Understanding What All Those Weird Manual Settings On Your Camera Do

Photography newbies, as well as those who have used cameras for years but prefer to point and shoot obliviously, tend to be confounded by their devices’ settings. The fear of activating or deactivating a function and ruining your ability to snap pictures of your cat can be quite daunting.

In its ongoing Basics of Photography series, Lifehacker is there to walk you through the basics of your digital camera’s settings.

Here’s a quick rundown of the knowledge the post offers:

*Aperture refers to the size of the opening in your lens and the amount of light you let in with each exposure. The narrower your aperture, the more of your image will be in focus.

*Shutter speed is the amount of time it takes for aperture blades to close once you snap a photo. If you’re shooting something that’s moving fast, stick with 1/300th of a second.

*ISO is the equivalent of film speed on digital cameras. If you’re shooting at night, you’ll want a high ISO to make your camera more sensitive to light and capture a clearer picture.

What are your favorite camera settings to mess with?

Basics Of Photography: Your Camera’s Manual Settings [Lifehacker]


Edit Your Comment

  1. agent 47 says:

    Hmmm…my favorite camera settings to mess with…that’s a tough zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  2. ShruggingGalt says:


    Shutter speed has nothing to do with the aperture blades, it’s either the time the shutter (curtain
    ) stays open or how long the sensor records data. 1/300 is too slow for many action shots!

    Aperture – the larger the number the narrower (smaller) the opening is.

    Personally I mess with aperture more than shutter speed BUT it depends on what I’m shooting (taking pictures of)

    • DurkaDurkaDurka says:

      I think Adam Dachis (the writer of the article) doesn’t realize that “Shutter Speed” already has what it pertains within itself. It’s a fail.

    • DurkaDurkaDurka says:

      I think Adam Dachis (the writer of the article) doesn’t realize that “Shutter Speed” already has what it pertains to within itself. It’s a fail on his part

      • ShruggingGalt says:

        Yeah, but considering that so many cameras are now using electronic shutters, I can give him the benefit of the doubt.

        Or he was thinking to medium format lenses with the shutter in the lens…..

  3. qbubbles says:

    Eff the settings. Spin the dials, doodle with the numbers, and go for it. Even if the photos come out craptastic, they’re “artistic”.

    How do you think I make a living??


    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      By giving out terrible advice like this?

      I kid, I kid.

    • Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

      Driving a bus?

    • tiz says:

      holy. shit. where do you find a site like that? there are so many things wrong with every single photo on that site, it’s not even funny.

  4. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    I love my film SLR because:

    1. It cost very little, since everyone is getting rid of them.
    2. I have COMPLETE control of it.

    But the choices for film are getting limited. Oh, how I miss you, Kodachrome.

    • LightningUsagi says:

      Dammit, now I’m going to have Simon and Garfunkle singing in my head for the rest of the day.

      *shakes an angry fist

    • qbubbles says:

      Yeah, I have a thing for antique film cameras. I picked one up the other day, just because it looked funky. I took it home and only then did I realize it only took kodachrome. I almost cried. I would totally have had +500 on my hipster cred points walking around shooting with it.

      • qbubbles says:

        And by “antique” I mean “old ass, pieces of crap”.

      • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

        My Dad had a Kodak Pony 35, non – SLR. It took ASA 25 and those flash bulbs the size of a lime. All manual settings, no meter, set the focus with a scale. THAT’S how I learned photography. It had a great f/4.5 lens and took good pictures if you knew what you were doing. If I ever see a Pony 35 for cheap, it’s mine.

        I believe you could use Fuji Velvia 50 in your old camera, and open the lens 1-2 stops.

      • Jimmy60 says:

        A camera that only takes Kodachrome? How does that work?

    • borgia says:

      You are going to love some of the new digital SLRs that are coming out. They are built in the style of the old fashioned SLR and rangefinder cameras. Check out the Pentax Q http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/PENTAXQ/PENTAXQA.HTM. Also check out the Fujifilm FinePix X100 http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/X100/X100A.HTM.

      • mister_roboto says:

        The Fuji is a nice camera, has odd quirks- but no interchangeable lens, that’s a deal breaker for me.

        The Pentax Q will probably be shit, the crop factor is much higher than I thought it would be (I use µ4/3, and think it’s fine), but damn- I have no idea who the hell they’re marketing that camera to (µ4/3 has a hard enough time with the x2 crop factor and the canon/nikon-douche bags trash talking everything that isn’t a canon/nikon), and it might snuff Pentax out if it does a horrible bomb. Which is too bad as my favorite camera of all time (digital or film) is my Pentax KX 35mm manual everything film camera.

        The Fuji has the styling of an old camera… but that’s all it has in relation to it.

