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 phones to high-end DSLRs, are designed to make decisions for us. And for the most part, they do a pretty darn good job of it. Slap your SLR into AUTO mode and more often than not you’ll get images that are sharp with decent exposure. If you are just looking to document your world, then go for it, snap away. The drawback is that images taken in AUTO 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 impact the photograph.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings


Five Most Essential Camera Settings

This night image required I use a fast shutter speed to retain detail in the flame, so I had to use a high ISO (3200). In the next detail shot, 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.)

First, the acronym ISO is terrible, because it’s basically meaningless in terms of photography. It stands for “International Standards Organization” a European non-governmental organization that makes sure industries apply the same standards. In the case of photography, they want to make sure that an 800 ISO on a Canon is the same as on a Nikon, Sony or 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 1/100th sec at f/2.8 and ISO 400, and you set your Nikon to the same setting, we wouldn’t get the same exposure. Thankfully all the major manufacturers do subscribe to the ISO standards.

Yeah, yeah, but what is ISO? It 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. If you are shooting in a low light situation, say a poorly lit room or 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 400, 800, or 1600.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings ISO

Note the noise in the detail of the person’s clothing and in other shadowed areas.

Drawbacks of high ISO

So why not shoot at high ISOs all the time? Two reasons: 1. High ISOs often create digital noise on the image, (though camera sensors are getting better and better) and 2. Sometimes you may want to force a slow shutter speed, in which case you want low sensitivity to light. This may be the case when you are trying to capture blurred motion such as water, wind or to create pleasing blurs in sports photography.

  1. High ISOs often create digital noise in the image, (though camera sensors are getting better and better)
  2. Sometimes you may want to force a slow shutter speed, in which case you want low sensitivity to light. This may be the case when you are trying to capture blurred motion such as water, wind, or to create pleasing blurs in sports photography.

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 the set period of time before switching it off again. Shutter speed has a huge impact on the final image. A long shutter speed will create blur in moving subjects. As a landscape photographer, I use long shutter speeds often to blur water, expose starlight, or capture wind motion.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings

For this image, I used a 0.5 sec shutter speed to blur the waves somewhat, but retain detail.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings shutter speed

A 30-second shutter speed blurred the Yukon River in this image, into a mirror-like surface.

Short or fast shutter speeds have the effect of stopping motion. Use a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second and the motion of a runner or a cyclist will be stopped dead.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings shutter speed

This image of a bike passing used a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. It was just enough to be sharp overall while retaining some sense of motion in the spinning tire.

Your use of the shutter has to 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, or convey the sense of motion? Consider, experiment, then decide on your shutter speed.


Five Most Essential Camera Settings aperture

An f-stop of f/11 at 17mm was sufficient to make the entire image, from inches in front of the lens to the cliffs in the distance, sharp.

The aperture, or f-stop, may be the most confusing aspect of photography for many photographers 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 is allowed in, the larger it is, the more light gets through. What often confuses people is the numbering system: the smaller the number, the larger the hole. So f/2.8 is a larger opening than f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and so on. Lenses with a wide maximum aperture (a small number like f/2) are considered “fast” meaning 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. Most lenses (dare I say all?) are sharper, a few stops down (called the sweet spot). A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will create a sharper image at f/8, then at f/2.8. The higher quality the lens, the less this matters, but it is noticeable on most lenses.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings aperture

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.

Depth of Field and application

Next, the aperture also controls the Depth of Field. The DoF is the amount of the image from close to far that is in focus. A lens, when set wide open, say f/2.8, will have less DoF than when the same lens is set to f/11.

Like 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 (like f/11). How about a portrait where you want a clean, soft background but a tack-sharp eye? Then use a small f-stop (like f/2.8 or f/4) and watch that focus point.

