Understanding Your Camera's Settings :: Digital Photo Secrets

Understanding Your Camera's Settings

by Becki Robins 16 comments

You finally did it. Goodbye point and shoot cameras with fixed lenses, bogus "digital zoom" and little idiot-proof icons in place of real settings. Goodbye sub-par images and limited functionality. You've finally entered the world of DSLR photography.

If you're like a lot of people, the euphoria wore off as soon as you picked up your DSLR's manual. That thing is like a brick with pages. Flipping through it is an exercise in uselessness and sitting down to read it is something you might have time to do after retirement.

So, maybe you put the manual away and sheepishly set your camera to "Auto." And maybe that's where it's been ever since.

Today, I'll show you what the most common settings on your camera do, and how to use them effectively.

I'll admit to learning my first DSLR's functions in pretty much the same way. Some of the features I just blundered into. Others I read about online or were told about by fellow photographers. The truth is, DSLRs do a lot, much more than most old film SLRs could do. Figuring out how to use all those features is a lot of work, and that manual is intimidating.

Personally, I don't think you need to delve into that giant manual right away. It should be a reference for later, but not required reading. You do need to have a basic understanding of your camera's settings, though, otherwise there's not a whole lot of point to owning a DSLR. So put that manual aside for now and instead let's skim the surface. Once you have a good understanding of all the things your camera can do, you can dig back through your manual later for the details.

First a quick disclaimer: my camera is a Nikon, and even among Nikons the features don't always work in exactly the same way. So the specific features that your camera has and how to access them might be different than what I describe here. That's why you should hang on to that manual, even if you're not ready to read it.


This is one of your camera's most useful features, and possibly also one of the most neglected. I have a friend who is a rabid scrapbooker and insane photo taker and not that long ago she just gave me a blank stare when I mentioned that she should turn up her ISO instead of always relying on her flash.

ISO stands for or International Standards Organization. Oh, that's clear then. What those cryptic words refer to is a standard that was developed in the 20th century to govern film speed. Remember those packs of film labeled 100, 200, 400 etc? Oh you don't? I guess you're not as old as me then. Well, even though we don't use film anymore, those numbers still correspond to film speed, which in turn corresponds to our cameras' light sensitivity. So just as 100 speed film was useful for shooting brightly lit scenes or slow moving subjects, and ISO 1600 was good for faster moving subjects or dimly lit scenes, the ISO setting on a DSLR is pretty much the same. The larger the number, the more sensitive your camera will be to the light, and the dimmer your scene can be when you shoot it. Here's an example:

This is my fireplace shot at ISO 400. First let's get your first question out of the way: yes, it's a fake fireplace. Don't even get me started. Notice how you aren't seeing a whole lot in the image, just some blobs of orange and a whole lot of black. Now, your average photographer would just do this:

Aack! That's horrible. Look what a flash does to this photo--first, it picks up all those reflections off the glass, second, you really can't see that fake flame at all and third, it's just ugly. Now let's see what happens if I shoot the fireplace at ISO 3200.

Now it looks like a fireplace. In fact, I'm not even sure I can tell it's fake.

Your camera's ISO sensitivity may not be as good as this, or it may be better. When I go much above 3200 with my camera I start to get what is called banding in the image (long streaks across the frame), and a lot of awful noise. You could fix this up with OK results in Photoshop if you wanted to, and sometimes I really do think it's just better to take the noise and some banding over ruining the atmosphere of the photo. As an example, every Christmas we take the kids to a little Christmas village where there are lights on every tree and bush and around every walkway. Despite all the lights I still have to really turn up my ISO in order to handhold my camera--something I'm forced to do because my kids are constantly on the move. I get a lot of noise and I use a noise removal tool in post processing to clean up the images. It isn't a perfect solution but the alternative is to fire my flash and completely destroy the magic of the place, not only in my photos but for all those other people wandering around there.

Exposure: aperture priority, shutter priority or manual?

You'd be surprised by how many photographers don't understand these three fundamental settings. I can't really guess at the numbers but I'd bet money that there's a statistically significant number of people who just put their camera on auto and leave it there. Notice, though, how I didn't mention auto amongst the exposure settings in the heading up there? That's because you should never use it. Never, ever. If you want a fully automatic camera you should have a point and shoot. And hey, there's nothing wrong with that. I have several of them, and in certain situations they can be excellent choices. But if you're going to spend the money on a DSLR you really should be prepared to use it the way it was intended.

