Cameras 101

Photography at its core is the act of capturing light, everything that a camera does is for this purpose and giving you a representation in the form of a photograph. The main points everyone is instructed all help with increasing or decreasing the amount of light that is captured, these terms/features are the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. They each have their own additional aspects of photography than just increasing or decreasing light, which is where knowing what they each do for their secondary aspects you can trade off settings to get your desired outcome.  Depending on the natural lighting around your subject means you will always be adjusting these settings, so there is no set it and forget it when it comes to cameras and photographs.

Crash Course of Camera Basics

A quick crash course in photography is best when you have a camera to work with that allows you to change the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO settings manually.  Many higher end smart phones will have a “Pro” or manual settings in their camera apps.  While some budget entry smart phones might have this, it is usually only on the higher end models.  If you don’t have a smart phone that allows manual control of these settings, then any DSLR with a removable lens mount system will have all these settings at your fingertips. Without a camera, a theoretical knowledge is explained, but nothing will replace actually seeing the difference when you are changing settings in person.

Click below for explanations of the terms and effects they have.

We’re starting with shutter speed, because it’s usually a lot easier for people to understand the concept and what it does.  Shutters can be set anywhere from 1/8000th of a second to 20+ seconds for the shutter speed.  This is the amount of time that the camera captures light.  The shorter the amount of time, the less light, and the longer the shutter is open, the more light is captured. Each doubling or halving the number increases or decreases your exposure by 1 stop, this is an important thing to keep in mind when referencing the later sections.

Other than increasing/decreasing the amount of time that light is captured for a photo using the shutter speed, you should hopefully have understood what the secondary effect this has.  The secondary effect is the amount of motion (motion blur) that is in your photo. A 1/8000th of a second photo will only capture a tiny amount of light, and freeze/show what it sees.  Likewise a 2 second shutter speed will capture a lot of motion (motion blur) in the photograph. Take for example a flying hummingbird feeding or hovering.  At higher (quicker) shutter speeds, your will freeze the wing in time and it will look completely still, while at lower (slower) shutter speeds, the wing will look blurred. This is just talking about this secondary effect, the photo’s brightness will be much different as well.

Burning Tango 1-60 Second Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed
1/60 of a second

Burning Tango 1 Second Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed
1 second

Depending on your subject and your goal, you’ll want to play around with shutter speeds. For Tango dancing, it depends on the tempo of the song and movement if the dancers. You can get away with as slow as 1/60th of a second for the shutter speed if it’s a slow dance or a pause in the dancers movements, but I often find myself wanting around 1/200th of a second shutter to freeze motion enough.  Any higher (faster) and you might be sacrificing more light than you need to freeze the moment you’re trying to capture. Likewise if you’re trying for some fun movement and motion to be captured on purpose, 1/2 second or longer shutter speeds would be suggested.

Knowing your minimums or ideal ranges gives you more knowledge on if you can adjust the shutter speed for increasing or decreasing the light coming into your camera. If it’s really dark naturally, but I know I need to keep my shutter at least 1/200th of a second, or faster, then if it’s still dark when I’m at 1/200th of a second, I have to use the other methods below to capture more light.

Likewise if take a photo at 1/200th of a second and it’s really bright, I know I can make the shutter speed faster to get the same effect but to have my picture become darker. I know I have that allowance if I need it, but I’d still rather make changes on my other settings to what I want, knowing I can compensate safely using my shutter speed.

Aperture is a harder concept to understand, and even harder to understand if you’re using a phone or basic camera lenses. Aperture is referred to as F-Stops or T-Stops in the video world at times. The lower the F-Stop, the more light you’re letting into the camera. So most photographers when photographing subjects, usually want the lowest number, right?  In theory, yes, if you’re needing more light, the lower the F-Stop, the more light, but now we need to understand the secondary effect that a lower Aperture number does to the photograph.

The lower the F-Stop, is also referred as how fast a lens is.  An F1.2 Lens is much “faster” than an F4 lens, which can be a difficult idea coming from shutter speed, where a faster shutter speed means less light, but faster in aperture means more light. Usually a faster lens, is a more expensive lens, like how faster cars are usually more expensive cars.

The secondary effect that a lower F-Stop umber has (outside of allowing in more light), is it can drastically change the depth of field of what is in focus. If I’m taking a photo of a landscape, I may want all of the photo in focus, so a higher F-Stop Number will accomplish this better than a lower number. There is more when it comes to what causes a change in the depth of field than just the F-Number, but the lower the number, the narrower the depth of field will be.  The lens length in mm and distance from the subject also matters in this effect, so an F1.4 24mm Lens will perform differently than an F1.4 85mm lens, but will also be drastically different on a cell phone, an crop sensor DSLR, or a medium format mirrorless camera.

If you want everything you see in focus, a higher F-Number is suggested, while if you want everything to have a nice blurred (bokeh effect), then a lower F-Number is suggested. Cameras do have auto focus systems, and the lower the number the harder it is to keep focus on such a small range, so it’s much more likely at lower F-Stops that you might not take a picture that is in focus as often.

