Today’s digital cameras offer a bewildering array of different settings to consider before you even take a shot. This can be really confusing if you’re a beginner, and the temptation is to assume it’s all too difficult and just let the camera make all the decisions for you.

What you might not realize is that while there are a large number of settings that you can change on the average digital camera, there is a much more limited subset of really important settings, and you can learn what these do pretty quickly. This is worthwhile, because while modern cameras are clever, you’ll need to take control of your camera in order to really take your photography to the next level.

In this article, we’ll look at three of the most important and talked-about camera settings.

# Camera Modes

‘Mode’ is the most important camera setting of all. This is because mode is a ‘parent’ setting that affects which other settings are selectable by you, and which the camera will control automatically.
With the exception of the smallest compacts, most cameras will have a mode selector dial, and this will be located on the top or back of the camera. While the terminology will change from manufacturer to manufacturer, every camera will have the following modes: automatic; program; manual; aperture-priority, and shutter-priority.

Today’s cameras almost always have a selection of ‘scene’ modes as well, such as night, sports, pets, portrait and so on. If there are only a few scene modes they will be on the mode dial as well; otherwise they will probably be only selectable from within the camera’s menu system.

Most people use their camera in automatic mode most of the time. This means that the camera is doing absolutely everything for you. If you really want to take your photography above the level of basic, uninspiring snapshots, you’ll need to stop using automatic mode, and at least learn about aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes. In these two modes you are able to set (respectively) aperture and shutter speed, and ISO (in both).


In the days of film, photographers had to choose what sort of film to use. Among other things, film comes in varieties which are either more or less sensitive to light. Films which are more sensitive to light are called ‘faster’ films, and while they are much more versatile, the downside is that they are ‘grainier’, which limits the degree to which they can be enlarged and still look good.

ISO is the digital equivalent to film speed. A low ISO number (such as 100) mean low sensitivity to light but higher-quality, less ‘noisy’ (this is the digital equivalent of grainy) results. A high ISO number (such as 800) means high sensitivity to light, but noisier pictures. You should try to use low ISOs whenever there is enough light to do so, and only use higher ISO when you are forced to. Note that in automatic mode, this is not a setting you can change for yourself.

# White Balance

You will probably have heard of ‘white balance’ before. To understand the concept of white balance, you need to know that not all light is the same. Light comes in a variety of different ‘temperatures’. An easy way to think of this is to imagine a continuum of light, with warm (orangey-yellow) tones on one end, cool (bluey-green) tones on the other, and neutral (colorless) light in between.

What setting white balance does is tell your camera what sort of light you are shooting in. The settings have names such as ‘daylight’, ‘cloudy’, and ‘tungsten’. Your camera then compensates for this temperature of light, allowing you to produce neutral photos in the nominated type of light. Without white balance, photos would have a particular color cast depending on the light they are shot in.

While it’s important to understand white balance, in practice it’s not a setting you need to change often. This is because all cameras have an ‘auto white balance’ mode which is pretty good at picking the right white balance for the light you are in.

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