Home Tutorials & Tips Photography Tips Understanding ISO, Shutter Speed & F-Stop

Understanding ISO, Shutter Speed & F-Stop

You Asked For It

People often ask us what settings we use when shooting with our Sony A7 mirrorless camera and we often reply directly with a few pointers. One of our followers (go follow her @wanderlusterprincess) bought the latest Sony camera based on our recommendation, so we felt the need to go into a little more than just a few quick tips. Here is our shooting guide and basic understanding of camera settings. Hope you guys find it helpful.

Getting To Know Your Camera

The main issue most photographers have is that they do not spend time to get familiar with their camera. Hold the body and play with the buttons, click a few hundred pictures on different modes and get a feel for what kind of shooting gear you have in your hand.

This guide won’t go into detailed information on all of the functions your camera has, it will only focus on what we think are the most important aspects too achieve that perfect shot. We start below with the 4 more important things to understand about your camera.

#1 – Manual Mode

Sure, you could set your camera in Auto mode and snap away but you won’t be getting those interesting shots you are picturing in your mind. Auto mode is made to get whatever is in frame in the most basic of ways. If your frame has a subject in it, the camera will focus on that subject, set exposure for that subject and give you the proper shutter speed based on the available light. Seems great, right? What if you wanted that subject as silhouette or a speedy blurry exciting action shot? Which is why we recommend to always shoot in manual mode. You’ll learn a lot about what makes your camera take great or terrible shots and it will open up the possibility of being able to utilize the next three points.

#2 – F-Stop or Aperture

If you’re like us, you often look for the EXIF data on photos you like – for example:

Lens: E 55-210mm F4.5-6.3
Focal length (35mm equivalent): 315mm
Shutter speed: 1/800 sec.
Aperture value: F6.3
ISO sensitivity: 400

But what do those numbers mean? Let’s start with the F-stop or aperture value. There are only two things you really need to understand when looking at F-stop.

a) The smaller the aperture value (i.e. 1.4 compared to 16), the more light the lens will let in. This mean the smaller the aperture, the brighter your picture.

b) In combination with the above, the smaller the f-stop, the more out of focus things will be.

To make this simple: if you are shooting a subject with a 50mm focal length and using f-stop 1.8, the entire background will be blurry (what photographers call “the bokeh effect”). If you shoot at f-stop 20, the entire image will be sharp and in focus.

The image on the left has a definite focus on the first glass whereas the image on the right hand a focus on the entire image.

You may be trying this as we speak and notice your image getting either brighter (lowering the f-stop) or darker (cranking up the f-stop), so how did they achieve the above image? With a combination of the rest of the points below.

#3 – Shutter Speed

This is one setting most people tend to play with the most when adjusting for light. Shutter speed controls the speed or response to your clicking on that shutter button. How fast the shutter will open and close will determine what kind of movement your image will have.

The above image shows three frames with the same subject, a waterfall, but with different shutter speed. The first one the left has a shutter set at 1/125 of a second. That’s considered fast shutter speed and it captured the waterfall as still as it can be – a moment in time completely paused.

Now, take a look at the picture in the middle taken at 1/10 of a second. The image starts to show some movement in the water and motion blur is visible. The image on the right is shot at half a second and shows extreme movement and motion blur.

Two things to consider from this example. First, the camera was set on a tripod to prevent from capturing camera shake. If you look at the foliage in any of these picture, it is still. Only the moving subject at slower shutter speed is.. well moving.

Second, notice how the F-stop changes in each picture. Strange, no? In fact, it makes perfect sense based on what we explained earlier. The slower the shutter speed = the longer the lens is open to light. This would, therefore, result in a brighter image UNLESS you adjust the f-stop to a higher value to close the aperture so less light comes through.

It is the combination of lower shutter speed and higher f-stop that creates this image. If you were to leave the f-stop at 2.8 for the next two images, they would turn out overexposed or extremely white.

#4 – ISO

ISO is what most people never touch because it is a misunderstood setting. Back when we started shooting on film stock, the ISO would be on the film box.

The big 200 is what the ISO for this particular 24 exposure film would be

The ISO back then was to let photographers know what kind of light sensitivity the film stock had. The higher ISO, the better it would perform in low light. The biggest drawback of shooting with high ISO such as 4000, 8000 or even 16000 was the film grain. Sure, you could shoot at night some party by candle light but the grain on your pictures would sometimes overwhelm the quality of the shot.

The ISO toggle on the Sony A7

The first thing you need to know about your camera to begin with is:

a) What is your camera’s native ISO? On this Sony A7, the native ISO is 100. This means that this camera performs the best at ISO 100 which will render the best images and the best sharpness wit the least amount of noise (grain). To find out what your native ISO is, just google “camera model and name + native iso”.

We shoot a lot of video for clients and in most cases have to “run and gun”, generally at night and without any light kits. Cranking up the ISO to 640 or 800 will get that exposure to where it needs to be without being catastrophic on noise. Above 800 and you will start to see too much noise on your final product.

From left to right – cranking up the ISO. Notice the noise as you go higher.

A general rule of thumb for us is that we always play with the ISO if we absolutely need to. It is always the last thing we fiddle with. If we can get the shot with only adjusting the f-stop and shutter speed, we’ll leave the ISO at 100 most times. For video use, as stated above, we do what we need to.

What About Sunsets & Sunrises?

We will end this post with a typical set up to shoot sunrise or sunset images:

Shutter speed: 1/30sec or longer – this will keep the shutter open for a little longer than usual to get all the light necessary.

Aperture: f/16 – Since you are keeping that shutter open longer, you will need to close down the aperture at f-16 or higher depending on the light. This will also make sure that your entire image is edge to edge sharp.

ISO. 100 or lower – to prevent from getting unwanted noise.

Lens: 18-24mm or similar – The wider (smaller the first number is), the better for landscape shots.

White balance: Daylight – So that the camera sticks to one color. If you keep at auto, the camera might want to change mid-shot which will mess up your shot completely.

Don’t Worry Too Much + Extras

At the end of the day, you need to keep it fun and enjoyable. Taking pictures or video shouldn’t be a chore but more of an outlet to discover something new, whether a location or a new way to capture it.

EXTRAS – If you guys are interested in learning about our entire process from shooting to editing, let us know in direct messages on IG.

We would also love to see your own pictures, so make sure to tag our Instagram account @gominplanet or use #gominplanet and apply your new knowledge.