Getting the right basic camera settings for beginners can make your learning process much easier and rewarding.
Learning a little about the different DSLR camera settings and how they affect your shots will go a long way.
The settings on your camera are interlinked, meaning that when you change one setting, the others will have to be adjusted to keep the balance.
We’ll cover the basics of aperture, exposure, shutter speed, ISO; as well as how to get the most out of your automatic and manual camera settings.
It’s more of an introductory guide than an in-depth one – I don’t want to overwhelm you with tons of jargon and technical terms – so you’ll just learn the basics.
You’ll also learn about how the major settings are interlinked and how to manipulate them to get different effects.
We’ll then look at automatic shooting modes and manual modes, and finish off by talking about the best settings for different photography situations.
By the end of the guide, you should expect to have a decent and foundational understanding of a camera’s basic settings and how to find the perfect settings to get the shots you want.
Table of Contents
What is Exposure?
Exposure is arguably the most important setting in photography because it determines how light or dark your image is going to be.
A badly exposed image is a nightmare to recover in editing and can produce terrible grainy photos.
Good exposure means that not too much detail is lost in the darkest and lightest areas of your shot.
This means you’ll be able to bring the detail of bright clouds out or see what you need to in a darker foreground.
There are cases where you’ll want to intentionally get the wrong exposure, for example, a silhouette shot; but generally, you want to get your exposure just right.
This is known as the exposure triangle and it’s what we’re going to talk about next.
What is the Exposure Triangle?
The exposure triangle is made up of 3 aspects; aperture, ISO and shutter speed.
There is a give-and-take relationship between them and changing one of them will change the other two – if you want to keep your exposure the same.
There are a bunch of benefits of increasing or decreasing one of the settings. On the other hand, you can get some horrible results if you mess with them too much.
Aperture is responsible for controlling how much light is allowed into your lens to the sensor.
It’s an opening that can be widened or narrowed to alter the amount of light coming in.
The amount of light that’s let in is measured in f-stops.
Lower numbers (f/1.4) are wider and higher numbers (f/8) are narrower and let in less light.
An aperture of f/1.4 will let in double the light that an aperture of f/2.0 will.
Depth of Field
Aperture will also control depth-of-field effects.
Depth-of-field refers to how much of the shot is in focus, and how much is blurred out.
There are 2 options here:
- A wider aperture (e.g. f/1.4) will let more light in and give you a shallow depth of field (a small area is in focus and the rest is blurry)
- A narrow aperture (e.g. f/8) will let less light in and give you a deeper depth of field (most of the image will be sharp and in focus)
You can adjust the aperture to get the desired depth of field effect.
Shallow depths are usually seen in portraits, macros, events, and some sporting and wildlife shots.
Deeper depths of field are seen in city and landscape, low light and astrophotography.
How to Change the Aperture?
Aperture can be changed in a number of places; here are the most common:
- A wheel near the shutter button
- On the lens
- Camera menu
There are other ways to change the aperture and the exact process will depend on the brand and model of your camera.
Look in your manual if you haven’t lost it; otherwise, there are plenty of online guides.
This determines how long the sensor of the camera is exposed to the incoming light.
The longer the shutter speed is – the more light that going to hit the sensor – leading to a brighter image and higher exposure.
Shorter shutter speeds cut the light off quicker.
Here are some things to know about the different shutter speeds:
- Very fast shutter speeds are great for capturing fast-moving objects without blurring them
- Faster shutter speeds need very good lighting – otherwise not there won’t be enough to properly expose your shot
- Slower shutter speeds have to do on a good tripod (the stand for a camera) as even tiny movement will make your photo less sharp
- Slower shutter speeds are great for photographing traffic, moving water and the night sky
- A general rule is that your shutter speed shouldn’t be set any lower than the focal length of your lens. For example, the shutter speed on a 85mm lens shouldn’t be set slower than 1/85s – or you’ll blur your image
Keep these in mind because they will influence how you set up the aperture and ISO.
We won’t go too much into the ISO in-camera meaning and how it works as it gets pretty technical.
It used to refer to how sensitive the film was to light.
Now that we use digital sensors, there’s no need for film.
Basically, a higher ISO means that the sensor is more sensitive to light – and less light is needed to get a good exposure.
You might think this can solve all the problems, but as you increase the ISO, the quality of the shot is reduced and it becomes grainy and less sharp.
You’ll get the highest quality and sharpest shots at ISO100.
You should always try to balance the exposure while keeping the ISO as low as possible.
Take the other options to their limits before increasing the ISO – make it the last resort.
You can change ISO settings in-camera pretty easily and it’s usually done from the menu or a dial on top of the camera.
What Are Automatic Camera Settings?
Most DSLR camera settings can be set to automatically choose the best settings for a situation.
These automatic settings try to get a balanced exposure by adjusting the available options as it wants.
There are generally different automatic modes:
- Full automatic – the camera has complete control of the aperture, ISO and shutter speed
- Semi-automatic – the user sets one or two of the options manually and the camera will automatically adjust the remaining settings
The full automatic mode is sometimes called the P-Mode on your camera.
It’s the easiest and the least accurate model.
You don’t have control over which settings the camera decides to adjust.
I’ve found that it often turns up the ISO to give you a brighter shot – leading to grainy images that aren’t sharp.
It could have either used a wider aperture or a longer shutter speed.
This could have been done manually, but you don’t have any control over that.
As you progress as a photographer, move over to the semi-automatic or manual mode.
Now we’ll quickly talk about the different semi-automatic modes.
Shutter Priority Mode
This is often written as the “Tv” mode in your settings.
Shutter priority is a semi-automatic shooting mode that focuses on keeping the shutter speeds fast.
It’s better suited to catching a fast-moving object without motion blur.
