Take Better Photos–How To Choose Your Manual Settings

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I have had a question come up this week in my Mom and Camera Photography Class and in a comment here on my blog that I thought I would address it today’s Take Better Photos post. The question is, “How do I choose my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings when shooting in manual mode? How do I know where to start when adjusting my settings?” The quick and unhelpful answer to this is that I choose them based on the light and what I want the final photo to look like. The longer and more helpful answer I’ll elaborate on with photos below.

When I get ready to take a photo, I decide what are the most important settings in the photo I am going to take. For example, in a portrait of my oldest daughter, the most important settings for me would be aperture and ISO. I want a wide-open aperture to get a nice blur to the background and I want the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise. But, in a portrait of my son, the most important settings would be aperture (again–I love a nice blur to the background) and shutter speed (he moves much quicker and unpredictably so I need that shutter fast enough to freeze his quick movement.) In a macro photo of a flower, my most important settings are shutter speed and aperture.

Once I know the 2 most important settings I will choose my third setting based on what will allow me to keep the other 2 settings where I want them. Let me give some examples:

Aperture: f/4.5
Shutter Speed: 1/250
ISO 200

In the above photo, the day was very overcast. I knew I needed my shutter speed at least 250 and possibly higher. I set my shutter speed, then my aperture to the lowest possible I could be on this lens and left my ISO at 200. Had I needed to raise my shutter speed any higher because I wasn’t able to stabilize myself enough or the wind was blowing, I would have had to increase my ISO so that I could, in turn, raise my shutter speed.

Aperture: f/2.5
Shutter Speed:1/1250
ISO: 200

In this photo of my daughter, the day was fairly sunny. I knew I would easily be able to have my ISO at 200. I set my aperture to f/2.5 and adjusted my shutter speed as needed to get a good exposure.

Aperture: f/2.0
Shutter Speed: 1/160
ISO: 200

This is a photo of a 4-year-old. When I am photographing small children, I try not to let my shutter speed fall below 1/100 of a second unless I know they are really focused and sitting super still (a bit of a rarity as I am sure all you mom’s of little kids know.) I set my shutter to 1/160 of a second and then adjusted my other settings to get a good exposure. Again, if 1/160th hadn’t been high enough, I would have had to raise my ISO in order to increase it since my aperture was already about as open as I like to go on the lens I was using.

Aperture: f/2.0
Shutter Speed: 1/250
ISO:1600

In this picture of my son jumping, I wanted to “freeze” his jumping. I initially set my shutter at 1/500 and then adjusted my other settings. Since he wasn’t super close to the window and the day was overcast, that put my ISO at 3200. That isn’t my favorite ISO ;), so I lowered my shutter speed and in turn lowered my ISO. I took some shots to see if that shutter speed would freeze his jumps. It didn’t “freeze” it perfectly. So I went back to my other settings. However, my favorite 2 shots were taken at 1/250 while I was testing things out. I decided that a little bit of blur was okay ;)!

As you can see, there are no RIGHT settings. There are actually MANY different settings you can choose. I usually start with one or two of the settings that are most important and then adjust the others from there. For me, the setting I start with the most is aperture. This comes from the fact that I love Blurry backgrounds and I need super open apertures to get that effect.

Hope this helps you. Please understand that there are others that may shoot very differently than I do. I am just sharing with you how I do it in hopes that it will help you feel less intimidated by all those settings!

Using the “Big Three” to Get a Good Exposure

This is part of a series of posts about How to Shoot in Manual Mode. Follow the links to read the other posts about WHY I USE MANUAL MODE, APERTURE, SHUTTER SPEED, ISO, and WHERE TO BEGIN CHOOSING YOUR SETTINGS! You can also download a helpful Manual Mode Cheat Sheet here.
Now that we know all about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, lets talk about how to get a good exposure using these three things.

To get the perfect exposure, the perfect amount of light has to hit your sensor. If you let in too little light, your photographs will be dark and generally “gray.” If you let in too much light, your photos will be very bright and generally washed-out in color. We control how much light hits our sensor using the “Big Three” that we have learned about the last few weeks.

