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Digital Camera Basics

By: j.wilder

Understand Digital Camera Basics quick (no fluff)!

car photography digital camera basics
Understand Digital Camera Basics quick!. Photo by j.wilder.


Most photography articles try to teach you too much.

They dish out glutenous helpings of lukewarm camera jargon.

You're starving, but you just lost your appetite.

It might as well be written in a foreign language.

That sucks because you're trying to learn!

Do you relate?

Let's fix that.

I hereby remove the camera jargon, non-essentials, debates, and controversies common with online articles and photography groups on social media.

The smart approach is to focus on the core concepts that matter most, so that everything else will be much easier (80/20 rule).

What You Will Learn

We will focus on the most important things first.


  • You won't waste time trying to shoot in manual mode when you don't know what you are doing.
  • You won't give up out of frustration (and lose years of progress like I did).
  • You will advance and gain confidence much quicker!

I wasted years of potential experience because I didn't know the secrets. I didn't have the keys that unlock the power of the camera.

Today the secrets will be revealed.

So let's not waste time.

We are going to focus on two simple but powerful things.

1) Exposure.
2) Shooting modes.

If you understand these two things the rest will flow like a Zen garden stream.

In 10 minutes you will, have the foundational knowledge of modern digital photography.

Sound good?

Here is the path to knowledge:

1. Exposure

  • Aperture
  • Shutter
  • ISO

2. Shooting Modes

  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Automatic

3. Scenarios

  • Relax, you're done!
  • Let's look at some photos.

Are you ready to Commit to the journey?

You have 10 minutes.

You have the rest of your life.

Choices, choices.

1. Exposure

Light is awesome!

Exposure is about getting the right amount of light into your camera.

Too much light and it's over exposed.

Too little light and it's under exposed.

You control how much light gets into the camera by adjusting the aperture and shutter speed.


Let's look at aperture and shutter speed more detail.


You know how the iris in your eye works.

In bright sunshine, your iris constricts in order to decrease the amount of the light that enters your eye.

In darkness, your iris dilates in order to increase the increase of light that enters your eye.

The aperture in a camera lens works similar to the iris of your eye. It opens up to let more light in and gets smaller to let less light in.

The opening of the aperture is measured using fractional numbers like f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, etc.

The smaller the number the wider the opening.

car photography digital camera basics aperture
Example of aperture openings and values: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.

Another important job of aperture is controlling "depth of field."

An easy way to understand depth of field is to imagine standing in front of a car and taking a photo of its hood ornament.

If your aperture is open wide to f/2 for example, and you focus on the hood ornament, whatever is beyond the hood ornament will be out of focus (or blurry).

If your aperture is set fairly small at f/8 for example, and you focus on the hood ornament, whatever is beyond the hood ornament will also be in focus.

As a car photographer you will be most interested in using a "shallow" depth of field (f1.8, f/2) to make details stand out against the background of the photo (think interior shots).

Also a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.8) will allow more light, which is great for hand-held shots in low light situations.

Simple, right?

Let's keep going!


The shutter is like a door.

Like the door on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Except it doesn't make the wooshing sound, and you can't really walk through it, but other than that, it's similar.

It opens and closes to allow light into the camera and create the photograph.

The amount of time the shutter stays open can vary greatly, from a split second to several seconds (or longer).

Shutter speed is measured in seconds, usually fractions of a second.

A fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000, can freeze moving objects.

A slow shutter speed, such as 1/10, can blur moving objects.

Simple, right?

One more thing.


The ISO setting acts as an electronic amplifier for a camera's sensor.

You can conceptually think of ISO as an electronic brightness booster.

When light hits the camera sensor it is converted into analog electrical current. Then the camera applies the amount of amplification based on the ISO setting. After the signal is amplified it is then converted into a digital signal (a stream of 1s and 0s).

Typically, ISO values start at 100 and can go to the thousands.

ISO 100 is great for outdoor photography in bright sunlight.

When do you need to use ISO?

To get the proper exposure first use the aperture and shutter speed.

If the exposure is still too dark, then increase the ISO value. If that doesn't work, then you must slow the shutter speed and break out the ol tripod.

However, boosting ISO is not always a perfect solution.

Half way there!

2. Shooting Modes

This is super important!

Shooting Modes reduce complexity.

Shooting Modes save you time.

The most important shooting modes on your camera are Automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual.

Once you grasp these modes, you can explore other modes, or just ignore them, because you don't need them.


I love automatic!

It's much better to get the shot than muck with settings WHEN YOU DONT NEED TO (sorry for yelling, but it's the truth!).

For outdoor car shows, car meets or walking the streets, the light is changing and the action is dynamic. In these situations it's totally cool to use automatic mode (like you probably have been).

Why use anything else?

Aperture Priority Mode

Why use Aperture Priority Mode?