Due to the nature of Cell Phones, even if they advertise a low F1.2 for their camera, due to the size of the sensor and angle of the lens, cell phones wont have much bokeh. Instead cell phones now have portrait mode which does post processing for acquiring the depth of field effect.

For most people, the lower the F-Stop, the better. Landscapes, around F8. Individual portraits, F1.2 to F2.8. Group Portraits, F3.5 to F5.6 depending on the number of people.  You can shoot everything at F1.4, but I’ve found with couples or groups, only one person may be in focus while others aren’t, when you instead want everyone to be in focus. If you’re using a wider lens, you can get away with a lower F-Stop than with a zoom, as the depth of field range is much wider than with a telephoto lens.

Fair warning, details about ISO is more complex to explain than shutter speed or aperture.

When  people bring up ISO, it has to do with how sensitive film was to light.  The lower the ISO, the more light it took for the film to react to create an image on it.  Now using the shutter speed you’re wanting, aperture (depth of field) you want, and amount of natural light, you choose your film according to its ISO rating to get a properly exposed photo.  The ISO rating is due in part by how big the particles were that reacted to light. The smaller the particles, the higher the number of them were required, and the amount of light required was higher. As the particles grew in size, you didn’t have as many, and so the ISO rating was also increased (considered “faster” as it didn’t require as much light to expose the photo). Light meters were helpful (or just experience) to figure out what ISO you needed in your environment with the other settings you choose to get a good exposure in the photo.

Digital cameras don’t have particles, but instead have electrical gain and standards that pretty much match previous film ISO. So When you increase the ISO in a digital camera, you’re increasing gain to “brighten the image”.

But why wouldn’t you just use the higher ISO film or setting in your digital camera?  Well, the effect between film and digital is similar but not exactly the same, but the premise is the same.

Lets take film, the smaller and more plentiful the particles, the lower the ISO.  Now if you’re using ISO 100, with some of the smallest particles, you require a lot of light, but you’ll get a much more detailed photo as there are many extra particles/dots in the frame. You can almost consider it like increasing the number of pixels or dots in the photo. The more there are, the more details you get, and the more uniform the dots are. If you use a higher ISO in film and take a photo, you’ll more likely to see the individual particles as they are bigger and not as many. This is the actual physical difference between the different ISO rated films, the grain.  Lower ISO, the less grain, but higher ISO, the bigger and more prominent the grain is.

Digital Cameras don’t have different size grain as it’s a fixed size sensor.  Instead of actual grain like you get in film, increasing the ISO (increasing the gain, not grain) creates noise.  Many people might have a better understanding of noise when it comes to audio capturing than photography/videography. The higher the gain when capturing audio, the louder things become, but you’ll also start to get artifacts that sound like static. The same happens with photography and a digital camera, but instead of calling it gain, they just kept with the film standards calling it ISO.

So the higher your ISO, the more noise you’ll get in your photo. The more expensive a digital camera, it usually has a better ISO performance at higher ISO levels with less noise at the same setting as cheaper/older models.

You are able to fix some of the noise in post production if you wish, but it will lower the details overall to help with removing/smoothing out the noise.

One of my favorite tools when comparing ISO and noise between cameras, is using the image comparison tool from DP Review at:

You can select multiple cameras, select RAW processing (not JPG) and set their ISO setting, and you can see a large difference between quality of noise between cameras at the same settings.

When it comes to how to utilize this in your digital camera, there is a lot of personal preference. I personally have a maximum ISO for my camera that I find acceptable and don’t go above it no matter what. My limits for the Nikon D5600 is ISO 3200/4000, Nikon D750 at 6400/8000, and my Nikon Z6II at ~12800.

In low light settings:
Set a certain shutter speed and aperture setting, then I start at ISO 100 in my camera, and can raise that until I get a good exposure.

Freezing Tango Dancers:
Shutter: ~1/100th of a Second | Aperture: F1.4-F2.8 (depends on lens) | ISO: Whatever it takes to get a good exposure (up to my maximum)

Realistically, I have some wiggle room in all the settings, but knowing how they work together I can adjust each accordingly.

The Triangle & “Stops” of Light

The combination of the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO, is considered the Exposure Triangle. You use these three settings to get your exposure just right for your photograph.  When using these settings, you’ll hear people talking about adding or removing stops. A single “stop” is a doubling or halving of a setting.  If I’m increasing my ISO by 2 stops, I’m doubling it twice.  If I’m at ISO setting 100, but need to increase the light by 2 stops, then my new ISO setting should be 400.

Aperture is the only setting that stops are not direct doubling or halving the number, but you are limited to total number of stops and settings. For aperture, the stops go like the following:

f/1.4 | f/2 | f/2.8 | f/4 | f/5.6 | f/8 | f/11 | f/16

Due to the more limiting factor and how there is math behind the aperture settings, most people just memorize the main numbers to know where the main stops are.