The aperture has a direct impact on shutter speed. A large f-stop will require you to use a longer shutter speed to attain proper exposure. Just as lower f-stop, will allow you to use a fast shutter speed. These two 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 light outdoors looks artificially blue. That’s white balance. The camera (or photographer) decided to use the interior light (the warm-toned bulbs) as the natural color, but then the natural light

The camera (or photographer) decided to use the interior light (the warm-toned bulbs) as the neutral color, but then the natural light outdoors appears blue. When the white balance is set wrong, the colors are off. They look too yellow, blue, or orange. When it’s correct, everything looks natural, or as our eyes detect it.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings white balance

Here is the camera’s AUTO selection for the White Balance. The colors of the aurora borealis appear too purple and yellow.

Five Most Essential Camera Settings white balance

In this version, using the same post-processing for exposure, 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 cameras. Cameras are pretty darn good at assessing color tones and deciding on the appropriate white balance. When it does get it wrong, I can check the image on the LCD and make the correction for the next shot. Second, I shoot exclusively in RAW format which means that I can make adjustments to the white balance in the computer. 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 to adjust the camera’s white balance settings. The first is if you are shooting JPEGs. That image format will not allow you to effectively adjust white balance later, so it’s got to be right in the camera. The second is when stacking images either for high contrast scenes or for panoramas. When stacking images, slight changes in color tones will make combining them into HDR or panoramas much more difficult or impossible. You can also use White Balance if you purposefully want to make an image look cool or warm, or if you are using artificial lights. (Now THAT subject warrants an article of its own…)

Be mindful of your White Balance, know what it does and how it will impact your image, then decide how, or whether to use it.

Exposure Compensation


Here I used Exposure Compensation to make sure that the image was bright enough to show details in the foreground while assuring that the bright sunset in the background was not blown out.

These two images show how useful Exposure compensation can be. The image below was made in bright sunlight, but a purposeful underexposure of three stops reduced the mountains to black but retained detail in the sky, making a surreal image.

Know your camera well

Exposure Compensation is a tool you should know how to adjust without even lowering the camera from your eye. Exposure compensation allows you to very quickly, add or subtract light from an image. Too dark? Use Exposure Compensation to add a stop of light. Too bright? Exposure Compensation can quickly reduce the exposure. How it is set depends on your camera settings.

I use Aperture Priority mode most often on my camera. That means I select the aperture, and the camera decides the shutter speed. If I adjust my Exposure Compensation, the camera will retain my chosen aperture and simply adjust shutter speed up or down to get the desired exposure. If I were to use Shutter Priority, as I sometimes do, the camera will adjust the aperture. In AUTO the camera will make that decision for me.

I use Exposure compensation constantly. It is my go-to method for fine-tuning my exposure 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 controls on the front, a wheel near the shutter button, or some other system of buttons on the back. Know how your camera works, and learn to adjust this 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 studio.


These five camera settings are the most important things to understand on your camera. Experiment with them so you know how they affect your final image, and know how to change each quickly and without fuss. Once you do, you’ll have taken charge of your photography, and be on your way to creating purposeful images.

If you have comments or questions please share post them below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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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  • Bill Forrester

    I agree wholeheartedly although I would put exposure compensation as number one an enlarge the discussion to talk about exposure controls ESP, center weighted and spot and when to use each. Light is everything!

  • David W. Shaw

    Light can definitely make or break an image. And I think an article could be written on about the handy uses of exposure compensation. It’s my favorite tool on any camera. Thanks for the comment and ideas!

  • Ravi Sreenivasan

    A great reference for beginners like me. The next step would be to expand each of the 5 points with multiple examples.
    Thank you David Shaw

  • David W. Shaw

    An excellent suggestion!

  • Jack Ponting

    These essential five most camera settings are very useful and most important to understand from the Camera Users and photography fans that explains them how to use them who are taking Dissertation Editing service so they can enjoy their hobbies. Thanks David for sharing amazing article for Camera setting for those who are using it regularly.

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  • Mark

    I’ll second that. Real world category examples would be great. Things like when to use Auto ISO and when to set it, especially when photographing action. Do you set shutter speed and auto the other two (aperture, ISO) or manual shutter speed, manual aperture and just let the camera do auto ISO?

