6 camera settings beginners find confusing

Digital photography isn’t short of camera jargon and technical concepts – the sort of stuff that can leave beginner photographers scratching their heads.

To be fair, camera manufacturers do their best to help newcomers get to grips with the basics, with plenty of automation and guided shooting modes to help ease them in.

But there’s still room for improvement. Here’s our take on the camera settings and photography concepts that we think have the potential to confuse beginners. Feel free to add yours in the comments below…

1. Large apertures have small numbers

If you’re a complete photography beginner, then the idea of f-numbers will be an alien one.

Why do the numbers that represent the size of the aperture jump in such strange increments? From f/5.6 to f/8 to f/11 to f/16 – it makes no sense! And why does the f-number increase as the aperture decreases in size?

Well, here’s the thing. The f-number isn’t the actual size of the aperture – or the hole in the lens. Rather, it represents a ratio between the diameter of the lens and its focal length.

This provides consistency: a 500mm lens at f/8 will let in the same amount of light as a 20mm lens at f/8. Even though the lenses are physically wildly different in size, the relative size of the aperture is the same.

The f-numbers follow a mathematical sequence, with each number multiplied or divided by the square root of 2 (or 1.414). So, f/4 multiplied by 1.414 gives you f/5.6.

If you imagine the f-number as a fraction, then it becomes a little clearer why the size of the aperture gets smaller as the f-numbers get bigger. For instance, 1/16th is smaller than 1/8th – so an aperture of f/16 lets in less light than an aperture of f/8.

2. Small apertures make more things sharp while also making them look soft

As we all know, an understanding of how to control the depth of field enables you to increase or decrease the amount of an image that appears sharp.

The choice of aperture plays a key role in determining the depth of field. Large apertures decrease the depth of field, while small apertures increase it.

The typical photography advice for portraits is to use a large aperture to blur out background details. The reverse is true for landscapes and macro photos: choose smaller apertures to maximise the depth of field and get as much sharp as possible.

The problem is that the effects of diffraction are more obvious at small apertures – and this creates photos that appear soft.

The point at which details start to look less crispy varies between lenses, but the sweet spot of sharpness and depth of field is usually somewhere between f/8 and f/11.

3. 1/10 sec sounds fast, but it’s actually pretty slow

In the real world, 1/100 sec, 1/10 sec, heck, even 1/2 sec are fast split-second times. But in the world of photography, they’re really not very fast at all.

Try and hold a 500mm lens steady for 1/2 sec and you’ll end up with margarine-soft shots. Don’t expect to get sharp results if you shoot a galloping horse with a shutter speed of 1/10 sec either.

If you want seriously sharp photos, then you’re looking at the shortest exposure times possible. To put that in context, freezing the motion of a fast-moving subject like a galloping horse or a flying bird may require a shutter speeds in the order of 1/2000 sec or 1/4000 sec.

If you can hear the shutter both open and close, chances are that your photo will be blurred. Increase the ISO. Use a larger aperture. Work with more light.

4. ‘Increasing’ the aperture or shutter speed

When new photographers are told to increase the aperture or the shutter speed, there’s a lot of room for error.

If you ‘increase’ the shutter speed, does that mean choosing a faster shutter speed for a shorter exposure time or a slower shutter speed for a longer one?

If you ‘increase’ the aperture, does that mean setting a larger aperture or a higher f-number?

It makes more sense to describe the aperture in terms of ‘opening it up’ or ‘stopping it down’, and the shutter speed in terms of choosing a faster one or a slower one.

That should help clear things up. Er, right?

5. Bright scenes can end up as dark photos

Exposure can be a tricky concept to get your head around when you’re new to photography.

Perhaps most confusing is the idea that bright scenes can end up looking to dark in a photo, while dark scenes can end up looking too bright.

It’s all down to the camera being tuned to a ‘mid-tone’ value. Point your camera at a person wearing neutral colours and standing in a green field – a mid-tone scene – and you’ll get a well exposed shot.

Photograph the same person standing against a blanket of snow and you’ll end up with a dingy grey photo. That’s the camera trying to bring that scene down to a mid-tone value.

Take a photo of a person in a dark forest and the image will probably look overexposed and too bright. Again, it’s the camera trying to correct the exposure and bring it up towards an overall mid-tone.

Digital cameras have got better at metering, and there’s always the histogram and exposure compensation to help you correct things. But exposure can still be confusing when you’re just starting out.

6. Landscape Picture Style and Landscape Scene Mode do different things

Beginner-level digital cameras offer scene modes that optimise the camera settings for a range of subjects. For instance, the Landscape mode sets a small aperture (for a deep depth of field) and boost the blues and greens for more vibrant results.

Your camera probably has scene modes for Portrait, Close-up and Night photos, too.

But digital cameras also offer a range of Picture Styles or Picture Controls that share similar names. These feature different blends of colour, contrast and sharpness. The Landscape setting will show a boost in saturation and sharpness, for instance.

You can apply the Picture Style to any picture if you want to – you don’t have to be taking a landscape photo to use the Landscape Picture Style.