Burning Tango 1-60 Second Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed
1/60 of a second

Burning Tango 1 Second Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed
1 second

So how do knowing stops help you?  Let’s look at a photo and it’s settings.

F/4 | 1/1000th Shutter | ISO 3200

These settings here are something that is you set your camera to auto settings, it might actually use to take the picture.  Now the photo itself is considered very well exposed and looks good. But the actual quality of the photo isn’t as good as it could be. How so? Well, let’s ask what we’re trying to acomplish with the photo.  This is a standard looking headshot, there is little to no movement to freeze, so you have a few stops extra in both your shutter and your ISO, and possibly even in your aperture to change to get the exact same brightness outcome, but better quality of noise from a lower ISO or a different/preferred depth of field. Most people will just take a snapshot picture and be happy, but since you’re here, we’re going to try and get the good photo and understand stops better.

F/4 | 1/1000th Shutter | ISO 3200
F/4 | 1/500th Shutter | ISO 1600
F/4 | 1/250th Shutter | ISO 800
F/2.8 | 1/250th Shutter | ISO 400
F/2 | 1/250th Shutter | ISO 200
F/1.4 | 1/250th Shutter | ISO 100

All the above settings will make the photo be properly exposed in the same way. The ISO is lowering at each step to improve the photos quality and reduces the noise. Now I kept the shutter only to 1/250th of a second, but could have gone down to 1/125th of a second  if I chose to.  My lens is an F/1.4, so I could go that low, some lenses only go to F/2.8 or sometimes F/4, so you might not have the ability to change it. So by simply changing the shutter and ISO, you can drastically increase the final photos quality.

Example Situations

Here are some typical examples of different situations you might find yourself in.

I want to take photos for a headshot using an 85mm F/1.4 Lens.
I’m shooting outside and it’s a sunny day out. I’m not using a tripod, instead I’m hand holding the camera for flexibility.

I know I want a narrow depth of field, so I’m going to want to keep my Aperture at F/1.4 or at most F/2.8
I want the best quality photo with the least amount of noise.  So my goal is to keep the ISO setting at ISO 100.
To freeze my subject and to compensate for any hand shake, I need my shutter speed at least 1/lens length. So minimum 1/85th of a second if not faster/shorter.

Now with the above information and situation, I know the settings limits and goals. Let’s look at a possible outcomes and settings.

F/1.4 | 1/100th Shutter | ISO 100
Outcome: Everything looks white/blown out

Now there are two ways to make a photo look darker using the above settings.  We need to reduce the light coming into the camera.  We COULD change the aperture to do this, but I lose the depth of field, but I do have a little wiggle room of two stops to F/2.8 if I have to, but I don’t want to. Instead, it’s best if I increase the shutter speed. Make it a faster speed, means letting in less light.  Since I’m already freezing the motion at 1/100th of a setting, I can increase it to any speed faster and be fine to adjust the light with ZERO downsides for my use. Since my camera can go up to 1/8000 of a second, I can adjust it to whatever will work in this situation. We can not reduce the ISO anymore as it’s already at the lowest setting, so we cannot use that setting.

This is a simple example, but starting simple is best.  Now let’s say I’m doing photographs at night, instead of a nice sunny day and I’m using the following settings, but otherwise the same scenario.

F/1.4 | 1/3200th Shutter | ISO 100
Outcome: Everything looks black

Since I took photos earlier in the day, my shutter speed I’m starting at is 1/3200th of a second. Since everything is dark, I need to let in more light.  My Aperture is the highest my lens can go, so I’m not touching that. Now I have two options to increase light, I can change the shutter or I can change the ISO.  I still want to keep the least noise in the photo so I’d rather not touch ISO. Instead, I can lower my shutter speed, to bring in more light. Depending on how dark it is already, I MIGHT be able to make it work by slowing down my shutter down to 1/100th of a second again, but if I’m there and it’s still too dark, I’ll need to adjust my ISO to compensate.

Let’s make this even more complex. I’m taking photos of dancers in a darkish room. Now the situation is different, and more complex depending on the dance and speed of movement, plus the fact, I need a deeper depth of field, as I want to get a couple in focus instead of just a thin slice of the subjects face, I need at least two heads in focus ideally.

F/4 | 1/320th Shutter | ISO 4000

Using the above settings, the outcome can be any number of things.

If I’m taking photos of fast dancers, I want to freeze the motion, so the 1/320th might be enough, or I might need a minimum of 1/400 instead to freeze that motion. If they are slower dancing, I could get away with all the way down to 1/100th of a second.

Now if it’s darker in the room and the settings make the photo come out dark, I can either increase the ISO, slow down the shutter, or widen the aperture to let in more light. Maybe F/2.8 alone gets me the right light, and the depth of field is fine for me, great.  Maybe I also need more light, so adjusting the shutter speed a little to 1/200 will freeze the motion enough for the shot. Last I could increase the ISO if I need more or if I can’t/don’t want to change the other settings. It’s all a give or take.