  • Daryl Chappell

    Forgive me, but your leading information about ISO is incorrect.

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

    It isn’t an acronym and doesn’t actually “stand” for anything. The International Organization of Standardization (IOS) is the group you were trying to reference. ISO is a play on the greek “isos” meaning equal. So, rather than having different pronunciations in all the different languages/countries of the world, they simply went with ISO – “equal” everywhere.

    Otherwise, solid article. Cheers!

  • Bram Blenk

    Great article for those starting out with digital photography, however, I also have a bone to pick with your description of ISO. My understanding is that changes in the ISO setting do not affect the sensitivity of the sensor, they change amplification of the signal that the sensor produces as a result of the light falling on it. This why high ISO setting produce higher noise levels. The sensor produces two types of signal, meaningful data in the form of picture information and meaningless data as a result of random electronic signals inherent in the camera systems, mostly the sensor itself. In low light conditions the sensor produces a lower level of meaning data but the level of meaningless data remains the same. Higher ISO settings amplify both the meaningful and meaningless data, causing a higher noise to picture ratio.

  • Nick Wadham

    That’s great advice. We travel to Norway in Jan. To view the Aurora as well as the highly unusual colours that we will find at this time of year. However the main object is to see and come home armed with examples of the aurora! Your advice will arm me with plenty to improve my pictures.
    Thanks a lot for your valuable advice

  • Spike Hodge

    Bad English is always irritating; especially when you are trying to sell dissertation editing services. The English on their web site is even worse!

  • Mr_Electability

    ISO actually allows multiple ways to measure the sensitivity of a digital exposure, and this can lead to slightly different measurements among camera systems. See

  • Superheterodyne

    Daryl Chappell. Where do you find this reference? The International Organization of Standards references all of its standards as ISO xxx:xxx and they use ISO as their acronym for International Organization of Standards (and its trademarked as such). The genesis may have been from the Greek word isos, but the use of ISO as reference to the organization is now proper. ISO 5800:2001 is the current standard for Color Negative film, ISO 12232:2006 for Digital.

  • Superheterodyne

    Good correction, but perhaps a bit of a case of semantics.

    Most (all current production?) digital camera sensors have the 1st stage amplifier and photo-diode as an integrated assembly, so changing the bias level of the photo-transistor changes its amplified output (sensitivity). Many modern day sensors even integrate the analog/digital conversion on the sensor assembly as shipped from the sensor mfr., so frequently this assembly is referred to (incorrectly) as the “Sensor”.

    Your noise analysis is explained well.

  • Mick Miller

    Mr. Shaw, I’m under the impression that you took all the photos in this article. You explained each of the 5 setting with a photo which greatly helps me understand the idea your sharing. One of my challenges is my right hand (dominant one ) has trimmers. Some times after I get up when I get my first mug of coffee even with 2″ from the top I’ll still spill some going to my desk.

    I chose shutter priority on my DSLR to try and get a sharp image. OK use a tripod or my left hand (read that one left handed pro) uses his style of using his left hand to operate his camera. Another challenge also is I’ve got a bad lower back, even hard for me when I use a very good tripod w/ball head. Does any one have similar experience & what works for them?

    Wouldn’t the 3 light meters settings be important too? Maybe my ISO, F/stop or shutter speed wasn’t set right but when in my backyard taking pics of birds w/70-300mm lens @300mm around 9am at spring time in Sacramento CA. I got better JPEG images with my meter set at center weight instead of matrix. Another question, doesn’t a DSLR use the concept of a reflective light meter, where I read pros are using again (?) a Incident light meter for complex light setup. I guess I could use a 18 % gray card for my DSLR when doing still photos. I guess practice, practice, practice till I’m @ one with my camera….