Remember we talked about "depth of field" in the aperture section?

That's why.

If you want a shallow or a deep depth of field, you can tell the camera.

Set your camera on Aperture Priority Mode.

Set the aperture you want.

Your camera will adjust the shutter speed.


This is almost automatic mode.

Shutter Priority Mode

Why use Shutter Priority Mode?

Remember we talked about "freezing and blurring" motion in the shutter section?

That's why.

You set the Shutter, and your camera will adjust the aperture.

Again, this is almost automatic mode. All you have to do is set the shutter speed to what you want (scenarios below).

Manual Mode

It's not "manly" mode.

You haven't reached nirvana.

It's just another option.

When your camera is in manual mode, you are the boss.

You call the shots (did you catch that?).

You decide the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO values.

Why use manual mode?

  • You know exactly what you want (because you've done it a thousand times).
  • You have time to think about your shot and experiment.
  • You want something different than what your camera gives you.

If you do enough research you will find that many highly experienced photographers take advantage of the camera's intelligence and use aperture priority or shutter priority.

The goal is to get the job done.

Use whatever mode gets you the shot.


Now you know what exposure is and which settings control it.

You were introduced to the most important camera modes: Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority.

With this knowledge you can develop shooting scenarios.

3. Shooting Scenarios

To make sense of shooting modes, it's easier to think about shooting scenarios.

Choose the mode that will help you achieve what you want.

Here are a few common shooting scenarios that take advantage of the capabilities of your camera.

Scenario: Low Light, Hand Held

The lighting is low.

You don't want to drag around a tripod.

If your camera is on automatic, in low light scenarios, it will choose a slow shutter speed (slower than 1/60 of a second).

This can cause your shots to be out of focus because it's simply too hard to keep your camera still.

Use Shutter Priority.

Set shutter speed to 1/60 of a second.

This ensures your shutter speed will not go too slow (slower than 1/60 of a second).

When shooting hand-held, 1/60 of a second is fast enough to keep your photos sharp, but you still need hold the camera as steady as possible.

If your shots are still too dark, "boost the signal" by cranking the ISO to 800 (or more).

Mode: Shutter Priority.
Shutter speed: to 1/60 of a second.
ISO: 800 (or more if needed)

Scenario: Sweet Blurry Background (Bokeh)

I want the cool look where the car is in focus but the background is super blurry (bokeh).

car photography digital camera basics aperture bokeh
Shallow depth of field. Aperture f/5.6 @ 200mm. Photo by j.wilder.

This technique is great when you want your subject to stand out against the background.

For example, you want to emphasize the gear shift, or the emblem on the steering wheel.

Or a dreamy city scene where the car is sharp and the city lights in the background look like chromafog (I made that up). Yeah, gimme that!

Use Aperture Priority.

Set aperture to lowest value lens will allow (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, etc).

Mode: Aperture Priority
Shutter speed: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, etc.
ISO: 200

Scenario: Moving Car With Motion Blur (panning)

I want a sharp photo of a moving car and have the background to show movement (motion blur).

car photography digital camera basics aperture panning
Panning. Photo by j.wilder.

This is called panning and it will take practice and you will probably get a lot of photos out of focus. You will have to experiment.

Since the car is moving, you might want change to manual focus and set the focus where the car will be when you shoot.

When panning, hold the camera steady and rotate with your hips, like a water sprinkler.

Use Shutter Priority. Set shutter speed to 1/60 of a second.

Mode: Shutter Priority
Shutter speed: 1/60 of a second
ISO: 100
Tip: Use manual focus if necessary.


Whether it took you ten minutes or an hour, it doesn't matter.

The key is, you didn't avoid it like the plague, and waste years of progress.

Today you learned the secrets.

You obtained the foundational knowledge of modern digital photography.

You learned:

  • Exposure is controlled by adjusting the aperature and shutter speed.
  • ISO can amplify the electronic signal if you don't have enough natural light.
  • Aperture controls depth of field, which can give you nice blurry background (bokeh) or keep the whole scene in focus.
  • Shutter speed can freeze motion or blur motion.
  • Aperture priority and shutter priority are the most important modes to learn first (because you will use them the most!).

Understanding these things will make rest will flow like a Zen garden stream.

Coach Notes

Choose which camera mode works best for you for each given shot.

There is no "professional" mode.

There are insecure axe holes that love to argue.

Don't give a rat's arse what other people say.

Don't defend yourself.

Don't argue.

Just focus on getting the best shot you can.

Play the long game.

One photo is not going to improve your skills.

Think 10,000 photos. Then the next 10,000 photos. And so on.


This article is one in a series of car photography articles. Check out Get in to Car Photography for the complete index of articles.

Keep shooting.

James Wilder

James Wilder is the owner, writer, photographer, designer, and developer of Parked.Photography.


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