In this post, we’ll go over 11 basic Canon camera settings, and touch on concepts you need to know to help you master your camera.

  1. Shooting Modes
  2. Aperture – Control the Depth of Field
  3. Shutter Speed – Control Motion Blur
  4. ISO – Control Your Sensor’s Light Sensitivity
  5. Exposure Compensation
  6. JPEG and RAW – Image File Formats
  7. Focusing Modes
  8. Metering Modes
  9. Pop-up Flash Basics
  10. Composition
  11. Focal Length

Knowing your camera’s settings gives you the confidence you need to create great photos! In case you missed it, be sure to read, “Get to know your camera” where we learned the buttons and dials on your Canon camera. 

As a bonus, this post has 3 practice scenarios for you to set your camera’s settings for “Landscapes”, “Portraits”, and “Panning Shots”.  Practice makes perfect, so give them a try!

1. Shooting Modes

Most cameras have several shooting modes.  The one you use depends on your preference, subject, and experience.  A camera’s semi-automatic modes, (Aperture Priority (Av) and Shutter Priority (Tv)), let you control the settings that are most important based on your subject. 

Image of a camera mode dial, where basic canon camera settings start.
  • Auto (a green square on the mode dial) takes care of your camera’s settings for you.  All you need to do is point and shoot
  • Program (P) mode controls your camera’s shutter speed and aperture, and lets you set options like ISO, metering modes, and white balance 
  • Aperture Priority (Av) lets you control the aperture, and the camera handles shutter speed 
  • Shutter Priority (Tv) lets you control the shutter speed, and the camera picks an aperture based on your selected shutter speed
  • Manual mode (M) requires you to control all settings, including aperture and shutter speed.  As a beginner, you’ll only need manual for a handful of advanced scenarios.  As you progress, you’ll get much more comfortable with manual mode

2. Aperture (Av) – Control the Depth of Field

Image “depth” consists of the foreground, subject, and background elements in your photo.  “Depth of field” simply refers to how “in focus” each of those elements are. 

Demonstration of shallow depth of field with two toy figures with closest one in focus, and furthest out of focus.
Wide Aperture (f/2.8)

Wide apertures like f/2.8, create an extremely shallow depth-of-field.  Portrait photographers prefer a shallow depth of field to keep their subjects sharp and backgrounds blurred. 

Demonstration of deep depth of field with two toy figures, both in focus.
Closed Aperture (f/22)

Landscape photographers want as much of the scene to be in focus as possible.  They use apertures like f/16 (or smaller) for more front-to-back sharpness.



3. Shutter Speed (Tv) – Control Motion Blur 

Slow camera shutter speed used to photograph a spinning toy results in motion blur.
Shutter speed: 1/8th of a second

Controlling shutter speed gives you the incredible ability to freeze fast-moving subjects in space and time, or capture them with artistic blur.  For action photographs, shutter speed opens many creative possibilities. 

Fast camera shutter speed used to photograph a spinning toy results in freezing the object.
Shutter speed: 1/500th of a second (the toy was still spinning)

Panning or tracking shots of moving cars at 1/25 sec creates a sense of “movement” with dynamic background blur. Shooting the same car at 1/1000 sec ‘freezes’ it, making it look like it’s parked. 

Slow camera shutter speed used to photograph a moving car, resulting in a crisp view of the car with the background is blurred, creating a sense of motion.
1/25th of a second

“Freezing time” with a camera’s shutter speed is so popular, it spawned the creation of photography t-shirts and hoodies!

Image of a hoodie with an image of a camera printed on it, as well as the phrase, "I can freeze time, what's your super power?"

4. Exposure Compensation

In the bottom of your viewfinder and LCD screen you see what looks like a little number line (circled in red in the following photos). That number line represents your exposure compensation. When the pointer on the number line is below 0, your photo gets darker. Above zero, and your photo brightens.

Knowing how to use this basic Canon camera setting is important, because in Aperture Priority (Av) and Shutter Priority (Tv) modes, your camera always assumes your subject is a mid-tone (not too dark, not too bright).  That’s problematic if your subject (or their background) is lighter or darker than mid-gray.  Your image might turn out over- or underexposed. 

To show you what this means, our subject – a little Funko Pop figure – has a dark background. Since the camera is in Av mode (aperture priority), the camera assumes the subject is a mid-tone, and slightly overexposes the scene.

Photo of camera in aperture priority and subject with dark backdrop, slightly over-exposed.

To fix it, adjust exposure compensation down a few notches until your subject is correctly exposed.

Photo of camera in aperture priority and subject with dark backdrop, with adjusted exposure compensation.

Conversely, when your subject is against a bright background, the camera underexposes your subject.

Photo of camera in aperture priority and subject with bright backdrop, slightly under-exposed.