    • MJDickPhoto says:

      worst part of my last vacation, walking through a museum, getting some good shots, and then seeing a photo section…… wouldn’t you know it, they have the same model camera that I’m walking around taking pictures with.

      IMHO, 90% of the populous doesn’t need anything more then a point and shoot digital. it’s the people who spend decades with camera as a passion that need the extra bells and whistles. I’ve taken some amazing shots with a pure auto throw away camera, but my AE1 knows no rival. the day I can’t get film is the day I must retire from photography, as digital hasn’t caught up yet.

  5. Hi_Hello says:

    few things I do. tell the display to turn off as quickly as it can. I don’t need that thing draining battery.

    GEt rid of the logo and/or sound when I turn on the camera.

    Change the picture to 2-3mpx. and the quality to almost the lowest settings.

    I don’t need my pictures to be 2-3 mb file each.

    • El_Fez says:

      Well, that’s fine – if you want your pictures to look like total shit. Seriously – memory cards are cheap! You can always make them smaller if you need to, but lost information is gone forever.

      Then again, I shoot film, so I can make my photos look as big or small as I want.

      • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

        “I can make my photos look as big or small as I want.”

        as long as you’re not push – processing Ektachrome P1600 shot at 3200!

    • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

      2-3 m pixels is fine… just don’t try to make any prints larger than 4×6!

    • phixional-ninja says:

      I have a friend who shoots at the smallest resolution too, and I’ve never understood it. Storage is dirt cheap these days, and while you certainly don’t need full resolution on every shot, you never know when that magical shot that you DO need it on is going to happen.

      I’m happy to store tens of thousands of ~25MB RAW files, just to be sure that I can squeeze every last drop of image quality out of the ones that really matter.

  6. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    Which setting is for stealing the souls of your photo subjects? You know…like indigenous peoples are always afraid of. Although I’m not sure what I’d do with the souls once I’d stolen them…maybe I can exchange them for Bitcoins or something…

  7. savvy9999 says:

    I was actually going to make a snarky comment about what’s a camera, and where or how the hell this applies to my (android OS) cellphone, but then on a lark I decided to look at my phone… and holy shit, it actually does have ISO, aperture and speed settings. Whole buncha stuff I never know about. For 7 months I’ve just been taking what it gives me when I push the Camera button… had no idea it was even remotely configurable.

    Are there good apps for cell cameras, or are they very highly device-dependent?

    FWIW I used to sell cameras for a living; knew a Pentax K1000 inside and out.

    • Tim says:

      I doubt most camera phones have physical shutters though, which greatly reduces the quality of the photo. They also don’t have optical zooms, and I doubt they have physical apertures, all of which reduces the quality.

      But that’s still cool that they have those settings.

    • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

      The K-1000 will always have a place in my heart. From Wikipedia:

      “The K1000 gained a unique popularity and sold well for many years as its lack of features came to be regarded an important feature in and of itself. Its spartan nature, without autoexposure or autofocus, meant a sturdy and reliable camera for a low price. The K1000 became highly recommended for student photographers.”

    • borgia says:

      I haven’t really found many good apps for Droid phones. The couple I liked were panorama stiching programs (one used the motion sensor to help with the pics) but they weren’t really of a high enough quality to pay for the fuller featured version. I hope someone ports some form of the GIMP over to Android.

  8. H3ion says:

    F-stop, shutter speed and ISO film rating (which is probably not accurate anyway) are all linked. A shutter speed of 1/100 at f 8 will yield the same exposure as a shutter speed of 1/50 at f 11 and so on. I think 1/300 is not going to stop most action unless the object is coming either directly toward or away from the lens. Love my old film camera because I can shoot without batteries and adjust for any effect I want.

  9. DurkaDurkaDurka says:

    Neat article, but the Consumerist should really do a better job of summarizing the article. Stating you’ll ‘want a high ISO to make your camera more sensitive to light and capture a clearer picture” at night is blatantly wrong. ISO DECREASES picture clarity due to increases in noise, that’s the trade off you get for better exposure. It’s why when you have poor lighting conditions you make adjustments in the following order: aperture, shutter speed, ISO (the last thing you touch if you’re desperate enough).

    Also 1/300th of a second isn’t fast enough to capture someone waving their hand, if you’re shooting sports or anything fast you are better going for 1/1000th of a second or greater.

    • borgia says:

      The shutter speed needed is also largely dependant on the distance you are from what you are shooting. So, 1/300 is not grossly wrong. Heck when I ride shotgun I have done driveby photography that comes out sharp at 1/600 @ a driving speed of 65 mph. The key question in clarity being the distance to the object. With a lot of cheaper cameras the 1/300 shutter speed would make an ideal range because this would let them still choke down on the aperture giving a larger depth of field and thus also increasing sharpness.