    One last thing JPEG vs RAW I read shoot in RAW. Is JPEG on the camera because of the LCD screen on the camera? If at this time I just shoot to use my photos as my laptop desktop image should I really go and do the long learning curve to master RAW editing, when I just want to have fun with my gear? HELP

  • Mick Miller

    Mr. Shaw, I just wanted to add info to the 2 photos of my example: Nikon D5200 DX ; FX format AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5 – 5.6 G IF – ED lens
    1st sparrow on fence fall 2015: about 450mm , AF-C single, VR- on; f/7.1; 1/400s; meter – spot; ISO 400; Active D – Light AUTO ; [SD]
    2nd sparrow (?) out bedroom window, same camera & lens, fall 2016 again about 450mm; AF-C; AF- Area Mode Dynamic; VR- on; f/9; 1/320s ; MATRIX ; ISO 400 ; Active D – Lighting Auto ; [VIVID]

    Thank goodness for digital age couldn’t remember all this…if this info could help in suggestion for me to do better I would appreciate it…Mick M.

  • Daryl Chappell See the about page. Wikipedia is good but not always accurate.

  • David W. Shaw

    Hi Mick, Thanks for the comment. The images didn’t pop up here, but if you send me a link, I’d be happy to have a look at them.

  • David W. Shaw

    Glad you enjoyed it. The aurora is great fun to shoot, and I hope you find some great lights on your trip north. Feel free to send me questions.

  • David W. Shaw

    Whoops. Didn’t see your images in this second comment. You can ignore my reply on your other comment. So about your two images: The top image of the Junco on the fence has lovely warm light and a beautiful, well lit background. The problem, is that the bird is just a touch out of focus. In this case, rather than being the result of a jiggling camera, I think your focus point was slightly off. You can see that the top of the fence on the far right of the image appears sharp, but the bird, just a bit further back is a touch soft.

    The second image of the White-crowned Sparrow appears nice and sharp around the bird. The the problem here, however is the that the confused setting with criss-crossing branches and leaves means that the bird gets a bit lost. Still, unlike many clean images, this one does tell a story of a bird in habitat. That tells a story, and therefore has value, even if it isn’t as clean and tidy as a more dramatic image might.

    The exposure on both images looks good, so I think you did well there. I’d experiment with Aperture Priority mode and play with that a bit, allow the camera to choose your shutter speed. Or even better, experiment with all the different settings from full auto to full manual and see how your images turn out. There is no recipe for camera settings, it is best to simply understand the effect each has on your final image. To do that, you have to go play with your camera.

    Finally, your question about RAW vs JPEG. I’m not sure about all the technical details of how the camera records images, but in general RAW is better if you do any post-processing. You get a lot more flexibility in the computer to make changes. That said, RAW images look much worse upon export, so if you aren’t much for post-processing then by all means shoot jpeg. Which you use depends a lot on your workflow and whether you want to spend time on the computer.

    Thanks for the comment and all the best in your photographic explorations!

  • Kevin

    If exposure compensation simply adjusts the shutter speed (in aperture priority mode), why not just directly adjust the shutter speed instead? Does the EC setting have advantages?

  • David W. Shaw

    You can certainly do it that way. The advantage of EC is speed. One flick of the thumb and it’s done. No fiddling back and forth trying to get the right exposure. If you have the time, manual functions are great and certainly lead to a better understanding of exposure and your camera, but it is definitely slower. Thanks for the question and comment!

  • Superheterodyne

    I would add that EC also will move the ISO up or down if required to get the correct exposure. I too, like to shoot in Manual much of the time, but as you pointed out, there are times when it’s quicker to go to an auto mode (Aperture or Shutter (or Sensitivity mode – Pentax only)) and use compensation.

  • Superheterodyne

    Mick Miller, someone may have already offered this advice, so if so, please ignore.

    You may know of the rule of thumb for minimum shutter speed to be the reciprocal of the Focal length times the crop factor, e.g.1/450 sec for a 300mm lens (300 x 1.5 on a Nikon D5200). The lens you listed has Vibration Reduction (VR), which would normally allow 3 stops lower on the speed. That is from: 1/450 to 1/225 (1 stop) to 1/113 (2 stops) rounded to 1/60th of a second (3 stops), but I wonder if your tremors are bad enough to where you may consider staying with the rule of thumb even with VR on. Just a thought.

