In order to become a more effective amateur photographer you need to develop a stronger understanding of the essential settings on your digital SLR kit. So before you turn to purchasing low light cameras and other gear, get a hold of your camera’s setting using these explanations.


The Essentials

When you’re ready to step up from full auto, you need to understand:

  • The Mode wheel:
  • Shutter Speed and
  • Aperture;
  • Internal Settings:
  • ISO,
  • White Balance,
  • Light Metering, and
  • Autofocus Setting

Start by reading about ISO, shutter speed, and aperture – we have a number of posts that discuss it here on Focus Camera – because this guide won’t go into a lot of detail about getting those settings right.

Controls and the Mode Wheel

When you hold your camera, the mode wheel shows a bunch of icons. There’s the full auto option, the program mode (“P”), which is slightly less auto so you can control exposure a little but not with permanent settings, the “Scene” specific settings, and then the shutter speed priority (“S” or “TV”), aperture priority (usually “A”), and full manual (“M”) settings.

Program mode gives you a small amount of control, perfect for the first step away from full auto. In P, when you press the shutter button down half way, you can use the directional controls located near your right thumb on most cameras to make minor adjustments to the exposure.

The scene settings vary by camera model. Most have a macro option, a portrait option, a scenery option, a sports option, and a night shooting option. If you don’t want to deal with the main settings – aperture, shutter speed, light metering, and ISO – these are great. Macro helps control image shake and keeps things in focus when you shoot something very close up, like a bug or food. Portrait mode emphasizes the right amount of light and blurring out the background, and it’s better for single subjects at a normal distance. Scenery mode closes the aperture to get everything in focus and assumes sunlight. Sports mode obviously increases shutter speed and the ISO to capture moving objects, while night mode will slow down the shutter speed and open the aperture. It might also turn on your flash and attempt to use noise reduction to compensate for a higher ISO.

Aperture priority controls all the other settings on your camera to try and create a balanced exposure based on your chosen f/stop. Amateur photographers with a growing understanding of digital SLR artistry prefer this setting, because it lets you control several aspects of focus and exposure. Shutter speed priority does the same around your chosen shutter speed. And full manual puts everything in your hands.

Internal Settings

Behind the scenes, your camera is doing a lot to implement your instructions about how to execute various settings. Specifically ISO, white balance, light metering, and autofocus. Most DSLR cameras enable you to change the film speed (ISO) with just a few buttons unless you’re using full auto, so you can adjust quickly on the fly. ISO helps you increase the amount of light that hits the sensor, but at higher levels, usually above 1600, the tradeoff is increased “noise” in the shot in exchange for a brighter composition, such as at night.

White balance is vital to a shot looking normal, but by default it’s automatic, and the processor decides how to balance for whatever color of light is present before it snaps the photo. But you can also select one of a number of presets on man cameras, or use custom white balance; you have to point the camera at something like a sheet of paper that you know is true white so the camera can calibrate the white balance more precisely.

Light metering is how your camera evaluates an exposure. The most common type is Matrix or pattern metering, in which the camera averages the amount of light from several points across the entire image. Center-weighted does the same thing but weighs the center third of the image more heavily, emphasizing a good exposure in the center of the frame. Spot metering just evaluates one center point. You can change these based on your preference, which is especially important if you use program mode or rely on the suggestions of your camera’s light meter.

Autofocus is great, even for pros. Nonetheless, you have two main options on most digital SLR kits: single (S-AF) and continuous (C-AF). Single autofocus locks the focus in when you press the shutter button half way. This is great is you want to force the focal point. In continuous focus mode, the camera’s computer continually reassesses the objects in frame to try and keep the most important thing in focus. So different things come in and out of focus as you move the camera, meaning if you move the camera or your subject moves after you press the shutter button half way, the camera shifts the focus to keep up with the main subject. This prevents you from setting the focal point and then moving the camera to adjust framing and composition.

Understanding these essential settings and controls puts you firmly in control of your digital SLR kit so you can start taking the photos you want.


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