When I first got into photography, I was shooting on a hand-me-down IPhone 3 and using an app called Hipstamatic because it had cool filters. This was before Instagram and I had no idea what I was doing. I just thought it was awesome because I could take pictures of leaves and flowers and the creek by my house. There were fun filters I could put on them and post them to Flickr and Tumblr. I didn’t have a clue about lighting, or camera settings, or auto mode, or lenses, or Lightroom, or any of it.

A Photo of a Bike Changed Everything

I got my first camera after seeing a photo of a bike on Flickr. It wasn’t a particularly stellar photo but the bike was all in focus and the background wasn’t. The next photo was the opposite. The background – a graffiti covered wall – was all in focus, but the bike wasn’t at all. I was floored. I had to know how to do this. My IPhone only ever took photos with everything in focus. How does one get this strange effect where part of the picture is blurred? So, like pretty much every Millennial, instead of asking someone who owns a camera, I took to Google. I typed in “blurry background, photography” and that’s when I learned about Aperture and a thing called “bokeh.”

A week later, my first camera came in the mail. I was over joyed. It was a Nikon D3000 (refurbished and on sale) with an 18-55 mm f5.6 kit lens. I had no idea what to do with it, but immediately took it into the yard to shoot some flowers. I was in full AUTO mode then, still too green to try switching into any of the others. I still didn’t know much about camera settings, and was overwhelmed by everything online. After a few weeks though, I began to grasp the concepts of Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed, ISO and white balance.

Ten years later, and there’s still tons about photography that I don’t know. I still struggle with great composition and I’m incredibly impatient – not a great quality to have as a photographer. The technical side of photography sometimes drives me crazy. But I’m better at choosing lenses now and the basics come much easier.

Getting out of Auto Mode: The Basics

No matter what you are photographing, the basics of camera settings will always factor in. These settings all help determine the exposure of your image. Since photography is basically just the study of light, an image is just light captured. There are three things that work together to capture this light and make sure it looks right: Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture.

When you’re shooting in AUTO Mode, the camera chooses all of these settings for you. This is great, because you don’t have to think about it, right? It can be, but it also means you don’t have much control over how your image looks. Maybe you want the background blurry but the foreground in focus. Or maybe you want to capture a car that’s speeding by or star trails in the night sky. In AUTO Mode, the camera won’t know this and will just pick the settings it thinks are right based on the lighting.

So let’s talk about the three camera settings and what exactly they do.

What is Exposure?

Photography is overladen with weird terminology that sometimes makes no sense. I’ll try to make sense of some of these words and phrases here.

Simply put, exposure is the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor. This is controlled by Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture, and it’s important to understand how these things all work together to create a perfect exposure.

Here are some other terms you might hear in your photography journey and probably in this article:

Over Exposed: simply means the image came out too bright. This means your camera settings were set in such a way that allowed too much light to hit the sensor. You’ll also hear this called “blown out” and occasionally “blowing the highlights out”

Under Exposed: the image came out too dark, so your settings were set so that they didn’t let enough light in.

Stopping Up or Down: adjusting the settings so that the exposure is lighter or darker. Here’s a great article that explains a little bit about stops and stopping up and down.

Sensor: the thingy inside your camera that captures the light. In film cameras, this would be a frame of film.

Shutter Speed

a colorado waterfall shot at a slow shutter speed to demonstrate getting out of auto mode
Three blended exposures with shutter speeds of 1.3 sec, 1/3 sec and 5 sec

Shutter speed is probably the most straight forward of the three basic camera settings, so we will start there. In simple terms, shutter speed means how fast your camera’s shutter is opening and closing. The speed of your shutter determines how much light can hit the camera’s sensor. A faster shutter speed means that less light will hit the sensor and produce a darker image. A slower shutter speed means that more light will hit the sensor and produce a brighter image. Which shutter speed you use will depend on the lighting situation. A darker setting will require a slower shutter speed so the sensor has more time to gather light. A brighter setting will require a faster shutter speed so your image doesn’t become over exposed.

What Does Shutter Speed Do?

