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Photography: Canon DSLR Settings

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

While you don't need a DSLR camera to get good pictures, you certainly have more control over the mechanics of a DSLR or Mirrorless camera than a standard cell phone camera. But in order for you to be able to fully, and confidently use your DSLR you'll need to understand the basics of exposure and your settings first.

I use a Canon Rebel T3i, which is a fantastic camera for beginners (like myself) who want to eventually become a semi-professional photographer. Full disclosure, I shot exclusively on auto for the first two years of owning this camera. The interface was intimidating as was the concept of ISO and f-stops. So I think it would behoove us to briefly cover these topics and how understanding these things can greatly improve your photography.

When we take a picture with a DSLR we are exposing a small sensor in our camera to light, the sensor then translates the data collected into a digital image. Depending on how much light hits the sensor, the picture you take could look very different.


Aperture is, basically, the hole in your camera's lens that allows light through. Your aperture size has a direct impact on the brightness of your photographs, it also affects your depth of field (the blurring of the fore and background). The larger your aperture the more light you let through and the brighter your image will be.

Aperture is measured in f-stops. The lower the f-stop the wider your aperture opening is. Most cameras have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 and a minimum of f/22.

Your aperture size also affects your depth of field (the blurring of the fore and background). The wider the aperture is the more shallow your depth of field.

(f/5.6 1/60) This photo was taken with a wide aperture, there is only a small sliver of the rose in focus.

This photo was taken with a shallow aperture in order to keep both subjects in focus

Shutter Speed

Refers to how long your shutter is open. Most cameras have the capacity to handle as fast as 1/4000th of a second to as long as approximately 30 seconds. This contributes to how long we expose our sensor to light, it also determines how motion is captured in your photograph.

To capture clear crisp photos of objects in motion, you will need to utilize a faster shutter speed.

Use a slower shutter speed to intentionally blur the motion of water, objects, or lights. Keep in mind that your images may be impacted by the smallest movements (as miniscule as your own pulse!) if you shoot at slower shutter speeds. In order to avoid unintentional blurring, it's recommended that you use a remote and a tripod.


Your ISO controls how sensitive your sensor is to light. The lower your ISO setting is the more light needs to be let in to get the proper exposure. The higher the ISO the more sensitive the sensor is to light. Most DSLR cameras have a range of 100-6400 with the option to set it to Auto. I find my sweet spot to be below the 1600 mark.

While this sounds like a quick fix to fiddling with your aperture and shutter speed, it comes at a cost: if you set your ISO too high it will take on a more grainy quality.

(f/5.6 1/8 ISO 1600)

Notice that this shot seems a little grainy in quality, this shot would have done better at a lower ISO setting.

Rules of thumb for each setting are these:


  • The smaller the Aperture the less light will get through, the depth of field will be deeper and the exposure darker.

  • The larger the aperture the more light will enter, the depth of field will be shallow and the exposure lighter.

Shutter speed:

  • The faster the shutter speed the less motion blur will be present, but less light will come through the aperture.

  • The slower the shutter speed the more blur will be present when objects move and more light will hit the sensor.


  • The lower the ISO the less sensitive to light your sensor will be

  • The higher the ISO the more sensitive your sensor will be and the image may become grainy

Shooting Mode

Now how do you modify these settings? Well to start we will turn to the large dial on top of the camera.

  • A-Dep - Auto Depth of field

  • M - Manual exposure

  • AV - Aperture Priority

  • TV - Shutter Speed Priority

  • P - Auto

  • A+ - Scene Intelligent Auto

  • CA - Creative Auto

A lot of these settings are auto settings, the three we want to focus on are Manual Exposure (M), Aperture Priority (AV), and Shutter Speed Priority (TV).

Shooting in Manual Exposure (M) Mode

This mode gives you the most control over your settings, it allows you to set your own custom shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Shooting in Aperture Priority (AV) Mode

This mode allows you to adjust your aperture and ISO but will automatically adjust your Shutter speed.

Shooting in Shutter Speed Priority (TV) Mode

This mode allows you to adjust your shutter speed and ISO but will automatically adjust your aperture.

Changing Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO and Exposure Compensation

Once you've put your camera into the correct mode, You will be able to adjust your settings via the interface on the rear of the camera. and the small notched dial behind the shutter button.


To change ISO, simply click the ISO button on the top of the camera and then, using the notched dial behind the shutter button, you can scroll to the desired ISO setting and press the ISO button again to confirm.


While in Aperture priority you only need to use the notched dial to scroll to your desired Aperture.

We already established that AV stands for Aperture Priority on our settings dial, this also rings true for the top most button on the back of the camera. In order to change your aperture while in M mode, simply hold down the AV button and scroll to the desired Aperture with the notched dial.

Shutter Speed

While in shutter priority mode or manual mode, you will only need to use the notched dial to adjust your shutter speed.

Exposure Compensation

We haven't discussed this setting yet, but it is very handy. you've probably noticed the bar of numbers on the second row of your camera's screen. This is your exposure compensation. This allows you to change your exposure by miniscule amounts to adjust the brightness of your images.

In order to use this setting, press the Q button on the back of your camera in any mode and use the notched dial to scroll to the desired adjustment amount. If your scroll to the right it will let in more light, to the left less light.

I hope this article helped you understand some of the basic settings you can use to help you understand your DSLR camera better! Stay tuned for more focused articles on how to use these settings to your advantage in photoshoots.

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