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.


Photography Week: Intro & Basics

After a year and a half of messing around with my Canon EOS 40D camera, I can finally say I am in full blown I-love-you-and-can’t-live-without-you mode with photography.  I find myself not only working every day to improve my own photos, but also studying every aspect of photos I see in my every day life, from advertisements to the portfolios of professional photographers, and noting what I like or dislike about them.

I am still amateur, and most of the time I feel like I’m the most amateur of all the amateurs, but the truth is that I’ve learned a TON over the last year about how to work your camera and capture a good photograph.  This week on the blog will be dedicated to photography. I will cover many aspects of photographing animals, starting with the basics to post-processing and end results.

I would never have gotten anywhere without starting with the basics when photographing my foster dogs.  I think it was Love & a Six-Foot Leash that first turned me on to some of the best petography tips I’ve learned, and they’ve stuck with me ever since.  It doesn’t matter what camera you use at this point – a point & shoot or a DSLR – these tips are mostly about controlling aspects besides your camera.

My top tips for photographing pets are as follows (and a lot of them you’ve probably heard before, like on Kate with a Camera, whose awesome blog is much more photography-based than mine):

1. Turn your flash OFF!  Everyone’s gotten a picture of their pups (or cat or bunny) looking like a demon with bright, reflective eyes. Not only does the flash screw with the light in an animal’s eyes, it often reflects off their fur and, in my opinion, creates an unnatural shiny look.  To make sure your photos still turn out well without a flash, move either outdoors or into a spot in your home by a window with lots of natural light.

With a flash: Zee’s fur is shiny and if she looked at the camera she’d have reflective eyes.


Without a flash: Zee is much more natural looking, and you can see more of the soft details or her eyes and fur.


2. Use lots of treats! Or squeaky toys, or tennis balls – whatever your dog will fixate on while you quickly capture the shot. In general, I put the treat in front of their nose with my left hand so they know I have it and then bring it up directly above the lens so that they are looking right at the camera.  The bait has to be pretty high value so that it keeps their attention long enough for you to get a few good photos.  This is how we catch those dreamy “I could stare into your eyes forever” pictures – you know, the ones that really draw adopters in ;-).

In addition to treats, I often use very high-pitched, odd noises to get the animal’s attention. You look like an absolute lunatic screeching and squealing at your subject, but it really gets good results. In the same vein, I try to avoid using their name – I’ve heard and noticed that they’re more inclined to ignore their name quicker than a noise they’re not used to hearing.


3. Be aware of your background – and try to make it as distraction free as possible.  Sometimes you don’t have control over your background, but if you do, see if you can take photos somewhere with a solid backdrop (which is tough to do) or at least a clean and clutter free location.  If I’m outside I really like to shoot against the green grass or even fallen leaves because it makes most dogs pop out of the photo. If I’m inside, I try to avoid areas of my house that are very messy. The shot below of Baxter is cute, but I find the background very distracting. The one following it of Sinclair is an example of how you can use a natural backdrop for your photos.

floor5 01

Sinclair is still waiting for his forever home! See how perfect of a dog he is in my posts about when he stayed with my family for a few days.

While those three tips are simple, they can make all the difference!  Tomorrow I’ll discuss some advanced adjustments for a DSLR camera.  Many people shoot in auto because they don’t understand manual options, but once you learn about how the settings work and how they can improve your photos, you won’t ever want to go back to automatic!