As a result, you’ll need to move your exposure compensation up a few ticks.

Photo of camera in aperture priority and subject with bright backdrop, with corrected exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation lets you override the camera’s automatic assumptions, and lighten or darken the exposure to fix the problem.  It basically gives you manual control with the convenience of semi-automatic.

5. ISO – Control Your Sensor’s Light Sensitivity

Another basic Canon camera setting is ISO. ISO refers to how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light.  The lower the ISO, the less sensitive–the higher the ISO, the more sensitive.  There’s lots to consider with ISO, but for now just know that lower ISO numbers (usually 100-400), result in better image quality, (and vice versa).  At low ISOs, there’s very little digital ‘noise’ in your photos.  

Photo of toy taken with low ISO camera setting is crisp, and has no digital noise or grain.
Low ISO

In the first low-light image of my Minion figure, I set my camera’s ISO to 100. To properly expose the scene, I adjusted the aperture (f/1.8) and shutter speed (4 seconds). Notice how crisp everything looks!

Photo of toy taken with high ISO camera setting is grainy, and has much digital noise.
High ISO

In the next photo, I shot the same subject, in the same lighting conditions. But this time I cranked up the ISO full-blast (40,000) to brighten the scene. I used abnormally high ISO to show you its main drawback: Notice how crappy — er, I mean “un-sharp” and “grainy” the shadow details look!

“Digital Noise”, (noticeable at higher ISOs and plain ugly at the highest settings), looks like pixelated, colored flecks in the shadow areas of your photos.  Choosing your ISO setting is ultimately a matter of compromise.  High ISOs (such as ISO 6400) let you use faster shutter speeds–meaning you won’t need a tripod or a flashgun in low-light scenarios.  Choose wisely.

Here’s a general “rule of thumb” to get you started with ISO settings:

ScenarioRecommended ISO Setting
Bright Day100
Cloudy Day400
Dusk and Dawn800
Indoors (no flash)1600
Night3200 or 6400

Run a few tests with your Canon camera to find your highest acceptable ISO.



6. Image Quality [File Formats]

Graphic depicting RAW vs JPEG camera settings

By default your basic Canon camera settings are configured for JPEGs.  JPEG image files are processed in-camera.  That means you can download them from your memory card and print them or share them online instantly. 

What’s nice about JPEGs is that they don’t take up much space on your memory cards and hard drives, and they’re processed and ready for use.  The downside is their tone and color data is relatively limited. They won’t hold up very well if you try to heavily edit them.

Image of Canon 80D camera settings menu where photographers select RAW and JPEG file formats.

As you gain experience, you’ll capture photos in the ‘Raw’.  Raw files take up more space than JPEGs, but you get more flexibility in post processing. It’s easier to adjust color, exposure, and white balance than with JPEGs.  Use Raw when you intend to post process your photos with tools like Photoshop or Lightroom.  

7. Focusing modes

To ensure a sharp subject no matter what you shoot, Canon cameras have three autofocus modes, as well as manual focus.  The basic Canon camera setting mode you choose depends on your situation.  

Image of Canon 80D camera settings menu where photographers select autofocus modes.

One Shot

One Shot locks focus as soon as autofocus is achieved.  Use it for subjects that don’t move, like real estate, products, and portraits. 

Real estate photo taken with a Canon camera set to one shot autofocus camera mode.

AI Servo

AI Servo continuously maintains focus on a moving subject as long as you keep the shutter button pressed halfway, and the active (red) focus point stays on your subject.  

Action sports photo taken with a Canon camera set to AI Servo autofocus camera mode.

AI Focus

This focus mode blends One Shot and AI Servo.  In this mode, your camera starts out in One Shot but automatically switches to AI Servo if your subject starts moving.  It’s not perfect though, and many photographers prefer to not use it. 

Manual focus

This is just what it sounds like.  Switch to manual focus via the AF-MF switch on your lens. Focus on your subject by rotating the focus ring on the lens until your subject looks sharp through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.  This option is great for landscape and macro photography. 

Image of a Canon camera lens featuring the AF-MF switch.

8. Metering modes

Metering modes let you change the way your camera reads the light in your scene, which then affects overall exposure.  In most situations, Evaluative metering works the best.  So what do the other modes do?

Image of Canon 80D camera settings menu where photographers select metering modes.

Partial and Spot Metering

Spot metering takes a light reading from roughly 2-4% of the frame, and Partial reads a larger, more forgiving area at around 10%. 

Icon for spot metering.
Spot Metering
Icon for partial metering.
Partial Metering

Partial and Spot metering are both great when your subject is lit from behind, or when you want to expose for a specific part of the subject.  

Center-weighted average

Icon for center-weighted average metering.

