What Do Camera Settings Mean?

 If you read my post on why I love teaching photography, you'll know that photography terms were like a foreign language to me until I decided to learn in my 20s. It all sounded so complicated that I didn't want to try. To make it easier, I decided to write today's blog post about camera settings!


When you set your camera to manual mode, you'll be able to control 3 settings:

1. Aperture

2. ISO

3. Shutter Speed


All three of these affect a different setting, and the exposure (brightness/darkness) of the photo. I'm going to explain what each one does, and how it affects the exposure.

 1. Aperture


The aperture controls the blurriness of the photo. On your camera screen, this number usually has an F in front of it. (Ie in the example on the camera above is F/3.2)


The smaller the number, the blurrier the background. The bigger the number, the more in focus everything is. (Click here to read more about how to get blurry backgrounds)

The settings for the image above are f/3.5 1/250 ISO 800. (Aperture highlighted in yellow) See how the ribbon behind the rings are blurred?


When I'm trying to get blurry backgrounds, my aperture will be somewhere between f/1.8 and f/3.5.

Since I was trying to get everyone in focus for the image above, my settings were f/6.3 1/125 ISO 1600. Since the number was larger, the background was more in focus. 


When I'm trying to get more in focus, my aperture will be f/5.6 and above. 


How does aperture work?


When the aperture number is lower, the lens opens up and lets more light into the camera and the image is brighter. As you increase the number, the lens closes up, so the image will be darker. For the image above, the ring photo at an aperture of f/3.5 will be much brighter than the group photo at an aperture of f/6.3 if the other settings were the same. 


Here's a breakdown:

Lower f number = blurrier background = brighter photo

Larger f number = more in focus = darker photo 


2. Shutter Speed


The shutter speed affects movement. A faster shutter speed will freeze movement, while a slower shutter will show the movement. In the camera screen above, the shutter is 1/2000. This means that the shutter is open for 1/2000th of a second. 


The faster the shutter, the movement will be frozen. Meanwhile, a slower shutter will catch more motion. 

The settings in the above image were f/2.5 1/500 ISO 500. (Shutter speed highlighted in yellow) Even though Ylse is spinning, the movement of her body and dress are frozen in the photo. 


I try to keep my shutter speed between 1/250-1/2000 when shooting outdoors or near windows indoors. 

 The settings in the above image were f/3.5 1/60 ISO 800. This photo is a great example of how a slow shutter can lead to a blurry photo. Since the dog was running, the camera caught the movement of his body, making the photo blurry. If the shutter were at 1/250 or faster, his movement would be frozen like in the photo above of Ylse spinning. 


How does shutter speed work?


As I mentioned above, shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is open. At a faster shutter speed, the movement will be frozen. However, since the shutter is closing faster, the image will be darker. At a slower speed, the shutter is open longer, so the image will be brighter. For example, if you held aperture and ISO the same, a photo with a shutter speed of 1/60 will be brighter than a photo with a speed of 1/500.


Remember that 1/60 means 1/60th of a second and 1/500 is 1/500th of a second, so 1/500 is faster than 1/60.  


Here's a breakdown:

Slower shutter = more movement = brighter photo

Faster shutter = freezes movement = darker photo 


Why would you want a slow shutter speed then?


If you're using a slow shutter, you have to keep both the camera very still and the subject still in order to not get any motion. For example, if you used a tripod and were capturing a photo of a still landscape (ie a mountain), then both the camera and subject are still. In this case, you can shoot with a slow shutter speed.


A lot of landscape photographers who want to shoot with a large number aperture to get everything in focus (f/22) might need to slow their shutter in order to let more light into their camera. Another situation where the shutter needs to be very slow is night photography since it's so dark.  

For this night shot in Joshua Tree, my settings were f/3.2 30s ISO 320. My shutter speed was 30 seconds! (This looks like 30'' on your camera screen if you slow your shutter all the way down vs the normal 1/500th of a second) This means that my camera sat on my tripod for 30 seconds to get this photo. 


Since the shutter was open for 30 seconds, it let lots of light into the camera, enabling me to capture this night shot. Note: if you ever do long exposure photography like this, you'll need a tripod and lots of patience as you wait for your camera to take the photo.  


3. ISO


The ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. The lower the number, the darker the photo. The higher the number, the brighter.


If you go too high, the photo will get grainy. Different cameras can handle higher ISOs better than others. For example, you might see grain at ISO 800 for some of the beginner cameras while you might not see it until ISO 2000 on the higher end cameras. 



Lower number = less grain = darker photo

Higher number = more grain = brighter photo

The settings for the image above were f/2.2 1/250 ISO 1600. (ISO highlighted in yellow) If you look closely at the top of the image at the dark wood, you can see that it's grainy. The church was very dark inside, and didn't allow flash or tripods so I had to push my ISO all the way up.


On the flip side, the outside of the church was super bright in the early afternoon. My settings were f/2.5 1/500 ISO 100. I had to decrease the ISO to accommodate for the brightness. There is also no grain in this image at such a low ISO. 

With my Canon Mark III 5D camera, I try my best to keep my ISO below 1250. I'll only go above that in situations like shooting in the church with restrictions. 




It can take some time getting used to all the settings. I suggest practicing slowly until you can get the hang of all of them. I usually start with the aperture, ISO, then shutter speed! 


Since all of the settings affect how bright/dark the image is, I'm going to quickly talk about the exposure bar. It's the section of the screen labeled -3 2 1 0 1 2 3. That tells you how bright and dark the image is, -3 being too dark and 3 being too bright. I'll usually try to keep my photos a little above the 0 while adjusting settings. 

Here's a recap of all the breakdowns:



Lower f number = blurrier background = brighter photo

Larger f number = more in focus = darker photo 


Shutter Speed

Slower shutter = more movement = brighter photo

Faster shutter = freezes movement = darker photo 



Lower number = less grain = darker photo

Higher number = more grain = brighter photo


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