DSLR Basics: The 3 Main Camera Settings

Updated July 5, 2022
This guide explains DSLR basics including aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in simple terms for beginner food photographers.

Welcome to part 2 of the photography series where I share my food photography tips and tricks for beginners. If that’s something you’re interested in, you’re in the right place!

Today we’re talking DSLR basics. A DSLR camera is great for food photography, but if you don’t know how to use it properly, you won’t be getting maximum benefit from it!

Being able to confidently use your camera in manual mode is so important when taking good food photos (or any photos, for that matter). Hopefully this blog post will explain aperture, shutter speed and ISO a little clearer, so you can graduate from your ‘auto mode’ days!

And don’t worry if you don’t know what any of those words mean – I’ll be explaining these three main settings along with some handy photos to show you what happens when you change them.

So grab an iced latte or a mug of cosy masala chai and let’s get started!

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Why aperture is so important in food photography:

The first, and arguably most important, DSLR setting is aperture. This is defined as how wide your lens opens. This is determined by the aperture, or f-stop.

The f-stop scale is dependent on your camera lens. Most kit lenses have an aperture range from f/3.5 going down to f/22 or even lower in some lenses. A 50mm lens can have apertures as high as f/1.4.

What can be confusing about aperture is that the lower numbers are actually called maximum apertures. This is because the lower the f-stop number, wider the aperture of the lens. This lets in more light creating a brighter photo.

Like all DSLR settings, there’s a caveat to setting your aperture too high. As you increase your f-stop, you reduce the amount of the picture in focus. This can be useful for creating bokeh – a dreamy, blurred background – but if you want more of your subjects in focus, you’ll need to reduce the f-stop.

If you look at the two photos below, the second photo has a lower f-stop. The result is that the glass of milk and the marble background are more blurred.

Note that I have also adjusted the ISO and shutter speed to keep the brightness the same between both photos.

How to use shutter speed to take action shots in food photography

The second setting to understand when talking about DSLR basics is shutter speed. Shutter speed is a measure of how long the shutter is open when you are taking the photo.

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second e.g. a shutter speed of 1/2 or 1/200. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the shutter is open and hence the brighter the photo.

When shooting manually, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed fast (no slower than 1/80 s) to minimise blurriness caused by shaky hands. If you are using a tripod, you can use a fairly slow shutter speed (1/4 to 1/2 s) as your camera is stationary when taking the photo.

If you are taking action shots or capturing movement, perhaps of syrup being drizzled onto some pancakes, you’ll want to use a fast shutter speed whether you are using a tripod or not. This is because we want to capture that split second when the syrup is being poured as sharply as possible. If our shutter speed is too slow in this case, we will simply get a blurred image.

Look at the two photos below. The second photo has a faster shutter speed so the cookie and the milk droplet are a lot sharper.

Note that I have also adjusted the iso to keep the brightness the same in both photos.

What is ISO?

ISO is the final setting you need to understand DSLR basics. And you’ll be pleased to hear it’s the easiest to understand!

ISO is simply a measure of your camera’s sensitivity to light. ISO has a scale from 100-1600, or even higher on some cameras. The higher the ISO, the more light the camera lets in, and the brighter the photo.

So to take light and bright food photography, we wan’t a higher ISO, right?

In fact, we want our ISO to be as low as possible. This is because as ISO increases, so does the grain or ‘noise’ in our photos. So to take crisp, clean, food photos, you’ll want to keep your ISO low. I usually range from ISO 100 to ISO 400 depending on the availability of light and the aperture and shutter speed I want.

How do aperture, shutter speed and ISO link together?

Using a DSLR to its best capability is all about balancing aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These settings determine the following aspects of your final photo:

1. How bright your photo is.

To make your photo brighter, you’ll want to increase the aperture, shutter speed, and/or ISO. The side effect of this is that your photo will have more bokeh, be less sharp and have more noise, respectively.

2. How much is in focus.

If you want a blurry background or bokeh, increase the aperture. To capture movement, decrease the shutter speed. If you want to reduce noise, decrease the ISO. Likewise, modifying these settings will affect the brightness of your photo.

Using your DSLR correctly comes with practice. Pick a simple subject and experiment with different settings to see the results. It may seem exhaustive at first, but soon enough you’ll be adjusting your settings like a natural!

If you are still unsure about some concepts, I highly recommend checking out Joanie Simon’s YouTube channel – it’s a gold mine for food photography tips!

What next?

I hope you enjoyed this installment of the photography series! Stay tuned for part three next week, where I’m sharing my top five places to buy food photography props.

Did you read last week’s post? I shared 5 essentials for beginner food photographers. It’s not to be missed! You can also view the rest of the photography series for even more tips and tricks.

Please take a look at my photography portfolio if you are interested in working with me. You can also come say hello on Instagram!

Happy photographing,


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