photography 101: ISO + aperture

by Holly on January 26, 2011

in photography

I am no expert.

This I should warn you now.

However, I had a good teacher, and good teachers teach so others can learn. In the grand scheme of this lil’ thing called life, we hopefully then go on to teach others what we have learned and pass on that priceless gift of knowledge to them.

My gift-giving skills may not be of interest to you.

My gift-giving skills may be way off.

My gift-giving skills could totally suck.

But here they are anyways. I hope Santa approves.


  • ISO: camera’s sensitivity to light
  • aperture: depth of field (depends on the focal length of your lens + the distance you are from the subject you are shooting)
  • shutter speed: how long your camera’s opening is well…open
  • white balance: compensation for the fact not all light is the same temperature (flourescent vs. natural vs. tungsten vs. yellow)
  • metering: how a camera determines the correct exposure
  • focus: distance your subject is from the camera
  • lightbox: see here

Still confused? It’s okay. I am too. Which is why we are taking this step-by-step (cue this 1990’s sitcom theme song)…


As I mentioned above, ISO simply translates to how sensitive your camera is to light.

Have you ever been on the beach where the sun is shining SO brightly, that you can barely keep your eyes open because your corneas feel like they are being burned to death? Or, have you needed to shadoob in the middle of the night and groggily stepped through the pitch blackness of your house in desperate search of the toilet only to run straight into a wall?

I speak from experience on both accounts when I say our eyes are sensitive to light.

Just like the camera.

Since I took these pictures in a artificially-lit room at a high school at 8:00pm, the ISO of 800 obviously worked best. The more light, the less the camera needs to work to compensate for light (ahem, low ISO). The less the light, the more the camera needs to work to compensate for light (ahem, high ISO). It is also the reason why you may come upon “noise,” or a grainy look, in your photos when you have a high ISO. The camera has to compensate in other areas to get the right lighting for your composition.

Here is a rough breakdown of when you want to use each ISO setting…

  • ISO 100/200 = outdoor shots or indoor shots on a really sunny, bright day
  • ISO 400 = extremely cloudy, dark day or normal inside shots
  • ISO 800 = early morning or at night, when the sun has yet to come out and conditions are fairly dark
  • ISO 1600 = extremely dark conditions


I think aperture is still the toughest one to wrap my mind around.

Probably because I’m pretty sure they purposely make it confusing.

On your camera, your aperture is likely going to range anywhere from f/3.0 to f/20. Like I said, this number is your depth of field, which in real human terms means how far you are away from what you want your camera to focus on. Do you want to focus whatever is exactly 3 feet in front of you? Or, do you want to focus on what’s 3 feet in front of you and everything farther beyond that?

As most things in my world, sometimes it’s easier to see it in pictures.

If you look closely, you’ll notice two things: (a) my ISO was clearly not high enough, as these pictures are all slightly underexposed (a higher ISO would have given me more brightness and made the whites more “white”) and (b) while it’s slightly hard to see in these shots, the more things are in focus in each picture as I upped the aperture. Look above, and keep your eye on the ring – it’s blurry at f/5.6 but in focus at f/10.

Again, a low-numbered aperture yields this (look at those center cookies clearly in focus!)…

…while a high-numbered aperture yields a big ol’ picture with LOTS of things in focus (the trees! the snow! that barn way way way way in the back there!).

Get it?

Good, because things are about to get confusing.

The higher the number of the aperture (high = large depth of field), the SMALLER the lens opening is. And vice versa (low = smaller depth of field = LARGER the lens opening). It’s confusing, I know. I go by the rule that if I have something like a landscape or a picture I envision everything being in focus (i.e. large group, skyline), I use a higher aperture. If I am taking close-up food shots or pictures of one specific thing I want in focus, then a lower aperture suits me just fine.


Alright, you have officially graduated from photography 101.

Because I’ve got a sink of dishes calling my Everythingtarian name and have yet to eat dessert, it’s imperative I go and make both those things happen.

Next up: photography 102!


Amanda (Eating Up) January 26, 2011 at 9:28 pm

This was super helpful. And I don’t even have a DSLR. But I will one day. And then I’ll refer back to this.

Matt January 26, 2011 at 9:32 pm


How about giving me a complete crash course?

