One of the most intimidating aspect of photography.
My first (and only) college-level photography class taught me the basics of DSLR cameras. And while I really appreciated the overview, we didn’t have to use it in class. If we had a point-and-shoot camera, we were able to do the assignments.
So my biggest piece of advice: once you get a little comfortable with the following, practice using them. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Or whatever.
Some settings will automatically set your aperture and shutter speed for you.
- Program Mode (P) sets both aperture and shutter speed for you.
- Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av) allows you to set the aperture while the camera chooses the best shutter speed for you.
- Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv) allows you to set the shutter speed while the camera chooses the best aperture for you.
Manual Mode, on the other hand, allows you to choose your own aperture and shutter speed.
In all modes, you must choose your own ISO.
So, what the heck do aperture, shutter speed, and ISO even mean?
This is how wide your lens’s shutter opens. The wider the aperture, the fuzzier the background and foreground become in your photo. So if you want a photo that shows all of the detail, no matter where the lens is focused (in a landscape, for example), use a small aperture.
Here’s the slightly confusing part: the smaller the number, the wider the aperture. It’s because the values are fractions, and the value shown is the denominator. So, f/22 is much smaller than f/1.4. Make sense?
Here are two photos, one taken at f/22 and one taken at f/1.4. These were taken in Aperture Priority mode, so the shutter speed was chosen by the camera.
I had the camera set to focus on the blue nail polish bottle in both shots. You can see that with a wider aperture (f/1.4), the other nail polish bottles got much fuzzier, so the blue one was the only one in focus. Conversely, with a smaller aperture (f/22), all five bottles are in focus.
So the important things to remember about aperture:
- The wider the aperture, the more light is let in
- The wider the aperture, the fuzzier the background and foreground appear
- The smaller the number, the wider the aperture
Got it? Let’s move onto shutter speed.
So, aperture is how wide the lens’s shutter opens. Shutter speed is how long it stays open. The number that appears is how many seconds it stays open.
In the two examples above, you’ll see the shutter is set to 1/1000 and 1/4. That means in the top photo, the shutter was open for 1/1000th of a second. In the bottom photo, it was open for 1/4 of a second.
So, how does shutter speed affect the photo? The longer the shutter is open, the more information the camera is getting. Meaning, the longer it’s open, the more motion blur you’re likely to get. If you’re shooting sports, you’re going to want a really fast shutter speed. If you want cool light painting, on the other hand, you’ll want a slow shutter speed. Here’s an example of light painting Randi and I did a few years ago:
It’s important to note that 1/60th is the slowest the shutter can open while the camera is being held in your hands. Slower than that, you’ll be able to see shakes based on your body’s natural movement. So, if you need a slow shutter speed, you’ll want to use a tripod.
I should mention, too, that for the bottom photo set at 1/4, I had to use a handheld remote. Even pressing down on the camera’s button made the camera shake enough to show motion lines. I recommend not going much lower than 1/60 if you can avoid it.
Okay, one more to look at: ISO.
The ISO (International Organization for Standardization) value determines how sensitive your camera is to light. The lower the ISO value, the less light it’s going to let in. So, if it’s super sunny outside, you’re going to want to set it at 100. If you’re in a very dark theatre, you’re going to want to set it at 1600 or higher.
Keep in mind, though, the higher the ISO value, the more “noise” will appear in the photo. And noise is no bueno.
Manual Mode: Putting It All Together
So, how do all three of these settings work together? Well, they all affect how much light is let into the camera when the photo is taken. So we have to use the correct combination of all three to let in just the right amount of light.
Sounds a bit daunting, right? Luckily, there’s a helpful tool right on your camera to help you figure out how much light is enough. It’s called the Exposure Value Guide, or EV Guide. On my camera, it looks like this:
When you press the shutter button, a marker will appear under a number. Your goal is to get it as close to the 0 mark as possible. The farther to the left, the darker the photo will be. The farther to the right, the lighter the photo will be.
