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

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!