The Primary Camera Setting

For every image, one camera setting is more important than others

Table of Contents

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Exposure Modes

Cameras have different exposure modes that give you various levels of control over your camera settings.

1. Automatic Modes

Full Auto Mode

In full auto-mode you have no control at all. Your camera will choose not only the exposure settings aperture and shutter speed, but moreover all the focus settings too. That’s definitely not recommended. If you want to use an all-auto-exposure-mode, then use…

Full auto mode

Program Mode (P)

The program mode will let you choose focus points and other things, but will take care of the exposure settings so that you don’t have to think about anything.

The downside is obviously, that without having control, you cannot tell the camera what is important to you.

program mode

2. Semi-Automatic Modes

In the semi-auto modes, the camera will give you control over one setting and adjust the rest of the settings to output what it thinks is the perfect image brightness. You will set it to give you the option to choose the camera setting that you feel is most important.

Shutter Priority (S, T, Tv)

Shutter priority will let you choose shutter speed and calculate the rest of the camera settings.

Depending on the camera manufacturer, Shutter priority has a different letter on your dial. S is quite logical, T stands for “time” Tv for “time value”. A clear reminder that shutter speed is actually the wrong term. Read more about it here: shutter speed is misleading.

shutter priority camera dial

Aperture Priority (A, Av)

Aperture priority will let you choose aperture and calculate the rest of the camera settings. On Canon Av stands for “Aperture Value”.

Aperture priority

ISO Priority???

There is no such thing as ISO priority. You can set ISO manually in any of the semi-automatic modes if you wish, or set it to auto.
ISO priority

3. Manual EXPOSURE Mode

And finally there is a mode that gives you full control over everything – the manual exposure mode. Don’t mix that with manual focus mode like many photography beginners do.
In manual exposure the camera won’t compensate for anything with one exception.
If you set ISO to Auto, it will change it to give you what it thinks is the perfect image brightness, no matter whether your settings for aperture and shutter speed actually make sense. So use auto-ISO only when you know what you are doing.
Manual exposure

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Which Camera Setting Is Most Important?

There is no general most important camera setting. But there is a primary camera setting for every image. Which setting is most important depends on what you are photographing and how you want the image to look.

What do you want to do?

Before taking an image: ALWAYS ask yourself: what is most important for you. Then first set that primary camera setting that is responsible for achieving what is most important.

  • If it is shutter speed, you would set that first and set shutter speed in shutter priority or in manual exposure
  • If it is aperture, you would change that setting first in either aperture priority or manual exposure

Whichever you choose – the rest of the settings need to be adjusted accordingly to get the perfect exposure. In manual exposure you have to do that yourself, in the other modes the camera will try to do that automatically for you.

1. Freeze Motion

If you photograph something that moves, you usually want to freeze the motion rather than getting motion blur. 

And since you know that shutter speed (or better said exposure time) is the only setting that helps to freeze motion, you also know that this is your primary camera setting for that particular shot.

So you will set shutter speed first and either let your camera do the rest in shutter priority, or change the other settings manually in manual exposure mode.

What shutter speed do you need to freeze motion?​
That depends on the speed at which your subject is moving and on how big that subject is in your frame.
I have gathered some examples here: recommended settings for shutter speed.
recommended shutter speed for birds in flight
shutter speed for sports
waterfall shot with a slow shutter speed
light trails created in bulb mode

2. Blur Motion

While you usually want to freeze motion, blurring motion is something that is pretty popular among photographers.

And since you already know that shutter speed is responsible for freezing motion, it is quite logical that the same is true for blurring motion. So shutter speed is the primary camera setting if you want to blur motion.
Blurred waterfalls, fireworks or light trails will create some beautiful photographs

What shutter speed do you need to blur motion?

You guessed it: that depends on the speed at which your subject is moving. Again, let me link you to: recommended settings for shutter speed.

 

3. Shallow Depth of Focus

If your goal is to create a blurred background or a shallow depth of focus for whatever other reason, you do know that the only camera setting that has an influence on depth of focus is aperture. So in that case, aperture will become your primary camera setting.
You want to set that first and adjust the other settings accordingly or let the camera adjust them when using aperture priority.
What aperture do you need to blur motion?

