On Photography: The Basics of Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO & Difficult Lighting

How’d you get that shot? How do I shoot better at night? How about when there’s action?  How come my photo came out so blown out? (Oh and I’ll skip the priceless “well of course you get nice shots with an expensive, professional camera like that!” comments!) Folks, to truly make use of your SLR and to really understand photography , every budding photographer must learn and master the following basics first:

  1. Light
  2. Shutter speed
  3. Aperture
  4. ISO (also called Film Speed)

Yes it’s time-consuming, it takes practice, it can seem laborious maybe to some. But for better photos, it is the only way. You wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car without knowing how to drive, so same thing with an SLR. Not even buying the most expensive camera out there will “automatically” get you great, publication-worthy images. Buckle down, read, practice, understand, practice again. As a travel photographer, I’m constantly learning about the interplay between those elements and how to get the best possible image –  without sacrificing quality and without missing the “feeling” of the scene and moment I want to project. It’s all about balance – and of course, practice. How and what we we shoot -as well as how well we master these elements is eventually, what makes us stand out from the sea of photographers out there.


Before I move on to the key elements – I have to mention 3 things to think about before setting anything and shooting anything:

  • Is there Light? How much light is at the scene?  (day, night, moonlit, concert lit, bright lights, noon?)

  • What are you trying to capture? Who or what you are shooting?  What are you trying to show? How do you want to portray a person or thing?  Where is this person/thing – in light or not, moving or still? Do you want to capture the mood?

  • Shooting Manual or A Mode, S Mode: For beginners, it is always more helpful to start with the P mode, S mode or A mode.  Each camera is different but basically, these modes allow you to set ONE element on your camera (say Aperture for A mode, or Speed under S Mode) and the camera automatically sets the rest. Eventually, shooting manual is what allows you to set and control every setting – but it takes time to get to that level so take it easy to begin with. And even then, many of us still shoot in A mode or S mode, depending on the type of shoot and to obtain different results.

The Basics

1.  Setting the Shutter Speed

Speed is one of the key camera settings and elements to a photograph. Speed helps capture the motion in the picture (still or moving) and it also plays a role in the amount of light that comes into your camera as you shoot. Basic points to remember:

  • First, look at the scene and ask yourself: Is it daytime or nighttime, and what kind of lighting to do I have around the object/person? Is the object/person still or moving?  Do I want to show motion blur or do I want to freeze the action?

  • The more still your object, the lower the speed you need (ex. 1/60 s).  A slower/lower shutter speed allows more light to come in as you capture the image, because the shutter stays open longer when you “click.”  This is okay with still persons/objects.  But if there is movement, you would get a blur effect with a slow shutter speed.  So it depends on what image you are trying to convey. Example:  With waterfalls, a very slow shutter speed gives a more “real” feel to the image of the water flowing down continuously.

Waterfall shot at 1/160s, freezes the action, but shows less “actual mood or motion.”

Waterfalls shot at 1/10s . A slower speed shows more motion (in daytime) and”drags” the action. You can almost feel the water flowing endlessly.

  • The higher/faster your shutter speed (say, 1/500), the more you can freeze a movement (again, assuming decent light).  However, a fast shutter speed lets in less light into your camera. In the daytime, that’s less of an issue. In the evening or nighttime, a high shutter speed does not allow much light in – and so you may need a lower shutter speed along with a tripod to get the image, unless the light is good enough to get by without a tripod and a low aperture and high enough ISO (see further below).

Shot at speed of 1/320s. A high speed setting freezes the action (in daylight).

2.  Setting the Aperture

The aperture setting or “f/stop” selection on your camera is what allows for those cool, shallow-background images – called “depth of field” or “bokeh” in photography-speak. It is also another element that allows for more light to enter the camea. Setting your camera in Manual or A(perture) mode, allows you to change the f-stop.

  • Low f-stop number = more light into the lens = good for low light scenes = good for focusing on foreground/blurring background. The lower the f/stop number selected (say f/2.8)  the larger the lens opening and the more light comes into the camera.  Think “small fstop, big light.”  Also, the smaller the f-stop, the more the image is focusing on the object you are shooting, blurring the background. This is great when you want to focus on only one element of the scene and blur out everything else.  “Fast Lenses” in photography-speak as lenses that can go as low as f/2.8 and are therefore better at capturing scenes in low light, and are therefore more expensive!

  • High f-stop = less light needed into the lens = good for well-lit scenes = good for focusing entire image. The higher you set the f/stop (say, f 11), the more focused the entire image is, instead of focusing only on the one object or person.  This is great for landscapes or big crowds where you want the entire image to be focused.

Shot at f/7. A smaller f/stop or aperture value lets in more light into the image.

Aperture at f/10 – A larger f-stop or “f-number” means less light into the camera.