And there's really not much to understanding aperture priority and shutter priority, at the very least. Of course you first have to understand aperture and shutter, so let's have a quick refresher. Your camera's shutter opens and closes at a specific speed, depending on your goals for the photograph. If you're shooting a fast-moving object and you want to freeze the action, you use a fast shutter speed. If you want to capture some motion blur--light trails from passing vehicles, for example, or a trail behind a moving subject--you use a slow shutter speed. The amount of light in your scene has a lot to do with your choice, too. In a dark room you need to use a longer shutter speed, because the longer the shutter stays open the more light reaches your camera's sensor. In a brightly lit scene you can get by with a much shorter shutter speed, because that's all it will take to get enough light to your sensor.

Here's a photo that really had to be taken with shutter priority:

An airplane is a fast moving object, so it requires either a fast shutter speed or skillful panning to keep in focus. But you can't go too fast, either, because then you freeze the prop and the plane just looks like it's hanging from a string. I shot this picture with shutter priority, f/4.8, 1/500. The results were a spinning prop and a sharp airplane.

Aperture refers to the width of that little hole that allows the light to get to your camera's sensor. A wide aperture lets in more light, a small aperture lets in less light. A lot of beginners tend to get confused by this because the f number itself gets larger as the aperture gets smaller. f/4, for example, is a much larger aperture than f/22. If you need help keeping this straight, just think of that f as the numerator of a fraction and the f number as the denominator. Remember second grade math? Yeah, me neither. But you do know that 1/4th is larger than 1/22nd, in the same way that f/4 is larger than f/22.

Now what this means for photographers is that large apertures and small f numbers allow shooting in low light, and small apertures and large f numbers are best for bright light, unless a tripod is involved. Since we're discussing your camera's settings, we'll leave out the tripod for now.

Equally important is depth of field, which is directly associated with f-stop. Do you want your photo clear from foreground to background? Use a smaller aperture/larger f number. Do you want the background to fall out of focus, while your subject remains tack sharp? Choose a larger aperture/smaller f number.

Both of these photos were shot in aperture priority mode. The one on the left was shot at 1/60, f/11; the one on right was shot at 1/1600, f/2.8. Aperture priority gave me the choice between an unfocused background and a background that is clearer and therefore more distracting. The priority settings simply mean that you, the photographer, will have control over shutter speed or aperture. If you want control over your depth of field, you choose aperture priority. If you want control over your shutter speed--such as when you're shooting a soccer game--you would choose shutter priority. Simple.

Now what about manual? Eek! Why would you want to do that? Well, there are times when neither aperture priority or shutter priority is a good choice. The more you take photos the more you will begin to recognize these situations. Sometimes your camera's meter gets it wrong, and in these cases you want to have control over both the shutter speed and the aperture. For most daily shooting situations, however, one of the priority modes will do.

Bulb mode

Now if you're shooting in low light and manual mode, you may have noticed that if you slow down the shutter speed enough eventually you will get to a setting called "bulb" or "B." What does that mean? Bulb setting is a way to get a very long exposure--longer than 30 seconds. It's generally achieved manually, which means that you press the shutter button to open the shutter, go have a cup of coffee, come back and press the shutter button again to close it. For the most part you'll be experimenting when you get to exposures of this length, but this is how photographers capture images in the dark or near dark, and how they generally get those cool photos of star trails.

  • Canon EOS 60D
  • f/4.0
  • 259

First attempt at star trails 06152012 by Flickr user StormLoverSwin93

Release mode

"Release mode" refers to the way that your camera actually takes the photos. When you select "S," your camera will take a single photo every time you press the shutter release button. When you choose "CL," your camera will take a series of shots at low speed when you hold the shutter button down, stopping when you release the button. "CH" works in exactly the same way, except the "H" stands for "high speed." Holding the shutter button down when "CH" is selected will cause the camera to take a rapid series of images--on my camera, this is five frames per second.

Here are a series of photos taken in CH mode:

This horse is moving fast, so a series of rapid-fire shots was able to capture him in various stages of buck as he tried to throw his rider.

Another release option is self-timer, which is best known for allowing you, the photographer, to get into the picture. When you select self-timer, the shutter will release a few seconds after you push the button, allowing you to leave the camera and enter the shot. You can also use the self-timer as a stand-in for a cable release--setting it to fire a couple of seconds after you press the button in order to prevent camera shake when using a slow shutter speed.