  10. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    Aperture and shutter speed are related, smaller apertures (larger F numbers) requires longer shutter speeds but give more depth of field (how much image is in focus in the direction you’re shooting).
    A wider aperture (smaller F number) will give less depth of field, so in one example your foreground is in sharp focus, while your background is blurred (look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokeh).
    Maximum/minimum aperture is determined by your lens.
    Smaller ISO numbers also require more light (larger aperture/slower shutter speeds) and with film used to increase the color in the picture (slower speed film tended to capture brighter colors).

    I tend to use A for aperture priority, where I select the aperture setting (F-stop) and the camera adjusts the shutter speed for me.
    S does the same for shutter speed, setting the F-stop automatically. Typically this setting would be for pictures of moving objects (sports) to use fast shutter speeds to freeze motion, or for longer exposures (low light or nighttime photos).

    If you get a DSLR and leave it in P or AUTO all the time, please send it to me and I’ll get you a nice point-and-shoot, or teach you how to use the camera in your phone.

  11. Blueskylaw says:

    “What are your favorite camera settings to mess with?”

    The on and off button.

  12. mister_roboto says:

    Oh man….

    I teach photoshop at a college, and routinely get students- hell even “wedding photographers”/”semi-pro people who have no clue on how to use the manual settings on a $1000-2000 DSLR. They just use full auto mode, ALL THE TIME.

    The absolute best way to learn about photography is to take a class using a manual 35mm film camera- the setting translate, and it’s the best way to grasp the concepts as they translate to digital cameras perfectly.

    Seriously… if I see one more sports/concert stadium scene with 5K flashes from cameras go off one more time….

  13. sir_eccles says:

    White balance – a useful little button which used properly like when you have the flash on makes colors correct.

  14. El_Fez says:

    Protip: trouble figuring out shutter speed and aperture? Think of it like water out of a garden hose. You only need a few moments for a really big hose will fill your bucket while a smaller diameter hose will need longer to fill that same bucket.

  15. rockamon says:

    I’ve always thought the most important thing to learn about photography how to compose a shot. Everything else is pretty technical, but composing takes time to develop. Instead of the standard 18-55 zoom lens that is packed with cameras these days, manufacturers be including something like a 50mm prime lens instead. Force people to really consider what they’re shooting.

  16. Mom says:

    The most important thing most people need to know about their point & shoot camera is how to get it back into auto mode after they’ve accidentally pushed a button and screwed it up. The second most important thing to know is how to turn off the flash. 90% of the time, the camera will take better pictures on its own than you can by messing with the settings. People who care about the other 10% should probably have a DSLR and a book about photography basics.

    • Geekybiker says:

      This. A learn to turn your flash off when its dark in a big room, and how to turn it on when you’re outside an shooting someone back lit, or in shade. The rest of it- don’t both further than the “modes” if you can’t be bothered to read more than a short article.

  17. bricko says:

    WRONG…the Shutter speed is how fast the SHUTTER closes and opens…nothing to do with the aperture. Aperture will stay at whatever it is set at…..shutter changes its length of time open.

    • Happy Tinfoil Cat says:

      On many cameras, the aperture stays open to allow you to view the frame through the viewfinder with a decent amount of light. On my Canons, there is a semi-secret button just under the lens that will close the aperture to the actual setting so you can see what the DoF is. It’s usually too dark to see anything though. I call it ‘semi-secret’ because almost nobody knows what that button does.

  18. AEN says:

    I always mess with Magicube and Flipflash.

  19. tiz says:

    that is just the worst article ever. they should really learn something about photography before they go running their mouths on the internet.

  20. NotEd says:

    I used to love closing the aperture down to get maximum depth of field in my shots when I used a film camera. My first 35mm was a Minolta that had an Aperture priority mode and I would shut the aperture down as far as I could get it before the shutter speed got too slow to hand hold the shot.
    Of cource I love architecture and landscape photography, so that worked really well for me.
    My Digital camera is Point and Shoot, so I don’t have the option.

  21. hamhands says:

    This is why pros are getting killed. “I have a great point and shoot with all these dials, but, on auto, everything looks great!” And then they sell their crap to stock photo sites…..
    Aperture – the ratio between the diameter of the opening of the lens and it’s focal length (sometimes called f-stop)
    Shutter Speed – the amount of time the sensor is exposed to light
    ISO – the sensitivity levels your sensor has to light
    Fireworks, some lady’s head, a mountain and a “movie camera” logo – gimicks to sell point and shoot cameras
    Pop up flashes – useless crap attached to every camera (including better dSLR’s).
    But nickel and dime pros to shoot your wedding for $500.00. I’m sure you drive just as hard a bargain with your dentist. If he can save a few dollars by skimping on the novacaine, I’m sure the pain is as memorable as your wedding day……..

  22. tooluser says:

    How do I force flash on a Canon SX10IS?