7 Essential Camera Settings Every Photographer Should Master
At its core, photography is incredibly simple. All you need is light and something to capture it with. This can be anything from a pinhole made out of a shoebox to the latest digital mirrorless camera. But contrary to what many seem to think, a good photo requires a lot more than just the click of a button. When it comes to taking outstanding images for your photography website, there are two abilities you'll need to acquire: creativity and technique.
For a lot of photographers, creativity comes naturally. In fact, it's usually the will to capture the world from their unique perspective that draws them to this discipline in the first place. Technique, on the other hand, requires a conscious effort if you want to understand the demands of each scene and learn how to use certain tools and settings to capture the image you visualized. While technique is something that no one can ever fully master, there are a few very essential camera settings you absolutely need to understand in order to take your work to the next level.
The shutter speed measures the length of time the camera sensor is exposed to light. As long as the shutter is open, the sensor captures the position of objects within the frame. This means that any kind of movement during this period will appear blurred in the image. This includes both action in the scene itself and slight shaking caused by shooting handheld. Shutter speed is represented in seconds or fractions of a second.
Learning how to control this camera setting will allow you to decide the way in which this movement is captured. Use lower speeds when working in low light conditions or if you want to capture smooth trails of subjects in motion. Of course, long exposures should not be attempted without a sturdy tripod or surface to keep your camera steady. On the other hand, fast shutter speeds should be used when working with moving subjects, such as in wildlife photography, or when it’s impossible to be completely still, like in underwater photography.
This camera setting is considered one of the three main pillars of photography. Together with aperture and ISO (which we’ll see below) they constitute the exposure triangle, which determines the final look and feel of a photograph.
Aperture determines the size of the opening through which light enters the camera. It's calculated in f-stops, with each number representing length of the lens by the diameter of the opening. The lower a number is on the scale, the wider the aperture will be.
In addition to its direct effect on a photograph's exposure, it also defines the depth of field captured. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field will be. This means that the distance between the objects in focus will be small. Lower f-stops will allow you to keep wider distances in focus.
Both shutter speed and aperture can be controlled together in the camera's manual mode or individually. Shutter priority is presented as S or Tv, while aperture priority is abbreviated as A or Av. In these modes, the photographer sets the value for one of them, while the camera automatically adjusts the other in order to achieve a proper exposure.
In film photography, ISO numbers determine the sensitivity of film to light. Each roll has a fixed sensitivity, and photographers must understand the advantages and limitations of each beforehand. Digital cameras offer a wider room for maneuver, as ISO levels can be modified at any point. Unlike their traditional counterparts, however, digital sensors simply increase their post processing gain as their sensitivity cannot be modified.
ISO is commonly used as a tool to balance the other two elements in the exposure triangle, rather than as a go-to camera setting. The reason behind this is the potential loss of quality that comes with it, as visual noise is created when using high ISO levels.
Different light sources have different temperatures, each of which casts a distinct color. The range of these temperatures vary from the cool light blue sky, to the warm red tones of a candle. Human sight is naturally prepared to adapt to these changes in the same way that it always keeps our nose out of our field of vision. We’re only made aware of light temperature changes when the jump is noticeably high, such as using daylight or a tungsten bulb.
Cameras have not undergone millions of years of evolution, so they’re not as good as adapting to light temperature changes as we are. White balance is the camera setting used to adjust the color balance of the scene to match the temperature of the light we’re shooting in. This removes unrealistic tones and ensures all objects keep their true colors. The white balance can be set manually with a white (or gray) card or using the camera’s preset settings.
Metering is the camera setting used to measure the brightness of a scene. In automatic or semi-automatic modes, this information is used to adjust the relevant settings to get the right exposure. When shooting manually, metering can be used as a guideline to help you choose the correct settings. All in all, understanding how metering works will save you a lot of time and frustration.
There are three main metering modes, albeit some cameras may offer some in-between options. There isn’t a ‘one fits all’ option, as it depends on the specific needs of each shot.
Matrix / Evaluative analyzes the light levels in the entire frame and finds an average exposure between the brightest and darkest areas.
Center-weighted focuses on the center of the frame and the circular area surrounding it.
Spot allows you to select a small part of the frame and base the exposure on its brightness.
Yes, ‘real photographers’ do occasionally use autofocus (AF). Don’t let yourself be pressured into using solely manual camera settings simply because a popular photography myth says that otherwise you’re an amateur. Some scenes and subjects require incredibly fast responses that make it nearly impossible to nail the focus manually, for example in bird or sports photography.
Digital cameras offer diverse AF modes in order to meet the needs of any scene, plus the option to select which areas within the frame should be taken into account. There are three main AF modes you should learn how to operate:
One-shot / AF-S allows you to set the focus by half-pressing the shutter. You can use it to focus on a specific area and keep the focus as you recompose the shot.
AI Servo / AF-C tracks moving subjects and continuously re-adjusts the focus as their position changes.
AI Focus / AF-A automatically detects the best AF mode to use. Ideally, you should make the choice yourself rather than depending on this one.
Automatic Exposure Bracketing
Light is a photographer’s best friend, but it can also be their worst enemy. When shooting under certain lighting conditions, it might be nearly impossible to find the correct exposure. The most common cases include midday scenes, backlighting portraits, and sunrise/sunset landscapes.
To overcome this hurdle, the best solution is to shoot the exact same scene with different camera settings. Preferably, you’ll have three exposures based on the highlights, the midtones, and the shadows. You can do so manually by changing the values yourself, but in changing environments this might mean you’ll miss the moment you wanted to capture.
Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) allows you to select the width of the bracket and then automatically captures additional shots with the selected values. The AEB scale is measured in fractions of exposure, and depending on your gear you’ll be able to shoot up to nine additional exposures.
Take your images to the next level and share them with the world on your photography website!
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Photography Expert for the Wix Blog & Social Media Team