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Deciphering Camera Jargon: the Manual Settings

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

I'm a huge HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER FAN. One episode 'Say Cheese' in Season 5 always makes me laugh, especially as someone who is a self-taught photographer. Lily insists on taking photos of the group in all their "big moments" but always orchestrates those moments so they have the 'perfect picture'. Robin questions her on this and she responds "ohh you know, light, colour balance, aperture..."

Image from the How I Met Your Mother Wiki

And honestly, sometimes it can feel just like that. Especially when you're starting out! Random words that you know are meant to mean something but... what?!

Camera's these days are powerful, powerful tools, with extensive capabilities of their own even before you add a lens into the mix.

When I first started out, I shot on auto and was SO thrilled with the images that I was taking (#wholesome). And then I started experimenting, delving into the myriad of buttons on my old faithful Canon 80d and trying out the manual settings. And I haven't looked back since.

I know it's daunting suddenly having all of the settings in front of you and you are the one in control of them, not the camera making the choices for you. But, it will give you SO much more creative control.

Trust me.

So I thought I'd break down just a few of the main settings that you'll interact with on your camera should you decide to delve into manual mode.


What does MANUAL let you do?

Manual settings gives you far more creative freedom over your images and gives you the potential to take the quality of your images to a new level. In manual, you will be altering the three main photography settings aperture, shutter speed and ISO.


What is APERTURE or the F/ STOP?

In short, aperture or the f/ stop number alters what is in focus on your camera.

A lower number = a wider aperture = more light is let into the lens

- the image will be brighter

- you'll need to compensate with the ISO and shutter speed as there is more light being let into the lens (higher exposure)

- the things in the foreground will be more in focus

- e.g. f/1.8

A higher number = a narrower aperture = less light is let into the lens

- the image will be darker

- you'll need to compensate with the ISO and shutter speed as there is less light being let into the lens (lower exposure)

- the focus will be far more inclusive with the background and foreground are in focus and sharp

- e.g. f/22

Here's a handy visual that might help (you might have seen it doing the rounds on Facebook!)

Big pupil = more light = lower aperture vs Small pupil = less light = higher aperture

So, when doing portraiture I tend to stick with the lowest or a low aperture as it allows for background blur and depending of the lens, some foreground blur too. This can work beautifully to highlight your subject with both foreground and background blur. (See below for an example of foreground blur. )

I achieved this with cellophane just in front of the lens, too close to focus so it blurred.

Whereas, when I'm doing landscape photography I tend to use a higher aperture meaning background details will also be crisp and sharp - basically everything is in focus. This is not to say that I don't play around with the aperture with landscape photography to achieve different looks - there's no right or wrong when you're being creative!

You can see in this image that the background is clear and crisp.


The shutter speed is the speed in which the shutter (which remains closed until the camera is triggered) opens and then closes again, during which time light fills the camera sensor. So the shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter is open - or the time your camera spends taking the photo.

The time is measured in fractions of a second when the shutter speed is less than a second. The range can typically be from 30 seconds (slow) to 1/1000th+ of a second (fast). The shutter speed effects two elements: firstly, creating blur/long exposure/freezing fast action, and secondly, exposure.

Long shutter speed Astrophotography

First up - blur/long exposure/freezing fast action

Long shutter speed tend to range from 1 second to 30 seconds, and you'll need a tripod to eliminate shake/unplanned blur. However it's by doing this that you can create those beautiful, misty looking water shots by capturing the movement of the water while the rest of the image remains crisp. You'll also use long shutter speed for intentional blur, low light or astrophotography.

Medium shutter speed ranges from 1 second to 1/100th of a second, however unless you have a very steady hand you may find you'll still get camera shake at the this speed. Some lenses with Image Stabilisation will be able to combat this.

Fast shutter speed range from 1/100th up to 1/1000th+ of a second, depending on how fast the movement is of your