Photography Basics: a Quick Overview of Camera Settings

Whether you just got a sweet new camera (hopefully a Nikon) and are learning to use it, or you are you’ve been comfortable shooting for years now, one thing remains: basic camera settings can be f***ing confusing. Shutter speed, ISO, aperture, white balance…how do I use these to maximize my shot quality?

When you break it down, it can actually become pretty simple. I’ve had the opportunity to go on some really fun photo shoots; I’ve shot weddings (two in one day as a matter of fact), family portraits, still life, wild life, concerts, and landscape photography. I’ve photographed in the bright sun on a hot Summer day, I’ve shot through sunsets, and I’ve been in dark mosh pits trying to get clear shots with poor lighting. Very rarely will a photoshoot have perfect lighting so understanding how the four main aspects of photography all work together will help you get the best shot possible.

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Here the four main aspects and then I explain how to use them (assuming you’re shooting in Manual mode):

1. Shutterspeed
This one is easy to understand, it is literally the speed of the shutter. On your camera, it will be listed as a fraction or a whole number. For example, 1/400 means that your shutter is open for one four-hundredths of a second. That’s pretty fast. The higher the bottom number, the quicker the speed. Inversely, 3” means that your shutter is open for three full seconds before it snaps closed. As a rule of thumb I read somewhere, don’t shoot slower than your lens length. For example, if you have a 50mm lens, don’t shoot slower than a 1/50 unless you absolutely have to.

2. ISO
This is your camera’s sensitivity to light. Most cameras display this as a 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc… whereas 100 is the least sensitive and 3200+ is the most sensitive to light. A 100 or 200 would be needed on a bright sunny day, a 400 or 800 is used for medium to low lighting, and 1600+ is used for extreme low lighting. Be careful going over 800 because your shots will tend to become grainy.

3. Aperture
This is the width that your shutter opens relative to the size of your lens meaning it’s not a measurement, but rather a “scale” from 1 to 22ish (or higher) for how wide your lens opens. This number is expressed in f-stops – for example, f/1.8 – and the lower the number, the wider the lens opens. An f/1.8 is really wide whereas an f/22 is incredibly narrow.

4. White Balance
This is, in my own words, the camera’s ability to balance out how the camera reads the color white in different scenarios. In sunsets or under incandescent lighting, there tends to be a lot of oranges and reds so the camera will add in blues to attempt to balance it out.

So how do they work together?

First, set your white balance. This is simple because most cameras have settings based on the lighting condition. Sunny day, cloudy day, fluorescent lights, or incandescent lights.

Secondly, set your ISO. If it’s really bright, try a 100 or 200, and if it’s really dark, try a 400 or 800. If it’s REALLY dark, go higher but be careful to avoid grainy shots.

Then, consider your shutter speed and aperture together. Think of your camera lens as an eyeball and eyelids where the shutter represents a blink and your aperture represents your pupils. If it’s super bright, your pupil (aperture) gets smaller and if you start with your eyes closed, you only want to open them for a second to minimize the amount of light that comes in. (Okay, realistically you would squint to keep them open or grab some shades, but for the sake of my analogy, go with me here…). If it’s super dark, your pupils would be wide open and your eyelids would stay open longer to let in more light. In the same way, on a bright day, you would want a quick shutter speed and a higher aperture f-stop (smaller opening). In darker lighting conditions, you’d want a lower aperture f-stop (wider opening) and a slower shutter speed.

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Some things to watch out for
Higher ISO’s typically result in grainier photos. I usually don’t shoot at an ISO higher than 800, but newer cameras have better quality sensors that reduce graininess. Also, a slower shutter can result in a blurry shot. You’ll have to balance the shutter speed, ISO, and the aperture to get the sharpest shot possible.

I hope you find this quick and dirty tutorial helpful. Check out your camera’s manual to learn exactly HOW to adjust these settings and as always, have fun shooting!