01 The Basics – Camera settings explained

Making a photo is like mixing a cocktail. Just a few ingredients, in the right quantities. And adjust them to your likings.

In photography there are only three of them, so it is not that difficult. Actually, there are just two and the third one is for emergencies only!

An image, an exposure, is a combination of two fundamental camera settings: aperture and shutter speed. Many combinations will give the right exposure, but each one will have differences in depth of field, motion blur, and so on. When you control them you can give the photo the desired effect.

ISO comes into play when combinations don’t work out, when you need more light.

Shutter speed

The time the camera needs to take the photo.

Set the correct speed to freeze the action (faster) or to add motion (slower)


The size of the opening of the lens.

Set the area that needs to be sharp. With aperture you can blur out parts of the photo, such as background. The easiest approach would be:

Small aperture number – small depth of field

Bigger aperture number – bigger depth of field

ISO sign

ISO is all about amplification of light. It works very easily. Every time you double the value, you double the amount of light. That enables you to choose the shutter speed or aperture you need.

An auto-ISO is very handy. It saves you in situations where your other settings result in less light.

These three settings make the image and there are many combinations possible. You control them with the wheel(s) on top of your camera or you need to go into the menu. The cheaper compact cameras may not have this option. Then you are at the mercy of the camera and the only changes you may be able to make can be done with the scene modes. Sports, night, portraits, beach, landscapes et cetera. They help a bit, but they are not idiot-proof. Even the “auto” button isn’t!

On top of your camera there may be a wheel similar to this. The red ones are the presets, which are programmed to take photos for certain different situations. The sports setting will give you a faster shutter speed, the portrait setting will give you a shallow depth of field. Sounds great? Not really. The camera is in charge here and you may not get the image you had in mind.

When using the auto setting, you give the camera full control. You cannot make changes. It’s best to avoid all of them, if you want to learn more and if you really want to do what you had in mind. You are the only one who knows what you want, the camera doesn’t.

For more control, stick to the SPAM settings. For emails you hate spam, for photography you will love spam.

Why should you avoid the auto settings?

The camera does not know what you want; it does not know what your subject is. If at a sports game you use the sports setting, the camera is programmed to give you a faster shutter speed. But will it be fast enough? Apart from the possibility that the focus is on the wrong person, the camera also does not know how fast the action. And so it may choose a speed which is too slow. Only YOU know which subject you have in mind, only YOU know how fast the action is and only YOU can make a correct decision. Focus and choose the correct shutter speed.

You will have a variety of problems when choosing auto settings. None of them is fool-proof. So stick to the letters. Now I re-arranged the letters into SPAM, but let’s have a look at them in a different order:

(Program) is almost automatic, but you can still change your ISO settings and certain other settings become available. It operates within the boundaries of your aperture range. So really fast or slow shutter speeds may not be possible.

A   Aperture priority (you set the aperture, the camera chooses the shutter speed)

S   Shutter speed priority (you set the shutter speed, the camera chooses the aperture)

Manual (you set both the aperture and shutter speed)

Choose the letter(s) you are more comfortable with, but realise the pros and cons of each one.

Use any preference in combination with a fixed or automatic ISO.

Sometimes A is called AV (Aperture Value) and S is called TV (Time Value).

To have more control over your images it would be better to use the A and S settings. If the depth of field is more important, you choose A, if shutter speed is more important, choose S. To control both, choose M.
The third setting (ISO) you can set yourself or you set it to automatic.

For more detailed info on each of the settings check out the chapters on shutter speed, aperture and ISO.