Think of aperture and shutter speed on either side of a balance scale. When you add to or change one side–it affects the other side of the scale and in order to keep them in balance you have to make adjustments to the other side. Inside your camera is a light meter. You can see this light meter when you turn on your camera and look through the viewfinder. It will look something like this: +…..O…..- . The light meter is the scale. It is what tells you if your aperture and shutter speed are out of balance.

Some examples:
Let’s say that I am outside taking photos of my kids. I want the background blurry (shallow depth of field) so I open my aperture to f/3.5. The last time I was taking pictures I had my shutter speed set to 1/60. As I look at the light meter in the viewfinder it looks like this: +lllll0…..- . Those lines to toward the plus sign tell me that I have too much light coming into the camera. In order to keep this in balance, I need to decrease the amount of time my shutter stays open. I turn the dial until the lines toward the plus sign disappear. Now my shutter speed is at 1/500 and my light meter is in balance.

f/5.6 ISO 200 1/80

On the same day, I want some photos of the gorgeous mountains near my house. For this, I need a much greater depth of field (I need everything between me and the mountain in focus) so I increase my aperture to f/16 but now my light meter looks like this: +…..0lllll-. In order to keep the light meter in balance, I will have to slow down my shutter speed. Once I get to 1/60, the light meter is in balance and I snap the picture.

f/13 1/400 ISO 200

Now you may be wondering, “So, how does ISO come into play with the balance between aperture and shutter speed?” Well, lets say now that I move inside and want to take some pictures of my kids jumping on the bed. There is a lot less light in my house than outside my house, so I open the window blinds to let in as much light as possible. I also open up my aperture, to let in as much light as possible.

I know that in order to freeze the action, I am going to need a fast shutter speed. However, even with the open blinds and the open aperture, I still can’t get get my shutter speed above 1/80 and my pictures are still a little blurry. The only way to get my shutter speed faster and still keep a good exposure is to increase how sensitive the sensor is to the light by increasing my ISO. Once I increase my ISO to 800, I am able to increase my shutter to 1/400 and thus freeze the kids “mid-jump.”

Some caveats: Your light meter isn’t perfect. The great thing about digital is that you can see what your photo looks like immediately. As you are learning, use that feedback to make adjustments. Also, you may notice that your DSLR consistently underexposes or overexposes (underexposing is much more common.) You can make adjustments by just always knowing that your camera is in balance when the light meter in your camera shows 1 or 2 bars toward the + (or whatever works for your camera.) Get to know your camera and how it exposes! Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

ISO–The Big Three of Photography Part 3

This is part of a series of posts about How to Shoot in Manual Mode. Follow the links to read the other posts about WHY I USE MANUAL MODE, APERTURE, SHUTTER SPEED, HOW I PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER, and WHERE TO BEGIN CHOOSING YOUR SETTINGS! You can also download a helpful Manual Mode Cheat Sheet here.

ISO–What the heck is ISO? I first became aware of ISO in the days when I used a film camera. At first, I wasn’t really sure what it all meant other than the ISO 100 or 200 film had pictures of sun and ISO 800 film showed clouds. So, consequently, if I was going to be photographing outdoors with lots of sun, I chose ISO 100 or 200 film and if I was going to be photographing on a cloudy day, I chose ISO 800 film.

But here’s the real story. ISO measures the sensitivity of the camera sensor (or film) to light. Lower numbers are less sensitive to light but produce little noise/grain while higher numbers are more sensitive to light and tend to produce more noise/grain.

Here is an example:

I took 2 photos of an apple. The left one was taken at ISO 200 and the one on the right at ISO 3200. I wanted an extreme example so that you could easily see the difference. Look at the background in these photos. The background of the ISO 200 shot is creamy and smooth but the background of ISO 3200 looks grainy or noisy. ISO’s in between 200 and 3200 will have gradually increasing amounts of grain.

So, obviously, as a general rule you want to keep your ISO as low as possible. Does this mean that I will always photograph at an ISO of 200? Absolutely not!! When photographing indoors, I really dislike (and this is putting it kindly) using the on-camera pop-up flash (a.k.a. The Flash of Death) and would much rather have a somewhat grainy photo than the harsh light the pop-up flash produces. In any lighting situation, the ISO I choose depends on the lighting conditions. If I am outdoors during daylight hours, I generally use ISO 200 or 400. If I am photographing indoors, my ISO might increase to 1000 or more.

