Photography Week: Your DSLR Settings in Manual Mode

Welcome to Photography Week where we’re covering all things photography! Yesterday we started with the basics for anyone with a camera, including you iPhoners out there. Today, we’re getting more specific with DSLR cameras, but later this week we’ll be back to camera-generic tips when we talk about things like post-processing. Thanks for stopping by (or bearing with me if you’re not into photography!).

When I first started using my Canon EOS 40D about a year and a half ago, the buttons and different options looked like they were codes from Mars. I shot in automatic for a good eight months because I had no clue how to work any other setting. Every time I tried to look it up online I got even more confused, until I found a website that broke it down for me in the most simple terms I’d found since beginning my search. I can’t remember which website it was, but they actually explained things to me, in what seemed like for the first time, English. It was a game changer for me, so I’m hoping to maybe help a few of you like that today!  Please forgive me, those of you who know what you’re talking about, if I get something wrong. I think I’ve figured most of it out, but I could be wrong on a thing or two (or three), so hopefully you will be able to excuse any mistakes!

With a DSLR camera, you have three different settings to mess with: shutter speed, aperture/f-stop and ISO. These three settings work together to determine how much light shows up in your photo, known as the exposure level.  An over exposed photo has too much light and often has a washed out look, shown in the photo below. An underexposed photo is too dark because either there was not enough light in the room or because your camera’s settings were set to not let enough light in (or both).

An over exposed photo.

An over exposed photo.

These three settings all control different things which is what makes them tricky to keep track of.  When you first learn them you’ll always have to remind yourself, “Okay, if I put this number higher, am I letting light in or keeping it out?” But before you know it, adjusting your settings will become second nature and as soon as you see the area you’re taking pictures in you will have a guess as to what setting to put each option on.

Shutter speed:  This is the amount of time your shutter is open when you take a photo, meaning how long the light has an opportunity to get into your camera.  If you’re in a dark area, you need more light to be able to get in so you want your shutter open for longer. If you’re in a bright area, like outdoors, you don’t want excess light going in so you’re only going to have your shutter open very briefly.

Shutter speed (SS) is measured (for the most part, unless you’re taking pictures of stars) in fractions of a second. Most cameras have a number, maybe 15 – 4,000 (or something, beats me what the actual range is), when referring to the shutter speed, but what that actually means is 1/15 seconds or 1/4,000 seconds (unless you see ” by the number, which means actual seconds – but you probably won’t have to use those levels unless, like I mentioned, you’re shooting star photos). So when you increase your shutter speed number – like going from 15 to 200 – you’re increasing the speed at which it moves, and therefore decreasing the amount of time it’s open for light to get through. Make sense?

The lower the shutter speed, the more sensitive to movement your camera becomes, which can cause blurry photos. I’ve heard a few rules about what shutter speed should be the minimum for your photos before it starts causing problems. The best advice I heard is that you shouldn’t go below the equivalent to the lens distance you’re shooting with. So, when I’m shooting with my 30 mm lens (that’s the length of the lens), I shouldn’t go slower than the shutter speed 1/30 or else my photo becomes blurry. To combat this, many people use tripods when shooting at extremely low shutter speeds. If you’re down around 15 or 30, simply leaning on a wall or holding your breath can sometimes help.

Quick review.  A shutter speed of 50 (so, 1/50 seconds) is going to allow more time to let light in than 200 (1/200 seconds).  You’ll want to use a SS of 60 or so in an area of low light, and maybe 200 when perhaps you’re in a room with lots of natural light. If you’re outside in bright sunlight – which, by the way, I would try to avoid for photos – you might have your SS all the way up at 2,000 or 4,000.

Aperture/F-stop: The aperture is the hole that lets light into the camera, sort of like your pupil.  Aperture is also what controls depth of field and what can help you capture that fabulous fuzzy background look.  The size of the aperture is marked by what is called an f-stop (or f-number, I’ll use them interchangeably here).  The lower the f-number, the larger the size of the aperture hole (I know, they just had to, right?). A camera set at f/2.8 will be able to let in more light than a camera set at f/8. Different lenses have different capabilities when it comes to aperture – most can only go down to a certain f-stop. Darker shooting locations need a lower f-number, but. . .

