Understanding your camera and being able to adjust it to get the look you want is the first step in capturing great visuals. The number of presets, automatic settings, and extra features vary from camera to camera, but these fundamentals hold the key to having supreme executive power over your recording device. (All of these principles also apply to still photography, but this post is more video-focused in some sections.)
1. Understanding the ISO
ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The more your ISO increases, the more your camera’s sensor will boost the brightness of the image. At a certain point, visible “noise” or “grain” will be added to compensate for the lack of light, so try to keep your ISO as low as possible to reduce the amount of distortion, while going high enough to actually see your subject.
2. Shutter Speed
This is the amount of time that your camera’s shutter is open (or “on,” depending on your camera model), exposing light on each frame. For instance, a shutter set to 1/60 is letting in light at 1/60th of a second during each frame. The higher the shutter speed, the more crisp and “jittery” your footage will look, and the sharper your photos will be. In video, your shutter speed is typically set to double your frame rate (30 fps = 1/60 shutter), but you can experiment with slower and faster shutter speeds to produce different looks. One common mistake is confusing shutter speed with frame rate — they have vastly different effects on the image.
The aperture is the size of your lens’ opening, and is usually a set of blades or a diaphragm that allows light to pass through to your sensor. This is similar to the iris of a human eye, constricting and opening to control the amount of light that goes through the lens. The smaller the number, called “f-stop” or “t-stop,” the larger the opening of the aperture, and vice versa.
With a larger aperture (but smaller f number — yes, it’s confusing), your depth of field is more shallow, which means less of your frame will be in focus when shooting. Keep more of your image in focus by closing your aperture, especially if you’re shooting landscapes.
4. White Balance
The white balance is how your camera registers light and gives your image/video a color temperature. It’s measured in Kelvin, with each light source’s hue having its own corresponding temperature. Mid-day light is usually around 5600 Kelvin (K), with a candle down on the “warm” end at 2000K, and dark shade on the “cool” end at 9000K. Most cameras are pretty good at automatically setting your white balance, so don’t be afraid to use the auto setting — but if you want more control, you can use the in-camera presets or manually set the white balance yourself.
5. Frame Rate
Your frame rate is how many frames are recorded during each second of video, commonly abbreviated FPS. Technically, unless you’re using a film camera, it’s FIELDS per second, since you’re not actually capturing frames of images.
As far as frame rates go in media today, most feature films are shot at 24 fps, web video is commonly shot at 29.97 or 30 fps, and things like broadcast news, live sports, and multi-camera sitcoms are typically shot at 59.94 or 60 fps (unless you’re in a country that uses PAL instead of NTSC, which is shot at 25 and 50 fps). However, many consumer cameras today are capable of recording 60, 90, 120, 240, or even up to 1,000 or more frames per second!
You can choose any frame rate you want for your footage, but you are going to get vastly different results with each setting. A lower frame rate like 24 fps will give you a more cinematic or “film” look, adding much more blurred motion to your video. Shooting at 29.97 or 30 fps will give you a more digital or “video” look, and 59.94 or 60 fps will give you a more “soap-opera” or “live/broadcast” look with less motion blur.
If you want to shoot slow-motion or high-speed footage, you need to shoot at least 60 fps and slow it down in post-production. Any less, and the image will stutter and look a little off. The higher the frame rate is, the slower your footage will be when played back at regular speed.
Once you’ve mastered these five basic camera functions, you’ll be able to work in any environment with any camera.