This example was taken outside on a fairly bright day. There was enough light to keep the ISO at 200 while still maintaining a high enough shutter speed to get a crisp photo while hand holding the camera.

ISO 200 Aperture: f/5.3 Shutter Speed: 1/200

However, in this example, it was later in the evening in the mountains and the sun was setting and somewhat blocked by the trees. I had to increase my ISO to 800 to keep a high enough shutter speed for a crisp photo–she was moving, after all.

ISO 800 Aperture: f/4.2 Shutter Speed: 1/160

In this next example, I was taking pictures of my son and I reading books during the day in a room with a large window. I was able to keep my ISO at 400.

ISO 400 Aperture: f/2.0 Shutter Speed: 1/60 (just barely fast enough to hand hold the camera and not get a blurry picture)

However, in this example, I was taking photos in a room in my house that has very little window light on a cloudy day. I had to increase the ISO to 1000 to get a good exposure and still hand hold the camera. If you look close there is some grain in the photos but, thankfully, I didn’t let that deter me from taking these pictures since they are some of my recent favorites.

ISO 1000 Aperture: f/2.0 Shutter Speed: 1/60

Some other situations where you may need to increase your ISO in order to be able to get a good exposure–indoor sporting events (you’ll need a high shutter speed to capture the motion without blur and the indoor lighting will probably not be enough), inside a church (generally not well-lit and many will not allow flash especially during a wedding ceremony), and birthday parties (blowing candles out in a dark room can give some fun light, but you’ll have to increase your ISO to capture it.)

Some technical caveats: 1) Not all camera sensors are created equally. DSLR sensors are larger and better at keeping noise levels low at higher ISOs than point and shoot cameras. Professional-level DSLRs are even better! 2) The ability of DSLRs to use higher ISOs with less grain is something that camera manufacturers have really improved in the last year or two. If your camera is more than 2 years old, it will probably not handle high ISOs as well as a newer camera. I can speak from experience–my Nikon D300 handles higher ISOs MUCH better than my older Nikon D70. On my old camera, I rarely used any ISO higher than ISO 800 if I wanted a decent photo. This feature is one of the main reasons I upgraded my camera.

So, figure out how to change the ISO on your camera and play around with this feature. Try to get some good shots indoors without using your “Flash of Death.” Figure out how your camera handles high ISOs by comparing photos at all the different ISO settings. And, as always, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section!

Shutter Speed – The Big Three of Photography Part 2

This is part of a series of posts about How to Shoot in Manual Mode. Follow the links to read the other posts about WHY I USE MANUAL MODE, APERTURE, ISO, HOW I PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER, and WHERE TO BEGIN CHOOSING YOUR SETTINGS! You can also download a helpful Manual Mode Cheat Sheet here.
Okay, so today, it is all about shutter speed.

BUT, let’s just take a moment to review a little of our last photography post. First, photography is all about the light-capturing images with light to be specific. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are what control how much light is recorded by your camera. Aperture is the circular opening in the camera lens that can be opened up or closed down depending on how much light you want to enter your camera in much the same way that the pupil of the eye opens and closes to let in the right amount of light. Aperture also controls the depth of field–or how much of the photo is in focus.

Shutter speed is the second of The Big Three of Photography. I think shutter speed is a little more straight forward and easy to understand than aperture. The shutter is what “clicks” when you press the button to take a picture. Basically, it is a little curtain in the camera body that opens to allow light in and then closes to stop the camera from recording more light. The speed that it opens and closes is what determines how much light the camera records.

The opening and closing of a curtain sound like a slow operation but don’t be fooled. Cameras record shutter speeds in seconds, or more accurately, fractions of a second. To me, a slow shutter speed would be anything below 1/60th of a second (ex. 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 1 second=slow shutter speeds.)

A fast shutter speed anything faster than that (1/125, 1/250, 1/500 and 1/1000 of a second=fast shutter speeds.) It is helpful to know that your camera typically shortens these numbers in the viewfinder. For example, your camera would show 1/100th of a second by just displaying 100 in the viewfinder. A shutter speed of 1/1600th of a second would display as 1600.

