Deciphering Camera Jargon: the Manual Settings

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.

What is SHUTTER SPEED?

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 subject. I tend to shoot on a higher shutter speed when doing most of my photography if possible as it gives me the ability to shoot on burst, capturing minuscule moments in between that I might otherwise miss on a lower shutter speed.

An action shot from HEATHERS: The Musical

Second - exposure

When you're using a long shutter speed, remember that the shutter is open for longer meaning more light is being let in. So the exposure/brightenss of the image will be far greater the longer your shutter speed is. (This is why it works so well for astrophotography!) And on the flip side, the fast the shutter speed, the less light that is let in so the darker the image.


Shutter speed on its own is a helpful tool, however in conjunction with the other two cornerstone photography tools, aperture and ISO, you have far more control over the shutter speed, it's exposure, it's clarity and the image quality.


The three go hand in hand to create magic.

What is ISO?

Put simply, this alters the brightness of your image. As the ISO number gets higher, the brightness increases. HOWEVER, the higher the ISO the higher the noise in your image. Using ISO to brighten your image should be the final step if the brightness you are after can't be achieved with aperture or shutter speed.


ISO ranges from 'base ISO' which is normally ISO 100 and will give you the clearest, highest quality image through to varying high ISO's such as ISO 6400. It is always best to try to keep the ISO as low as possible. (Please note: I don't mean force base ISO on all your image, I mean as low as possible for the environment you're in to achieve the best image!)


In low light environments, you'll either need to have a higher ISO or if you have a tripod you can use a lower ISO and make the shutter speed slow without causing image blur. Whereas in brighter environments, a lower ISO will work easier.


For example when I shoot live event photography its a fine line between having bright images and having a fast enough shutter speed to capture the action - so I can have the shutter speed ranging between ISO 1500 - ISO 5000, depending on the lighting state.

This was shot at f/4.5, ISO 1600 and 1/200th shutter speed.

It's ultimately about knowing your camera and the quality of the images that the lens you're using produces, and then making that work for you. Having said all of the above, you don't need to avoid the higher ISO level's just be aware that depending on the environment that you're shooting in, it will impact the noise level in your image.


Fun fact: ISO stands for 'International Organization for Standardization'


This was a super foundational look into using the manual settings on your camera, and I completely understand if it feels daunting. I felt exactly the same way when I first started delving into it! But I've just spent time playing with it, experimenting, googling, asking people for advice, asking people what settings they used on images I've loved, and I'm still learning.


But it's worth it. I definitely encourage you to take the plunge!


If you have any questions, make sure you shoot me an email, or a DM on Instagram, or drop a comment below! Always happy to chat!


Steph x

Hey there!

The name is Steph! A Brisbane-based photographer with a passion for capturing images without breaking the bank. 

If you had to sum me up in a sentence, it would be: 

A passionate photographer who loves a good Pinot Gris, owns too many books and has her heart in New Zealand.