Camera Settings

If you are like most of us, you have a digital camera and have taken lots of photos at family gatherings that have turned out just fine when it’s set to Auto. Sometimes there’s a problem with harsh contrast in bright light and red-eye when the flash is used, but mostly it stays set on Auto. Why would you use the other settings? What exactly is Tv or Av? And then, depending on your camera, there’s P, M and A-Dep. What are they and when would you use them?

That’s what this tutorial is about. Once you take your camera off Auto, you’ll never set it there again. These priority camera settings give you control over various settings while keeping others on automatic to ensure good images. Here’s a quick rundown of what all these other settings do and when you would use them.

Step One: Understand how images are made

Images are created by exposing media to a specific amount of light (Exposure). We control the light by how big the opening is (Aperture), how long we leave it open (Shutter Speed) and how fast the media reacts to light (ISO). That’s it. With this knowledge, you can start shooting technically perfect photos and then you can start breaking rules to create art with your photographs.

Step Two: Play and Experiment

Camera Settings for Quick Response in Shifting Light - Before the Wave

P means Program mode. This is only slightly different from Auto but it does give you control over the ISO settings. When would you use it? You are taking some interesting urban shots like doorways, alleyways, graffiti or old warehouses – that sort of thing – and the light situations are different but you don’t have a lot of time to take the shot. You are including people in street scenes so you will need to act fast. This is when P or Program mode is most valuable. It’s almost automatic but lets you select the film speed.  Sometimes I use P as my camera’s default setting so I can grab an image fast.

Flower After the Rain - Winnipeg MB

Av or A means Aperture Priority.You have total control over the size of the opening that admits light. When would you choose this? When you want control over depth of field. Suppose there is a gorgeous flower you want to set apart from the mass of colorful plants around it. Switch your camera to Av and set the aperture very low. Now things close to your camera will be sharp and the background will be blurry. Perhaps you are taking a landscape shot and want a tree that is relatively close to you in focus as well as the sweep of the beach behind it. Use Av and set it for 11 or above to keep everything in focus. What you are controlling with this is depth of field (DOF). The flower was shot with a 105-mm lens at ISO 200, F5.6, shutter speed 1/6.

You can also try something a little different on a beach. Set up your tripod, use Tv mode, and slow your shutter speed. Moving subjects like waves soften in focus while the rocks and beach are sharp.

Photoshop Trick to Resize Photos for Web - Fig.12

Tv or S means Shutter Priority. You have total control over your shutter speed which means you can control how movement is treated.

When would you use this? Let’s suppose you are in a park and see a bear with cubs. Set your camera to Tv mode and select a high speed to capture a crisp image of the bears as they move. Be sure and change to manual focus for this shot or the camera may focus on the wrong thing, like the grass in the foreground, and ruin an otherwise great shot.

The fox cub photo was taken at dusk in Tv mode with a 300-mm lens and the camera set at ISO 400, F5.6, shutter speed 1/100. It’s a fairly shallow depth of field but it worked fine with the subject and allowed me to keep the ISO as low as possible and still get a shutter speed that would work with the easy-going motion of the fox. If he had moved more quickly, this photo would be blurry at these settings.

Once you start playing with these camera settings, it becomes addictive. You can create art with any simple point and shoot camera or even a simple pinhole camera you make yourself. Great work doesn’t depend on equipment. It depends on who is using the equipment.

One more important note:

Camera Settings for Film Grain
Sheep Family - Higher ISO for Grain that Works

Depending on the light situation, you may want to adjust your ISO or ‘film speed’. Working with an ISO of 100 or less will give you very crisp, clear images with no noticeable grain or noise.

Higher ISO settings will allow you to capture more detail in low light situations or to freeze motion more easily.

The trade off is an image with more grain or noise and this increases as you increase the ISO.

Don’t let this stop you from cranking it up when you need to – noise or grain can be used to advantage, especially in black and white photography.

In fact, it’s often deliberately added to digital images to more closely replicate the look of film. I’ll be covering more in that area in the black & white photography articles.

Taking it to the streets:

Pay attention to the laws where you are shooting. In some places like Quebec, Canada you can’t take photos of anyone without permission, even if their back is to the camera. In the U.S. and in the rest of Canada, photography in publicly owned places is fine and you need no permission but take care when minors are in the shot.

If your photo is for publication, most magazines and newspapers will not touch a photograph with minor children without parental consent. When traveling, check to see what the rules are in that particular country before you start shooting (or they do).

If you want to capture a shot of a particularly interesting person as may happen when you’re traveling or shooting an urban documentary, even if they are on a public street, get permission first. It makes everyone more comfortable.


Canada Day in Osborne Village, Winnipeg MB
Canada Day in Osborne Village, Winnipeg MB

If you are planning to sell your photos, it is deemed commercial use. In this case, you must have signed model releases for every identifiable person in the shot, even if it’s you. You never know when that perfect photo might present itself so having some release forms with you in your camera bag is not a bad idea. You can download forms from the web or create your own.

If you are using a telephoto lens you may find people in general are less comfortable. You may also experience issues in public places when you set up a tripod. Many areas even have signs posted prohibiting their use. One way around it is to use a mono-pod. It will steady your camera and the security guard may allow it because it doesn’t pose the same insurance issue. Security guards are often very accommodating and can point you in the direction of even better vantage points. Have fun!

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