Photography Basics: Camera’s Manual Setting

Hey guys, Anthony here again. Thank you for all your feedback on our last photography tips post. Brittany and I really try to offer value with each post and hearing your feedback helps us understand the content you want most, so thank you again!

Based on your feedback, I'm going to dive into how to use your camera's manual mode and basic photography settings.

When I first got my Canon T3i, I had no idea where to start…

I basically knew how to turn it on and take a picture in auto.

From the start, I knew I wanted to shoot in manual. From my research, I knew it was the only setting that would give me the ability to have complete creative control over the final product. However, after a few tries I got frustrated with my lack of knowledge and the horrible results of my photos… in a way, I gave up trying to figure it out for the time being.

For awhile I actually shot in Canon’s Creative Auto mode (CA). It’s a great beginner setting that gives you control over image brightness and depth of field (which I will go over shortly) and the camera will automatically set the exposure and ISO settings. Extremely helpful when just starting out.

This was a perfect quick-fix solution, but I had to give manual another try… especially because I felt like such an amateur using preprogrammed settings (which I was).

Manual mode didn’t really make sense for me until I understood the basics: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.

Understanding these core settings and how they interact with each other really gave me the confidence I needed, not to mention the knowledge, to be able to shoot in manual mode.


Aperture can be a difficult concept for people. It took me some time, but once you get it, it’s pretty simple to understand. I will try to break this down as simple as possible.

Lets do a brief exercise:

Look at yourself through a mirror and notice your pupil (the black dot right in the middle of your eye), depending on how well your area is lit, your pupil could be really small or somewhat large.

Now close your eyes for 15-20 seconds and open them. Notice how your pupils started large and then became small rather quickly? This is because your eyes are naturally adjusting to the light. Meaning, in less lit areas, your pupils become larger to let in more light and help you see better. On the other hand, if it's really sunny outside or you’re in a bright room, your pupils will become small to balance out the light.

Aperture works in a very similar way. If you look through the front of your lens, it’s the opening where the light comes through. A wide aperture will have a larger opening, while a narrow aperture will have a smaller opening.


Aperture is measured in f-stops. The smaller the f-stop number, the wider the aperture and vice versa. I know, you would think a large aperture number would mean a wider opening, but this is not the case… it’s the complete opposite.

For instance, the lens I most commonly use is a Canon 85mm f/1.8. That means the widest aperture on my lens is a 1.8. A wide aperture is most commonly desired not only because it allows in more light, but it creates gorgeous blurry backgrounds (bokeh).

Large Aperture:

Small f-stop number, allows in more light, less of the photo will be in focus (blurry backgrounds)

Small Aperture:

Large f-stop number, allows less light, more of the photo will be in focus

Shutter Speed

When you press the button to take a picture, the time it takes for your aperture blades to close is called your shutter speed.

Let's go back to our eye exercise. Even though our pupils don't open and close like aperture blades, think of the shutter speed as your eyelids. Close your eyes. Now open and close them once as fast as you can.

How much light do you think you let in?

Now close your eyes again, but this time open and close them very slowly. How much light did you let in this time?

The faster you opened and closed your eyes, the less light your were able to let in. The same concept goes for the aperture blades. The higher the shutter speed settings, the faster the aperture blade will close and allow less light.

camera shutter speed

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. So if your settings are set at 300, it will take 1/300th of a second for the aperture blades to close.

Side note: Which shutter speed is the largest, 800 or 1250? Technically 800 = 1/800th of a second, which is a higher number than 1/1250th of a second. But to keep things simple, when I say a “higher shutter speed” I'm referring to the denominator…or in this case, 1250.

High Shutter Speed:

Optimal for moving subjects, well lit environments

Low Shutter Speed:

Optimal for low lit environments, landscape photos, hardly no subject movement, using tripod


When all else fails…use the ISO.

If it's starting to get dark and I have the aperture at it's widest and the shutter speed at its lowest and my photos are still coming out darker than I would like them, I turn up the ISO setting.

The ISO setting is the equivalent to film speed. The faster the film speed, the more sensitive it was to light. An ISO at 500 will produce a darker photo than an ISO at 1000.

High ISO:

Great for picking up details within a dark photo without touching the shutter and aperture settings.

Low ISO:

Provides an accurate representation of light exposure.