On a related note, you can also select "mirror lock-up" to help reduce vibration. The mirror is that part of your camera that allows you to view a scene through your viewfinder. During normal operations, the mirror flips out of the way when the exposure is made, but this can cause unwanted vibrations during long exposures. With mirror lock-up, the mirror flips out of the way before you make the exposure and remains there until you decide you want to release the shutter. The downside to this feature, of course, is that you can no longer see anything through the viewfinder until after the mirror returns to its original position.

Focusing modes

Most DSLRs give you a couple of focusing modes to choose from: manual, single and continuous. Now remember that autofocus is a relatively recent invention, and one we've been really spoiled by. Autofocus saves a lot of time and lets us get more shots because we're not having to pause and manually focus the camera between every shot. In fact I really don't know how sports photographers ever turned out a good photo with manual focus, though I'm sure many probably still do. I personally can't fathom it.

Manual focus does come in handy though, because there are certain objects your camera's focusing system just does not know what to do with. Trying to focus on objects in dimly lit rooms with autofocus will result in "hunting," which means that your poor camera is just humming and straining trying to get a lock on the thing you're pointing it at. Fireworks are a good example of a subject your autofocus hates. A subject standing behind tree branches is another example--your autofocus might not be able to find her behind all those sticks and leaves. When this happens, just switch to manual and lock the focus in yourself.

Most of the rest of the time, one of the other settings will work just fine. The differences between continuous and single focus settings are actually quite simple: with single focus, you point your camera at your subject, your camera focuses on it and you take the picture. With continuous focus, you point you camera at your subject, and you camera focuses--then focuses again, and again, and again, until you take the picture. Continuous is of course only really useful for a subject that is moving, when your camera's focus needs to be adjusted continually as the subject moves from one part of the fame to another.

I had my camera set to continuous focusing as these kids ran by--this allowed them to stay in focus from one end of the yard to the other:

Focus points

But wait, there's more. DSLRs give you the ability to fine-tune your focus with "focus points," which are specific points in a frame that your camera can focus on. You can choose how you want your camera to decide what to focus on as well as where you want your camera to focus. Depending on your camera's manufacturer, you probably have single-point auto focus, dynamic-area auto focus and auto-area auto focus. In single-point focus, you can preselect the part of your frame where you want your camera to focus by manually moving the focus point to that position, usually via a joystick on the body of the camera. This is the way dynamic-area auto focus works too, except that your camera will refocus on surrounding points in the frame if your subject happens to leave the focus point you selected. In this mode many cameras will track your subject if you have also selected "continuous" auto focus. These two focus modes give you the most control over where you want the camera to focus.

In these shots, I used single-point focusing. In the first shot, I moved the focus point so that it focused on the leaves at the top of the frame. In the second shot, the focus point was moved to the center of the structure.

Auto area auto focus leaves it all up to the camera--it will automatically detect your subject and select the focus point for you. This works great, of course, until the camera guesses wrong. In that case you'll have to switch to one of the other modes and select your focal point manually.

Quality Settings

This is another feature a lot of hobbyists just don't mess with. Choosing JPEG fine gives you some very nice images, why break what isn't broken? And most of the time, this is true. JPEG images are good enough--even great enough--for the average hobbyist. But the other quality options should be understood even if you don't plan to use them in the near future, because they can help you create better photos should the time ever come when you want to try some technically difficult subjects.

JPEGs are small, you can fit more of them on a single memory card, you don't really need to do much post-processing with them (depending on the conditions you shot them in) and you can take a lot of them very close together, since your camera doesn't have to spend a whole lot of time writing them to your memory card.

The disadvantages of JPEGs is really just the flip side of the advantages. JPEGs are small, which means that they're inherently lower quality. In the interests of file compression, some information your camera captures is discarded before it ever makes it into the file, resulting in a smaller and lesser-quality image. To make matters worse, every time you edit and save a JPEG it loses even more quality. This is why I always keep my original JPEGs and edit copies of them. Yes, it's a pain. And there are better options.

Depending on your camera's manufacturer, you may also have the option to shoot images in TIFF format. Good. You can safely ignore that option. Although TIFFs are higher quality than JPEGs, they are also larger than RAW files and contain less information. To be honest, there aren't really a lot of compelling reasons to shoot in TIFF.

