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Getting to know your Camera

By: Nina Boord

Maybe you own a fancy DSLR camera but you don’t know what the heck all those buttons and settings mean. Maybe you’ve been begging your parents for a fancy camera but they won’t give it to you because they think you won’t know how to use it. There must be hundreds of settings on cameras nowadays, but for a budding photographer, you only really need to know three: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. How you physically change these settings will be slightly different depending on your camera model (Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc.) but these fundamentals you’re about to learn about are all the same in every single camera, and are the secret behind every great photograph ever taken 😉

Panasonic Camera

About DSLRs

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex–but that isn’t really important. A DSLR camera is basically a digital camera (not film) that is not a point-and shoot.

The great thing about DSLRs is that they usually have an “Auto” setting where the camera controls all of the settings for you. The even better thing about DSLRs is that they have settings where you get to control the photograph you’re taking. But why bother if there’s an automatic setting? Well, I assure you, if you use these settings correctly, your photos will come out 100x better than those automatic ones and you will be able to add your own creative touch like a true photographer. If you do have a DSLR and your camera is on automatic, switch it to manual to try out these new settings. (How exactly to do that depends on the type of camera you own. If you don’t know how, you can easily look it up online or in your camera manual).


The first setting, and arguably the most important, is Aperture. When your camera takes a photo, its shutter opens and closes to capture the setting. Aperture is simply defined as the measure of how much that shutter opens up. The larger the opening, the more light shines on your photograph.

Aperture is measured in something called f-numbers, and can be confusing for beginner photographers because lower f-numbers such as f/1.8 and f/3.6 denote large openings while larger numbers such as f/16 or f/22 have smaller openings. Here’s a diagram to help you:

In other words, if your photo is too dark, you might want to open up your aperture (by decreasing the f-number). If your photo is too bright, try closing it down (by increasing the f-number).

Aperture also controls something called depth of field. The depth of field is defined by how much of your picture is in focus. A shallow depth of field refers to a picture where only close up subjects are in focus, such as a close-up photograph of a flower. A deep depth of field refers to a picture in which the entire frame (or close to it) is in focus, such as a landscape.

Larger openings result in a shallow depth of field, and smaller openings result in a deeper depth of field.

LOW F NUMBER (such as 5.6)

  • Bigger opening
  • More light
  • Shallow depth of field
  • Good for close-up photographs where you want a sharp subject and a blurred background
HIGH F NUMBER (such as 16)

  • Smaller opening
  • Less light
  • Deep depth of field
  • Good for landscapes or photographs where you want everything in focus
Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is a bit of an easier concept to grasp. It is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds and is the speed in which the shutter on your camera opens and closes to take a shot. A slow shutter speed would be approximately 1/16 of a second or slower, while a fast shutter speed would be around 1/1000 of a second. Very long shutter speeds would be around 10 to 30 seconds long. (10” with a quotation mark means 10 seconds on your camera while just 10 means 1/10 seconds). If you ever hear someone (a photographer) say “long exposure” they’re talking about a slow shutter speed. Slower shutter speeds let in more light, while quicker speeds let in less light.

Like with aperture, shutter speed controls more than just light. Shutter speed is the setting that is used to stop or show action in photos. Faster shutter speeds freeze subjects in action, while slow shutter speeds show movement with a blur effect.

You might notice that when you take photographs at night or in low lighting with your phone, they blur easily. These same rules that apply to all DSLRs also apply to your smartphone camera! So unlike aperture, you really have to be careful with shutter speed. If it’s too slow, you’ll find the entire photograph is blurry. (I’ll discuss how to prevent that later).

FAST SHUTTER SPEED (1/1000) (also called “short exposure”)

  • Less light
  • Freezes movement in time
SLOW SHUTTER SPEED (1/16 or 5”) (also called “long exposure”)

  • More light
  • Shows movement

ISO is the measure of the sensitivity of your sensor, or how much light your sensor will “absorb”. (Your sensor is the little mirror in your camera responsible for creating images). Basically, low ISOs allow for less light, while higher ISOs allow for more light. Usually, you should be shooting around ISO 400, as it is usually accepted as the average ISO for most situations.

But of course, there’s a catch: The higher up in ISO you go, the more digital noise or “grain” you get.

But what if I need more light but I don’t want my photograph to be grainy? A grainy photograph is a whole lot better than a photograph that is too dark, too bright, or too blurry because of a too-slow shutter speed. It takes about 2 seconds to fix grainy photographs on Adobe Lightroom and similar editing software, while fixing blurry photographs is near impossible–no matter what fancy editing software you use. If you’re not planning on using editing software at all, then I would suggest keeping your ISO to 1600 and below, unless of course, you want to add the grain for its artistic value (like in the black-and-white flower above).

The Golden Rule

The “Golden Rule” is one of the most (if not the most) important rule of handheld photography. It says that your shutter speed must be equal to or faster than one over your focal length. Your focal length is the measure of how much your camera is zoomed in, and can be found on the top of almost any lens you buy.

For example, if you have a focal length of 50, you must have a shutter speed equal to or faster than 1/50 or your picture will come out blurry. Think about the camera on your smartphone: the more you zoom in, the more noticeable every shake of your hand becomes. This is the same with any kind of camera, which is why larger focal lengths require faster shutter speeds. Tripods negate this rule, though, because there is no camera shake. Just remember this rule every time you are shooting on lower shutter speeds or zooming in a lot!


This seems like a lot of information to remember. But like anything, practice makes perfect. Soon, you’ll barely need to put thought into which setting to change and how much–it will just come to you–I promise!

Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO are arguably the most important settings on your camera–but even though there are many more, knowing how to manipulate these three settings to your advantage will put you on the path to becoming a pro photographer.

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