Still stuck on auto? It is the fastest way to take a photo. But it offers little in the way of flexibility and creative control. For that, you need complete control over the camera settings.
Camera settings play a role in a number of different factors, from the blur in a photograph to the color. Photography settings fall under five main categories: exposure, white balance, focus, release mode, and file type.
Learn the basics and how to change camera settings in this photography settings crash course beginner’s guide.
In auto mode, the camera chooses the photography settings for you. But the computer in your camera doesn’t have the creative vision that exists in your mind.
To turn that vision into actual pixels, you need to understand and adjust exposure settings.
Exposure settings are options that determine how light or dark the image is. You can adjust them inside the P / S (Tv) / A (Av) / M modes. These same exposure settings will also control factors like motion blur, depth of field, and even image quality.
When the camera takes a photo, the shutter opens and closes to let light in to capture that image. Shutter speed determines how long that shutter stays open.
A longer shutter speed will let in more light and create a brighter image. A shorter shutter speed will freeze motion and help prevent blur.
Shutter speed is indicated in fractions of a second or seconds.
A fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000, will freeze any movement in the photograph. But such a fast shutter speed limits the light coming into the lens.
Choosing a shutter speed is a matter of finding a balance between exposure and blur. If the subject is still or slow-moving, such as a seated adult, the shutter speed can be a low setting such as 1/60.
If the subject is moving quickly, such as in sports, you’ll likely want a shutter speed of at least 1/250.
If the scene has plenty of light, you can push that shutter speed higher without consequences. Unless you want intentional blur or are working with flash.
Keep in mind that blur comes from more than just a moving subject. If you set your shutter speed too low, the slight motion of your hands can blur the entire image.
As a general rule, keep the bottom number of that shutter speed at or higher than your lens. If you are shooting with a 50mm lens, you should be using a shutter speed of at least 1/50.
Since long lenses exaggerate camera shake, when using a 200mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/200. The exception? When using a tripod, you don’t need to worry about this rule for camera shake.
A camera lens’ aperture is a piece that controls the size of the opening in the lens. Just like a larger window lets in more light, a wider aperture will let in more light to the photo, creating a brighter image.
Aperture is measured in f-numbers. A low f-number, such as f/2.8 is a wide aperture that lets in lots of light. A high f-number, such as f/11, is a narrow aperture that lets in a limited amount of light.
Along with affecting the photograph’s exposure, aperture also plays a role in depth of field, or how much of the image is sharp. A photograph with a shallow depth of field has a very soft or blurred background. A photo with a wide depth of field leaves more of the details sharp.
Like shutter speed, the aperture is a matter of balance. A wide aperture is helpful for blurring the background to draw attention to the subject. It can also balance a dark exposure caused by limited light or a high shutter speed.
A low ISO, such as ISO 100, maintains image quality but isn’t very sensitive to light. A setting like ISO 3200 is much more sensitive to light, but much more prone to noise.
ISO helps balance out shutter speed and aperture. If you want to keep most of the scene sharp with a narrow aperture, for example, you can bump up the ISO.
If you are shooting in low light but need a fast shutter speed to freeze motion, you can bump up the ISO instead.
ISO should be kept low if possible — such as when shooting on a bright sunny day — but can be used when a faster shutter speed or narrower aperture is more important.
ISO settings are a matter of determining what’s most important to the image. And how much grain is acceptable.
ISO and grain are different among different camera models. Try snapping a photo at each ISO setting on your camera, and determine which ISO is too high to use because of that grain.
How to Change Camera Settings for Exposure
To change shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you’ll need to switch the camera’s mode dial off the green auto and to the M.
Each camera is a little bit different. On most cameras, the dial that rests by your right index finger at the front of the camera adjusts the aperture. And the dial at the back of the camera by your right thumb adjusts the shutter speed.
If your camera only has one dial, pressing and holding the Fn button will switch the dial’s function between shutter speed and aperture. ISO is adjusted through a shortcut button or sometimes the camera menu.
M or manual mode isn’t the only option to adjust camera settings. In S mode, you’ll adjust the shutter speed while the camera will choose the aperture for you.
In A mode, you’ll choose the aperture while the camera chooses the shutter speed for you.
In P mode, you can use the dial to switch between suggested pairs of shutter speed and aperture.
In S, A and P mode, the camera still chooses what it thinks the proper exposure is. You can use the exposure compensation button to brighten or darken the image.
These semi-auto modes are excellent for learning, as well as scenarios where you need to shoot quickly.
White Balance Settings
Light comes in different colors. We don’t realize it because our eyes adjust. Cameras don’t have the same ability to adjust to the different colors of light.