Shutter speed is used to control the amount of motion in a photograph. Slow shutter speed is often selected to suggest movement since a slow shutter speed and a moving object will allow for some blur. Fast shutter speeds are used to “freeze” motion.

I used a fast shutter speed of 1/1250 to freeze motion in these sledding pictures.

In this picture, the shutter speed of 1/1600 even froze the water droplets in place. My relatively slow shutter speed of 1/60 of a second created some blur in these swinging photos to show movement.

So, to sum up, a slow shutter speed means the shutter remains open for a longer amount of time allowing more light in, but also allowing more movement/blur of fast-moving objects. Fast shutter speed means the shutter stays open for a shorter amount of time thus letting in less light but allowing a motion to be frozen in time.

One more quick bit of info to keep in mind that relates to shutter speed. Our bodies are constantly moving. Even when we think we are holding still, we are still moving some. When holding a camera and taking a picture, just pushing the shutter release moves the camera a bit. As a rule of thumb, when I am hand holding a camera and taking a picture I don’t let my shutter speed fall below 1/60 of a second. If I am using a zoom lens to get closer to my subject, I try not to let my shutter speed fall below the amount I am zoomed out. So, for example, if I am using a zoom lens and am zoomed out to 200mm I don’t let my shutter speed fall below 1/200 of a second. Clear as mud?

I hope these explanations are making sense, but please feel free to ask any questions in the comments. Next, we’ll conquer ISO!!Jessica StierFebruary 26, 2010 at 11:11 amHi Gayle. Great post in this great series you are working on!

I was wondering about the last photo of the girl on the swing. Were you moving your camera as you were snapping her photo? Does that make sense? I mean I assume you were in the middle of the swing, near the pole. The swing is going around and I am thinking you had to be moving in order to keep her in focus or else both she and the background would be blurry. Or wait! Were you on one of the swings?
I really love the light and movement in this photo. It gives a real sense of carefree fun. Great shot!

Mom and Camera February 26, 2010 at 11:31 amI am in one of the swings so I was moving also. I have never been great at panning but since I was moving at the same rate as the swing I was able to keep her in focus (mostly) and have the background have lots of motion. Just a little FYI, spinning in a swing with your eye through the viewfinder of your camera the whole time is not for the faint of heart/stomach 🙂 !!

Aperture–The Big Three of Photography Part 1

This is part of a series of posts about How to Shoot in Manual Mode. Follow the links to read the other posts about WHY I USE MANUAL MODE, SHUTTER SPEED, ISO,

HOW I PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER, and WHERE TO BEGIN CHOOSING YOUR SETTINGS! You can also download a helpful Manual Mode Cheat Sheet here.


Light is what makes a photograph. If there is no light, there can be no photograph. It sounds harsh, but it is true.

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the 3 things that control how much light is recorded by your camera. You need to understand each one and how they work together to get a good exposure while using Manual mode on your camera.

My Photo Friday posts for the next few weeks will cover what each of these things are and how they each help to make a photograph.

I hope these posts will help you understand, in a very simple way, what these somewhat intimidating words mean. EVERY camera has each of these things–however, with most point-and-shoot type cameras, you don’t have full control over how they operate.

We are going to start with my favorite of the Big Three–aperture. Aperture is like the pupil part of your eye. It can be opened up or closed down depending on how much light you want to enter your camera.

When you are in a low light situation you want the aperture opened up as much as possible to let in lots of light in much the same way that the pupil of your eye opens up and becomes larger when you are in a dark room. In bright situations you might want the aperture closed down to allow in less light much the same way your pupil becomes very small when outside on a bright sunny day.

The camera lens (the big thing that sticks onto the front of your camera and can be removed and changed) is the “eye” of the camera and is where the circular aperture mechanism is found. The camera controls how open or how closed the aperture is in much the same way your brain controls your eye.

The setting on your camera that tells how open or closed the aperture is are called f-stops. The most confusing thing about aperture and f-stops is this: the smaller the number the larger the opening and the larger the number the smaller the opening.

