DSLR education: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

DSLR education: Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed. 

When I first got my 5D mark II, I had to comb through a bunch of different posts/articles and experiment with the camera myself to learn the basics of Aperture/ISO/Shutter speed. 

Screw that. 

I don’t want you to burn more hours learning the fundamentals of the most important settings for filming with DSLRs so I’ve created this simple guide below that will educate you on how these features work with each other and the best settings.

Aperture is king. 

The iso and shutter speed exists just to accommodate the aperture. (99.9% of the time)

What I mean is that the question should NOT be, “What should I set my aperture/iso/shutter speed at?”

The question you should be asking is, “What should my aperture be?”

Once you know what aperture stop (or number) to use then you simply set the ISO and shutter speed to make that specific aperture stop/number look good.

What the hell is aperture?

Put simply, the aperture is the black part of your eyes. When it’s dark, your pupils dilate to allow more light in, when it’s bright out they get smaller than a pin to block the light out.

But more importantly… aperture controls how shallow the background (or foreground) will be.

Look at the below images to see what I mean… don’t pay attention to differences in color or exposure. I was too lazy to match them up perfectly, what you should be looking at is the amount of blurriness in the background.

Aperture is responsible for roughly 70% of the shallowness or lack thereof… the other 30% is distance. The next DSLR education post will cover distance, focal length and lenses in depth, but for now we’re focusing solely on aperture/shutter speed/iso.

Every lens in the world should have an aperture number. If you hear someone say, “Oh I use an canon 50mm 1.4 because I’m a cool hipster,” then you need better friends. Also tech lingo explained below-

The 50mm is focal length, if it was 50-80mm that would make it a zoom lens but if it’s just one number like the above then it’s a prime lens… as you can guess the zoom lenses can zoom in and out but the prime lenses have a fixed distance. I strongly suggest only using primes for film because they are not only cheaper (less glass) but they are also more clear (because of less glass). More in depth on lenses in next education post.

The 1.4 is the aperture! A pretty low one at that too. It depends on your film but I would generally suggest not ever going under 4.0 maybe 2.8 sometimes. 

Why not?

Because at 1.4 aperture if the actor or object moves a inch forward or backwards they will get out of focus.

Out of focus shots looks cheap and when you do need it for an effect you can still do that at 2.8 and above.

Plus it will make the background blurred beyond recognition most of the times.

I understand, you just got your first DSLR and also the capability to really get shallow depth of field for the first time in your life… I’ve been there and can tell you retrospectively, you don’t want to abuse it.

Don’t believe me? Go watch your top 5 favorite movies and compare how many times you can make out the background as opposed to shots with such shallow background it’s unrecognizable.

Usually those shots (extreme shallow depth of field) are reserved for dramatic moments. If you abuse it, you lose its power. (same with every other form of pleasure in the world)

5.6 aperture is the most commonly used stop (what people call the aperture number) because you get a slightly blurred background. Not too blurred, not too sharp (overwhelming), just perfect.

For a video demonstration of aperture, check out the below vid-

What about shutter speed? What’s the best setting for video?

The ‘pros’ will tell you to double the framerate to get your optimum shutter speed. (So 24fps would be 50 shutter speed, 30fps would be 60 shutter speed, etc etc)

I think that’s bull.

I’m sure the above is true for higher end film cameras which they’re more familiar with but this is DSLR cinematography. These cameras look different because they have different kinds of image processing. I have about three years of experience with DSLRs starting with the 5D mark ii and can safely say I’ve never had a problem shooting at 30 shutter speed.

It’s the lowest shutter speed you can use in video mode and has the most natural movement/aesthetic than the other speeds. The faster the shutter speed, the more choppy your video will be. It looks like the opening of Saving Private Ryan or like the fight scenes in Gladiator. 

Take a look at the below video to see how different shutter speeds affect the image.

High shutter speeds are great for action. It creates a sharper, more intense image. And as with everything else, moderation is key. Most people can’t endure more than 5 minutes of this high speed shutter video, just like hardcore techo music hurts after too long.

When I change my shutter speed the light gets darker or brighter, why?

The faster the shutter speed the more light is blocked out. It’s actually a real shutter like on a camera when you hear a picture taken the shutter goes down. So if the shutter is going up and down faster, the less light gets to leak through.

Oh so I can use the shutter speed to compensate for super bright days? 

Yes, but I don’t suggest it. As mentioned before, your videos will get really choppy. If it’s too bright at 30 shutter speed, use ND filters. (they are like sunglasses that you can attach to the end of your lens)

This is why ND filters exist, blocking out light so you can have that nice creamy 30 shutter speed…. Look at the below video, the one on the left was shot using ND filters instead of a high shutter speed, the one on the left was shot without ND filters but a shutter speed of 320. See how the water looks competely different in differing shutter speeds?

