Photography for beginners: Camera basics

Most cameras, even compacts, have at least some manual settings that you can adjust if you want to explore what your camera can do. As I mentioned in my introduction, the three most common settings to play with are the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

What the settings do

Let me go into a little more detail about these.

Setting Low value (approx) High value (approx)
Aperture f/3 – large aperture

  • Lets lots of light in – good for dark situations where you don’t want to increase exposure time or ISO
  • Large aperture increases the depth of field (makes things go out of focus more quickly as they move towards or away from the camera
f/12 – small aperture

  • Can be used to reduce the amount of light entering the camera
  • You can also use an ND filter1 to reduce the amount of light
  • Very small aperture of f/10 or smaller can make points of light become star-shaped
  • Smaller apertures increase the depth of field so more of the photo is in focus
Shutter speed 1/4000s – short exposure or fast shutter

  • Use a fast shutter in bright sunlight
  • Use a fast shutter to freeze a point in action, e.g. sports
30s – long exposure or slow shutter

  • Exposures of longer than 1/250s will probably need a tripod or at least a place to rest the camera on a firm surface
  • If you are increasing the exposure simply to capture more light, consider making the aperture larger instead
  • If you want to take a long exposure of a moving object in bright light, make the aperture small and use an ND filter
ISO 100 – low ISO

  • Camera less sensitive to light
  • Use low ISO in bright conditions or for long exposures
1600 – high ISO

  • Camera more sensitive to light
  • Use in darker situations where you don’t want a long exposure
  • Be aware that ISO 800 or more can cause speckly “noise”. This can happen with digital or film!

[1] Don’t worry – we will discuss filters in a later post.

How you can use the settings

So know you know a little bit of the basics, I can say something about the different modes on your camera.

Taking full manual control of the camera can be a little daunting and can produce unpredictable results until you are familiar with the camera. But most cameras semi-automatic modes known as shutter priority (or S for short) and aperture priority (or A for short). This allows you to set one value, either the shutter or the aperture, and the camera picks the other settings for you. Full manual is usually known as M.

This table shows what combinations of settings are available on my camera.

ISO Shutter Aperture
Auto Either auto, or you choose Auto Auto
S You choose You choose Auto
A You choose Auto You choose
M You choose You choose You choose


The best way to explain when you should choose a particular mode and what settings you should choose is by example – and experimentation, of course.

Blurred photo of moving cars on a sunny day

To achieve blur we need a relatively long shutter speed, and the challenge is compensating for this long exposure so the picture isn’t overexposed.

Mode M
ISO Choose the lowest available ISO
Shutter Choose the shortest shutter speed that you can get away with while still achieving the desired blurred effect. Maybe 2-5 seconds.
Aperture Choose the smallest available aperture (largest F number)
Notes You will need a tripod, and probably an ND filter to limit the amount of light.
A passing car
A car on the M32

Blurred photo of moving cars at night

This is actually much easier than blurred photos by day as compensating for the long exposure in low light conditions is easy.

I recommend… I used…
Mode S S
ISO Choose the lowest available ISO 80
Shutter Choose a really long shutter speed – 10 or 30 seconds perhaps 10s
Aperture Auto Auto: f/10.9
Notes You will need a tripod, and possibly an ND filter to limit the amount of light for very long exposures
M32 by night
M32 by night

A closeup of a flower

The primary objective here is to open the aperture wide to decrease the depth of field and cause the background to be out of focus.

I recommend… I used…
Mode A A
ISO Choose a medium ISO like 200. Adjust according for the daylight conditions. 80
Shutter Auto Auto: 1/340s
Aperture Choose a fairly large aperture f/2.8
Daffodils outside St Paul’s Church, Nuneaton

Sports and action

The object here is to keep the shutter as fast as possible, to freeze the action without blur.

I recommend… I used…
Mode S S
ISO Choose a medium ISO like 200. Adjust according for the daylight conditions. 80
Shutter Choose a fast shutter such as 1/400s or less, according to the speed of the object you want to freeze, and the light conditions. 1/450s
Aperture Auto Auto: f/7.2
M32 near Bristol

The best thing you can do is practice, and try new things. Chances are you’ll go to your local motorway bridge and take tens of photos. Some will be good, and some will be awful. But you’ll quickly learn what works for your camera.

If you can’t remember what settings you used to take each picture, you can find out on your computer later. If you’re on Windows, right-click on the image file, click Properties and click on the Details tab. Scroll down to Camera you’ll see the details, like in the screenshot below.

This isn’t my computer – Hana likes pink on hers

Next time, we will go over how to choose and use filters in your pictures.

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