So an aperture of f/1.8 would mean that your aperture was open very wide and an aperture of f/22 would mean that your aperture was very closed down (small.)

This next little bit about aperture is why aperture is the my favorite of “The Big Three.” Aperture controls your depth of field. Depth of field is quite simply the amount of your picture that is in focus.

The more open your aperture the less depth of field you have. Here are some examples of this:

If you look at the photo below, you will notice that only the chalk and the pavement directly to the right and left of the chalk are in focus. Everything else is out of focus. This photo has a very small depth of field. This photo was shot at a very wide open aperture of f/2.2.

This next photo was also shot a fairly wide open aperture of f/5.6. Notice that just the one stalk of grass is in focus and everything else in front and behind that stalk are at varying degrees of focus.

The stalks that are fairly close to the stalk of grass that is in focus are just slightly out of focus–you can still distinguish what they are. However, the grass and road in the background are so out of focus that they are indistinguishable.

Here is an example of a much smaller aperture of f/16. Notice that the landscape as far as the eye can see is in focus.

So to sum up–a wide open aperture lets in lots of light but only allows a small portion of the photograph to be in focus. Wide apertures are the smallest numbers or f-stops (ex. f/1.8, f/2.2, f5.6). Closed down apertures let in much less light but allow much more of a photograph to be in focus. Smaller apertures are the largest numbers or f-stops (ex. f/13, f/18, f/22).
I’d love to know if you have more questions about aperture. Feel free to ask them in the comments and I will answer them.

6 Responses to “Aperture–The Big Three of Photography Part 1”

Beth GrahamFebruary 19, 2010 at 10:17 amYou did a great job of explaining this concept! I thought I’d share one other thing that has always stuck with me for understanding how aperture controls depth of field. It goes right along with the eye analogy you used in your post.

Think of someone sitting in the back of a classroom and squinting to see the chalkboard. They are squinting which makes their eye smaller in order to see more things in focus. Just as the smaller aperture opening (larger f-stop) brings more of a picture in focus. Hopefully, this explanation is as clear as everything you already wrote!

Mom and CameraFebruary 19, 2010 at 10:50 amI like the squinting part of the analogy, too.

LaflecheFebruary 20, 2010 at 12:12 amOk. Your explanations are perfect… very understandable. I have a Canon Digital Rebel xt SLR… where would I be able to change the aperture on that?

Mom and CameraFebruary 20, 2010 at 8:01 amSince I am not as familiar with Canon cameras as I am with Nikon cameras, I can’t answer this perfectly. Definitely check your camera owner’s manual. However, most camera’s have a dial that is used to adjust shutter speed and aperture. Make sure the main dial on top of your camera is set to M.

The smaller dial between the shutter release and the main dial is how you will change your shutter speed. I think that in order to change your aperture you have to hold down another button while using that same button. I think it might be a button called “AV.” I am not 100% sure of this–just based off the couple of times I have used my sister’s Rebel. I hope that helps.Lafleche

February 20, 2010 at 7:02 pmThank you so much. I find your blog so inspirational and helpful. You take amazing photos. Really. Thanks for sharing.

Nicole February 24, 2010 at 2:08 pmGreat post Gayle. These terms are tricky and I think you did an excellent job explaining things. I will bookmark this post and come back to it when I need a refresher/clarification. Looking forward to more from you!

Why Do I Shoot Photographs in Manual Mode?

First off, lets be clear–I haven’t ALWAYS shot in manual mode. When I first bought an SLR (and, yes, it was film) I had just learned what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO were and how they worked together to make a good exposure. I KNEW how to use manual mode, but I sort of figured that was the OLD school way of taking photos. After all, my new camera DID have the capability to do everything for me, so why not let it? The problem with this mode of thinking came when I would look at the photos I had taken and the exposure just wasn’t the they way I envisioned through the viewfinder. After some less than pleasing results, I challenged myself to keep my camera on manual mode and thus force me to get comfortable with that “old school” way of taking photographs.

That challenge totally changed my photos, and after 6 years of experience, I now shoot in manual mode 99% of the time. The only time my camera gets changed to a different mode is if someone else (namely my kids or husband) are taking the pictures. Sometimes I even keep it on manual mode when I hand it to them IF I have dialed in the settings and am sure that the exposure is okay and the light they are shooting in won’t change too much on them.

