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Camera Settings - Explained Simply

Updated on August 22, 2012

Understanding Camera Settings

Still not getting the quality photos you want? Are you scared to take your camera off the Auto/Program setting? Learn how to take better pictures by using different camera settings. Once you learn a little bit about f-stop, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and how they affect your pictures, you will be much happier with your photography, and gain more control of the outcome... and hopefully get some more creative shots. Learning these settings can be daunting, especially if it gets too technical too fast. This page will attempt to explain the settings and some examples of when to use them in simple, understandable terms.

f stop sizes
f stop sizes

Aperture & F-Stop

What is F-Stop?

Basically speaking lens aperture is the diaphragm or lens opening. This determines how wide or narrow the lens shutter will open, therefore controlling the amount of light hitting the camera sensor (or film). It is similar to the pupil in your eye. Both your pupil and the aperture control how much light gets in, either by opening up wide to let a lot of light in, or opening just a small amount to let less light in.

The lower the number of the f-stop, for example f /5.6 or f/ 1.8 (available only on some lenses) the more light will enter by opening up wide. This is called a large f-stop, because the opening is large. Think of how your pupil will open wide when you are in a dark room.

The higher the f-stop number, for example f /22 or f /32, the less light will enter the camera, since the opening is very small. This is called a small f-stop, because the opening is small. Think of how small your pupil becomes in bright light.

Stopping Down

When you are told to stop down, that means to let in less light by using a smaller aperture, or a higher f-stop number.

What does F-Stop affect?

So obviously f-stop affects the amount of light that hits the sensors in the camera (or film for non-digital cameras). You can control the amount of light by playing with the f-stop on your camera.

A less obvious result of different aperture sizes is the resulting depth of field. Depth of field is the range of distance that is in sharp focus, as in the depth of distance front to back, not sideways. For example, if you were to put a soccer ball on a field, about 10 feet from you, and the next one 3 feet farther than the first, and the next one 3 feet behind that one etc. When you take the picture, the depth of field refers to how many of the balls will be in focus. In landscape photogrpahy the foreground and distant mountains are usually all in focus, whereas in portrait photography a persons' face is in focus, but the background is often blurry - this is a shallow depth of field, meaning the area of focus might only be about 1 or 2 feet deep.

f/5.6 at 1/500 with ISO 200 produces a nice portrait, with a blurred background
f/5.6 at 1/500 with ISO 200 produces a nice portrait, with a blurred background

Depth of Field

A low f-stop number of f/1.8 or even f/4.6 will result in a shallow depth of field, where (typically) the background is blurry. The lower the f-stop number the less depth will be in focus. For example maybe only 6 inches from your point of focus will be sharp, whereas the same subject shot at f/8 might have 3 feet in front and behind that is in focus. At f/22 almost your entire scene will be in sharp focus.

Controlling depth of field is often the main reason to use the aperture setting on the camera. At this setting you control the aperture, and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed accordingly. If you want to photograph mountains, or overall street scenes or any other scene where you really want to show the details of just about everything that you see through the viewfinder, then shoot with a high f-stop number, such as f/22. If you would like to make one subject stand out and get rid of background distractions, use a shallow depth of field, with a low f-stop number such as f/4.6. Imagine a portrait taken in a pretty park setting, you want to make your subject really be the focus of attention, so by using the f/2.8 or f/4.6 you will be able to blur out the background so that only the subject is in focus. The background will still provide some greenery for overall color, but will not distract from the subject. The best way to learn this is to experiment with the depth of field. There are other elements which affect the depth of field, for instance your distance from the subject and the distance from the background, but the aperture will control a lot of it.

Remember that there any many ways to achieve the same effect. This page does not cover every way to accomplish each effect, but merely to help you understand a few basic ways to gain more control of your photography and your camera.

Shutter Speed

Setting your camera to S or shutter speed will give you control of the shutter speed, and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture accordingly. The camera shutter is like a door, or curtain that also helps to control the amount of light hitting the camera sensor (or film). While the f-stop or aperture controls how wide the shutter opens, the shutter speed determines how long it is open, and therfore letting light in. If the aperture was the same in two shots, a long shutter speed will let in a lot of light, whereas a short shutter speed will let in a smaller amount of light.

Aperture and shutter speed work hand in hand to control the light. You can achieve the same amout of light with many different settings. For example a wide aperture, open only for a short amount of time will let in the same amount of light as a small aperture opened for a longer amount of time. To achieve the same amount of light, when you go from a larger aperture to a smaller one you need to incrementally decrease the shutter speed. In Auto mode, the camera will make all of those decisions for you, however in A(aperture) mode or S (shutter speed) mode you have control of one, and the camera will automatically adjust the other to achieve the correct (according to the camera) amount of light.

A fast shutter speed can stop the action
A fast shutter speed can stop the action

Why control the shutter speed?

So why control the shutter speed? One main reason is to capture speed. If left in Auto mode, the camera may be set to a medium shutter speed and a medium aperture, however you are photographing a fast moving subject and the result is a slight "soft" or blurry subject. To counter that, you will want to control the shutter speed by setting the camera to S mode, and then let the camera adjust the aperture to let in the needed light for your desired speed. Now your soccer player or water skier will be in focus.

Use shutter speed to show motion

The opposite could also be true. You may want to control the shutter speed to allow for a little blur. Maybe you are taking a photo of a street scene and you set your camera on a tripod, and set it to a slower shutter speed. This will result in the buildings and other non-moving objects being in focus (with the help of the tripod), but a fast moving car will be slightly blurry, which shows a sense of motion in your photo.