If your images are turning out too blue, yellow, green or purple, the problem is the white balance.
Auto white balance allows the camera to adjust the settings for you — in many shots, auto white balance will work well. But, if the image’s color is off, manually adjusting the white balance will correct the issue.
White balance settings are easy to understand because they are named after the type of light. Choose cloudy for taking photos on a cloudy day, florescent for taking photos under fluorescent lights, etc.
The goal with white balance is to keep white objects a true white in the photograph. You can also set white balance manually using temperature settings or by taking a photo of a white object or color card. This is a more advanced solution.
Changing the white balance settings differs based on camera models. Look for a shortcut button marked WB or look for the option in the camera menu. If you’re unsure, consult your camera’s user manual.
In auto mode, a camera will select what it thinks the subject is — often, whatever is closest to the camera.
What if you don’t want to focus on the object closest to the camera? What if the subject is moving quickly?
Selecting the right focus settings will increase the odds of getting a sharp shot every time.
Focus Area Modes
Focus area modes tell the camera which part of the image to focus on. Focus modes vary a bit by brand.
Most cameras will have at least these autofocus area modes:
- Auto-area AF is the default autofocus setting and what the camera uses on auto mode. The camera chooses from the entire image area and decides what to focus on without user input.
- Single point autofocus mode focuses using one small point, determined by the user. In this mode, you move the focal point around using the arrow keys or joystick to tell the camera exactly where to focus.
- Dynamic or AF Point Expansion allows the user to choose a single point, but will then use the surrounding focal points if the subject moves. This is less specific than single point, more custom than auto area and works well for moving subjects.
- Tracking autofocus or 3D autofocus allows the user to select the subject, then will automatically track that object as it moves. This mode can fail sometimes if the subject leaves the frame or if there isn’t much contrast between the subject and the background.
Some cameras will also offer face AF or eye AF, which will automatically look for an eye or face to focus on.
Continuous or Single Autofocus
Along with telling the camera where to focus, autofocus camera settings instruct the camera on how often to focus. These settings are essential for getting sharply focused action shots.
In single or AF-S mode, the camera focuses once when the shutter button is pressed halfway and that’s it. This mode is good for still subjects. If the subject moves, the camera won’t refocus and the image will be out of focus.
Continuous, AF-C or Al Servo focus will continue to adjust the focus as long as the shutter button is halfway. That means the focus is constantly being adjusted until the image is actually taken.
This mode allows for moving subjects to remain in focus. You should avoid it for stationary subjects.
AF-A or Al Focus AF is an automatic focus mode that switches between AF-S and AF-C automatically. To do this, the camera tries to determine if the subject is moving or not.
While good for beginners, it’s not as accurate as switching between AF-S and AF-C yourself.
Release Mode Settings
When you press the shutter, does the camera take one image or two? That question is answered by the camera’s release mode or burst mode.
Burst mode will continue taking a series of photographs as long as the shutter button is pressed. This is unlike the single-shot mode, which takes one image each time the shutter release is pressed.
Some cameras have more than one burst mode — typically a fast mode and a slower mode. Burst mode is excellent for photographing action and perfecting the timing of several different types of shot, even a smile.
The burst setting will fill your memory card faster, however.
Along with burst mode options, the release mode settings often include other options, such as a self-timer. The self-timer is great for jumping in front of the camera for a selfie. Or to prevent camera shake when using a tripod for a long exposure image.
File Type Settings
Most cameras also offer different options when it comes to how the images are saved. You can dive into custom options like how each image is named. But the most important file typesetting to understand is the difference between JPEG and RAW.
A JPEG is a typical digital photograph and the default mode. JPEGS are processed in-camera. The image is ready to share and print right out of the camera. JPEGs are also smaller than RAW files. They take up less space on a memory card and won’t slow a camera down like RAW files sometimes can.
A RAW photograph, on the other hand, is unprocessed. You can’t just share that RAW file straight to Instagram. But this file type opens up more editing options.
If you messed up the white balance, a RAW file can fix that error with no effect on image quality. RAW files are also better for making minor exposure adjustments, and increasing dynamic range, contrast, and vibrance.
Major exposure errors and blur can’t be fixed in RAW. It’s best to get as much right as possible in camera. If you plan on editing those photos, RAW is the best file type.
Camera settings can prevent common issues like blur and underexposure and gives you the tools to capture creative imagery.
Learning photography settings can feel daunting at first. Take each setting one at a time, practice it then move on to the next setting.
By building an understanding of the different camera settings you’ll know how to capture any potential image that comes your way.
Looking for more ideas for entry-level photography? Why not check out our post on photography terms you need to know next!