Using Aperture to create “depth of field”:

Environmental Portrait of “Short-I,” in Jamaica | Shot at f/3.5. A small f-stop value blurs the background and focuses on the foreground (here, the person).

Shot at f/9. A larger f/stop or aperture value means everything in the image is more in focus, including the background.

3.  Setting the ISO (Film Speed)

A third key setting before you start “snapping” away, is choosing the appropriate ISO or film speed on your camera.  ISO is yet another element that lets to let light into the camera – in addition to “aperture” or f-stop (see above).  These two let you balance out the need for light.

  • Light outside = Low ISO. The lighter it is outside, the less ISO speed you need (say, for instance, ISO 200). If it’s a cloudy day, you’d have to bump it up a bit or you can adjust the exposure values.

  • Darker outside = Higher ISO. If it’s night time and there’s low light, the ISO needs to be higher – say, 800 or 1600 depending on how much light there is at the scene. But you’ll also have to be careful not to set the ISO too high because that produces “noise” – that ugly grainy effect on your photos. The higher the ISO the faster the film speed,  but it’s up to the photographer to figure out the balance around the lighting available.  Most photographers do not go beyond ISO 3200.

  • Note:  the higher the ISO setting, the higher the shutter speed and aperture go.  And in cases of low light, flash helps, of course, as does a tripod. But practicing without the latter two will give you a good feel for the use of ISO speed setting.

Of course, ISO also interacts with the f/stop setting and the shutter speed setting to create the image you want.

Shot at ISO 400. Daytime requires less ISO, starting at ISO 200 is the norm. If you were to go above ISO 400 in the day, the image would appear too bright, blown out or even grainy. The above shot could be better at ISO 200.  The aperture here is f/14 –  large therefore allows the entire image to be in focus.

Tony Ruption at Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival 2010 | Shot at ISO 800 – the preferred setting for night when there is decent light. With concerts or performances, a well-lit stage means less ISO needed, and the ability to capture the “mood” of the moment better.

Traditional Dancer at Dia de San Pedro in Ambergris Caye, Belize | Shot at ISO 3200. Speed 1/125s. Poorer lighting means having to bump up the ISO value and getting a slightly “grainier” image (or “noise” in photography-speak). The right speed can also capture movement, but remember that a high speed also lets in less light. All about balance, again!

4.  Difficult Lighting

With concerts to cover in Jamaica, I had to quickly grasp the best way to capture artists on stage, especially since so often reggae artists are constantly moving or jumping. Sometimes the stage lighting is excellent – and other times, it’s downright dreadful. It’s always good to be prepared and know how shutter speed, aperture (f/stop), and ISO all come into play to help your task.

Drumming show at night on the beach with almost no lighting on the performers. High ISO of 3200, but times like these, a faster lens (1.8) as well as a faster speed than used above *might* help improve the image. But in such conditions, where there is no choice, resort to flash (and lose the lighting mood?)  It’s all about balance and what you can sacrifice to get the image!

Shot with flash, at ISO 800 | Show on the beach with zero lighting on the performers. I normally avoid flash at all costs, because I love capturing mood – but sometimes you have no choice, or you lose capturing the event altogether.

If there is little light – then you will need a higher aperture (remember, that means low f-stop value) and a higher ISO. At the same time, remember that an ISO setting that is too high can also leave the photograph looking “grainy” (also called “noise”).  In the end, the key is to balance all these elements to prevent noise and still achieve as effective a photo as possible, capturing the moment. Easy, right?

Practice makes perfect

Once you understand these basic camera settings, where they are on your camera and how to make them interplay, you are most definitely on your way. Of course there are a few other “basic rules” to photography and getting that great shot, but this is where you need to start. So get the camera out, fiddle with it, and get out out there and practice.  I still do!

ISO 1800, 1/160s, f/2.8 | Machel Montano @ Jamaica Jazz Festival 2010 | Capturing movement, mood lighting and feel without getting too grainy of an image | (c) Lebawit Girma

If you’re hungry for more, a great resource on photography is the Digital Photography School with lots of online free “how-to” articles and National Geographic also offers a free Ultimate Field Guide to Photography E-booklet –  all you have to do is go to this page, scroll down and on the right-hand side column under the heading “Newsletters,” enter your email to receive it in your inbox.

Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel journalist, photographer, and guidebook author specializing in the Caribbean region. Her work has been published in major travel publications, including CNN, AFAR, Delta Sky, Lonely Planet, Shermans Travel, and BBC, among others. A self-professed "culture-holic," Lily left her native Ethiopia at age one, fast developing a passion for the expat Caribbean life. In 2008, she ditched her US corporate law career for the road and created Sunshine and Stilettos—a travel photography blog showcasing authentic ways to experience the Caribbean, through culture and nature. Lily has since partnered with Caribbean tourism boards and travel brands on major content projects. She also authors print guidebooks on three destinations, including Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Read more on her site, LebawitGirma.com

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  1. lorraine 15 May, 2011 at 2:51 PM #

    Nice! Thanks for breaking it down a bit! Very useful!