Which brings me to the third option: RAW. This should be your go-to file format if you're looking for quality. The RAW format is uncompressed, so all the data your camera captures is saved to the file. With a RAW file you'll get more colors, more tones and more detail than a JPEG file or a TIFF file, and though RAW is considerably larger than a JPEG it is not as large as a TIFF. If you're taking photos that you plan to print at large sizes, or if you're trying to capture artistic images that stand on the basis of color, tone and detail or if you're planning to combine images in post-processing to create an HDR image, you will need to shoot in RAW.
The downside of shooting in RAW is that all of your images will require post-processing. You also can't really shoot RAW when capturing fast-moving subjects, because like TIFF it takes your camera a lot longer to write a RAW file to the memory card.

To begin to understand the difference, let's look at this image:

I shot two identical pictures of this church in Nevada City, CA--the first in JPEG and the second in RAW. For average, 4x6 printing JPEG will do just fine, but you can see where detail has been lost in the first version:

The differences seem subtle in these online examples, but they start to become much more important when you want to maintain quality in large-sized prints.

Exposure Compensation

Most DSLRs have an exposure compensation feature, which is particularly useful if you're shooting scenes that confuse your meter. With exposure compensation, you can add overexposure or underexposure by stops or fractions of stops to compensate for the exposure your confused meter is giving you.

How do you know if your meter is confused? There are some lighting situations that will always confuse your meter, and it's a matter of getting to know them. Scenes where the majority of tones are light or white are one example, such as a snowy landscape. Because your camera's matrix/evaluative metering system wants to average everything out to middle gray, snowy scenes are often underexposed, requiring an exposure compensation of one or two stops in order to capture those whites as whites instead of grays. The same is true in opposites for scenes where there are mostly blacks and dark tones; in this case underexposure is called for, since your camera will automatically try to overexpose the scene in order to make all of those blacks into middle grays.

The photo on the left was shot with no exposure compensation. Because it is a lightly-colored subject on a white background, my meter figured the scene was a middle gray. The result is no whites or highlights at all, just a flat, gray image. The photo on the right has a +1 exposure compensation. Now we are seeing some highlights on the crystal, and the white background looks less gray. This subject/background combo could probably use another +1/3 stop of exposure compensation before it would be the right balance of whites and light tones.

White balance

White balance is another one of those neglected features that can be extremely useful in certain situations. What is white balance? It's a feature that allows you to manually inform your camera which tones in your scene are white. Yes, that's right, even a smart DSLR isn't always smart enough to render white as white.

Here's an example: Now that you are using a high ISO setting instead of your flash, have you noticed that some images taken indoors tend to come out with a yellowish or orangish tinge to them? This is because many indoor lights have a yellow/orange cast that we don't really notice with our eyes. If this happens frequently, you can adjust your white balance for "tungsten" lighting to fix the problem.

Most cameras have an auto white balance that works reasonably well most of the time. The trick is anticipating when it's not working (or being able to discern this based on what your LCD is showing you). If you're not getting good results with your auto white balance, your camera will give you several additional options which include tungsten lighting, fluorescent lighting, direct sunlight, clouds/overcast and shade. Or you can tell your camera that a specific part of the scene--the wall, for example, or a white card designed specifically for this purpose--is white. To do this, you would simply choose the manual white balance setting, point your camera at the white object and press the shutter button. (Naturally, specific instructions for doing this vary from camera to camera, so this is one instance where you will want to get out your instruction manual.) Then you can take your photograph with the custom white balance setting.

This series of images was taken in my kitchen in a mixed lighting situation--a good example of when your preset white balance options might not work. I have afternoon sun coming through the window with tungsten lighting overhead. The left photo is what I get if I choose the tungsten white balance setting; the middle photo is what I get if I choose daylight lighting. The left image is much too blue, and the middle one is too orange. But if I set my white balance against a white card, as I've done for the third image, I get a photo with much more true colors.

Metering modes

Metering, as I'm sure you already know, is the process by which your camera measures the light and determines the correct exposure for your scene.

DSLRs offer a few different options for metering a scene. The two most useful are spot metering and matrix or evaluative metering (the name will depend on your camera's manufacturer). Center-weighted metering is a third option and it can be useful too, particularly for high contrast scenes. But for the most part you'll probably be choosing between matrix and spot.

Matrix or evaluative metering systems determine exposure by assuming that any given scene will average out to about middle gray, with an even number of black tones, white tones and middle tones. It's not a foolproof system but it's a good one, and most of the time it works well. That's why most hobby photographers select matrix metering and then just leave it there. But spot metering can be useful, too. Use spot metering when you suspect that your scene might not really average out to a middle gray. Back-lit scenes are a good example. So are snowy scenes. In these cases, you want to find something that does qualify as middle gray, change your meter to "spot" and meter for that object alone. Then set your camera to expose the scene using the shutter speed and aperture suggested by the meter.

