Camera Settings 101

If you blog at all, you probably take photos for your blog.   And, you’ve probably at some point heard that you should turn off auto mode on your camera and start learning about your settings.  Well, settings can be confusing.

I want to share with you what I’ve learned so far about my camera settings.  I own a Canon Rebel T1i.  However, these tips should be able to be used with any camera that allows you to adjust settings.  Be prepared, this is a long and technical post.

You don’t have to have a dslr camera for this post to be helpful.

Let’s get started.  Go ahead, get your camera and manual out (right now, go get them).   You will want to look at them as we talk through the basic settings.

Exposure.   It is a fancy word for the amount of light that makes it into the sensor when you take a photo.  If the shot is exposed too long (over-exposed) the photograph will be washed out.  If the shot is exposed too short (under-exposed) the photograph will appear too dark.

Three settings help you control exposure – aperture or f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO.

A. Aperture/ F-Stop.  Aperture is simply the size of the lens opening that lets light into the camera.  While shutter speed is how long that is open, aperture is the size of that opening.  Apertures are measured in something called f/stops.  A very wide aperture is f/1.8 and a very small aperture is f/19. It seems counter intuitive since the smaller the opening, the larger the number.

But, think of it as cranking the shutters on a window to close it off.   With each crank, or f stop, it gets more closed off.  So more cranks, higher the f-stop and smaller the opening.

Why do you need both aperture and shutter speed (and even ISO) if they both control light?   I’ll talk more about shutter speed below, but for now, let’s answer that question regarding aperture.

Aperture controls the depth-of-field (DoF) which is what is in focus in the picture.  Aperture can be used to draw attention to one subject (like the flower below) by blurring the background.   A wide aperture (low f/stop) means the depth of field (or focus) isn’t far.


Aperture can also do the opposite.   It can help to focus everything in a picture if you use a narrow aperture (high f/stop).

B.  Shutter Speed.  Shutter speed is the amount of time the sensor is exposed to light.  How long the shutter (imagine the shutters on a house window) stays open is measured in seconds and more commonly fractions of a second. For instance, 1/2000 of a second is very fast and 8 seconds is extremely slow.   A slower shutter speed lets in more light.  This helps with the exposure.  So, if you cannot afford to use a lower f-stop for a wide opening, you may instead be able to use a slower shutter speed instead.

Another thing shutter speed affects is the capture of movement.  Shutter speed can be used to freeze movement if you use a fast speed or it can be used to blur water with a slow speed.

Below is an image that had slow shutter speed, thus allowing movement to blur. (Not taken with my new camera.  Only the flowers image above was taken with the new camera.)


And, below that, is an image taken, also not taken with my new camera that froze the movement of water.  It used a fast shutter speed.  It was taken of a fountain in Sedona, AZ.


C. ISO.   ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor as it collects light.  The common span of ISO speed is 100 to 1600.  The higher the ISO speed the more the camera collects light but it also adds more noise to the photograph than the lower speeds.  So, you don’t want to go too high on the ISO or your photo could look a little grainy.

I change the ISO a lot when in a dimly lit room, especially if I do not have a tripod.  If you lower the shutter speed, you usually want a tripod or your hands will shake and cause a blur.  Most of the time you should keep it at a lower ISO speed if there is enough light, but it makes a big difference when there isn’t.

Exposure Triangle.


Many times these three settings (ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed) are discussed as a triangle since one affects the next.  In other words if you let more light in through the ISO, then you may not need a slower shutter speed or lower f-stop.  But, if you let more light in through the aperture (f-stop) because you are focusing in on something close (a lower Depth of Field or DoF), then you may not need a higher ISO or slower shutter speed.  It’s a balancing act.

White Balance.

White Balance is an aspect of photography that many digital camera owners don’t understand or use – but it’s something well worth learning about as it can make the colors in your photos look more natural or accurate.

Have you ever taken photos of things that look normal in person, but on the photo the image is tinted strangely (blue, yellow or orange for instance) and you cannot get the colors just right?   The reason for this is that different sources of light have a different color “temperature” to them. For instance, fluorescent lighting adds a bluish tint to photos.

Below are three photos of the same thing.  The middle one is the one with accurate white balance.  Can you tell?  (Image from Digital Photography School.)