Mara @ What's For Dinner? January 26, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Love it :)
Let’s plan a Milwaukee weekend soon… I need some fun and Holly in my life!

amanda January 26, 2011 at 9:36 pm

great lesson. still slightly confused-haha-but it was fun reading and playing with my camera while doing so!

thanks, holllllls!

Pure2raw twins January 26, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Great tips!!! I am finally learning my camera, slowly :)

dana @ my little celebration January 26, 2011 at 9:37 pm

PERFECT! Now all I need is a high quality camera. My smart phone isn’t doing the trick…

Kristin January 26, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Thanks so much! This was very helpful!

Jenn L @ Peas and Crayons January 26, 2011 at 9:43 pm

This is great! I was wondering about ISO but never got around to googling it! These photos made it WAY easier for me to understand!!! Please keep em coming! I’ll be following! <3


kaity January 26, 2011 at 9:51 pm i get it..and all it took was some simple writing with good instructions! who woulda thunk it

Emily January 26, 2011 at 10:04 pm

ok now you’ve covered up until where I got bored in my camera manual, cannot wait for lesson 2! thank you so much for writing this out…bookmarked since I always forget these things

lora January 26, 2011 at 10:10 pm

i loved this post! photography is so hard, and Ive had 2 entire school quarters of it! But I have a boyfriend who knows where its at and teaches me things..I think its all trial an error for the most part. I just got down ISO and finally aperature clicked with me last week! crazy I never got that one either!!!! Go have dessert and skip the dishes! Thats what Ima do lol.


Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) January 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm

great cliff’s notes, break it down, kinda post, holly!

i have played around with my dslr settings and i agree aperture is the toughest to wrap one’s head around…and it’s like algebra..what works to help one person “get” it isnt necessarily the explanation that helps someone else. but i think your explanations will help 99% of people to get it more.

and experience and just shooting is the best teacher! and in my house, my kitchen, my world, time of day i shoot…shooting with less than like an f/7 to 8 yields bad results. I am a f/9 or f/10 girl usually :)

Adam January 27, 2011 at 1:46 am

This will def be a bookmark. I can’t wait to get my camera now… :D Thanks for all that went in to this and everyone of your posts!

Katie January 27, 2011 at 5:40 am

How about I come out there when the weather gets nicer and take a photography class from you, dine, dance, and shop ; ) sounds great to me!

Thanks for this post, is it normal If I still have no freaking clue ?! lol! Lightbulb PLEASE go off in my head ; )

Love you Holly! Stay Fly ggggggggggiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrllllllllllll !!! xoxo

Lucie January 27, 2011 at 5:44 am

I love photography, but generally always put my camera on auto, given that all of these settings confuse the hell outa me (or rather, the settings combined)! Thanks for this!


Lauren January 27, 2011 at 5:45 am

I wish you could give me personal lessons. Your photography is always so stunning.

chelsey @ clean eating chelsey January 27, 2011 at 6:39 am

I have no idea what the terms mean but I know exactly what I have to do with my camera in RAW to get good pictures – I just played around with it until it looked okay! :) January 27, 2011 at 7:08 am

this is such a helpful post, especially as i’m considering a camera purchase that does more than point & shoot!

Gabriela @ Une Vie Saine January 27, 2011 at 7:35 am

I was really tempted not to read this post, since this kind of camera stuff scares the crap out of me…but I read it. Slowly, I’m kinda sorta half-beginning to maybe understand this stuff a little bit. That doesn’t mean I’ll be changing the settings any time soon, though :)

Ashey @ 365things January 27, 2011 at 8:26 am

FANTASTIC tutorial! My husband used to rock a Nikon D3000 and now has a D300. *Love* He’s a self learner and taught me a good bit along the way. I just use my iphone for now though. I may get a nice camera later on.

Kacy January 27, 2011 at 8:55 am

Great refresher. I learn and unlearn this so often. I don’t know what wrong with me that I can’t retain the information.

rebecca lustig January 27, 2011 at 10:21 am

i am TERRIBLE with photography, but i love admiring other masterpieces :)

Megan (Braise the Roof) January 27, 2011 at 10:44 am

I envy you for actually getting out there and taking a photography class. I’ve really been wanting to, but I’m waiting til I can save up to buy an SLR. Aperture is a bitch, that’s fo sho.