. . . the lower the f-stop number, the more shallow the depth of field becomes. F/1.4 is only going to be able to have a small area in focus, where as f/22 can probably capture a whole group of people in focus at varying distances.  This means you have to be aware of your subject if you’re using aperture to adjust exposure – a lower f-number might let more light in, but it will limit your depth of field significantly.

Quick review. The lower the f-number, the larger the aperture hole and the more light can get in, but the depth of field is shallower. The higher the f-number, the deeper the depth of field, but the darker the image. 

The aperture is set at a low f-number, seen by the shallow depth of field (very blurry background).

The aperture is set at a low f-stop, seen by the shallow depth of field (very blurry background, pretty much only Otie’s eyes are in focus).


A photo taken at a higher f-stop, as seen by the fact that the ground behind them is also basically in focus. It would have been tricky to set the f-stop too much lower because Baxter and Bella’s faces were likely at different distances from the camera, and one of them would have probably ended up out of focus. Plus, I was using my standard issue lens, which does not have the ability to go lower than I believe f/5.6 anyway.

ISO: The ability for your camera to bring in light (in technical terms, the sensitivity of your image sensor). The way I that I finally understood it was the following analogy: ISO is like an army of little light-men who retrieve light and bring it into your camera. The higher your ISO, the more little light-men you have available to retrieve light. ISO ranges most commonly from 100 – 1,600, though many cameras are different. A smaller ISO (so, a smaller number of light-men retrieving light for you) is ideal for well lit shooting conditions. A higher ISO is needed for – you guessed it – situations with low light (you need a lot of light-men out retrieving light for you!).

But, just like with aperture, ISO comes with a catch. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” or grain shows up in your photo. It’s like you had so many light-men out there collecting light for you that they couldn’t all fit back in your photo and now they’re crammed in there as a big cranky, bustling crowd.  If possible, you want to adjust your shutter speed and aperture for low light before increasing your ISO too much, or else you’ll end up with grainy photos. Sometimes it’s a last resort though, and you just can’t help it.

Quick review. ISO means how much light your camera will bring in when taking a photo.  A lower ISO will bring in less light, but will create a sharper, richer image. A higher ISO will allow you to shoot in low-light settings, but your image will come out “noisy.”

This photo was taken inside a pet supplies store where the lighting wasn't all that great. I was forced to set my ISO all the way up to 1600, which is why Rosalie looks sort of grainy if you look closely. The untrained eye might not notice it, but it drives me as a photographer crazy!

This photo was taken inside a pet supplies store where the lighting wasn’t all that great. I was forced to set my ISO all the way up to 1600, which is why Rosalie is sort of grainy if you look closely (the floor on the right side shows it best I think). The untrained eye might not notice it, but it drives me as a photographer crazy!

WHEW. Information overload yet? I know it’s a lot, but once you get the basics learned and you practice (and practice and practice and practice) it will make a lot more sense to you. I recommend just sitting around your house and messing with each setting to see how it affects your photos. Then slowly you will realize how they work together to create the best exposure setting for your photos.

If you’ve just started, don’t be intimidated. Even the best photographers began knowing nothing about cameras, and learned the basics first thing. I’ve only been in my manual setting for about nine months now, and I already feel very comfortable with it to the point that I can predict settings when I go to take a photo – so it’s not hard. Practice makes perfect (along with maybe a class or two because even though I covered the basics today, there are still a lot more basics out there you could learn).

If you’ve got questions about any of this, leave them in the comments! I’ll try my best to answer, or at least point you to somewhere that might have the answer.


24 thoughts on “Photography Week: Your DSLR Settings in Manual Mode

  1. Karen Wagner

    Thanks for all the great tips AND picture’s. I am always snapping away at our family gathering’s…I just love it! I think ALL your photo’s turned out great…I am quite an “amateur”!LOL I will pass these tips onto my step daughter…she received a really nice camera for Christmas! Thanks again and have a great day everyone!! xoxo

  2. Great article. Love your photos. I’ve learned a bit over the past couple of years and enjoy photography as well. Nothing will force you to use and learn your manual settings than trying to expose for a black dog (I have a fuzzy black Newfoundland). Well, assuming you don’t want a big indistinguishable black mass in your photo. Add snow? That’s a whole other challenge but it’s fun! Look forward to reading more!