Being able to control your shutter speed gives you tons of creative freedom over your images. It allows you to freeze fast moving objects or just slow them down. To capture star trails, or just the stars. To capture motion blur or a frozen image. Controlling your shutter speed lets you do all of this.

So, how do you do all of this? For images where you want motion blur, you will want a slower shutter speed. And for images where you want a frozen image, you’ll want a faster shutter speed. So, if you’re photographing soccer players running around a field you’ll probably want a faster shutter speed. But, if you’re trying to get star trails, or silky smooth waterfalls a slower shutter speed is what you’re looking for.

We’ve got a whole article just about shutter speed here!


In simple terms, ISO is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. It comes from the film camera days when a roll of film had a sensitivity rating and stands for the International Standards Organization. There’s a whole history involving ISO and film standards in the 1970’s, but we are here for the basics. So on to that.

Adjusting your ISO will increase or decrease the brightness of your image. A low ISO will make an image darker, while a higher ISO will make your image brighter. However, be cautious when bumping up your ISO. A higher ISO will make your image grainy.

When to Worry About ISO

Adjusting your ISO helps you gain control over your Shutter Speed and Aperture. In dark settings where you need a faster shutter speed (like concerts or parties), you’ll need a higher ISO. However, for brighter situations, like shooting in direct sunlight, you’ll want a lower ISO. No matter what kind of situation you find yourself shooting in, you’ll want to keep your ISO as low as you possibly can. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a grainy photo.

If you’re a little confused about ISO, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with this article.


yellow flowers at sunset 
a guide to getting out of auto mode
1/200 sec at f1.8, ISO 200

Aperture is actually on your lens, but controlled by your camera (some old lenses this probably isn’t true, but I don’t shoot with those). When you purchase a lens you’ll usually see it described as “24-120 mm f/4.0” or “14-24 mm f/2.8” or “35 mm f/1.2”. Those “f” numbers (the “f4.0” or “f1.2”) are the Aperture of the lens. You’ll hear this referred to as the Aperture or f-stop of the lens and I usually call adjusting this setting “stopping up” or “stopping down” because I shoot mainly in Aperture Priority (though you will also hear this when adjusting the exposure as a whole).

Every lens will have an f-stop number. This number tells you how wide the Aperture of the lens can go (which, not to be confusing, is also referred to how fast a lens is).

What Does Aperture Do?

The Aperture is the hole in your lens that allows light to hit your camera’s sensor. A bigger hole means more light is reaching your sensor, while a smaller hole means less light is hitting your sensor. More light means a brighter exposure, and less light means a darker exposure.

Here is where things get a little confusing. A smaller f-stop number should mean that the Aperture or hole that’s letting light into your camera should be smaller, right? Wrong. It’s the exact opposite due to the f number actually being a fraction. It’s f/2.8 or f/11, so the smaller numbers actually mean a larger aperture. Who knew that capturing light artistically is basically all math and physics? Anyways, smaller f numbers mean that the Aperture (the hole in your lens) is larger (or opened more) allowing more light to hit your sensor. Larger f numbers mean that your Aperture is actually smaller allowing less light to hit your sensor. Here’s a cool and helpful chart.

So, an f-stop of 2.8 is wide and an f-stop of 22 (most lenses highest number and smallest aperture) is very narrow.

Aperture and Depth of Field

We’ve all probably heard of bokeh now, right? That effect that happens when your background is out of focus? Usually there’s some cool lights in the background that are all blurry and help make your subject pop? This is called Depth of Field and is controlled by your Aperture.

We call it a shallow depth of field when only a small portion of an image is in focus. That bokeh effect? That’s achieved using a shallow depth of field. That bicycle picture with the blurry background? Shallow depth of field. And how do you get this shallow depth of field? By using a wider aperture. The wider aperture allows you to choose what you put in focus. So, if you’re shooting flowers or butterflies or even people, a wider aperture will let you to get just those subjects in focus.

Conversely a wide depth of field happens when your aperture is narrower. A wide depth of field means that more things are in focus. You honestly won’t hear wide depth of field talked about a whole lot, but it’s useful when shooting landscapes, architecture and many other things.