Why on earth would I use manual mode with a (mostly) state of the art camera at my disposal? Shouldn’t it be smart enough to take great pictures without any input from me? The simple answer is “NO”–modern camera’s are not smart enough to take great pictures all on their own all the time. In fact, they really aren’t equipped to take great pictures all on their own unless the lighting conditions are perfect–and, for me, “real life” rarely happens under perfect lighting conditions. A great camera DOES NOT make a great photographer–but a GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER can make most any camera great! Why? Because a great photographer knows their camera like a woman knows her waistline and can control the camera in any situation.

Again, let’s be clear–I don’t claim to be a GREAT photographer and I certainly make my share of exposure mistakes. However, I do have some personal examples of what I am talking about.

Last month I wanted to take pictures of my 1 year old and his toy trucks. My one year old does not play with his trucks in perfect lighting conditions. He isn’t playing with is trucks outside in the middle of January. He doesn’t play with his trucks near any nice window light and only on nice sunny days. In fact, the day I decided to photograph him with his trucks, it was quite cloudy outside, and actually in my living room where the nearest windows are 10 feet away. But I wasn’t in panic mode–I just whipped out my camera in manual mode. I promptly dialed up my ISO (I believe I had my ISO at 1000) high enough to keep my shutter speed at an acceptable speed (above 1/60th of a second) and opened up my aperture as wide as prudently possible (I like f/2). Viola! I was able to capture that precious time with my little boy and his new-found love of trucks. Technically, I could have used flash but it wasn’t handy and doesn’t always produce pleasing results. You can see those indoor photographs here.

The sun can produce less than ideal lighting conditions, too. Last August, I wanted to take pictures of my son outside playing in the water and my kids outside on their bikes. The problem was, they weren’t outside riding their bikes in the beautiful evening light 1 hour before sunset. They were outside at 2 p.m. when the sun is still high in the sky. My son wasn’t playing in the water in the shade–let me assure you it was FULL sun and no way around it (okay, I guess I could have penned him in the shade but that would have lasted all of 2 seconds and interrupted how much fun he was having and I try not to do that.) I knew that if I let the camera take over the exposure, it would take an average exposure reading of the bright sunny background and the darker skin tones (darker because I was definitely going to try and keep his back toward the sun as much as possible so he wouldn’t be squinting) and neither my son nor the background would be exposed right. So I opened up my aperture as wide as possible (because I am addicted to blurry bokeh in the background–again f/2 is my sweet spot), set my ISO as low as possible (200 on my camera), and bumped my shutter speed up as high as I needed it to be to get the exposure right (and it was HIGH–between 1/1250th and 1/2500th of a second.) Would my camera have done that all on it’s own? No! You can check out some of those photographs here but many I didn’t blog (oh the horror!)

I am not saying that your camera will never get it right and there isn’t a place for some of the other shooting modes on your camera dial. What I am saying is that in order to get the best possible result most of the time, you need to know how your camera works and be IN CONTROL of what it is doing when you are taking photographs. To get a great outcome, you need to know enough about your camera and how to make a good exposure that you know when to take control and when to allow the camera to take over.

How do you do that? Well, I will write more about that in some future posts (this one is already quite long enough), but you can start by reading your camera manual. I know, I know–it is confusing and not a gripping read. However, it is a starting point and you can’t control your camera if you don’t know how it works. You don’t have to read it cover to cover, but do thoroughly read all parts relating to exposure, focus, and study that little diagram that shows the where and whats of all those dials and buttons more than once.

And now, I think some photos are in order to reward you for reading this far. These photos are from our trip to Southern Utah last weekend. And–don’t send me to photography prison–they were all taken from the car!

There may or may not have been eye rolling from my husband while I was taking these. What can I say–I needed some entertainment around 1-70.

These are my favorites. I love that out of focus blur!

FYI–I will be doing these DSLR photography related posts at least once a week–most regularly on Fridays. And please don’t be scared if you don’t understand some of the photography vocabulary used in this post. My future Friday photography posts will cover these terms and many other topics. Until then–study up!