    • Kristin

      I have the same issues photographing shelter dogs for Petfinder. Do you have any tips to offer – black dogs in the snow is the worst! Thanks. :o)

      • If you force your camera to over-expose – so set your shutter speed low and your ISO on the higher end, maybe 600 or 800, and keep your f-stop under 4 – then the features on the dog will be more recognizable, but the snow behind them will become completely washed out. To get the dog at the right exposure, you’ll likely have to sacrifice any scenery in the background. So my best (sort of cheating) suggestion is to brighten just the dog during post-processing. Then you can keep your background AND have a dog that looks like a dog not a blob :) I had to do a lot of that when I was fostering Baxter, my black pittie. Good luck!

      • Mostly it’s just trial and error. I always keep my shutter speed at 1/80+ (I have vibration control lenses), preferably 1/125. I had to switch to manual since on aperture of shutter speed it kept trying to make the focal point (Sadie) into middle gray and would overexpose. A lot of my snow pictures are blown out – cloudy days are really the only option. The most helpful thing? Getting a flash I can bounce off the ceiling. Even that doesn’t always work but I can finally take inside photos. And the Levels adjustment in PSE is my best friend! :)

  3. I generally use my point and shoot but am disappointed when I compare my photos to others, like yours for example. I have a DSLR, a dog and three winter months in FL with nothing on my schedule. I’m going to practice, practice and practice while I’m here so I can post awesome pictures, too. Thanks for all the info, keep it coming, please ;o)

    • Okay, first of all – I’m jealous! Second of all, great idea! Maybe while you’re down there you can find a local class to attend, even as just a one day workshop. And there are a TON of online resources out there as well. The website I’m referring to in this post that helped me so much was I think one about Mom photographers who were talking about taking pictures of their kids – it was oddly similar to dogs! Once you find something that makes it click for you (no pun intended, haha) you’ll be off and running, I’m sure. Good luck and enjoy!

  4. kate with a camera

    Great post! Aperture, ISO, and SS can seem so intimidating at first, but once you realize how they work together it makes sense. I remember one day it finally clicked with me and I realized how simple the concepts are – but they certainly don’t seem that way in the beginning!

  5. This was amazing!! Thank you so much for sharing. I bought my DSLR (Nikon) when I started blogging back in August, and still haven’t made it out of the auto setting, because I’ve been too intimidated by the options, and too confused when I’ve tried learning more! I will certainly be using your tips, and can’t wait to practice! Thanks again.

  6. This is crazy good stuff and I’m now so excited to go camera shopping! I really felt like it was going to be too hard to even get started but now I can’t wait!
    Thanks for posting this series and breaking it down in a way that even if I don’t “get it all” yet, at least now I’m excited to try.

  7. pitlandiapooch

    Thanks for another great post! I think you did an excellent job of clearly explaining shutter speed/f-stop/ISO. When I first brought home my DSLR I tried to look things up online and found that most people used such complicated photography lingo that I had a hard time figuring it out. What you’ve written will be a great resource for anyone wanting to learn to get out of automatic mode. (Before reading this, I learned most everything about shooting in manual by looking at tutorials posted on Pinterest)

    I especially liked your part about ISO. I HATE when my photos turn out grainy…even just a little bit of noise makes me not like the picture I took. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who cringes at the sight of noise =) And I feel like I never notice that other people’s photos are grainy– just my own!

    Can’t wait for tomorrow’s post! Can you post about this stuff for a whole month, please ;)

  8. Great post!! I am trying to use my Dslr in manual mode more…easing into it using the priority aperture/priority shutter speed modes first. It seems so daunting!!

  9. Will and Eko

    Thanks for the tips, I’m always looking for ways to improve my photos. Looking forward to the rest of the week’s photo posts.

  10. Pingback: Photography Week: Improving Your Photos | Peace, Love, & Fostering

  11. Pingback: Photography Week: Post-processing | Peace, Love, & Fostering

  12. Pingback: Photography Week: Get Creative | Peace, Love, & Fostering

  13. Pingback: learn manual mode dslr « Learn photography

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s