Want to learn more about Aperture? Check out this article!

Using These Camera Settings Together

In it’s most basic form, photography is all about capturing light. And your camera is a tool to help you do this. That means that you and your camera can work together to decide how best to capture the light. Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture all work together to help you create the best possible exposure. If you want to have a faster Shutter Speed, your ISO and aperture will have to be set to allow more light into the camera. If you want a wider aperture to get a shallower depth of field, your Shutter Speed may need to be faster and your ISO lower.

Priority Modes

photography basics and how to get out of auto mode

Priority modes let you have creative control over your images without having to worry about all three settings. There are Shutter, Aperture and full Manual Priority Modes. Pretty much every DSLR camera has a dial on the top with some letters on it. These letters are the modes your camera can use. In most cases there’s full AUTO, Manual (denoted with an “M”), Shutter Priority (marked with an “S” on Nikon and “Tv” for Time Value on Canon), and Aperture Priority (marked with an “A” on Nikon and “Av” on Canon). In most cases there will also be a couple of other preset modes and a “user” mode that you can set yourself.

You’ll notice there’s no ISO mode. In most cases you’ll have a feature on your camera that allows you to set your ISO yourself. You can also set your ISO to Auto so the camera can decide which ISO is best based on the lighting situation and the setting of the Aperture and/or Shutter Speed.

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority mode lets you control the shutter speed of your camera without having to worry about aperture. It’s best to use Shutter priority mode when capturing motion. So if you know you’ll need a fast shutter speed to make sure there’s no motion-blur in your image, you’ll want to shoot in Shutter Priority. In this mode the camera will choose the best Aperture for the lighting situation to help you achieve the best exposure for your image.

Aperture Priority

Aperture Priority mode lets you set the Aperture without having to deal with Shutter Speed. I typically shoot in Aperture Priority mode no matter what I’m shooting. This mode gives you control over the depth of field of you image. So if you’re going for a photo with beautiful bokeh, or a landscape image with everything in focus, Aperture Priority is what you’ll want to shoot in. In this mode, the camera will choose the correct Shutter Speed setting to give you the best exposure possible.

Manual Mode

Manual Mode lets you have control over both Aperture and Shutter Speed. I don’t use Manual Mode very often and it can be a little daunting at first, but there are cases where it’s necessary. In many cases the camera won’t be able to get the effect you’re going for. Maybe you want a bit of motion blur, but also a shallow depth of field. The camera doesn’t know this and in one of the other modes may not be able to achieve this. Just remember that if you change one setting, you will probably have to change the other setting to get the perfect exposure.

Practicing Camera Settings and Getting out of Auto Mode

We all know that practice makes perfect. And as you use your camera more and more, you’ll get better and better at all aspects of photography. Learning the basic camera settings can take time, so don’t stress yourself out if you’re not getting perfect exposures right away. It’s a process.

Want to know one of the best ways to learn how to shoot in full Manual Mode? Practice in Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority and occasionally even full Auto Mode. There’s quite a bit of math behind creating the perfect exposure (again, photography is basically physics). Try shooting the same image in multiple modes to see what the camera recommends. This will help you learn how Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO all work together to expose an image and how changing these camera settings will affect the exposure.

The basics of exposure and camera settings can be super overwhelming when you are first learning. There’s only so much help that you can get online, so get out there and practice!

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Hey there! My name is Leah and I'm a photographer, blogger and wanderer from north Texas. I've been doing photography for nearly a decade now and absolutely love it. My day job is real estate photographer and in my free time you can often find me at a park taking pictures of leaves and flowers. Outside of that my fiance and I love to travel. We spent nine months backpacking through Europe and now spend our free time attempting to plan and going on shorter trips both in the States and abroad.


  1. Tracey Van Den Berg Reply

    that was so super helpful. thank you so much. I am making the jump to a dslr and am feeling a little daunted by all the tech and jargon. you made it so easy to understand in layman’s terms.
    here I go

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