The Aperture and Shutter Speed Relationship

How they work together

To fully understand aperture and shutter speed it might be helpful to look at the image to the right. First just look at the size of the aperture opening, in relation to the shutter speed. In this example when the aperture is wide open at f/2, you will need a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second to get the right amount of light (in this example). Now, if you close the aperture a little bit to f/2.8 you will need a little bit more time to get the same amount of light onto the camera sensor, so the shutter speed will now need to be set to 1/500 of a second. As you continue to close the aperture even smaller, you will notice how the shutter speed will need more time, until you get to f/16 when it needs 1/15 of a second to get the same exposure.

All of these settings will take the same picture, with the same exposure, meaning one picture will not turn out darker than another. However, there will be other noticeable differences in the photo: remember we talked about depth of field and how the aperture size affects it? The image to the right also illustrates that as well. With the aperture set wide open at f/2 you will have the least depth of field, for instance you may only have about 3 inches of focus (in depth) from your focal point. Whereas at f/16 you might have 50 feet or more of focal depth from your subject. View the sample photos for examples of this.

Examples of Different Settings

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Narrow depth of field, the white fence is blurred. Taken at f/5.6 at 1/640 of a second.A bit of blurred car shows motion. Taken at f/29 for 1/50 of a second, to allow for a bit of blur.With an aperture setting of f/5.6 the leaves behind the subject are intentionally out of focus, drawing your eye to the subject instead.This photo was taken at f/16 which allowed for the sign in the foreground and the pioneer house further away to both be in focus.This photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second to stop the action.Landscape photo taken at f/22
Narrow depth of field, the white fence is blurred. Taken at f/5.6 at 1/640 of a second.
Narrow depth of field, the white fence is blurred. Taken at f/5.6 at 1/640 of a second.
A bit of blurred car shows motion. Taken at f/29 for 1/50 of a second, to allow for a bit of blur.
A bit of blurred car shows motion. Taken at f/29 for 1/50 of a second, to allow for a bit of blur.
With an aperture setting of f/5.6 the leaves behind the subject are intentionally out of focus, drawing your eye to the subject instead.
With an aperture setting of f/5.6 the leaves behind the subject are intentionally out of focus, drawing your eye to the subject instead.
This photo was taken at f/16 which allowed for the sign in the foreground and the pioneer house further away to both be in focus.
This photo was taken at f/16 which allowed for the sign in the foreground and the pioneer house further away to both be in focus.
This photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second to stop the action.
This photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second to stop the action.
Landscape photo taken at f/22
Landscape photo taken at f/22

Recommended Reading

Scott Kelby has some great books. I have all 3 of these books and they provide quick, easy tips for all sorts of photography. They are quick reads, as each page is basically it's own tip, so you don't necessarily have to read it in order. Either pick a subject or simply open to any page and read some tips.

ISO Setting

What is the ISO setting?

ISO measures how sensitive your camera is to light. When using a film camera, you would buy film of different ISO settings for different lighting situations. The same is true with digital photography, only now you don't have to finish a roll of film to change the ISO.

A lower ISO number indicates less sensitivity to light, and a finer grain. A higher ISO number will be more sensitive to light, but will also have larger grain. Basically, when you don't have much light, you will need a more light sensitive setting, which is a higher ISO number. When set to auto, the camera will change the ISO automatically to get what it thinks is the best result.

A general rule is to keep the ISO level as low as you can, for the result you want. Outdoors on a sunny day you can usually keep the ISO set to 100 or 200 for the best, sharpest images with the least amout of grain/noise. Increasing the ISO will allow you to shoot in darker settings without needing a flash. A higher ISO will also allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds in less light. For example I was shooting a soccer game in the late afternoon. Due to the speed of play, I had set my camera to S, shutter speed to ensure the players were sharp, however as the sun was setting I had to raise my ISO setting to allow me to keep the shutter speed fast, despite the decrease in light. Other people photographing the same game stopped photographing because their pictures were too dark, or their flash kept triggering. With a few simple setting changes they could have kept shooting.

Increasing ISO can also provide nice, more natual lighting than using a flash in the same situation. A flash will make your subject bright, but results in the areas outside of the flash being darker than they actually are. Increasing ISO and using the lowest possible f/stop (and if needed a tripod) can often give a nicer more natural look. This comes in handy when you can't use a flash, for example at a school show or similar event where a flash would disrupt people. Try increasing the ISO and use a wide aperture.

Sometimes a grainy look for a photograph is desired, so a higher ISO setting like 3200 is used.

You may wish to leave your ISO setting to Auto, however it is useful to know when and how to control it to your benefit.

M is for Manual

On your own - or are you?

The M, or Manual setting is just that, you get to make all of the decisions. This can be useful in certain circumstances. Some diehard photographers keep it to manual all the time, but for most people controlling your photography using either S or A gives you the control you want, while letting the camera figure out the rest. Nevertheless, there are times when what the camera thinks is perfect, is not the look you are going for.

One way to use manual mode is to first use one of the other settings, for example using Aperture mode at f/5.6, you notice that it just isn't as light or as dark as you want it. You could look at the settings the camera is giving, for example f/5.6 at 1/60, then go to M/manual mode, set it to the same settings f/5.6 at 1/60, then change your shutter speed dial to one setting faster or slower, take a photo and see if that makes enough of a difference for you. If not, then experiment again even faster or slower. Remember, it's digital, so you can delete anything you don't like. EXPERIMENT and learn!!

Just remember, when you are done, set it back to the setting you use the most, so that next time you take out your camera, if you forget to change the settings it is back to a "normal" mode.

What About You?

What camera brand do you have?

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