Make sure you use this is very good lighting or the higher ISO will make the darker areas grainy and reduce the overall sharpness.
Aperture Priority Mode
This is often written as “Tv” mode in your settings.
Using this mode will focus on keeping your aperture set while adjusting the ISO and shutter speed to expose your shots.
It’s well-suited to shooting portraits and close up scenes because the depth of field will stay constant.
It gives you control of the depth of the field, whether you want it to be shallow or deep.
This mode gives your camera control over the ISO.
You’ll be able to have manual control over everything else and not have to worry about constantly checking the ISO.
This works well when the lighting is consistent and isn’t likely to change while shooting – like a sunny day outside, or a controlled studio shoot.
It’s not going to work great where lighting is fluctuating a lot – like a concert – or in low light conditions.
Focusing and Its Different Modes
Focusing and exposure are the two things you absolutely need to nail if you want good quality shots that are sharp.
As we said before, focusing deals with which part of your shot you want to have sharp, and which part you want to blur out.
There are different focusing modes and they’re used to get different results.
Learning how to get focusing right – along with exposure – will get you more professional looking photos in the shortest time.
You’re giving complete control to your camera with this setting.
It’ll decide what to focus on and keep sharp.
How well the camera does this depends on its quality, cost, design and much more.
Some cameras have excellent autofocus, but they tend to be quite expensive.
I personally don’t use autofocus that much as I like to have control over what part of my image to focus on.
Autofocus will get it wrong a lot of the time and it can be frustrating to deal with.
Learning and master manual focus will give you insane levels of control over your focus and you’ll never look back.
This is also known as spot focusing.
You take a focus point and you set it on the object you want to focus on.
You’ll only see the focus points when you press the shutter button half-way, wait for it to focus and then snap away.
Nowadays, cameras have over 50 focus points, so it’s easy to use – though it’s not always accurate, and you’ll have to reset if you move the camera away.
It’s also tricky to use this method with longer shutter speeds or remote shutters.
There are 2 kinds of focusing to keep in mind here:
- Single focus – when the shutter is half-pressed, you can move between objects and pan around while keeping the focus the same (better for stationary objects)
- Continuous focus – when the shutter button is half-pressed, moving the camera will adjust the focus to the new object under the focal point (better for moving objects)
These two modes can also be used with the area focus mode.
This is where you assign more focal points to one area so you don’t have to think too much about keeping a single object in focus.
It’s better than the full autofocus, but has a lot of inaccuracies and can get a little frustrating.
The Best Dslr Camera Settings for Different Situations
The settings you use need to carefully chosen so you don’t miss the moment.
Here you’ll learn why and how to change camera settings.
Some types of photography need you to change settings between scenes – but we’re just going to focus on the best basic settings to get consistently good shots.
Camera Settings for Outdoor Photography
Outdoor photography is a broad term.
It can involve portraits, macro shots, landscapes and night time photography.
Best camera settings for outdoor portraits:
- ISO between 100-400 for sharp and detailed shots
- Single point focus to keep your subject in focus when changing angles
- The wider aperture between f/2 – f/4 to get a shallow depth of field
- Shutter speed of 1/200s if you’re holding the camera by hand; 1/15s if you’re mounted on a tripod
This should get you very sharp shots with awesome depth of field effects. You’ll have to make small adjustments to the aperture and ISO – within the stated range – depending on the quality of the light.
Best settings for landscapes:
- The narrow aperture between f/11 – f/16 for a deep depth of field
- Single point focus in aperture priority mode
- Shutter speed will be changed automatically – enable image stabilization if the speed is slower than 1/30s
- ISO100-200 for sharp shots
If you’re shooting sunsets, choose a white-balance that shows what you want – don’t let the camera do it automatically as the shots can turn out pretty bad.
Camera Settings for Street Photography
You want to emphasize speed here as you probably won’t get more than one chance for a lot of your shots.
Street photography involves a lot of moving subjects and strict time limits.
These settings have been set up to help you get what you need without needing to change settings between your shots.
- Shutter speed must be faster than 1/125s
- Aperture around f/5.6
- ISO400 or lower if possible
- Continuous focus mode
Camera Settings for Low Light Photography
You’ll need a tripod for most low light situations. The low light scenes we’re talking about here are early evening shots and indoors with not too much natural light.
These settings won’t work for very dark scenes and night shots (some night shots in cities will turn out well though).
This is because you’ll need to use slower shutter speed to keep you from needing to raise the ISO too high.
- Shoot in shutter priority mode so that you can keep it where you want – remember that longer exposures will blur movement and shorter ones will freeze movement but may underexpose the image
- Shutter speed at 1/120s or 1/200s if there is lots of fast movement and 1/60s (even 1/30s) for the rest
- Use a wide aperture of f/4 or wider to let in more light
- ISO mustn’t go too much over 1600 to keep the noise acceptable
- Shoot in RAW if possible to give you an easier time fixing mistakes via editing
Everything you’ve read here today will set up a good foundation for you.
You know a little bit about how the major settings affect your shots and each other.
You also had the DSLR camera features explained in a simple and memorable way.
You’re ready to get experimenting – it’s the best way to build up your skills and develop a sense of what’s going to work, and what isn’t.
Keep learning more complex lessons as you get along and don’t be afraid to try new things for yourself.
Many great photographers have broken free from conventional thinking and created their own unique style by ‘breaking the rules’.
Work with the gear you have and don’t feel disadvantaged if you don’t have super high quality and expensive gear.
Epic photos have been snapped on a 15-year-old camera – they even rival what today’s higher quality cameras do.
It comes down to your technique, creativity, and skill.
Take what you’ve learned here about basic camera settings for beginners, get out there and start getting the results you want!