Camera Settings Simplified on a DSLR

Before I begin, I just want to warn you of my Nikon bias. Although I’ve previously owned Sonys and used a number of Canons, my preference is now Nikon. To be honest, it’s not because I think Nikons are better, it’s more to do with the choice of lenses and lens compatibility with different models in the Nikon range. Being a wedding photographer, I’ve found that I can save so much money by reusing my lenses on the newer Nikon models.

photography dslr basics

“Live to Learn Photography Workshop” captured by Bhuwan Maharjan

Keep It Simple Stupid. I heard this phrase many years ago during a “how to communicate” training session whilst working at a major telco in the UK (I’ll not mention names for fear of reprisals—I joke of course). At the time I remember thinking what an absurd statement. After years working in a training environment I realized the biggest gripe from trainees and potential learners was how complicated people made things. I soon realized that I didn’t need to use long-winded fancy words and sentences to demonstrate things, so I went about changing my training and writing styles.

I know there are oodles of articles out there on camera settings. The one thing that most of them have in common is the complex language used to describe what each of the settings do. When I was starting in photography I came across the same barriers as you: a mass of complexity with no clear, simple guidance. All I wanted was some basic guidance on what the settings meant and what each one did. I also wanted to know how each of the settings impacted the other settings of my camera.

By reaching this article, I’ll assume that you want to really get to know your camera. So, what I won’t do is go through the “amateur” settings, such as the scene modes and the (green camera) Auto setting. Although these settings are really good when you have ideal photo conditions, I’m sure by now you’ll have realized that you want to use your camera to its fullest potential.

Moving swiftly on, I’ll now take you through the main settings on your DSLR camera.

P (Program Mode)

If you’ve only ever used your camera’s Auto mode, you’ll find that the P mode is one step up. Although your camera will still intelligently control the majority of the settings you’ll now have full control over your flash, ISO (sensitivity to light), and white balance.

  1. Flash. Exactly what it says on the tin. You’ll be able to switch the flash on or off and also increase or decrease the flash output. If the lighting conditions are too dark, you’ll be able to increase the flash output to get better exposed shots. On the flip-side, you’ll be able to decrease the flash output when the lighting conditions are a bit better.
  2. ISO. When you don’t have much available light to work with or you don’t want to use the flash for fear of over exposing your shot (or your subject is some distance away) you can modify your ISO settings. By increasing your ISO you tell your camera to “boost” the available light, similar to how a phone signal repeater boosts your phone signal.
  3. White balance. White balance comes in really handy when shooting indoors, especially when you have weird lighting. The white balance setting allows you to select from a pre-set list to compensate for the weird lighting. You can select from different settings, such as cloudy, shade, etc. If you’re feeling really adventurous you can go for manual white balance, which lets you tell the camera what white really is by using a white card. As this is quite an advanced setting, I won’t go into it in this article.

S (Shutter Priority)

What is the shutter? The easiest way to describe the shutter is to think of it as your eyes. Imagine that your closed eye is the camera’s sensor. Now if you wanted to let a lot of light into your eye (the camera’s sensor) you would open your eyes for 5 seconds, for example, and this would let enough light into your eyes to expose your image. If however you wanted less light, you would open them for only 1 second. Your camera’s shutter works in a similar way. Your camera’s shutter speed (how long your eyes are open for) is measured in fractions of a second. If you’re trying to take a photo in low light conditions you’ll need to decrease the shutter speed (open your eyes for longer) which means that it will stay open as long as possible to properly expose your shot.

The Shutter Priority setting allows you to control the shutter speed and lets your camera control the other settings (apart from flash, ISO, and white balance).

A (Aperture Priority)

Aperture works hand in hand with your camera’s shutter setting. Using the same analogy, if you open your eyes fully they let in the maximum amount of light possible and as you start to close them they take in less and less light. By controlling the aperture setting you can control how much light gets to the sensor to help you properly expose your shot.

M (Manual)

The Manual mode is the most advanced setting on your camera. It gives you full control of your camera settings. When you have mastered the other settings then the only thing left is to master this one.

What this setting allows you to do is mess about with the aperture, shutter, ISO, and all the other settings independently to give you truly professional results, if you know how to use them, of course. A word of warning though, you’d better really make sure you know all your camera settings before you try this. It took me many years to master.

About the Author:
Mo Azam is a professional photographer (iamfoto dot co dot uk) based in the UK.

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2 responses to “Camera Settings Simplified on a DSLR”

  1. Ted Fines says:

    You doing things backwards. I teach beginners and I am convinced (after years of preaching) that teaching the basics of manual shooting first is the hardest way but it’s the best way! I don;t like to even talk about using the ‘P’ mode except that it doesn’t stand for ‘Professional’.

  2. Mo Azam says:

    Ted – I understand what you’re saying but people learn in different ways. For example, the way I learnt was to be thrown in at the deep end not knowing any of the basics and having to work it out for myself. I then went and learnt what all the settings did and how they worked together. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way.

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