In these photos, my subject was sitting in front of a backlit curtain. For the first photo I used matrix metering, which underexposed the subject while getting rather a nice exposure on the curtain. That's not what I wanted, though, so I switched to spot metering and metered my subject's face. Now I get a well-exposed subject and burned out curtains. Unfortunately with backlighting there's not really a whole lot you can do in-camera to get the exposure right in both places.

Exposure lock

Your exposure lock button comes into play whenever you're metering a scene that has uneven light and you need to recompose after you take that meter reading. Most of the time this will be a problem for spot metering, because that middle gray object is probably not going to stay in the center of your frame, which is where it was when the spot meter took the reading. If you move the camera after reading the middle gray subject, the exposure is going to change unless you press your exposure lock button. Pressing exposure lock ensures that you'll take the correct exposure.


Which settings you use regularly is really up to you and the types of photos you take. Some you may find more useful than others. For a start, try to master ISO, shutter priority and aperture priority--these are the settings that give you the most control over your images and are an absolute necessity for you to understand if you plan to move beyond snapshots and into portfolio-worthy realms.

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  1. Sharon Christ says:

    I find your articles very informative and easy to follow. By having the written material on a screen in front of me, I am also able to take written notes for future reference and review. I have recently completed a beginners class at a vocational school, and this gives me more info to follow up with. Now more anxious to get outside and find more things to photograph and learn from. Thank you for putting this info out there for all us camera dummies. You give me hope!

  2. Jackie Rutkowski says:

    I just took a trip up the Danube River. I really tried to work on the ISO and Aperture with my camera but I am still having REAL difficulty with taking shots inside the magnificent cathedrals. What I thought was the correct ISO turn out dark. The shots taken on the skip at the captains dinner turn out dark also.
    I've taken several of your courses and I am wondering if you could look at a few photos and give me helpful hints. I am not sure how to post a few of the photos so you could look at them. Can you help me with some suggestions and how to post the photos? I would appreciate any help.
    Jackie R

  3. Irene says:

    Another really helpful tip!! thanks!

  4. Lynn says:

    I heard that metering modes in Manual mode is only used as a guide and only makes a difference when shooting in A/ Av, S/TV or P modes. Is that true?
    Thanks and great article!

  5. Sankar says:

    Great work by Becki. This article not only helps the beginners to understand the basic functionality of DSLR but also helps improve the skill of "Just started".

    We need lot more such article from you and David to make this world a full of wonderful pictures.

    Thanks a lot once again.

  6. Rusty says:

    Superb piece of writing, much appreciated.

    I am always amazed how much effort would be required to obtain this info in pre internet time.

    Thanks again David & Becki.

  7. Paul Foster says:

    This is probably going to sound picky but the opening paragraph of this article implies that the features under discussion only apply to DSLR cameras, my Fuji XS-1 bridge camera has everything discussed as do other bridge cameras. I enjoyed the rest of the article but please remember in this digital age it isn't only DSLR's that have a multitude of options for the photographer to select.

  8. Robert Triggs says:

    I have a question. I use back button focusing. If I set my camera to continuous focusing, is it only active while I have the button depressed?

  9. Gene Kramer says:

    In the last two shots of your article, i.e., the boy sitting in front of a window, would using HDR shots enable both the boy and the curtains to be exposed properly? I thought your article was well written and, of course, very informative. Thank you.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Gene,

      Yes, that can be done with HDR... but it's going to be really hard with a subject like the child, as he's going to move between shots, making it very hard for you to combine the images later.


  10. Peter Marks says:

    An excellant article as always David but have to say I am still wondering if in the RAW example you inadvertently duplicated the non-RAW image as the two look pretty much identical to me and I am not seeing any worthwhile detail within the red oval! I do have a cataract op coming up soon, could that be the reason?.

    • Florence Webb says:

      I agree with Peters comment. I could not see any difference between the two shots. Overall I found the article helpful. Thanks.

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36 minutes
About Becki Robins
Becki Robins is a Californian who has a strong background in photography including an associate in arts degree in commercial photography. She has been a hobby and professional photographer for more than a decade and has taken thousands of photos, some of which have been published and won awards. Becki is also an excellent coach of the Photography Dashes.