Facebook Pixel The Five Most Essential Camera Settings and How to Use Them

The Five Most Essential Camera Settings and How to Use Them

Modern cameras, from smartphones to high-end DSLRs, are designed to make decisions for us.

And, for the most part, they do a pretty good job. Slap your DSLR into Auto mode, and more often than not you’ll get images that are sharp with a decent exposure.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings seaside landscape

Now, if you’re just looking to document your world, then go for it. Snap away. But the drawback is that images taken with Auto mode tend to look similar to one another, with a uniform depth of field and exposure.

If you want to move beyond the automatic camera settings, you need to understand your camera, how to use it and, most importantly, what impact changing those settings will have on your final image.

Here are five of the most essential camera settings, what they mean, and how they’ll impact your photos.


Here’s the first essential camera setting you should know:


Now, the acronym “ISO” is terrible, because it’s basically meaningless in terms of photography. It stands for International Organization for Standardization, a European non-governmental organization that makes sure industries apply the same standards.

In the case of photography, the International Organization for Standardization wanted to make sure that an 800 ISO on a Canon camera is the same as on a Nikon, Sony, or a Fuji. If that standard didn’t exist, then settings wouldn’t be applicable across camera brands. So if I set my Canon to make an image at 1/100s at f/2.8 and ISO 400, and you set your Nikon to the same settings, we wouldn’t get the same exposure.

Thankfully, all the major manufacturers do subscribe to the ISO standard.

So what is ISO?

ISO is the measure of the sensitivity of your camera’s digital sensor to light. The lower the number, the lower the sensitivity; the higher the number, the more sensitive the sensor becomes.

Say that you’re shooting in a low light situation, such as in a poorly-lit room or on a dusky evening. An ISO setting of 100 will require that more light reaches the sensor than if you were to use a setting of ISO 400, 800, or 1600.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings fire night image
This night image required a fast shutter speed to retain detail in the flame, so I had to use a high ISO (3200). In the next shot (below), you can see the noise in the original RAW file. (By the way, this image shows what happens when you free methane from a bubble in the ice of a frozen pond in the boreal forest and then set it alight.)

Drawbacks of a high ISO

So why not shoot with a high ISO all the time?

Two reasons:

  1. High ISOs often create digital noise in the image (though camera sensors are getting better and better at avoiding this).
  2. Sometimes you may want to force a slow shutter speed, in which case you need less sensitivity to light. This may be the case if you are trying to capture blurred motion such as water or wind, or if you’re creating pleasing blurs in sports photography.
Five Most Essential Camera Settings ISO
Note the noise in the detail of the person’s clothing and in other shadowed areas.

In short, ISO is one of the three tools you have at your disposal to manipulate your exposure.

Shutter speed

The length of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light is the shutter speed.

Many cameras have a mechanical shutter that snaps open and closed, allowing light to reach the sensor. Others use a digital shutter that simply turns on the sensor for a set period of time before switching it off again.

Your shutter speed has a huge impact on the final image.


Because a long shutter speed will create blur in moving subjects. As a landscape photographer, I use long shutter speeds to blur water, capture starlight, or show wind motion.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings beach
For this image, I used a 1/2s shutter speed to blur the waves while retaining some detail.
Five Most Essential Camera Settings shutter speed
A 30s shutter speed blurred the Yukon River into a mirror-like surface.

Short (i.e., fast) shutter speeds have the effect of stopping motion. Use a shutter speed of 1/2000s and the motion of a runner or a cyclist will be stopped dead.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings shutter speed
This image of a passing bike required a shutter speed of 1/500s. The shutter speed was just fast enough to make the image sharp overall while retaining some sense of motion in the spinning tire.

Your use of shutter speed must be thoughtful to create a good image. Think about the final image you want to create. Does it have blurred components or is it all sharp? Do you want to stop your subject or convey a sense of motion?

Consider, experiment, then decide on your shutter speed.


The aperture, or f-stop, might be the most confusing aspect of photography for many photographers. This is because it affects images in unexpected ways.

Essentially, the aperture is how big the hole in the lens is. The smaller the hole, the less light that is allowed in; the larger the hole, the more light that gets through.

What often confuses people is the numbering system:

The smaller the number, the larger the hole.

So a setting of f/2.8 corresponds to a larger opening than f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, and so on. Lenses with a wide maximum aperture (i.e., a small number like f/2) are considered fast, meaning that they are capable of allowing in more light.

But it’s not just about light and how wide a lens can open. The aperture also affects image sharpness.

You see, most, if not all, lenses are sharper a few f-stops down (called the sweet spot). A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will create a sharper image at f/8 than at f/2.8. The better the lens, the less this matters, but it is noticeable on most lenses.

Depth of field and its applications

The aperture also controls the depth of field.