According to Digital Photography School, “We don’t generally notice this difference in temperature because our eyes adjust automatically for it. So unless the temperature of the light is very extreme a white sheet of paper will generally look white to us. However a digital camera doesn’t have the smarts to make these adjustments automatically and sometimes will need us to tell it how to treat different light.”

Digital cameras have different ways of adjusting white balance so you will need to look in your camera’s manual for exact instructions unless you own my same camera.  You can try the presets, but I recommend using a Manual White Balance Adjustment if you can’t seem to get the colors right.

In order to do this, you’ll need a blank white sheet of paper, or a white (or grey) card which is specifically designed for this task.

Take a photo of a piece of white paper.   Let it fill the frame.  This tells your camera what color white is for that room.  On my camera, I then go to the Menu and choose Custom WB.  From there, I choose Set and click OK.  Once that is set, I make sure the settings say to use Custom.  You will now notice the colors are more accurate!  You can further adjust in a photo editing software program like Adobe Lightroom should you need to do so.

Adjusting Exposure on Your Camera.

A.  AV Mode.  This is the Aperture mode.  You can adjust the aperture and ISO in this mode.  It will automatically adjust the shutter speed.

B.  TV Mode.  This is Shutter Speed mode.  You can adjust the ISO and shutter speed in this mode.  It will automatically adjust the aperture.

C.  Manual.  You can adjust all three.

Most often, I shoot on AV Mode.  I adjust ISO, aperture, and white balance while using that mode, most often.  The shutter speeds gets set automatically based on my other settings.

Side note.

Things can get much more complicated than this, but I’m hoping this will get you started.   I really like and have used it quite a bit to get a grasp of the basics.

Practice, practice, practice.  You’ll get better as you practice using these settings.

Quiz on the 3 sides of Exposure.

Now that you know how it works you can take over and make the decisions for yourself.  Let’s take a quick quiz.

1.  You are at a friend’s house, the light is dim. You have to hand hold your camera as you don’t have a tripod. Therefore you have set your shutter to 1/125s so it snaps a photo fast and doesn’t blur. You want a small aperture for a large depth of field to get the whole room in focus, you pick f/8.  You take a photo and it’s too dark.   How do you increase exposure and get more light into the image?   If you raise that setting too much, what is the concern?

2.  You are in your backyard and your kids are running through the sprinklers.  You want to freeze the motion of the kids and the water with little motion blur.  To make sure it’s all in focus, you use am aperture of f/12 and to make sure you get plenty of light, you use a moderate ISO, 400. Using the exposure triangle we can see the only way not have too much light is to do what?   This will also insure that the motion is frozen.

Leave your answers in the comments.  I’d also love to hear any other wisdom that you have on the topic.

Was this information helpful to you?



  1. Thank you for this great tutorial! I definitely need to learn this stuff but hate reading my manual and would rather have someone “show” me, I’m a visual learner. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading this post a few times! Thanks!

  2. Hi Kristy, Love these tips. I’m going to go get my manual even if it is a little point and shoot :-)

    So I tweeted about this and someone pulled it onto their e-newsletter, look in the Technology section.

    I’m about to write to tell them to take it off since it’s not my story. Let me know if that is OK with you.

    • Oh, that’s cool. Leave it on there. No big deal, as long as they link back to me or mention my blog. Yay, let me know if any of it turns out to be useful with your camera!

  3. Great post. I need to learn this stuff. Instead I am lazy and make my husband take the pictures. I’ll add it to my New Year’s Resolution list. It’s getting close enough to that time. :P

  4. Thank you for this. I STILL never learned to use my nice camera. :)

  5. Wow! Absorbing all this info! I am still using a point and shoot but looking hard at a dslr camera. Now I am going to take a look at my point and shoot and see what more I can get out of it. Thanks for the lesson! Although I think I will need to reread it several times!

  6. Great tips! I’m always mixing up the f-stop and taking a bunch of test shots to remind myself… love your analogy with cranking the blinds.

  7. Wow….I have SO much to learn. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. I feel like I just went to a great photography class! Thanks!!! I have filed it away for when I have a bit more time to look through all of it slowly with my camera by my side. :)

  9. Thank you so much i never take my camera off of auto mode, but i will now. I still need to look at my manual i have a cannon powershot and it has a DISP button, and something like fish eye movie digest?? But your blog has inpired me to practice :-)

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>