Photography Tips: Camera Functionality


I remember the day my first DSLR camera arrived at my doorstep and when I held it in my hands I was so intimidated with all the controls and features. Luckily I had the opportunity to start photography school a few weeks later and learned what I needed to know in order to find my creative voice. This post is an introduction to your camera’s functionality and my goal is to help move you from Auto Mode to Manual Mode. The best part about a digital camera is that you can review the image on the back LCD and delete if it wasn’t what you intended. It’s ok to make mistakes and with continued practice you will build your confidence. Even after six years I am still perfecting my techniques and skills to be a better photographer. I don’t think that ever goes away, especially with the way technology is influencing the industry.

After reading this post I want you to be comfortable enough to pick up your camera and start practicing manual modes. With that in mind I’m going to concentrate on AV (A) Aperture Priority Mode and answer the questions, what is aperture? What is Shutter Speed? How do they work together? ISO is another major element in how you shoot and I will cover this topic in more detail when I discuss Light in December.


* Manual Modes:

A (auto): In the auto setting the camera is making all the decisions for you. Yes, you will take some nice images, but all the creative power exists in the manual modes.

Tv (S): Shutter Priority Mode is when you choose your shutter speed and the aperture adjusts accordingly based on the amount of light available using the camera’s built in light meter. For example, I set the S to 250th to stop the action of my subject and the aperture will adjust based on the light on my subject.

Av (A): Aperture Priority Mode is when you choose your aperture, also called the “f-stop” number and the shutter speed adjusts accordingly based on the amount of light available using the camera’s built in light meter. For example, I set the camera to an aperture of f-2.8 and my shutter speed adjusts based on my light of the subject.

M: Full manual mode. You are choosing the aperture, shutter speed and ISO to create the image.

* Aperture: Controls the Depth of Field, ie how much of the image that is in or out of focus.

* Shutter Speed: Is the speed in which the “door” (shutter) in front of the camera sensor opens to allow light into the sensor to properly expose the image.

* ISO: A number that controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is going to be to the available light. So if you are in a low light environment the sensitivity needs to be high.

What is Aperture?

So now that each mode is defined, how do they all really work? Most of the time I shoot in AV (A) mode. I like to control my Depth of Field (DOF), which means controlling what is IN or OUT of focus behind my subject. 

What is Shutter Speed?

Think about the camera having a door (shutter) in front of the sensor and the speed at which the door opens is the shutter speed. Depending on which shutter speed the camera is shooting at is allowing a certain amount of light in to expose the image properly. Here’s an example: If I’m photographing a child walking/running outdoors I will often set my aperture to f-2.8 since I know I will have the fastest shutter speed in the outdoor light. At f-2.8 I’m also letting in the most amount of light into the camera, so the shutter doesn’t have to open long to properly expose the shot.

When thinking about shutter speed I think about the need to “stop action”. Based on what I am shooting determines how fast I need the shutter speed. The higher the shutter speed number the more the action will be stopped in the image. Another important piece of information you will need to determine is how low of a shutter speed you can “hand hold” (don’t need a tripod) and still capture a sharp image. I can hand hold as low as 1/60th shutter speed, which is a common number. This is helpful when shooting in a low light environment.

So how do aperture and shutter speed work with each other?

The lower the number aperture (f-1.4, f-2.0, f-2.8) the more light is being let into the camera. If you set your AV mode to these various apertures (your lens model will determine how low you can go) you can see how your shutter speed reacts. If you are not in a low light environment such as outdoors, your shutter speed numbers should be pretty high.


Here is my brief comment on ISO as it relates to Aperture and Shutter Speed. You will read a lot about a camera’s ISO performance and how high the ISO number will go. For example, the most expensive Canon DSLR camera, the 1D-X, has an ISO range of 100-51,000. This information translates to how a camera performs in a low light environment. When you are shooting outdoors during the day, you have plenty of light so your ISO could be as low as possible, for example 100 or 125 and you don’t have to adjust further. It’s when you are indoors and/or outdoors with low light that ISO really comes into play. The higher the aperture number, the less light is being let into the camera so the shutter speed has to stay open longer to expose the image properly. You can adjust the ISO to a higher number (making your sensor more sensitive to the light) and your shutter speed will increase to a more manageable rate to create a sharp image. Keep in mind that as you reach higher ISOs, your images will appear pixelated. For the videos I created above I set my ISO to 2000, since I was indoors. My camera was on a tripod because I knew when I reached higher apertures my shutter speed was going to drop well below my “hand hold” limit of a 1/60th. Without the tripod I would not have captured a sharp image.

To give you an example (and starting point) of how to adjust your settings for indoor and outdoor photography, let's take a look at two examples.  For the photo below of a child in motion indoors, my settings were: AV mode //  Aperature f2.8 // ISO 6400 (natural light, would be lower # if more light) // Shutter Speed 1/320


For the photo below of children running outdoors, my settings were: AV mode // Aperature f3.5 (more than one kid so I didn't have it on 2.8) // ISO 250 // Shutter Speed 1/1600


There is a lot of information to digest in this post, but mastering the manual modes will tap into your creative voice and improve your overall photography. My last tip for this camera functionality post is to research local photography classes. Many art schools and camera organizations will have half and full day classes on various aspects of beginning photography. Not only do you meet others in the beginning phase of photography, but it also forces you to practice and break out of auto mode. Have fun and keep shooting!

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