Are you new to DSLR photography?  Did you just get your very first DSLR camera?  Have you had your DSLR camera for a while and need a refresher?  If you answered yes to any of those questions then this article is for you.  We will cover every aspect of DSLR photography, including

  1. What is Aperture
  2. What is Shutter speed
  3. What is ISO
  4. What is the Exposure Triangle
  5. What is White Balance
  6. What is Metering & Exposure Compensation
  7. What are the Manual Camera Modes
  8. What Camera Settings to Use

So grab a cup of coffee and buckle your seat belt, you are about to learn everything you need to know about DSLR photography.  

What is Aperture?

Aperture is one of the fancy DSLR terms that tend to freak people out.  Once you learn what it is and how it affects your photos though it won’t be very scary at all.  So what is Aperture? Quite simply aperture is defined as an opening or a hole. In the case of DSLR photography, the aperture is the opening in the lens that lets light into the camera.  When you choose different aperture settings (or f-stops) you are changing the size of the opening in the lens. To help explain this better let’s talk about the infographic below.

Aperture Explained

As you can see above, the smaller the f-stop number (in the above example f1.4) the larger the opening in the lens, which means more light is being let into the camera.  As the f-stop, or aperture setting, gets higher, the smaller the opening in the lens becomes, therefore letting less light into the camera. Okay, that was a mouth full right?  The way I remember it is, if I need more light (meaning I’m in a darker setting) I lower my f-stop, or if I need less light (it’s bright outside) I raise my f-stop. So that’s aperture explained in terms of how much light is available.  

Aperture can also be used to change the depth of field in a photograph.  The depth of field is essentially explained by what is sharp and in focus in an image.  A shallow depth of field means that the foreground is in focus and the background is not in focus or blurry.  A deep depth of field means that the foreground and background are in sharp focus (so nothing is blurry) in the image.  Let’s take another look at the infographic above.

As you can see, to get a photo with shallow depth of field (blurry background) your aperture setting or f-stop will need to be pretty low.  The general rule is f5.0 or lower. To get a photo with deep depth of field (everything in sharp focus) you will want a higher aperture setting, generally an f-stop of f5.6 and higher.  Below are examples of photos with shallow and deep depth of fields.

Depth of Field Comparison

The range of aperture settings is completely dependent on your lens, not on your camera.  The aperture settings on the stock lens that comes with most beginner DLSR cameras is f4.0 to f29.  To get a lower aperture you will need to invest in a prime lens, where the aperture can go as low as f1.4.  To read more about primes lens:  https://livesnapcreate.com/how-to-use-a-prime-lens/

So that’s aperture defined and explained.  Aperture is just one component of the exposure triangle that affects how your photo will be exposed.  The next component is shutter speed.

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed is probably one of the easiest aspects of DSLR photography to understand.  Simply stated, shutter speed is defined as the length of time the shutter on the camera stays open.  This directly impacts the amount of light that is let into the camera. Shutter speed is usually indicated as a ratio (there are exceptions to this, explained below).  An example is a shutter speed of 1/100. This means that when you depress the shutter button on your camera the shutter will remain open for 0.01 seconds. The exceptions to this are when you start getting into long exposure photography.  Long exposure photography is needed during extreme low light conditions. A shutter speed of 1 second is depicted as 1”. A shutter speed of 1.3 seconds is depicted as 1”3. Let’s look at the infographic below to see how shutter speed affects photos.  

DSLR Shutter Speed Explained

As you can see above the shutter speed has a direct impact on how much light is let into the camera.  A long shutter speed of 1 second or more will leave the shutter open longer and allow the camera to collect the light for a longer period of time.  This is why in long exposure photography you see trails of light or blurring of motion. A short shutter speed, for example, 1/100, only lets in light for a brief period of time and consequently freezes motion.  The thing to be careful of is when you start to increase the length of time the shutter is open, around 1/30, you will introduce camera vibration just by clicking the shutter button. In these cases you will want to use a tripod and if possible a remote to trigger the shutter on the camera.  Vibration in the camera can introduce unwanted blurring in your photo. The examples below show you what is meant by blurring and freezing motion.

Shutter speed motion comparison

In addition to the type of motion you want to depict, you can use shutter speed to balance out your exposure settings in reference to aperture and ISO.  Shorter shutter speeds can be used in bright lighting conditions to allow for a lower aperture and conversely, longer shutter speeds can be used to allow for a higher aperture.  It is all a numbers game that will be explained in the exposure triangle after ISO is defined and explained. Stay with me!