The depth of field is the amount of the image from close to far that is in focus. A lens set to its widest aperture (say f/2.8) will give less depth of field than the same lens set to f/11.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings aperture grouse
A very shallow depth of field in this image brings the grouse hiding in the brush into focus while the surrounding chaos of branches blurs into a haze.

As with shutter speed, your use of aperture should be purposeful. Have a landscape image that you want in focus from front to back? You better select a high f-stop (such as f/11). How about a portrait where you want a clean, soft background but a tack-sharp eye? Then use a small f-stop (such as f/2.8 or f/4) and carefully choose your focus point.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings aperture
An f-stop of f/11 at 17mm was sufficient to make the entire scene, from inches in front of the lens to the cliffs in the distance, sharp.

The aperture directly impacts the shutter speed. A narrow aperture will require you to use a longer shutter speed to attain a proper exposure, just as a wider aperture will allow you to use a faster shutter speed. Aperture and shutter speed are completely interrelated; there is no escaping it.

So you need a strong understanding of both.

White balance

White balance, like ISO, relates to the sensor.

But, in this case, it has to do with the color of the light, rather than its brightness.

Different light sources have different color tones. Our eyes often don’t detect these differences, but you can bet your camera will. Have you ever seen a photo of a home interior lit by soft white bulbs, but including a window? Usually, the interior of the room looks natural while the outdoor light looks artificially blue.

That’s white balance. The camera (or photographer) decided to use the interior light (the warm-toned bulbs) as the neutral color, but then the natural light outdoors shifted toward blue.

Now, when the white balance is set wrong, the colors are off. They look too yellow, blue, or orange.

But when the white balance is correct, everything looks natural, as our eyes detect it.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings white balance aurora
Here is an image with the camera’s white balance set to Auto. The colors of the aurora borealis appear too purple and yellow.
Five Most Essential Camera Settings white balance aurora
In this version, I adjusted the white balance further into the blue range, making the colors of the lights appear more natural and pleasing.

What about Auto White Balance?

I’ve got a confession to make here:

I almost always use the Auto White Balance setting on my camera. Cameras are pretty darn good at assessing color tones and deciding on the appropriate white balance. When my camera does get it wrong, I can check the image on the LCD and make the correction for the next shot.

Also, I shoot exclusively in RAW format, which means that I can make adjustments to the white balance during post-processing. I trust the image on my computer screen more than I trust the tiny LCD on the back of my camera.

That said, there are times you should adjust the camera’s white balance setting. The first is if you are shooting JPEGs. The JPEG file format will not allow you to effectively adjust the white balance later, so you must get it right in-camera.

The second time you’ll want to adjust your white balance setting is when stacking images, either for high-contrast scenes or for panoramas. When stacking, slight changes in color tones will make combining several images into a single HDR photo or a panorama much more difficult or even impossible.

You can also adjust your white balance if you purposely want to make an image look cool or warm, or if you are using artificial lights.

So be mindful of your white balance; know what it does and how it will impact your images. Then decide how to use it.

Exposure compensation

What is exposure compensation?

Exposure compensation allows you to very quickly add or subtract light from an image.

Too dark? Use the exposure compensation feature to add a stop of light. Too bright? Exposure compensation can quickly darken the image.

Homer sunset

For the image above, I used exposure compensation to make sure the scene showed details in the foreground, while keeping the bright sunset in the background from being blown out.

And the image below was made in bright sunlight, but a deliberate underexposure of three stops (via exposure compensation) reduced the mountains to black but retained detail in the sky, resulting in a surreal image.

landscape with reflection

Know your camera well

Exposure compensation is a tool you should know how to adjust without lowering the camera from your eye. How it is set depends on your camera settings.

I use Aperture Priority mode most often on my camera. So I select the aperture, and the camera decides the shutter speed. If I adjust the exposure compensation, my camera will retain my chosen aperture and simply adjust the shutter speed up or down to get the desired exposure.

And if I were to use Shutter Priority mode, as I sometimes do, the camera would adjust the aperture, instead.

(In Auto mode, the camera makes this decision for you.)

I use exposure compensation constantly. It is my go-to method for fine-tuning my exposures in the field. On my Canon DSLR, I can adjust it with a simple twitch of my thumb on the rear wheel of the camera. Other cameras have their exposure compensation control as a wheel near the shutter button, or as part of a system of buttons on the back.

Know how your camera works and learn to adjust the exposure compensation quickly and efficiently. Understanding this important tool will mean you don’t miss your chance to get the shot right when you are working in the field or the studio.

Essential camera settings: Conclusion

These five camera settings are the most important things to understand about your camera.

Experiment with them so you know how they affect your final image. Learn to change each setting quickly and without fuss.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll have taken charge of your photography.

And you’ll be on your way to creating purposeful images.

If you have any comments or questions, please add them below!

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David Shaw
David Shaw

is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

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