  2. lilyg 15 May, 2011 at 9:06 PM #

    Thank you Lorraine! I’m glad it helps, you certainly have the eye so keep practicing! 🙂

  3. Paul Mckenzie 15 May, 2011 at 10:21 PM #

    This is a very good resource for someone who is beginning, I looked at all of the examples and your are right on with every thing. I am always working on my settings and it takes some time to make them second nature. People are always asking me for advice so I will send them here. Good job, well done 🙂

  4. lilyg 15 May, 2011 at 10:45 PM #

    Thanks very much Paul! It certainly does take time for it to become “second nature” as you said, so folks should definitely not feel discouraged. I am often asked for advice as well, so I am happy to post this. And thank you for forwarding on, my fellow photographer!

  5. Jenny Shreve 16 May, 2011 at 8:28 PM #

    Very informative! An EXCELLENT basic guide to the more advanced aspects of photography, and even I can understand it! Brilliant, Lily!

  6. lilyg 16 May, 2011 at 8:53 PM #

    Thank you so much Jenny!

  7. Don Shreve 16 May, 2011 at 10:12 PM #

    Great job, Lilly- You’re a natural. If I’d seen this in January, I’d have taken the semester off & told the students to just report on this.
    Is there anything you CAN’T do?
    NICE shots too.

  8. lilyg 16 May, 2011 at 10:43 PM #

    Don!! Coming from you that is a huge compliment 🙂 Some day I will grow up to be you and do this photography-thing full time! 🙂 How IS the class going, I hope all is great, they are lucky to have you as their instructor. Thanks for the kind words Don!!

  9. Sprat 20 May, 2011 at 9:42 AM #

    Great job Lily. There is so much to learn and know, and this has helped me…make an effort to move out of my comfort zone, which is easier at times. Reading through your information, I find it easy to grasp and inspires me to move forward and challenge myself when taking new photos.

    Thanks Lily for taking the time!

  10. lilyg 20 May, 2011 at 10:03 AM #

    Thank you Jackie! I am so glad that this was helpful, that was my intent so it’s great to know. Thanks for taking the time to post your feedback!

  11. jade 26 May, 2011 at 12:52 AM #

    Great tips- we just bought a dSLR and are having fun playing with it- still SO much to learn but enjoying manipulating things to create different images.

  12. lilyg 26 May, 2011 at 10:24 AM #

    Thanks Jade! It really is fun! About to check out your blog too. 🙂

  13. Alex Evans 14 November, 2011 at 6:06 PM #

    Very informative… I knew a little bit about this stuff from a short photography workshop I attended a while back, but the way you break it down with examples… superb…

    My favorite sentence was “Sometimes the stage lighting is excellent – and other times it’s downright ‘dreadful'” … no pun intended, right?

  14. Fidel 3 June, 2012 at 10:31 PM #

    One thing people should keep in mind is that the higher ISO only looks good on camera models that allow you to shoot well at a higher ISO. Your entry level Nikons, Canons, etc., will produce a lot of grainy images at ISOs higher than 1000 typically. On my D700, I can up pretty high, but rarely go above ISO 2000.

    Lately for outdoor sunny shoots, I’ve been shooting at a LO 1.0 ISO with my aperture at 1/1000 and F2.8. I was taught that sunny should be 1/250 F11 or 1/125 F16, but I find my images look a lot more crisp at the higher settings, especially when I dial down the exposure.

    Like anything, finding the right settings, takes practice, practice, practice and getting yourself in a manual frame of mind.

    Great advice here in your post!

  15. Lebawit Lily Girma 3 June, 2012 at 11:00 PM #

    Thanks, Fidel – great tips from your end as well. And I agree on turning up the speed in sunny conditions, something I learned with practice also and from shooting in the islands. Like you said, there’s no substitute for practice and more practice!

  16. Fidel 3 June, 2012 at 11:16 PM #

    Oh, I meant 1/8000th of a second.

  17. Fidel 3 June, 2012 at 11:19 PM #

    I have difficulty shooting at shutter speeds lower than 1/10th when I want to stop action in daylight. My images always appear to be too over exposed. What is your recommendation for this?

  18. Lebawit Lily Girma 4 June, 2012 at 11:30 AM #

    Fidel, my first thought is, 1/10 is way low to freeze action and that also lets in way too much light for daytime. Are you shooting manual?

  19. Katherine 11 June, 2012 at 10:36 PM #

    Great article. Really informative and helpful. Great to see the same photo with the different settings – really puts it into perspective. Would love to know more about the gear you use too.

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