I recently upgraded from a standard compact digital camera to one of the newish "halfway cameras", hoping to get a bit better at taking photographs through having a little more control over the settings. Trouble is, the camera has so many settings that I'm having difficulty figuring out which to concentrate on learning about! I think it's best to start with the basic settings, by which I mean those that actually involve something physical in how the photograph is taken, rather than with the vast array of post-processing that the camera seems capable of. So, my question:

Which settings on my camera are "real"? Meaning that they have an effect on the information initially read by the sensor, not post-processing.

(I would be surprised if this varied from camera to camera which is why I haven't specified my exact camera. Also, I'm not asking for an explanation of what the settings do, though a "sound bite" that I can easily remember when I'm out with my camera would be a welcome extra.)

Standard apology: if this question has been asked before, I apologise and would appreciate knowing which question to look for the answers in. Also, I didn't have a clue what to tag this!

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ I went your route when learning photography, buying more and more camera until I found one that I felt suited me. I can say that it's a fun ride, but you might get more out of switching to an SLR, getting a prime, and shooting things in A or S modes. That's when I felt that my learning really took off. \$\endgroup\$
    – mmr
    Jan 8, 2011 at 21:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with @mmr. Take a look at this question I asked: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/5883/…. You don't even have to go as high end as I went, but I think the same principles apply. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tom
    Jan 8, 2011 at 21:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mmr: I'm extremely happy with the one I have and doubt that I'll upgrade further until the kids have left home (about 20yrs time). I looked at DSLRs but the sheer size and weight put me off. (The actual camera is an Olympus Pen E-PL1). I've had a lot of fun playing with it, and have gotten a few really nice photos, but feel it's been more by luck than judgement and now want to be a bit more scientific in my learning, hence the question. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2011 at 22:45

4 Answers 4


There are several things which are "real" by your terminology. I'll explain at the end why I thought it slightly odd, but... Anyways, they are:

  • ISO
  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed (Or Time).
  • Focus
  • Mirror Lockup (DSLR only)
  • Image Stabilization

To learn what these are, please see the question: What is the Exposure Triangle.

Everything else, sharpening, saturation, tint, etc is done after the shot is taken.

The term virtual and real are a bad choice, because a virtual image is a specific optics term, I won't bother to explain here. It doesn't mean anything in photography, so... The term real is a counterpart. I got excited for a second when I saw the words real and virtual in a question, but somewhat sad after I realized that it wasn't quite the same...

  • \$\begingroup\$ Ooops. The other meaning of "virtual images" just didn't occur to me (and it really, really ought to have done). I'll see if I can think up a real question about virtual images to make up for it. Thanks for the list. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2011 at 22:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ He he ... you say "exactly 3 things" and then give a list of 6! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2011 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ LOL, that's what I get for editing part of the list, but not all of it... \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2011 at 23:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ You get the "checkmark" for the link to the "Exposure Triangle" question as that provided a link for me to learn more about these things. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 20, 2011 at 17:17

I'll expand on Pearsonartphoto's list, the following settings affect the raw data captured by the camera:


  • ISO
  • Long exposure noise reduction
  • shutter speed
  • aperture
  • mirror lock-up
  • image stabilisation
  • flash


  • image stabilisation
  • focus
  • focal length

There a whole lot of options that indirectly affect the above. But if you shoot in full manual that is pretty much all the input you have (there may be more, I'll add them as they occur to me)! The ambient temperature can also have an effect, as sensors pick up more dark current noise when hot.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good catch, I should have included them... I'll add them. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2011 at 20:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Some noise reduction settings are "real" (after taking the picture, the camera takes another picture with the shutter closed). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8, 2011 at 20:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jukka Good one! \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Grum
    Jan 8, 2011 at 21:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not quite sure I get the distinction between Camera and Lens for these items. The Aperture is controlled by the camera, but is physically (and optically) part of the lens. Focus is controlled by the camera body (in AF) but is very much dependent on both body and lens for actuation and control of focus. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 9, 2011 at 23:51

These settings directly affect the exposure:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO

These settings affect the optics of the photo:

  • Focus
  • Zoom

Then there are more advanced features on some cameras, like image stabilisation, mirror lockup and different forms of automatic focusing, and there are filters that you can mount on the lens for different effects.


Start With As Few Variables As Possible

The trick is to ignore most of the settings most of the time.

As you say, there are loads of settings to tweak, but the really really important ones are the exposure triangle and focus.

For the purposes of getting a handle on what these all do, I would start by setting the ISO to the lowest normal setting (probably 100 or 200), then play with: - Focus - Aperture - Shutter Speed

I guess that it's pretty obvious when the focus is right.
Aperture and shutter speed now become a balancing act - as one goes up, the other needs to come down, and the combination of the 2 gives the overall exposure.

Spend a few minutes playing with those settings, and you'll be well on your way.

The other settings either tweak these settings (e.g. the details of how auto-focus is going to work) or affect more obscure aspects of how the camera behaves (e.g. Mirror-Lockup to minimise vibration).

When starting out, it looks like there is a whole bunch of stuff to understand, but the camera will work perfectly well most of the time with the default settings.


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