 

What is ISO?

ISO is one of the mystery DSLR terms that tend to trip people up.  Let’s first define ISO and then demystify ISO.

ISO is an acronym for International Standards Organization.  It is the term used for the standardized industry scale for measuring sensitivity to light.  (Hang in there!) In plain English, it means the amount of noise you will allow in the photo for a properly exposed image.  The lower the ISO the less noise will be introduced into the image, and the higher the ISO the more noise will be introduced.  Take a look at the chart below to see what ISO settings are used in what lighting conditions.

ISO Explained

As you can see above, lower ISO settings are used in bright lighting conditions and higher ISO settings are used in dark lighting conditions.  ISO is a trade-off of noise for proper exposure. Lower ISO numbers are always preferred, but again it is a numbers game with the aperture and shutter speed to attain a properly exposed photo.  Next, we will discuss the exposure triangle and explain how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are all interconnected and how we use them to get the photo we want.

What is the Exposure Triangle?

The exposure triangle is one of those terms in DSLR photography that generally turns beginners off from actually learning their camera.  It is this vague picture that everyone looks at, tries to glean some nugget of information from, and they hope it tells them what settings to use.  So let’s demystify it, and shocker it really doesn’t do any of those things. It really is just a metaphor in photography that tries (unsuccessfully in my opinion) to explain how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect each other.  But let’s take a stab at it. Below are two different depictions of the exposure triangle, both correct just telling you different information.

The Exposure Triangle in DSLR Photography

As mentioned above, the exposure triangle is just a picture to show how the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect each other and how the photo you shoot is impacted by those three settings.  The exposure triangle above depicts this with a ven diagram. The aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are separate settings, but there is a sweet spot where the right combination of settings will produce a properly exposed photo.  This is completely dependent on the lighting conditions, and the type of image you are trying to capture.

The Exposure Triangle in DSLR Photography

The exposure triangle above is the classic one you see most places.  It is really just depicting that the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are connected and it shows the values that can be chosen.  What it does not show you is what settings to choose, and that’s because it would be situation dependent. Let’s go through a couple of examples.  

 

Example 1: It’s a bright sunny day and you are taking a single person portrait.  You would like the background to be blurred.

  • First start with the blurred background requirement because there is only one setting that can make that happen, Aperture.  We would choose the lowest aperture allowed by our lens. If you are using a stock lens, that would be around f4.0. If you have a prime lens you probably want to be around f2.5 or f3.0.
  • Next, we will set our ISO.  In portraits, you will want as little noise or grain as possible.  Because it is a bright sunny day we will choose an ISO of 100.
  • Finally, we will choose the shutter speed.  Because the aperture is so wide open (larger hole in the lens) there is a ton of light being let into the camera.  In addition, we have chosen an ISO that is concurrent with a lot of light being available. Because of both these settings choices, the shutter speed will need to be fast to compensate for all the light into the camera.  A shutter speed of 1/250 or faster would be a good choice.

Example 2:  You are indoors trying to get photos of your family in front of the Christmas tree lights.  

  • So first let’s start with ISO.  If you refer back to the ISO chart above you will want to be at an ISO of 800 at the minimum.  If you were to try and go any lower your aperture and shutter speed will have to be set in such a manner that you will either get blurry pictures, or the Christmas tree will be blurred out.
  • Next lets set your aperture.  With an indoor, low-light, scene you will want to set your aperture pretty low to allow a lot of light into the camera.  But if you want the background in focus you don’t want to go any lower than f5.6.
  • Shutter speed is the final setting to determine.  You will want to set your shutter speed according to the meter seen inside the viewfinder.  (We will discuss this soon). Start with a shutter speed of around 1/80 and see if the photo will be properly exposed using the meter.  If not, incrementally lower the shutter speed until it becomes right. If you need more light into the camera you can also increase the ISO a notch and see what shutter speed you will need.

These two examples show you that aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are tied together to get a properly exposed photo.  This is essentially what the exposure triangle is telling you. We will go into more examples in the final section What Camera Settings Should I Use.  If you want to read more about the exposure triangle, this link takes you to a great article:  https://actioncamera.blog/2017/02/22/the-exposure-triangle/

What is White Balance?

