Learning Your Camera’s Settings

So you have a camera… what’s next?

The next step is to learn how your camera works. In this post, I’m going to cover the basic settings: Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO, and White Balance. At the end of each setting, there is a link to find more information.

Manual Mode

The easiest way to learn your camera’s settings is to read this post and your camera’s instruction manual, then put your camera in ‘Manual’ mode and practice, practice, practice setting your camera in different lighting and movement situations until you understand how your camera works. It will take a while to learn how to balance each setting until you get the image you desire. Don’t understand what this means? That’s okay, it will take time.

Shutter Speed (Exposure)

Shutter Speed is the length of time the camera’s shutter is open and exposing light to the camera’s sensor. This is how an image is created. A fast shutter speed means the shutter is opening and closing quickly, allowing a small amount of light to hit the sensor. Faster shutter speeds are great for capturing frozen motion.

In the example image above, the third picture of sugar and strawberries demonstrates a fast shutter speed. The shutter was moving so quickly, at 1/1000th of a second, that it let such a small amount of light to hit the sensor. As a result, the exposed image shows each individual grain of sugar.

But you have to be careful; with a fast shutter speed, the image can become dark. (Because the shutter speed was so fast, very little light was able to reach the sensor. To compensate, the photographer might have lowered the Aperture or increased the camera’s ISO. These are covered later in the post)

With a slower shutter speed, the camera’s shutter stays open longer, exposing a lot more light onto the sensor. This extended time can create images with motion blur. An example of a slower shutter speed is the first image of the strawberries. The sugar is no longer seen as individual grains, but instead as a blurred motion (Because the shutter speed was so slow, a lot of light was hitting the sensor. To prevent the image from being washed-out and too bright, the photographer might have increased Aperture or lowered their ISO. These settings are covered later in this post). For more information on shutter speed, click here.

Aperture (f/stop)

Aperture is the opening on the back of the lens that determines how much light is let onto the sensor. Something to remember is that shutter speed is in charge of how much time light is let onto the sensor, whereas aperture controls the amount of light that hits the sensor. Aperture is measured in f/stops, which are inverse values.

For example, look at the image above. The first half was taken with a small aperture of 22, which let in a small amount of light. Because the camera’s opening was so small, more of the background was clear and in-focus (Due to the small aperture, not a lot of light hit the sensor. To make the image balanced and to add light, the shutter may have been open longer or the ISO was increased).

Now the second half of the image was taken with the large aperture of 2.8, which let a lot of light hit the sensor. As a result, the immediate background is blurry, also known as ‘bokeh’. Aperture is the cause of the out-of-focus look of the background in any picture. Just remember that a higher aperture takes in less light and makes more of the image in focus, whereas a lower aperture takes in a lot of light and makes more of the background blurry. For more information about aperture, click here.


Standing for International Standards Organization, ISO is a standardized scale for measuring how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The lower your camera’s ISO number is, the less sensitive your camera will be to light. The higher the ISO number is, the more sensitive the camera’s sensor will be to light.

What does this mean? If you are in a low light situation and you need more light, you can either open your shutter speed longer to let more light in or you can bump up your ISO. The higher the ISO number is, the sensitive the sensor is to light, and the more light will show in your image. Be careful when increasing ISO; the more you increase the ISO, the grainier your image will appear.

For the highest resolution, leave the ISO at the smallest number available. For most cameras, this number will be 100 (If you’re in a dark lighting situation and need to increase light for a properly exposed image, try slowing your shutter speed and lowering your aperture. If these settings are already as low as you can go, then increase the ISO. If you want the sharpest resolution, ISO is a last resort for extra light). For more information about ISO, click here.

White Balance

The easiest camera setting to understand, White Balance is the lighting situation you’re photographing in. White Balance is made up of Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Tungsten, and Flash. This setting is simple; adjust the White Balance to the correct lighting situation (unless you intentionally want your picture to have a strange tint). For more information about White Balance, click here.


So now you know the role each setting plays in a picture! Each image is a balance of Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO, and White Balance. The next step is to understand each setting completely. This can be done by taking your camera, putting it on ‘Manual’ mode, and practice taking pictures in different situations. If you want an image capturing frozen motion, you will need to have a fast shutter speed, low aperture, and possibly an increased ISO.

Though. if you’re taking an image outside, you’ll have a slower shutter speed, increased aperture, lowered ISO, and a ‘Sunny’ or ‘Cloudy’ White Balance. The greatest part about having your camera on Manual mode is the control you have over your camera.


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