Basic DSLR & Mirrorless Camera Settings

WendyMay

Well-Known Member
There's no doubt about it, you can take incredible photos with your camera's auto modes. After all, your camera chooses from the same exact possible settings that you would if you were shooting in full manual mode. The only difference is who or what's doing the deciding for which setting to choose. For everyday shots that capture everyday scenes, it's perfectly normal to take advantage of auto mode. The challenge arises when you develop a particular creative goal for your shots. For instance, if you'd like to add some additional blur in the background of your subject or if you'd like to take some silky waterfall shots. Perhaps you're taking pictures of hummingbirds in flight and want to freeze them with their wings perfectly still. If you left it up to your camera's auto mode for these types of photos, it would have no idea of your intentions. It would simply go ahead with what it always does, which is set the camera for a proper exposure and that's pretty much it. You'd take the picture and it wouldn't look anything like you wanted it to.

In today's post, I'd like to talk about a few different features of your camera. I'll do my best at explaining what these features do so you can better decide when they're appropriate. I won't go into detail for each of these, meaning, I won't offer explicit instructions that explain how to set each of these features for your particular camera. I'll do that in later posts. For now, I'll simply introduce you to the features so you can get a better handle on what they are and when you may want to use them.

Aperture: You can find the aperture in your lens. It's made up of some plastic fins that move to open and close the hole that allows light into your camera body. The aperture size is controlled by settings made on your camera. As you change those settings, electronic signals are sent to the lens that give it instructions for what to do. So when discussing aperture, we're partly discussing your lens as well as your camera. It's really what the lens does to affect what's going on in the camera.

Smaller aperture holes are designated by higher f-stop numbers. So if you have an f/1.2, you've got a really large aperture opening. If you have an f/22, you've got a small opening. Large openings create shallow depths of fields and small openings create deeper depths of fields. Shallow depths of fields create more blur in the foreground and background of your shots and deep depths of field create sharper foregrounds and backgrounds. For creative shots where you would like to incorporate blur, such as with photos of close up flowers, you might want to use larger aperture settings. For landscape and real estate shots, where you want more detail and focus throughout your entire photos, you'd want to go with a smaller aperture.

It's also important to note that larger apertures allow more light through your lens, so that will have an impact on the other settings you choose for your camera. Remember, each part of the photography triangle comes in two pieces. For aperture, the two pieces are light volume and blur (bokeh - out of focus blur).

Shutter Speed: This is the second part of the photography triangle. The two parts of shutter speed are light and motion blur, which is a different type of blur than I discussed above. If you were to set a very slow shutter speed, it would mean that your shutter would open inside of your camera, exposing your sensor for that amount of time you set. If you set a fast shutter speed, the shutter would move out of the way of the sensor for a much shorter length of time. Slower shutter speeds equal more light and faster shutter speeds equal less light. Slower shutter speeds also have the potential to introduce motion blur if you were to move your camera while the shutter is open. Or, if you were to point your camera and take a picture of a fast moving object. This is how people get those silky waterfall shots. They set their cameras on tripods and set slow shutter speeds. As the water is falling, the camera records that movement. Conversely, if you wanted to avoid motion blur in your photos, you'd set a fast shutter speed. In cases like these, you'd be able to take pictures of sports and moving animals without much blur at all. Just remember, the faster the shutter speed, the larger your aperture is going to need to be. Your camera is going to need light from somewhere and if it can't get it from the shutter speed, it'll want to get it from a larger aperture. Or a higher ISO, which I'll discuss next.

ISO: Your camera uses an ISO measurement to control how sensitive its sensor is. It's sort of like how an amplifier amplifies sound. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor is, which sort of equals more light. For example, if you were to keep your aperture and shutter speed settings exactly the same, but change your ISO from 100 to 800, the picture that used the 800 setting would be a lot brighter than the one that used the 100 setting. Having an adjustable ISO value compensates for other settings that might be limited. So if you're in a bright setting, you'd probably want to lower your ISO setting and if you're in a dark setting, you'd probably want to raise it. My advice is to keep this feature set to auto.

The only caveat has to do with very high ISO settings. As you raise this value, you'll find that grain, or noise, is introduced to your images. You really want to be careful how high you go with this because grain isn't the easiest thing to remove during post-processing. Once it's there, it's pretty much there forever. You can remove some of it, but not all, without ruining your image.

Viewfinder: I want you to run a small experiment for me. Look at something in front of you and see if you can clearly see what's in your peripheral vision. You can't. Those things can't be seen clearly with the human eye. The problem with this that when you take a picture of something, everything in the frame is clear, not only what's right in front of it. So while you're looking at a scene with your naked eyes, you're missing all the weird stuff that might be at its edges. And if you were to take a photo of that scene based on only what you see, that picture might not be so great.

A quick trick to deal with this is to turn your camera both horizontal and vertical before you take your photo. This will allow your eye to wander a bit to explore the scene more. It's not an insanely helpful trick, but it has its uses.

Flash: Many people overuse their camera's flash. Some of the worst photos I've ever seen have been made the worst because of dark shadows created by flash. I can tell you that I've never used my camera's flash since I've owned it. Actually, I've never used a flash in my life. If I've needed lighting, I'd set that lighting up in my scene before I took the photo. I've heard that the camera's flash can be helpful in filling in dark shadows on a bright day. I don't know if this is true. I do know that flashes are helpful with studio photography and very specific instances, but if you're doing that type of photography, you're not reading this post. My advice is to stay away from your camera's flash unless you need it for something specific.

Preset Modes: If you're taking photos on the fly and you don't have a lot of time to think, go ahead and use your camera's built in presets. There's nothing wrong with doing this. There are oftentimes landscape, portrait, sports, and others to choose from. You can take some great photos by using these presets. One of the most valuable aspects of these presets that I've found in past years is to analyze the resulting image after taking it with one. With applications such as Adobe Bridge, you have the ability to see exactly what settings the camera chose for a specific photo. So if you're a beginner and you aren't quite sure what the set your camera to while in aperture or shutter speed priority or in full manual mode, go ahead and take some pictures with a preset and then inspect the settings that the camera chose. This way, you can work backwards and learn.

Manual/Auto Focus: Most cameras and lenses come equipped with auto focus. When we're beginners, most of us think that we should keep the focus set to auto because the camera is really smart and it knows what it's doing. While camera's are smart, they can sometimes focus on the wrong thing at the wrong time. The way I think of it is like this: if I'm in a fast moving situation, I'll take advantage of autofocus. There is no way I'll be able to do the focusing while I'm moving or while the thing I'm trying to take a picture of is moving. But if I'm in a situation where everything is still, I like to use manual focus. This way, I'll know exactly what the camera is focusing on and that it won't change. Now, there are some tricks you can use to lock in a focal point while using autofocus, but I'll get to them later on. For now, this bit of advice is what I'll offer.

I hope these quick explanations and tips helped you out in some way. If you have specific questions about any of this, I'm here to help. Just ask down below.
 
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