    However, I agree with Mr. Shaw for the pictures you posted, they look to have a focus point issue and not camera shake.

    As to the age old argument jof RAW v. JPEG – briefly, the D5200 stores RAW images with 14 bit encoding v. 8 bit on JPEG, that allows 64 times more information per each color pixel, which determines the dynamic Range that is stored and can be recalled. JPEG’s also go through a compression process that looses information about the images. So for high contrast, high dynamic range images or low light situations, it can be very beneficial to shoot RAW to prevent loss of dynamic range or to pull out shadows with less noise and more accuracy. If you improperly expose an image, a RAW is much more forgiving and tolerant to pushing up the exposure or pulling back highlights. A wedding photographer will likely use RAW, to help insure against being shot by the Bride if that once-in-a-lifetime shot is bad.

    There are many other factors, but those are some of the more important reason to use RAW. You have to post process RAWs and covert to JPEG or PNG for normal viewing and distribution. If you shoot mostly average dynamic range shots and only post on the web, then JPEG should suffice.

  • Mick Miller

    Thank you for your thoughts Superheterodyne, I do try to shoot @ the reciprocal of the focal length I’m at on the lens, but I must admit I forget the 1.5 factor on my FX lens when used on my DX camera body. I have my camera set up so when I press the shutter half way it focus on my selected focus point ( just tried the back button focus but not use to it) went back to default setting. I think my challenge is holding the camera steady with both hands but when trying to focus on the birds eye and as my (r) hand shakes I ended up refocusing and that’s maybe when the focus point was on the lower right top of fence.

    I’m going to starting shooting for a while in Aperture Priority as Mr Shaw suggested, watch the shutter speed & if need be adjust the ISO to get the shutter speed I want and learn from there trying not have to much noise in the shot.

  • Mick Miller

    Mr. Shaw, appreciate your input. I just went back to see the original photo of the Junco on the fence, I had crop quite a lot & reversed the photo to get the one shown. What I recall from that day was as I look thru the view finder and my (r) hand was shaking I was having a hard time getting the composition I desired as this is an on going issue. I’m going to shoot in Aperture Priority for some time & adjust ISO (watch that digital noise) and shutter speed to see if I get better results I’m after, then begin to learn advantages of the other settings for my issue.

    On the photo of the White-crown Sparrow I did quite a bit of editing. To get that photo my left hand was pulling the blinds down while holding the camera w/300mm lens in right hand & in live view. It seemed the image was going all over the place. I set the shutter to continuous low speed hoping to get at lease one good focus shot.

    I was in a hurry to add the data on photos sorry, I don’t post to much so still learning how it all works. Thanks again…Mick

  • Dave

    Read further goes on to confirm Daryl’s post.
    ISO is not an acronym:
    “Because ‘International Organization for Standardization’ would have different acronyms in different languages (IOS in English, OIN in French for Organisation internationale de normalisation), our founders decided to give it the short form ISO. ISO is derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal. Whatever the country, whatever the language, we are always ISO

  • Superheterodyne

    Just going by what they posted on their own site, the link was included in my note above. And their opening remark, therein.

  • Jim Kayle

    A great referrals for newbies like me. The next thing would be to flourish each of the 5 factors with several illustrations.

  • David Gee

    Thanks for all the discussion and comments. I am finding issues with the RAW vs JPG situation on my relatively new Nikon D500. I shoot in both RAW and max quality JPG. So have two options when processing the photos. I am finding with RAW that there is more noise in my resultant images than with the JPGs. I realise that this is almost certainly a product of the high quality of the Nikon in camera processing of the JPGs which makes the JPGs appear better. I have tried to emulate this quality with my processing of RAWs but cannot seem to get there – I think noise reduction is the clue, but I don’t seem to have mastered the right way to go about it. Any suggestions would be very helpful.

  • Mike Williams

    What is EC?

  • Gustavo Donado

    Bad English like this? “A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will create a sharper image at f/8, then at f/2.8”. I agree then.

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