The Idiot's Guide To Camera Settings :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Idiot's Guide To Camera Settings

by David Peterson 17 comments

Okay. Maybe that's a bit harsh. Nobody is calling anyone anything, but if you are very new to photography, this article is for you. Your camera can seem like a confusing mess of knobs and settings when you get it for the first time. Don't worry. You will only be using a few of these settings in any of your shoots. I'll show you which ones matter the most and how you can use them to get great shots right out of the box.

What Do You Plan On Shooting Today?

Knowing what you want is the key to understanding your camera's settings. Most cameras, point-and-shoots and digital SLRs alike, come with a ton of pre-programmed modes that are ideal for certain kinds of shots. You just need to know where to find them. If you want to shoot landscapes, action sequences, macro, or portraits, there's a mode for that.

Autofocus Or Manual Focus?

Your focus mode determines how you will focus the shot. If you choose automatic focus, the camera will find a spot in the frame to focus on before you take the shot. The other option is manual mode, where you turn the focus ring on your lens and pick the part of the scene you want in focus. Note that some Point and Shoot cameras don't let you manually set the focus, so use my trick to focus on your subject.

As a person who is fairly new to photography, you will want to pick automatic focus whenever possible. That’s because there aren’t that many kinds of shots that will benefit from manual focus. In many cases, the human eye isn’t as good of a judge of focus as the autofocusing program in your camera. Stick with automatic focus for now, and I will show you what you can do with manual focus in a different tutorial.

Use Shutter Priority Mode For Action Shots And Moving Water

Without knowing anything at all about manual photography, you can try out aperture or shutter priority modes. When you choose one of these modes, you effectively tell your camera that YOU want to set one of the three variables a camera uses to take photos. It will make the decisions on the other two for you. In shutter priority mode, you select the ideal shutter speed, and in aperture priority mode, you pick the aperture that you know will work best for the shot. The 'Auto' setting tells the camera to select all three.

With shutter priority mode you can select a shutter speed, and the camera will do the rest. To access this mode, look for an "S", or a "Tv" mode from the mode wheel on the top of your camera, or select "Shutter Priority mode" from your camera's menu. Once you're in shutter priority mode, you can set a specific shutter speed for use in your shot.

Depending on the shutter speed you choose, shutter priority mode will allow you to freeze action or blur it all together. If you want to freeze moving water, for example, you can go into shutter priority mode and pick a very fast shutter speed like 1/500s. The same goes for blending water. Make sure you get a tripod, use a slow shutter speed like 1/15s, and watch as speeding water turns to silk.

A Quick Guide To Picking Your Aperture

Aperture priority mode is great when you know which aperture you want to use. You can access aperture priority mode by rotating the top dial to "A" or "Av".

The hard part isn't learning how to use aperture priority mode. The hard part is knowing which aperture works best for the kinds of photos you want to take. Here is a quick rundown.

  • Portraits, Faces, and Macro Photography: Any aperture between F1.4 and F5.6
  • Landscapes: Any aperture between F11 and F22. Use F22 for maximum sharpness.
  • Everything Else: Any aperture between F8 and F11.

Once you pick the right aperture, the camera's onboard computer will automatically pick the right shutter speed for your shot. It won't necessarily have the same accuracy as manual mode, but it should work well for most situations. Besides, you're a beginner. You want to get the most of out your camera without having to learn a ton of new settings.

A Note About ISO Speed And Picture Quality

There is another setting I haven't mentioned yet. When you change your camera's ISO speed, you are changing the speed at which the sensor picks up light from outside. As your ISO speed goes up, your photos become brighter, but they also start to get more grainy. As a beginner, this is a setting you can leave alone. There’s no need to intentionally reduce the quality of your photos in order to get more brightness (just yet).

The same goes for the photo quality setting on your camera. Keep it as high as it goes so you have the best material to work with. If you need to reduce the file size on your images, you can always do it in Photoshop later on. SD card space is cheap now, so keep your quality setting high and buy a second SD card if you run out of space.

Whew, we went through a lot in this article. By now, you should understand that you don't need to know a ton about photography to get the most out of your camera right away. As long as you know what you want to shoot, you can pick one of the shooting modes and go from there. For the time being, these settings should help you when you come across a rare photographic opportunity and don't know what to do.

Oh, and if you want to know a little more about taking great photos without needing to mess with the settings on your camera, check out my book called Digital Photo Secrets.

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  1. Eddie C says:

    I just started a beginners digital course this week, the instructor is brilliant. But your notes above underscore everything we went through so far. Will be using these as a reference going forward. Great stuff!

  2. Ari says:

    Loved it! Simple and easy to follow. Thank you

  3. arun tendulkar says:

    As usual your articles are always informative !

  4. arun tendulkar says:

    As usual your articles are always informative !

  5. Colin says:

    Sir, for a retired 40 year ex GP "pro" (desperately trying to drag myself into the 21st century!), I find many of your tips very useful, and many others as an "aide memoire" to stuff that had passed into the history of my mind with the passage of time. Many thanks.

  6. bestptc says:

    Simply wish to say your article is as amazing. The clearness in your post is just great and
    i could assume you're an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the enjoyable work.

  7. Cassie says:

    Thanks a 10000000000000. No offence taken. I am an idiot with my camera. Your notes are idiot sensitive. It helped me a lot and I can re-read it at my leisure..

  8. Bob says:

    Thanks a million. I am new to SLRs and find it all hard to take in but your easy to follow tips are just what I needed to find. Will try them out straight away. Thanks again.

  9. Louie says:

    How do you know what lens to use on a regular bases.

  10. Jackie Weaver says:

    Brill - just what I asked about yesterday - brilliant!!! Thanks again

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