DSLR Camera Settings: The Complete Guide

Get comfortable with your DSLR camera's settings from aperture to lighting.

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Ready to get more creative with your photography? At first, having a digital or analog SLR camera is an exhilarating and intimidating experience. Most beginners play it safe with the automatic modes, but if you’re looking to step up your photography game it might be time to switch to the manual settings. Not only will you see a difference in the quality of shots, you will also have more creative control over the outcomes. In this guide, you will learn about the tools you need to get set up, various photography terms and how to put all the information together to get the shot that you want. No filter needed.

First, knowing how you want the shot to look is key to getting your desired results. This guide will provide you with a little introduction to all the things that go into making a beautiful shot.


How to get set up


An important part of upping your photography skills is learning how to master lighting. Flash photography can be useful in certain settings, such as when you’re indoors in low light or when you want your image to have a high-contrast look. On the other hand, natural lighting produces more subtle results.

Whether or not you can shoot with just natural light is highly dependent on the time of day, whether you are indoors or outdoors, and where the light source is situated in comparison with the subject. Is the sun behind you or is it the very subject you are shooting? These are important things to think about before you turn on your camera or position your subjects.


Where you are will greatly affect how your photo turns out. If you are inside a low-lit home or outdoors midday, you will have to adjust your manual settings accordingly. If you are using an analog SLR, you will also have to think about the ISO of the film that you are using. 400 ISO is typically the standard film available at most shops, and will work in most settings that aren’t too brightly or dimly lit. 200 ISO is better for brighter conditions and an ISO of 400 or above is better for darker conditions. This is an important thing to think about when purchasing your film.

Lenses and tripods

Using a SLR doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Depending on the brand, many entry-level digital SLR packages come with an 18-55mm kit lens, which is great to start out with. When it comes to analog SLRs, depending on what make and model you buy, check out which lens is being offered with it. If you have an analog SLR, the lens that comes with it is likely to be a 50mm. For example, a Minolta X-700 camera fitted with a 50mm/f1.7 lens offers incredible depth-of-field and allows you to take photographs in lower lighting. The low f-stop means you can have a higher depth-of-field with a sharp image at the center and a blurred background, creating a dramatic effect.

The difference between these two lenses is that the 18-55mm is a zoom lens, while the 50mm is a prime lens. A zoom lens allows you to zoom in, capturing multiple focal lengths without changing lenses. A prime lens is fixed, meaning that you can’t zoom in with it, and will only be able to capture one focal length. To get a closer shot, you would have to change the lens.

If you’d like to move past the kit lens, you will have to decide on whether you would like another zoom lens or to try a prime lens. Both have positive and negative aspects for photographers. Keep in mind that you can’t necessarily use one lens on both an analog and digital SLR. There are some ways to retrofit old lenses onto new cameras, but they might need to be the same brand, and you may lose some important technical tools, like the light meter.

Another piece of equipment you’ll want to consider using is a tripod, especially if your camera doesn’t compensate for slight movements. Using a tripod will ensure a crisper and cleaner image.

Analog equipment

For analog photographers, the type of film and brand you choose will affect your photographs. 35mm film typically comes in black and white or color negative. The most common brands to choose from are Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford, but there are others.

The most common 35mm film is measured in ISO, or speed, ranging from 100 to 3200. Each speed will create a different effect. Higher ISOs are best used in lower light, while lower ISOs are better for brightly lit interiors or full sun outdoors. A standard speed to start off with would be ISO 400, which can be used indoors and outdoors with adjustments to your settings. Once you’ve mastered one film ISO, you will want to experiment with others.


Basic photography settings

Now we’ll move on to the technical settings of your SLR. Once you have everything you need to take a photo, like proper lighting, setting and equipment, it’s time to start using the manual settings on your camera to create the desired effect.


The aperture consists of small blades in the lens that create an adjustable, octagonal shape. It tells you how big the hole is in your lens. The smaller the hole is, the less light passes through it. The wider the hole is, the more light will enter your lens. It’s best to think of the aperture as a pupil that can be controlled by you. The aperture is measured by your f-stop. The higher the f-stop (f22), the smaller the hole and the darker your image will be.

The f-stop also measures the depth of field. A lower f-stop (f2.8) will give you more depth to your image. For example, if you are taking a photo of a person and would like the background to be a bit blurry, you would choose a low f-stop. If you are taking a picture of beautiful scenery, you would want a higher f-stop to make sure everything is in focus.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed tells you the amount of time the camera will be exposed to light. The duration of time is shown in a fraction of seconds, for example it could be 1/2-second or 1/200 second. A speed of 1/200-second is faster than 1/2-second. Using a faster speed means the image will be darker. If you would like to lighten the image, use a slower shutter speed. However, a faster shutter speed will catch a frame of movement. For example, if you want to capture a still of someone running, you will want a faster shutter speed.


The ISO is a control within the camera that will affect the exposure. A high ISO will yield a brighter image, but it could also create a grainier, or noisy, image. For example, setting your camera to ISO 1600 will lighten the image and make it noisier. If you are using ISO 400, the images will be sharper and darker. If you are using an analog SLR, consider matching the ISO on your camera to the ISO of your film. It will help when you are light metering your image.

On SLR cameras, there are creative modes that give you slight control over a few of the settings. The two common ones that photographers use are shutter priority and aperture priority. Shutter priority means you have control over the shutter speed and ISO whereas aperture priority gives you control over aperture and ISO. The camera will adjust the aperture and shutter speed, respectively, for the best exposure.


Putting it all together

After you have input your settings, your light meter will indicate what adjustments you will need to make before taking your shot.

Light meter

The light meter is a tool used to gauge your manual settings. If the light meter reads “0″, it means that there is enough light to capture your image. It also indicates that your image should be well-balanced. If your light meter reads negative, it means the image will be underexposed, or too dark. A light meter that reads positive will mean the image will be overexposed, or too light. You can adjust the different settings on your camera to pull the meter to zero.

When you are ready to shoot in manual mode, here is one way to go through your settings. Choose the ISO that would best work for your lighting conditions. If you are in a darker space or indoors, choose a higher ISO. Second, decide if depth of field or motion is more important. If you choose depth of field, you will need to adjust your aperture before you compensate with the appropriate shutter speed; vice versa for motion. Make slight adjustments based on the results.

There are a couple of tricks to use when trying to find the right balance for an image. For a medium level of ISO sensitivity, the shutter speed and aperture can be in the middle also. However, if you use a high ISO sensitivity, a faster shutter speed means you should make your aperture larger (low f-stop) and a slow shutter speed means you should make your aperture smaller (high f-stop).

Trial and error

The best way to learn more about your manual settings is to try different combinations. Using everything you’ve learned above, set up your SLR and take different shots of the same thing using different settings. Keep a log of the results so you can track which settings worked the best for different scenarios. Using these techniques, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the technical challenges of photography.

More photography resources:
Best Free Online Courses and Tutorials for Photographers
A Beginner’s Guide to Buying the Right Photography Equipment
8 Common Beginner Photography Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

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