Pure2Raw Twins January 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

THANK YOU for this post! I have it bookmarked and plan to refer to it a lot! THANKS HUGS

J.Lynn January 27, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Definitely enjoyed this photography lesson! I’m looking into buying a fancy-schmancy camera and getting into the groove of snapping the world around me. Thank you for this :)

Angharad January 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Excellent! Just excellent! Thank youx

Katie January 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Oooh boy I have so much to learn! I just ordered myself a brand new camera and I’m so excited (and overwhelmed) by learning all the different features. Definitely bookmaking this post, thanks Holly-Girl!

Laura January 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Yay! Thank you! I just got my first DSLR, and I’ve been too timid to take it out of “auto-everything” mode. I’m so sick of the flash right now. This will be very helpful in getting me away from it.

Marci January 27, 2011 at 1:25 pm

I’m going to love this series you’re doing. If I keep reading over and over and practicing, I’ll get it one day! What lenses do you use? Buying one other than the stock 18/55 is next for me. Probably the 50mm to start.

Little Bookworm January 27, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Thank you for this post – has inspired me to learn more about my camera settings!

cailen January 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm

great pictures! and thanks for the tips : )

(ps those cookies look delicious!!!!)

Jen January 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Thank you so much for this!!! You rock :)

Sissy #1 January 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Eww why would you end this post with a picture of the worst animal out there?

Nichole (Flirting with Food, Fitness & Fashion) January 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm

I have read other bloggers photo 101’s and I think you describe it best for a newbie wanna be photographer. Thanks!

Jackie ( January 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Great article! It’s amazing how a few changes on the camera really brings things to life. You take gorgeous photos!

Jenny January 27, 2011 at 6:20 pm

girl – I’ve had my camera for almost a year longer than you have and you’ve totally surpassed my in your photography know-how. Go you! and thanks for the tips. Now I’m only kind of sort of really confused ;)

julie January 27, 2011 at 7:54 pm

the cookies look so good i feel like i could reach into my computer and eat them. i wish i could.

..if only

Mimi (Gingersnaps) January 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Still gobbltygook to me. I’m a shitty photographer.

And I’m loving London! I’m hitting up the Imperial War Museum this weekend!

Kaleigh January 27, 2011 at 10:35 pm

This is so helpful! And thank you so much for helping me do a flash-back to TGIF!

Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table January 27, 2011 at 10:43 pm

I must thank you…

#1 for reminding me of that classic show, Step by Step.

#2 for the photog lesson. I just bought a replacement camera – woo hoo!

Kate (What Kate is Cooking) January 27, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Thanks! I know nothing of photography, but this was informative :)

Anne January 28, 2011 at 2:58 am

THANK GOD, someone who can actually decipher that camera language and put it into layman’s terms for us common folk! :)

Mary @ Bites and Bliss January 28, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I know about the ISO but the apeture was a totally new concept! I mean, I *thought* I knew what it was, but apparently not. Thank you for this! Can’t wait for 102!

Stephanie January 29, 2011 at 3:32 am

Thank you for these tips. :) They make my camera seem a little less scary than I thought!

Uncle Tommie Timbertoes January 29, 2011 at 5:55 am

I read a good tip. Avoid pictures of people posing. Pictures of people are far more intersting, revealing and story-telling when you have captured them engaged in an activity other than the eye of the photographer. Kinda like the front yard of a house. If you really want to know something about the people who own the house drive through the alley and check out the backyard. That’s where thier personality resides. The front yard is just where they keep a smiley faced pose.

Sarah (Running to Slow Things Down) January 29, 2011 at 6:53 am

This was great, Holly! I still get boggled by the whole aperture number thing too. I really wish that whoever made up the number system would have reversed the way the numbers run. ;)

The pics are *gorgeous*! :D

elise January 29, 2011 at 12:04 pm

i *think* i actually get this. thanks a mill – let the experimenting away from the P setting begin!

Heather January 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Great lesson! I think I actually “got” it! I’ve come across some other blogs with little photography tutorials, but my adult ADD usually kicks into high gear once the topic gets to aperture size and I just look at the pictures! Can’t wait for 102!

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