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6 Camera Settings For Beginers To Grasp

Learning to use a few basic camera settings can have a dramatic impact on the quality of shots you're able to produce. I'm going to help you start taking your photography to the next level with this whistle-stop, practical tour of 6 key camera controls.

  1. Shutter Speed
  2. Aperture
  3. ISO
  4. Mode Dial/Menu Controls
  5. Zoom and Perspective
  6. Colour Modes


1. Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is a control referring to exposure time, or the length of time during which the camera's shutter is open (literally the speed at which it opens and closes).

This control determines the amount of light that reaches the camera's sensor, and so how bright or dark an image turns out. So it must be adjusted according to the strength of the light source.

Short exposure times have fast shutter speeds and long exposures have slow shutter speeds. Shutter speeds are measured in seconds and fractions of seconds. Some of the most frequently used shutter speeds include 1/15 s, 1/25 s, 1/60 s, 1/125 s, 1/250 s and 1/500 s.

Different shutter speeds come into play with different subjects. For instance, a fast shutter speed like 1/500 second would be really useful for capturing a fast moving subject sharply, without any blur.

On the other hand, for a landscape shot, fast shutter speeds are less important since usually no part of the image is moving - at least no enough to matter.

Slow shutter speed (6 seconds)

Fast shutter speed (1/500 second)

2. Aperture

Adjustments to shutter speed need to be made in conjunction with aperture and ISO. Let's take a look at aperture, another of the most most basic camera setings to master.

Aperture, like shutter speed, affects the intake of light into the camera. The aperture is literally a hole in the lens through which light passes to reach the sensor. Changing this setting alters the diameter of that hole to regulate the amount of light that is allowed through at any one time.

So, bearing in mind the reciprocal relationship of aperture and shutter speed, larger apertures need to be accompanied by smaller shutter speeds and vice versa.

The measurements for aperture size are not quite as intuitively easy to grasp as the seconds used for shutter speed. But there's nothing to it really. Basically, aperture size is measured in 'f-numbers'. The higher the f number, or f stop, the smaller the aperture. The lower the number, the wider the aperture.

So, for example, f/2,8 is considered a large aperture while f/22 is considered a small one. Using a smaller aperture will result in more of your image being in focus (a larger depth of field). So, for things like landscape photography try shooting within a range of about f/8 - f/22.

(Image copyright: David Fleet)

A small aperture ensured the whole of the above image was sharp.


3. ISO

ISO speed is the final one of the 3 basic camera settings for setting exposure. It determines the speed with which the sensor can gather light.

So, the higher the ISO speed, the quicker it is able to gather light to form an image on the sensor. This, in turn, allows faster shutter speeds or smaller apertures.

But, higher ISO values do result in more noise (graininess) within digital images. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO all have a reciprocal relationship. You cannot change one without a knock-on effect for the others.


4. Mode Dial/Menu Controls

Let's have a look at mode dial controls. Digital SLR cameras come with a mode dial or mode menu, which allows you to select a particular mode to best capture the scene in front of you. Some cameras allow you to alter these modes by using a physical dial on the top plate of the camera, whilst others require you to enter the menus on the LCD screen.

Common modes include: Manual, Program, Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority. Automatic modes tend to include Auto, Action/Sports, Portrait, Night Portrait, Landscape and Macro. These modes are set up to configure shutter speed and aperture combinations that are best suited to specific subjects.

So, the 'landscape' mode on your camera is designed to adjust aperture and shutter speed automatically for a wide depth of field high (f number), in the same way that 'action' or 'sports' mode will adjust them to try and set a fast shutter speed (for freezing motion).

The 'sports' / 'action' mode is also really useful for wildlife photography. Indeed, it's ideal for any fast moving subject. Because this preserves the crispness of the scene in front of you, it is ideal when shooting moving animals, birds in flight, or even the people around you.

'Sports'/'Action' mode helps you to capture moving subjects without any blur.


5. Zoom and perspective

Another of the most basic camera settings is zoom. This allows you to alter the focal length of an image. So this is a key setting used to help determine the framing of your image, and what to include in or exclude from the shot.

dslr lens

Zoom is typically built into the most simple cameras (compact and bridge cameras). But the more sophisticated DSLR cameras come with zoom lens options. In fact, professional can lenses often cost a lot more than the camera bodies which they attach to!

The focal length of a lens not only determines how much of your surroundings are included within the frame, it also affects the perspective of an image.

For instance, very wide angle lenses can distort things, bending straight lines into a bulging shape. They're certainly not recommended for people shots, but can be excellent for capturing a sense of the expanse of a sweeping landscape - by making near and far objects seem further apart than in reality.

At the other end of the spectrum, zoom lenses can flatten
perspective and so seemingly bring distant objects closer.
These can be great for people shots and portraits, minimizing any background clutter. Here's a guide to DSLR lenses.


6. Colour Modes

In addition to the above basic camera settings, many cameras also offer a variety of pre-set colour modes, which can be useful for different subjects (especially if you're not yet familiar with Photoshop or Lightroom).

Often a landscape mode, for example, will saturate colours to make images more vivid. You will also often find a portrait mode, which is aimed at rendering skin tones more sympathetically.

Have an explore of your camera's colour modes and you may well come across settings for sepia, black and white and various tone options too.

Whilst controlling the light and focus of your photographs is obviously important, playing around with these hues and tones in your images can add a lot of value to the final results.

The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

Where Next?

What is Aperture

Glossary of Terms

Long Exposure Tutorial

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