay in manual mode for now ? I want to learn more about the digital camera. Like now I am practising camera settings.When I am ready I will forward my photos for comment . Thank you

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