Basic Photography – ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed

Main image for blog

You have probably heard about them before: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. The three ways to adjust your settings and take your photography skills to the next level. When I first learned about these tools I got completely confused. In the beginning it seems like a lot of information and it isn’t making any sense. However, this blog will help you to understand each element to the core and how you can use them on your camera. The only thing you need is to set your camera on the M (manual) mode.

ISO

Let’s start with the easy one. The use of the ISO is basically to make your photo lighter or darker. Most cameras have the option to go from a 100 ISO up until a 1000 or even higher. The higher the number, the lighter your image will get. This can be handy for taking pictures inside, where there isn’t much light. The only big downside is the quality loss. When you bump up the number, the image will get less sharp and grainy. For that reason it would be best to keep your ISO as low as possible, giving you the highest change of a nice and sharp looking image. 

What is the best ISO to use?

The lower the better, in my opinion. I must add that the latest cameras have improved their ISO a lot, which gives you the possibility to use higher numbers without getting too much grain. For that reason, it will be a lot easier to take photos in low light situations without getting too much noise.  You can test this with your camera as well. Take a picture and higher the ISO a bit, take another picture and keep going until you see a lot of grain. On your computer you can compare the pictures and see when the grain starts to be too noticeable. The image with the guitar below is a good example of a bad photo. The ISO is set way too high and you can clearly see the grain appearing.

bad photo example with a too high iso

Shutter speed

It’s all in the name. You can adjust the speed of the shutter. Let your camera know how fast the picture must be taken. You can compare the shutter with the blinking of your eyes. The quicker you blink, the less time light has to reach the eyes and reveal the image. Regularly you can choose between 30’’ to 1/4000, but this varies per camera. 30’’ is a full 30 seconds and 1/4000 is a 4000th of a second. The slower the shutter speed, the more time the sensor has to catch all the light and can overexpose your image. If there is movement in the photo or even the subtle movements of the camera can already affect the sharpness of the image. While a fast shutter will be sharper and darker with less time for light to get in.  

What is the best shutter speed to use?

This totally depends on the situation you’re taking pictures in. If you’re taking pictures of action, like car races or football. You need to be quick and your camera as well, to create these sharp freeze frames. Therefore, you’ll need a fast shutter speed.

If you want flowy waterfalls, a night sky full of starts or car light stripes across your photo, you most definitely use a longer shutter speed. Some cameras also come with a ‘bulb’ function in which you can decide how long the shutter stays open to let light in.

There are a lot of examples around on the internet to give you an indication on how high or low you need to set your shutter speed in different situations. But I would certainly recommend you to try it out for yourself and experiment. That will be the quickest and most fun way to learn.

Aperture

The aperture sits inside the lens and controls how much light is allowed to enter the camera. With a low number, more light will get in. With a high number, less light will get in.  Most lenses can range somewhere between 1.8 to 32. Now here it can get a little tricky. When you set your aperture really low, for example 1.8, the photo will become really light. Also, the depth of field is influenced by this. A shallow depth of field is when only one specific part in the photo is sharp and the rest is out of focus. This can create beautiful images, but it can be more difficult to keep the focus right. The higher you set your aperture, the more in focus and darker everything gets. When you understand these basics, you can try it out and experiment how this works for your camera and lens.

What is the best aperture to use?

Again this depends on the situation. Most photographers like to set their aperture low to create a nice depth of field. This effect works really nice with Macro photography or portraits. Landscape photographers rather work with higher apertures to make sure everything stays in focus.

Shallow depth of field

How to balance out all settings?

Now you understand how each individual setting works you can experiment with bringing them together. When I set my camera to take a picture, these are the steps I walk through:

  • Setting the ISO at a 100 to start with.
  • Dialing my aperture to a low number if I’m taking a macro photo.
  • Decide on my shutter speed depending on the subject I’m photographing.
  • Take a few test photos to see how the lighting looks and depending on the result I can always adjust the settings until I get the result I want. 
Extra tips

It could happen that all the settings are adjusted to get the maximum quality out of the situation but the image is still too dark. In that case you need to add more lights and brighten it up. It is better to have a location with good lighting instead of trying to fix it in your camera of even worse, in Photoshop.

One more thing I can advice you to invest in, is a good lens. There are hundreds of lenses from different brands with price ranches from affordable to through the roof. Spend some time researching which lens you’ll need and it will give you more freedom in your camera settings as well! It’s better to get an amazing lens and have an average camera body than the other way around.

If you’re interested to understand more about lenses, check out my Macro lens review by clicking here. And for more photography inspiration click here.


I hope this blog helped you to understand the basic settings of your camera. There are a lot more settings we could dive in to. But for now try to experiment with these and let me know in the comments how it goes.