March 30, 2017

The Basics of Shooting Manual

FILED IN: Education


When I got my very first DSLR camera, many years ago, I only shot in auto. I was never thrilled with my photos and I wasn’t sure why they weren’t spectacular like I expected from a DSLR camera. I mean hello, I just spent all this money on a “fancy” camera; why isn’t it creating beautiful photography all by itself!?  HA. Wrong. It requires a professional with knowledge of the camera and an artistic eye to create beautiful images with that camera. I knew I wanted to change the way my photographs looks, so I did a little research on how I could improve my photos. I quickly realized that I needed to be shooting in manual to really get that WOW factor that I was looking for in my photographs. The key three things to shooting in manual are your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I am going break down what each setting means, how it affects your shot, and how to use the three together to get a magnificent picture!


Aperture is the opening in your lenses that determines how much light passes through your lens. While a definition is nice, you’re probably asking how in the world does aperture actually affect my photos? To put it simply, aperture determines how blurry your photo’s background will be and how light or dark your photo is.

Now that we know what it does, let’s get technical for a second. Typical aperture ranges go from about f/1.2(wider or wide open)-f/22(narrow). When you’re thinking about aperture, you kind of need to think opposite. An aperture of f/1.4 is considered a large aperture, where an aperture of f/22 is considered a small aperture. The lens that you use will determine the largest aperture available when shooting. Just for a reference, the kit lens’ (the lens that comes with your DSLR camera) largest aperture is usually between 3.5 and 5.6.

Let’s break it all down:

The larger the aperture (f/1.4-f/4) – the blurrier the background and the lighter and brighter your photo.

The smaller the aperture (f/11+) – the subject and the background are both in focus and the darker the photo.

Shutter Speed 

Shutter Speed determines the amount of time it takes for your shutter to open and close to take a portrait. Your shutter speed is measured in seconds and shows up as a fraction, a fraction of a second, in your camera setting. The average shutter speeds available to you on a typical DSLR camera range anywhere from 1/8 to 1/4000. The range of shutter speeds can vary depending on the camera you have. The slower shutter speeds, 1/8 to 1/30, can be difficult to maintain the camera’s focus without a tripod. Because the shutter is open for so much longer with these low shutter speeds, any movement in the camera, camera shake, before the shutter closes causes your photos to become out of focus. Using a tripod at these low shutter speeds prevents camera shake. Most often though, you will not being a shutter speed this low. Faster shutter speeds, 1/60-1/4000, are used much more often in portrait photography. These faster shutter speeds are less likely to be affected by camera shake, making them much more practical shutter speeds.

Being able to adjust how quickly your shutter closes and captures your photo, allows you to adjust your settings to what you are trying to photograph. For example, if you are capturing portraits of small children that are constantly moving or sports, you will want to have a quicker shutter speed (1/500-1/4000). The quick shutter speed allows you to capture quick movements in sharp focus without the photo becoming blurry by the movement like it would with a slower shutter speed.

Similar to aperture, The shutter speed also determines the amount of light let in. The longer your shutter stays open (slower shutter speed), the more light that is let into your camera. When quick movement is not a factor in a photograph, slowing down your shutter speed can allow you to brighten your photos.

Let’s break it all down:

Need more light – lower shutter speed (1/8 and up)

Need less light – higher shutter speed (1/4000 and down)

Fast moving objects – higher shutter speed (1/4000 and down)


ISO stands for International Standards Organization; it is the scale for measuring your camera’s image sensor’s sensitivity to light. Cameras have a wide range of ISO, depending on the quality of the DSLR camera. A camera’s ISO setting will begin at 100 and can go up to 102,800. The smaller the number selected for your ISO setting, the less light you need for your photo. To put it simply, if it is light outside, you will need the lowest ISO setting (100); if it is darker outside or you are inside a dark room, set your ISO setting higher until the exposure is right.

Let’s break it all down:

Light outside – lower ISO setting (100 and up)

Darker outside or inside – higher ISO setting (102,800 and down)

Bringing it All Together

I always set my aperture first; this is the most important setting to me, because I love the look of a blurry background. I typically shoot wide open (f/1.2-f/2.8 depending on the lens) when doing portraits, that is just my stylistic preference. When shooting wide open, more light is let into my camera’s sensor, so my other settings need to be adjusted for proper exposure. Once I have my aperture, I move to shutter speed based on the type of photo I am taking. This allows me to control how quickly I need my shutter to close after opening. When I am photographing children, I can adjust my shutter speed to a quicker setting to allow for quick bursts of movement. After adjusting my shutter speed, I adjust my ISO. I will usually take a test shot of my image at the set aperture and shutter speed and then determine whether I need to raise or lower my ISO setting based on the exposure of my test shot. If my test shot is too dark or under exposed, then I will raise my ISO one notch at a time until it is properly exposed. If my test shot is too light, I will lower my ISO setting until the image is correctly exposed.

The task of adjusting three settings at once may seem daunting and difficult to do while photographing a session, but I promise it is much easier than you realize. Really take time to play with your camera settings to fully understand how all three settings work together and how to get in a rhythm of adjusting all three quickly. Shooting in manual is second nature now and I could not imagine ever going back to auto. Taking the time to really practice shooting in manual mode and implementing it into your sessions will make a world of a difference in your photographs!


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