Center-weighted metering reads the light mostly around the center of the frame, and less so towards the edges.  It’s useful when using neutral density (ND) filters, which can cause Evaluative metering to overexpose. 

Evaluative

Icon for evaluative metering.

This ‘intelligent’ metering mode reads light from all parts of the frame, and calculates an average exposure based on the light and dark areas of the scene, with a bias towards the selected AF point(s).   Evaluative metering helps you get a correct exposure in most situations.  



9. Pop-up Flash Basics

You can’t beat a speedlight or flashgun for versatility, but if your camera has a pop-up flash it can be a great way to add light to subjects. 

Image of a Canon 80D camera with pop-up flash enabled.

It’s a basic Canon camera setting that’s simple to use. Just press the flash button and take a picture.  If your flash is too strong or too weak, use the flash exposure compensation setting in the main menu to adjust the power. 

10. Composition

Composition is simply the way elements in your shot are arranged. 

Image of a beach landscape, with drawn lines and arrows denoting how a viewers eyes are "drawn in" to the photo.

In a well composed picture, the elements feel balanced, and the viewer is drawn into the frame.  

Image of a beach landscape scene with the rule of thirds gridlines drawn onto the photo.

The “rule of thirds” is one of the simplest and most useful composition techniques to master.  By following this guideline, you ensure your photos are visually balanced.  All the elements in your scene work together in harmony.

Simply imagine your frame with two horizontal and two vertical lines like a tic-tac-toe.  Position your subject on one of the four intersection points on the grid for a good, solid composition.  To make things easier, most Canon cameras let you overlay a grid on your LCD screen and viewfinder.  

11. Focal length

A basic Canon camera setting to understand is focal length. Cameras are often sold as kits with a camera body and basic zoom lens.  Kit lenses are normally 18-55mm, and useful for a wide range of subjects.  Focal length refers to how wide the field of view is.  A smaller number (18mm) gives you a wider view, and a larger number (55mm) creates a narrower, more “zoomed in” view. 

Image of a Canon 80D camera with a kit lens attached.

18mm is ideal for landscapes.  35mm is good for a wide range of subjects.  55mm is great for portraits as well as getting closer to subjects that are farther away.  Focal length also affects the depth of field–background sharpness decreases as the focal length increases.  

Practice

Now that you understand these basic settings, let’s practice dialing them in.

Settings for Landscapes

Use a tripod if you’ve got one.  For the best light, shoot just after sunrise or just before sunset.  First, switch your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode, with the aperture set to f/16 and ISO at 100.  Next, zoom your lens out to 18mm for the widest possible view, and switch it to manual focus. 

Image of a majestic landscape with a distant mountain, water in the mid-point, and rocky land in the foreground.

Now, turn on Live View (the LCD screen) and compose your image.  Once your image is composed, zoom in to a point that’s roughly one-third of the distance into the scene, and manually focus on that point.  Finally, for a sharp shot, activate the self-timer and press the shutter button.

Settings for Portraits

First, find an area with an uncluttered background that extends a few meters behind your subject.  Next, switch your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode with the aperture set to f/5.6 and ISO at 100 or 400 depending on how bright your scene is.  Zoom your lens in to 55mm. 

Image of a smiling teenage girl posing in a natural environment for a portrait.

Next, set the focus mode to Single Shot and make sure just a single AF point is active.  Finally, look through your viewfinder, and adjust the AF point’s position so it’s over your subject’s closest eye.  You’re now ready to begin shooting.

Settings for Panning Shots

First, set your lens to 35mm or 55mm, depending on your distance from the subject.  Next, switch your camera to Shutter Priority (Tv) mode and set the shutter speed based on the table below.  Now, set the ISO to 100 or 400, depending on how bright your scene is, and use AI Servo AF (continuous AF) with the central focus points active. 

Slow camera shutter speed used to photograph a moving car, resulting in a crisp view of the car with the background is blurred, creating a sense of motion.

As your subject approaches, track them and half-press the shutter button.  Lastly, as they pass, keep tracking them by twisting on your hips and press the shutter button all the way while smoothly continuing to track them.  

Walking1/8 to 1/15 sec
Running1/15 to 1/30 sec
Cycling1/15 to 1/60 sec
Cars1/30 to 1/125 sec
Racing1/125 to 1/250 sec
Shutter speed suggestions for panning shots

Conclusion

So how did you do? I’d love to see your test shots! Post ’em to your favorite social media pages, and post a comment below with links to your shots!

Remember–reading and knowing this stuff is only a starting point. Practicing these concepts is how you’ll really start to grow and learn. Got questions? Drop a comment, or shoot me an email!


Russell Robinson

Russell Robinson is a photographer, blogger, and IT professional near Seattle, WA. His photos are used worldwide on many websites and blogs.

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