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  • Writer's pictureMark Paterson

Camera Settings = The Holy Grail of Photography

A misconception that most people have is that the camera takes the photo, and if shooting in AUTO mode, that is correct. The camera's built in sensor, and algorithm, has been programmed in to use certain settings to get a good picture. Take your mobile phone as an example. When you open your camera app, all you see is a single button to press to capture the image that is in front of you.

And while ALL cameras have that ability to decide on what settings are needed to get a good image of whatever is being taken, when you switch to MANUAL mode, it is the photographer that decides on the relevant setting for the shot. So how many things does the photographer have to think about.

Just 3.

Those settings are SHUTTER SPEED, APERTURE, and ISO. However, it is not as simple as that as each setting interacts with the others and THAT is the culmination of a good image being captured. So what does each setting do exactly. Let me explain.


This refers to the amount of time that the shutter is open and the sensor is exposed to light. With the longer the shutter is open, the more light is able to hit the sensor to record the scene. Take a tap as an example, the amount of water that is allowed to flow depends on the amount of time the tap is open. So if the tap is opened and closed quickly, not a lot of water will escape. And vice versa, if it is opened for a longer period of time, more water will escape. In this instance, the shutter determines how much light is available to the sensor.


With the aperture, this also limits the light that hits the sensor but in a different way. Essentially, the aperture is a tunnel where the light goes through to hit the sensor. A large hole will let in more light than a smaller hole. Sticking with the water theme, once you have filled your bath, for example, if you remove the plug completely, the water will be able to drain away quite quickly. Whereas, if you take the plug out a small part of the way, the water will take much longer to drain.

However, this is where it gets a little confusing with the numbering as a LARGE aperture has a SMALL number. And a SMALL aperture has a LARGE number.

(Image sourced from )


This refers to the sensitivity of the sensor and how much light it takes to record all the details of the scene. It dates back to old film cameras where you selected a "speed" of film depending on what you shot. In a bright setting you would select a low speed (ISO 100 for example), with a darker scene requiring a faster speed to capture more light (ISO 800 for example).

Think of a piece of paper (which is sensitive) you apply a little pressure to make a mark on the sheet. Whereas if you use a brick, you need to a lot more pressure to be able to make a mark in the surface.

So if the Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO all control light in some shape of form, it is only by the right combination of all three that you get a balanced image. One in which you can see all the tones ranging from Black to White and the details will also be visable. It's only be experimenting in those different scenarios can you then start to build up the skills needed to be able to master your camera.

In my next post, I'll be explaining one of the tools of the camera that enables me to decide if the settings I have are correct. That is a LIGHT METER. And that is at the heart of what a photographer does. He, or she, is a master of capturing the light of any setting.

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