White balance is the final setting on your camera that has a determination on how your photo looks.  White balance is the color temperature setting your camera uses to set the color of your photos. For your photos to have true color you need to tell the camera what lighting scenario you are in.  This is setting white balance. Fortunately, there is an easy way to determine what white balance setting you should use.

White Balance Explained

As you can see in the image above, choosing a white balance setting is based on your lighting conditions.  You just decide what type of lighting you have and then set it accordingly. You should do this first thing when before choosing any other camera settings as it typically doesn’t change.  If you look at the photos below, you can see how the different settings affect the photo by changing the color temperature of the photo.

white balance settings

 

There is another way to deal with white balance.  You can keep your white balance on auto and let the camera guess.  Then when you download the photos, use an editing program such as Lightroom to correct the white balance in post-processing.  If you are not using advanced editing software, I suggest setting your white balance on location. Just remember to do it every time you pick up your camera.  

What is Metering and Exposure Compensation?

Metering and exposure compensation are applicable once you get into Manual and priority modes.  First, let’s talk about metering. Metering is using the meter found in the viewfinder to determine if your photo is properly exposed with the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings you have chosen.  The image below will explain what the meter looks like and how it is used.

Metering in DSLR Photography

As seen in the graphic above, the meter you see, either in the viewfinder or on the LCD panel on the back of the camera, is how you determine if your photo is exposed properly.  (Note: This meter will only show up in the manual and priority modes, discussed below.) A truly properly exposed photo would have the exposure indicator on the zero, but the sweet spot is between -1 and 1 on the meter.  This allows you creative room to determine how you want your photo to look. If you go too far to the left your photo will be underexposed and if you go too far to the right your photo will be overexposed.  

Exposure compensation goes along with metering as it allows you to tell the camera that you want to purposely expose the photo either to the left or right of 0.  

Exposure Compensation

As you can see in the graphic above, there is a button dedicated to exposure compensation (this will be in different locations on different model cameras).  When you are using exposure compensation you are basically tricking the camera into thinking underexposing or overexposing is actually properly exposed. This allows you to have creative freedom and get the photo that you see with your eyes.  The camera does a fair amount of averaging tones to produce the images and this averaging may not be what you see with your eye. Exposure compensation allows you to take more control over the averaging process. I encourage you to play with exposure compensation once you understand aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

What are the Manual Camera Modes?

You bought the DSLR camera to get great photos, but that does not happen when you are in the Auto modes of the camera.  The auto modes are essentially the same as a point and shoot or a phone camera. To get great photos and have creative control you will need to be in the manual modes of the camera.  So let’s talk about these manual modes.

Manual DSLR Modes

As you can see in the graphic above there are three main manual modes.  The first is Manual mode (M) or what is generally called full manual mode.  In this mode, you have full control of every setting on the camera. You must choose the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance (although ISO and white balance can be set to auto) to create a properly exposed photo.  This is the best scenario to be able to tell the camera what you want it to do, and not have the camera guessing. In this mode, you need to know how all those settings affect each other as explained above in the exposure triangle section.  

The next “manual” mode is Aperture Priority mode (A or AV).  In this mode, you have control over the aperture, ISO, and white balance.  The camera chooses the shutter speed based on the lighting conditions to get a properly exposed photo.  Aperture priority mode is great for a couple of reasons. First, it allows you to practice with different aperture settings so that you can see how aperture will affect your photos.  Second, this is a great mode to be in for portraits or macro photography. It allows you to choose the aperture for the type of image you want and will automatically choose a shutter speed for you that will ensure your photo is exposed properly.  

The final “manual” mode is Shutter Speed Priority mode (S or TV).  This mode allows you to select the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance while determining the proper aperture setting for you that will generate a properly exposed photo.  Again there are two reasons that this mode is great. The first being that it allows you to practice with different shutter speeds to see the effect they have on the images.  The second is that you can determine your shutter speed and the camera will figure out the aperture setting to get a properly exposed photo. This would come in handy at a sports game, where you would want your shutter speed pretty high to freeze the motion.  In this mode, you could do that and the camera would figure out the aperture needed based on the lighting conditions to properly expose the photo.

So you have gotten this far but still, need some help understanding what settings to use.  The next section will give you several scenarios and explain how to choose the right settings to get some great photos.

 

What Camera Settings Should I Use?

