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The Beginners Photography Guide to Digital Camera Settings

Understanding basic digital camera settings is important for anyone new to digital photography. While many people are content to simply "shoot away" in automatic mode those who want to get the most from their digital camera will become familiar with with some basic camera settings and modes so they can improve their photography and make full use of the features their camera offers.

Someone who buys an expensive digital camera or DSLR and always takes pictures in automatic mode is like someone who buys a 500HP sports car and never gets it out of first gear...They are wasting a whole lot of power!

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Whether this is your first digital camera or you have recently upgraded to a more advanced camera or DSLR understanding the digital camera settings covered in this Beginners Photography Guide will help you get more from your camera.

Don't worry you don't have master all the complexities of digital photography in order to get great photos....just understanding a few key concepts and camera settings will help immensely.

Understanding Exposure...Filling a Bucket with Water

over-exposureunder-exposureExposure is simply a term used to describe how much light is allowed to be captured by the camera's image sensor. Too much light and the picture is too white, or over exposed. Too little light and the picture is too dark, or under exposed. Just the right amount of light and you end up with  an image that is just right.


  Over Exposure           Under Exposure

There are three digital camera settings that regulate the amount of light to the image sensor and determine whether the photo will be properly exposed or not. These settings are the aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO setting. Changing one will affect the other two. In order to get the right exposure for any given situation you need to find the correct combination of these three digital camera settings.

exposure-filling-the-bucketTo help illustrate the relationship of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO picture filling a bucket with water from a hose. Aperture is the size of hose you are using...the larger the hose the more water will flow. Shutter speed is the amount of time the water valve is open allowing watter through the hose. ISO is the size of the bucket you are filling. In order to fill the bucket full with a smaller hose you would need to leave the water valve open longer. The same relationship exists in photography. In order to get the proper exposure (a full bucket) you need to leave the water valve on less (shutter speed) if you are using a large diameter hose (aperture). Understanding the importance of these three digital camera settings is the key to becoming a better photographer.

Aperture...The size of the Hose used or How big is the lens opening

Aperture is simply the variable opening in the lens that allows light to reach the image sensor. In our illustration of filling a bucket aperture represents the size of the water hose. Just as a larger hose lets more water through a larger lens opening (aperture) means more light can pass through the lens while a smaller opening means less light passes through. In photography the aperture of the lens is measured by the f/stop setting. The important thing to remember in regards to f/stops is that a larger number is actually a smaller lens opening. So an f/stop of 8 is a smaller opening than a f/stop of 4. Because f/stops represent fractions the smaller the number equals the larger the lens opening. Another important point is that increasing the f/stop one full step effectively reduces the light reaching the sensor by one half. For example changing from f/2.8 to f/4 (one full f/stop) will reduce the light amount by one half.

Click here to watch a video explaining aperture...

Shutter Speed...How long the water flows or How long the shutter is open allowing light into the image sensor.

The shutter speed is simply the length of time the camera's shutter is open allowing light to hit the image sensor. Again using the illustration of filling the bucket shutter speed represents the time the water valve is opening letting water flow into the bucket. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second such as 1/30, 1/125, 1/250, etc. The shutter speed number is often shown on the camera's display or viewfinder as simply the lower number so 1/500 of a second shows up as 500. Again because these are fractions the larger the lower number is means the less time the shutter is open. For example 1/250 of a second is half the time of 1/125 of a second. Shutter speed is very important when dealing with moving objects because the longer the shutter is open the more likely you have of getting some camera shake or motion blur.

Click here to watch a video explaining shutter speed...

ISO...How big is the bucket or how much light is needed to expose the image sensor.

ISO is a measurement of how sensitive the camera's image sensor is to light. In our illustration of filling a bucket a lower ISO number such as 100  means it takes more light to expose the image properly (bigger bucket), while a larger ISO like 800 (smaller bucket) will take less light. An important thing to keep in mind with ISO is that the more sensitive the image sensor is to light (higher ISO) the more digital noise will be amplified resulting an image that is less sharp or one that has noticeable digital noise (graininess).

Click here to watch a video explaining ISO, aperture and shutter speed...

What is a good exposure?

A good exposure is somewhat objective and depends on the mood or feeling you want the picture to convey. Sometimes a darker or "low key" photo is desirable. Other times you might want a lighter or "high key" photo. Your subject, the time of day, and many other things will determine what is the perfect exposure for your image and the desired effect. Knowing how these basic digital camera settings relate to each other is what allows you to make the necessary exposure and get that perfect exposure for your lighting conditions.

Want more information? The Exposure Triangle can help you understand the relationship of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Continue to Understanding Digital Camera Modes....



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