That depends on how much blur you want and how shallow you would accept the depth of focus to become. Some people are OK if only one person is in focus in a portrait of two, others think both need to be in focus.

But there are more factors to background blur than aperture. If you are interested, watch my video “Better Bokeh – the 5 factors of background blur

the primary camera setting to blur the background in a wedding portrait is aperture
To blur the background in an environmental portrait, the primary camera setting is aperture
big depth of focus in a landscape shot
big_depth_of_focus_closeup

4. Big Depth of Focus

The opposite of a blurred background is a big depth of focus. Since the aperture again is the only camera setting that has an influence on depth of focus, this will be your primary camera setting for that shot.
You will set that first and then adjust the other settings accordingly.
That is often the case with landscape images that have a foreground and background, or with macro and closeup shots.
What aperture do you need to get enough depth of focus?

That depends on how deep your subject is, what lens you use and how far you are away from your subject.

Wide angle lenses have a bigger depth of focus than telephoto lenses. There are depth of focus calculators available. My preferred one is an app called photopills.

 

5. None of the above

The truth is: there is hardly a shot where there is no primary camera setting. But let’s assume you have a landscape shot, there is not foreground and your subject is far away – so you don’t have to have a big depth of focus.

For this case and anything else you can think of, you still have a primary camera setting without even knowing.

a. Avoid Camera Shake

To avoid motion blur ruining your shot due to a too slow shutter speed for handheld shots, you want to make sure to prioritize that particular setting. Read more here: how to avoid camera shake.
In case you use a tripod, like I did in the second imgage of Budapest, you can straight go to

b. Best Possible Image Quality

The best possible image quality basically contains of two things:

  • keeping the ISO as low as possible
    While you would do that too for any of the 4 above choices, you can make this your primary goal here.
  • Getting the best possible sharpness
    In my aperture section you learned that every lens has a sweet spot where it produces the sharpest possible image (usually around f/8 to f/11). So in this case, again, aperture becomes your primary setting.
wider aperture brighter image
priority low iso

The Secondary
Camera Setting

If there is a primary camera setting and you have three settings available, there has to be a secondary camera setting too.

ISO

Unless you are in manual exposure, the secondary camera setting is automatically the gain (ISO).

  • In shutter priority, the camera will automatically choose the appropriate aperture to get what it thinks is the best image brightness, so that leaves the aperture out of the equation and makes ISO the only secondary option to change in that mode.
  • In aperture priority, the camera will automatically choose the appropriate shutter speed to do the same, so again that only leaves ISO that can be manually changed.

Manual Exposure

Manual exposure however gives you control over all the settings. That can be a good and a bad thing because full control is amazing if you know what you do, or not helpful at all if you don’t want to concentrate on three settings at once.

One thing to always keep in mind: photography is not a rosegarden:

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You Can't Just Set
What You Want

Photography is a constant compromise between what you want and what is possible. It would be amazing if we could just set a super high shutter speed to avoid any motion blur and the perfect f-number for the best possible sharpness.
Both will reduce the light your sensor is exposed to, so that will hardly ever work. Remember: photography is all about light, and even in the brightest sunlight, you have to fight limitations and cannot set 1/4000sec | f/11 | ISO100
So: choose your settings and find a compromise between what you want and what is possible.
Think of it this way: you cannot photograph a humming bird lit by the moonlight only. You would need a very high shutter speed to freeze its wings, but the light is so low that even with the highest ISO setting in your camera and an f/1.2 lens, you wouldn’t be able to get decent image brightness.
photography is a compromise

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Primary Camera Setting FAQ

Yes and no.

If you for example need a fast shutter speed and a big depth of focus, you do indeed have two primary settings. Then you can:

  • Set a not all that fast shutter speed and a not all that high f-number as a compromise.
  • Set both as high as you really need, compensate with a high ISO and live with noise.
  • Prioritize one over the other anyway
  • Take different shots prioritizing different settings and choose the better image once you are back on the computer.

Please comment below. I will constantly update this section with new questions.

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