If you can better understand these concepts, shooting in manual mode won't be as intimidating. Ultimately, just keep practicing, you'll find what works and what doesn't as you test out the different settings. Have fun and be creative!

Please feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments below!

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  1. Herika November 10, 2015 at 7:19 am

    This is so very helpful and explained so clearly that it makes perfect sense! Thanks for the post!

  2. B Boebel November 10, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Thanks for this post Anthony! This helped so much. I like how you “dumbed” it down by adding in the pupil reference, made it super easy to understand!

  3. Jamie November 10, 2015 at 11:05 am

    I think what would be even more helpful is when to use particular settings. For example, if you are trying to take a still picture of a person, use this. If you are trying to take a picture indoors at night, use this. That is where I get caught up… trying to put them all together to make one coherent picture.

    1. Anthony November 10, 2015 at 12:10 pm

      Hey Jamie! That’s a great idea. Let me take a variety of shots using the different settings and I will update this post shortly.

  4. Hayley Larue November 10, 2015 at 11:15 am

    These are perfect tips! When I first got my camera, my boyfriend read up on all of this stuff like ISO, shutter speed, etc, since he takes my blog photos. haha. It’s definitely a learning process!!

    1. Anthony November 10, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you Adri!

  5. Lina November 10, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    Hi Brittany & Anthony!

    Great post! My boyfriend and I too have trouble with manual when shooting photos. For the next photography tips post, I would love to know exactly at what numbers you guys usually shoot? For example, what do you usually leave your ISO at when there IS enough light?

    Thanks! XX

  6. Anthony November 10, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Awesome information. Manual really is the way to go. When you need to shoot fast and you’re in a bind then auto will suffice. But manual just gives you a lot more control.

    And for those wondering, any entry level DSLR will do a great job. You don’t need to splurge on a more expensive full-frame camera if you’re not going to utilize the benefits. All of the tips provided work for any DSLR.

    Like they’ve said in previous articles, the lenses are what matter. But even the standard lens you get with the camera is fine for starting out. Hope this helps!

    1. Peggy November 12, 2015 at 1:29 am

      Brilliant- Why cant all manuals be so straight forward–thank you

  7. Heather November 11, 2015 at 3:56 am

    This does a great job at explaining aperture, which is a term I think I’ve misused too many times. Now I have a much better idea of settings on my Canon that can help me take better pictures. I feel like blogs are like food, first we eat with our eyes. Awesome job!

  8. Sydney November 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    I am really trying to set up my photography game and this was such a helpful read! Plus, I could actually understand it, which is a major bonus for me. Love it!

  9. Emily Kwok November 11, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks for all these tips! I have been using a mirrorless camera to take photos. Works just the same, but eventually I want to move up to a DSLR.


  10. Jackie November 11, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing these tips. I often feel like I’m over my head with trying to figure out my camera. My husband or brother take most of my pictures and we’re by no means experts. I’ve stayed away from manual mode because in the past the pictures have been true disaster but these tips are helpful.
    Quick question about camera preferences – we’re thinking about upgrading our Nikon camera… Would you say that a Canon is more user friendly than Nikon? I know you mentioned it’s the lenses that matter the most but do you have a camera brand preference?

    xo, Jackie

  11. Carolina Hellal November 14, 2015 at 12:36 am

    Thank you! This tips are so great! I´ve never had someone explained so straight forward like you just did! my husband takes my photos, and we are still trying to figure it out, but this explanation was just simple, and easy to understand! You guys are awesome!

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  13. majolies December 2, 2015 at 4:24 am

    This is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

  14. Jamie January 14, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    I can’t tell you how much this has helped in the infancy of my Blog. Thank you for all that you do to help out new bloggers!



  15. JACLYN May 15, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks for posting this! You answered so many questions Ive been wondering lately. Did you like the Cannon T3i? DOes it do the job to give a professional blog look?

    XO JAC

  16. Julia Rose September 5, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    One of the most helpful photography articles I have ever read! Thank you so much!

  17. Amanda Gaenssley October 4, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    This is extremely helpful. I have been playing with my camera for a few months now and did not know how to use all of the features. Now I think I can play with it and figure out how to properly photograph!

  18. Fatumata April 12, 2017 at 9:19 am

    thanks really help me!

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