Ok… so 5.6 aperture and 30 shutter speed is the standard, what about ISO?

ISO is the thing that makes your videos grainy.

It’s a computer that artificially brightens your footage… watch the image get brighter as you increase the ISO.

Why not just use the ISO instead of professional lighting?

You will pay the price for using higher ISO.

Think about googling a dog, if you found a small picture of the breed you want but if you blow that same picture up some more it gets bigger but more pixelized… blow it up 10 times bigger than the original size and now all you see is blocks of pixels.

The higher the ISO the more quality you lose.

It’s nice to be able to blow a picture up a bit bigger but you always pay the price… same with ISO, it’s a lifesaver for boosting the available light you have but shouldn’t be pushed further than 1600.

If you’re making a real film and you want the absolute cleanest, most crisp image possible then only use 160 ISO.

Wait… isn’t 100 ISO the lowest one?

Yes. 100 ISO is the lowest possible ISO but apparently with video on the canon DSLRs you should only use ISO 160, 320, 640, and 1600

Not going to give you a long explanation, just look at the below video-

Note- This does not apply in photography, only in video mode. 100 ISO is the cleanest one in photography.

Fun fact: you can change the ISO while recording by holding down the ISO button and moving the shutter speed dial. Obviously it looks stupid because it looks like you’re changing the shutter speed or aperture as it gets brighter or darker. (I wish canon would add digitalized smooth ISO shifts just like some higher end lenses have smooth aperture rings. Matter of fact, make smooth shutter speed and aperture while you’re at it. Not that difficult, just some more programming and computer magic)

So if I’m serious about my image quality I would use real lighting to compensate for the mere 160 ISO?

Precisely! But hey if you have to use higher ISO sometimes even *shudder* 1600 ISO not all hope is lost. You can buy Neatvideo *link*. I’ve used it for two years now and have been consistently impressed by how well it preserves the image quality while cleaning up the gain.

Ok so… how exactly do I know what settings to use?

What’s the aperture going to be? (shallow 2.8-4) (medium 5.6-8) (deep depth 11 and above)

After you decide the aperture you set the shutter speed to 30 and ISO 160.. if it’s too dark try boosting the available light first then maybe lowering the aperture a tad bit. If that’s still not working out try 320 ISO if that’s still too dark go up to 640… etc etc.)

There you have it. Now you understand aperture/shutter speed/iso.

What about framerates?

Easy one.

Shoot 24fps if you want to make it filmic and look sick on dvd/blu ray.

Shoot 30fps if you’re only using it for online use. (irony is that 30fps looks like film on a computer monitor but on a real tv it looks like sports or the news. home video-y)

Shoot 60fps if you’re planning on converting it to 24fps for smooth slow motion.

Both 24fps and 30fps are good for online videos but 30fps would look smoother. Reminder- 30fps will look like a home video on every other screen. Period.

Hopefully this guide helped provide some insight, go and make beautiful films! 

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5 comments on “DSLR education: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

  1. Good Guide! Blam.

  2. Thank you for the concise and clear explanation!

  3. dana ray on said:

    HI, I found this site after a long few days trying to decide which lenses I just had
    to buy for my two week old t3i. I had just come to the same conclusion about the
    5.6 aperture that you did. I also have noticed that my canon hv20 defaults to
    1/24th at 1/8th shutter indoors Like you, I had heard the 180 shutter rule and thought
    is that pertinent in video. Thank-you for this I’ll be re reading often. I met a guy who belonged to a real celluloid filmmaker group and I asked him how he managed
    focus, He said we shoot everything at 5.6. I thought he was insane, now I know better. Thanks for saving newbies like me thousands of hours of frustration.
    You’ve done a great thing here. Take care, Dana Ray portland ore

  4. Sidney Zeledon on said:

    Thanks for the lesson! Ive been a still photographer for over 30 years and I just picked up my 1st DSLR that was capable of taking video. After reading your article everything made sense. That choppiness was really starting to bug me! I was just about to consult one of my video buddies and ask them for some help, but we’re always on each other debating over who is king, Video or Still photography. It’s all in fun! Oh, and congratulations on the whole hearing thing. I read the article in the press enterprise and it was amazing! Good for u!

  5. There’s one thing i wanted to mention. The video example for ISO is applicable if you use Technicolor Cinestyle. If you go to vimeo page of the video and read the description you can see that this test was done with Technicolor Cinestyle. I’m not sure if you don’t use Technicolor Cinestyle you necessarily need to use the multiples of 160.

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