Deciding on what camera settings to use for aperture, shutter speed, and ISO can be daunting at first.  The easiest way to start the process is to decide what type of photo you would like first. That will clue you into one parameter that will have a set value and you can then determine the rest.  Types of picture example can be portraits, landscape photos, kids sports games, and/or nighttime sparkler photos. Each of these scenarios gives us a jumping off point for choosing aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  Let’s take a look at each of these examples. An infographic is included below to summarize these different scenarios.

Portrait Settings

Portrait settings can be tricky sometimes.  For this example, we are going to assume you are outside on a well lit day with only two subjects.  For a blurred background portrait, you will want to set your aperture first, as this is the setting that affects the depth of field.  A low aperture of f2.5 to f4.0 is a good choice. Next, you will want to set your ISO. Depending on how bright it is you will want an ISO of 100 or 200.  Remember, the ISO is how much noise you allow in your image based on the light available. On a well lit day, you should be able to have a pretty low ISO.  The final setting, shutter speed should then be chosen based on your metering. Start with a setting of 1/250 and check your meter in the viewfinder to see if your exposure is correct.  That’s all there is to it. Play around with your settings to make sure you get the photo that you envision in your mind.

Landscape Photos

Landscape photos can be very beautiful.  With a landscape photo, you are probably going to want a very deep depth of field, to make sure everything in the photo is in sharp focus.  This means you are going to want your Aperture pretty high around f11 or above. With an aperture this high, remember that the opening in the lens is very small, therefore not letting in an abundance of light.  The next step is to choose your ISO. If it is a very bright day you can probably get away with an ISO of 100 or 200. With a landscape photo, you will want little noise but it will be a tradeoff with the light available.  I would say a maximum of ISO 400. Finally is your shutter speed. Again this will be determined by the lighting level and metering. I would suggest starting at 1/100 and go from there. If it is not a very well lit day you will need to lower your shutter speed.  The thing to be cautious of is using a shutter speed below 1/30. If you go 1/30 or below you will want to use a tripod so that camera vibration doesn’t interfere with your photo. Again play around with your settings, the good thing about landscape photography is that you can take the picture as many times as you want and the subject won’t get bored!

Kids Sports Games

Sports games or action shots, in general, are dependent on motion.  Assuming your goal is to freeze that motion, this is a photo that is highly dependent on shutter speed.  To freeze the motion of a fast-moving subject you will want a high shutter speed. I recommend starting at 1/250.  The next setting should be ISO. For bright scenes with an abundance of light, you will want 100 or 200. For dimmer scenes, you will want an ISO of 400 or possibly even 800 if it is towards twilight.  The final setting would be your aperture. You will set this based on the metering in your viewfinder. You will need to remember that if you want sharp photos your aperture will need to be f5.6 or higher.  This may affect your shutter speed slightly. You can still freeze motion at a shutter speed of 1/100. As you can see it is a trade-off between the lighting available and the type of photo. For this scenario, you could also choose to use the shutter speed priority mode and just choose your shutter speed.  With ISO on auto, the camera will choose the aperture to enable a properly exposed photo.

Nighttime Sparkler Photos

Sparkler photos can be really fun and create beautiful memories.  To create these photos you will need a couple extra pieces of equipment.  You will need a tripod for camera stabilization and if possible a remote to reduce camera vibration.  If you don’t have a remote you can just use the timer function of your camera. You can see an example below of a sparkler image.  

Fireworks image using shutter speed

As you can see in the image above, the camera basically collects the light as the sparkler moves.  This is accomplished by setting a slow shutter speed. You will want a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds or slower.  This would be depicted as ½ or 1” for 1 second. You then will want to set your ISO at 800 or above. The final setting should be aperture.  You will want this to be around f4.0 or f5.6. To accomplish this you will want to use the remote or timer function to trigger the shutter. Then have your subject make shapes with the sparkler.  As best you can have the subject stationary except for the moving of the sparkler. Too much movement of your subject will lead to excessive motion blur in the photo. Play around with the settings to get the image you want.  This is a fun way to practice photography.

Conclusion

There you have it.  We have covered all the basics of DSLR Photography to get you started with your DSLR camera.  The goal of this article was to get you understanding aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and how they all work together.  The key to understanding DSLR photography really is practice. Try to make it a habit to pick up your camera once a day.  The more you use your DSLR camera the more comfortable you will become.

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