So, using the EV guide, adjust your ISO based on the overall lighting, the aperture based on how much depth of field you want, and the shutter based on how much motion blur you want. Then adjust accordingly!
I prefer to choose two that are most important to me for that specific photo. Typically it’s ISO (I want as little noise as possible) and aperture (I want some depth of field, but not too much). Then I have more flexibility in terms of which setting to adjust. I’m usually taking blog photos, so I can use a tripod and motion blur isn’t a factor. So I’ll change my shutter speed based on what I want my aperture and ISO to be.
Here’s a handy guide if you can’t remember which settings create more or less light:
You want an even mix of more light / less light so it doesn’t get blown out.
Want some more examples? Here are those same nail polish bottles, with one factor changing.
ISO Changing, Aperture and Shutter Speed Staying the Same:
So, the higher the ISO value, the brighter the photo gets / the more light is let in.
Shutter Speed Changing, Aperture and ISO Staying the Same:
So, the faster the shutter speed, the less light that is let in and the darker your photo will be.
Aperture Changing, ISO and Shutter Speed Staying the Same:
So, the wider the aperture, the more light your camera captures, and the lighter the photo.
Whew! That was a lot of info. Feel free to download the PDF of the DSLR Cheat Sheet (with instructions!) below! What questions do you have about Manual Mode? Does it make sense?
Western New Yorker says
I loved taking photography in high school. This brought all my fond memories back!! Great tips for bloggers!!
Sara Strand says
I always wanted to take a photography class! I honestly don’t know what kind of camera I have but I’m going to tinker with some of this and see what happens!
That’s awesome! Let me know if you’re able to figure it out! 🙂
Alyssa DeRose says
Wow! I just learned so much! We have a new DSLR that we took traveling and definitely didn’t know how to use it. Thanks for the tips!
Yay, I’m glad I could help, Alyssa! Let me know if you get stuck!
Kasi Zlochevski says
I’m a complete amateur when it comes to photography! I also don’t have a DSLR so that’s probably why lol. This guide is super helpful though, it makes a lot more sense now!
Thanks, Kasi! And you don’t hae to have a DSLR to be good at photography 😉
Heather Serra says
Wow, this is really comprehensive! I’ve wanted a DSLR for the longest time, but learning how to use one seemed overwhelming and intimidating. I’ll have to save this for when I go big time and get one…or until Santa comes and brings one. 🙂 Tee hee hee
Santa would be the best if that were the case! 🙂 And don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it seems, You don’t have to use Manual for everything!
I need to figure out my camera. I leave it on auto and I would like to figure out what the other options do.
It’s pretty overwhelming to turn it off of auto, but you can do it! 🙂
Cynthia @craftoflaughter says
OH! I’ve been working on my photo skills and I love your cheatsheet! This is perfect!
Yay! Glad I could help, Cynthia! 🙂
Shann Eva says
You are right about the use it or lose it. I took a photography class in college, and I don’t remember a thing anymore. You post brought it back a little, but I really will need to study your tips. Great tutorial.
Happy I could help, Shann! 🙂
I don’t know anything about photography but I’ve always been dying to learn more! I wish I could take a class of some sort. A great wealth of info here!
Classes are super helpful, Chelsea! But if you’ve got the time, you can do it on your own for free, too 😉
Jess Rey says
This is the best manual tutorial to date that I have found. I will have to print off your little cheat sheet and put it in my camera bag.
Thank you so much, Jess! That means a lot 🙂
THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!
You’re welcome, Tayler! 🙂
Megan Schaefer says
This is one of the first posts on manual mode my non-technical self has been able to follow along with – and the photo comparisons are such a great resource! Thanks a million, Caitlin!
Yay! That’s awesome! 🙂 Glad I could help, Megan!
This is seriously the simplest post I have ever read explaining these terms. I feel like I actually know now how to adjust things. Thank you so much for writing this post!
I’m so glad I could help, Amanda! Let me know if you have any questions as you practice! 🙂