Photography 101 | Camera Basics

Is shooting in Manual Mode really that big of a deal?  I mean, can’t one of the other Program modes do just as good of a job?  Why did you buy this expensive camera if you still have to do all the thinking? Well, did you suddenly start running marathons or did you finish your first mile under 10 minutes first?

You are surrounded by instant gratification today.  Drive-thrus, on demand tv, and all the knowledge of the world at your fingertips. Spending more than a few minutes on a topic is unheard of in this day and age. Multi-tasking is encouraged, right?

Learning to shoot in Manual Mode means that you’ll always be able to figure out what your setting need to be to create the look that you’re going for. Whether you’re trying to isolate your subject from your background or shoot in low light, you’ll have the tools you need. Plus, when you’re ready to move on to more challenging and advanced work, you’ll have these stepping stones firmly entrenched in your repertoire.

Have you ever seen a dog with a bone? Do they spend a couple minutes with it and then toss it aside? No, they search for every bit of scrumptious deliciousness which can take days. They’ll bury it and come back to it later when they think no one is looking.  They’re passionate about finding the next treat.  If you want to learn about something, you need to be determined and borderline obsessed. My obsession started in 2012 when my husband bought me my first DSLR.  I made ALL the newbie mistakes because I thought I would just pick it up by using it. While practice is vitally important to improving, so is understanding the basics.  So let’s start there.

Read your Manual

It’s really interesting how much you will learn by reading through the camera manual.  Look at the diagrams and be able to locate the buttons and know what they’re called. What kind of memory cards you will need a few of and what kinds of functions you can do in camera. Can you delete or protect certain image files right there? Check the card speed that your brand recommends. Faster cards can write to the card at a faster rate, which means it will spend less time buffering if you are shooting at a fast pace.

Once you know where the buttons are, next you need to understand what they do.  Spend time reading about each one and understanding its purpose.  It’s likely in that location because it will become second nature to slide your thumb or finger over it to change a setting.  Sometimes there are advanced buttons that you won’t need to use in the beginning.  That’s okay, you still need to know it’s there. The worst thing is being on a shoot and not knowing why your camera is misbehaving only to realize that you moved it into a different setting.  We’ve all been there.

Quick Start Guide

  • Set to M for Manual
  • Set to AF for Autofocus
  • Set to Matrix Metering (more on this topic later)
  • Set to 5000K White Balance or Sun  (more on this topic later, too)
  • Set ISO to 100 (more…later)

Front Dial – use your index finger

This wheel adjusts your aperture.  Look through the viewfinder and you’ll see a number between 1.2-22.  Aperture or F-stop controls the amount of light that is coming through your lens.  The smaller the number the larger the opening and the amount of light that hits the back of your camera to create the image.  Aperture also controls how much of your image will be in focus. The larger the F-stop number  the more of your image from front to back will be in focus.

Aperture/ F-stop

  • How much light enters.
  • How much is in focus. (depth of field)


Back Dial – use your thumb

This wheel adjusts your shutter speed.  Shutter speed is measured in whole seconds and fractions of a second, so you’ll see it written like this; 5″ (5 seconds) or 1/60th.  This number represents how long the shutter is open to allow light to go through the lens and expose the image onto the sensor.   The longer the shutter is open the more light and the brighter the image will be, the shorter it’s open the darker the image will be.  The other consideration with shutter speed is the amount of blur or sharpness and image will have.  The image on the left is blurred because the shutter speed was longer, say 1/5th of a second versus the image on the right froze the wave at 1/500th of a second. The one in the middle is somewhere in between.   So if you have a fast moving subject you’ll need a shorter shutter speed to freeze their motion.

Shutter Speed

  • How long the shutter is open to allow light in.
  • Whether it’s fast enough to freeze the motion or short enough to create blur.

Write here…


Look for a button that has ISO written near it.  Sometimes it’s buried in the menu or has a dedicated button.  This controls how sensitive the sensor in your camera is to the light that enters. The low end can be 50-100 depending on the make and model. This indicates that it’s the least sensitive to light.  So 100 is a typical setting on a bright sunny day. Larger ISO numbers increase the camera’s ability to “see” the available light.  Inside a house on a sunny day a typical ISO can be between 800-1600 and low light in a a church ISOs will just go up from there.  The secondary effect is introducing grain or noise into an image.  The higher the ISO the more noise will be introduced.  Cameras have gotten increasingly better at handling low light and yielding incredibly acceptable images at super high ISOs. So you’ll need to test your camera and see what you consider acceptable.


  • How sensitive the sensor is to light.
  • How much grain or noise the image will have.
  • Low ISO will yield a cleaner image and a High ISO will have more noise.

Exposure Triangle

Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO are the 3 main components of the Exposure Triangle.  Each one contributes to  the quality of your exposure.  Meaning that several different combinations can yield the same exposure, but sometimes one is better than another. ISO will greatly affect the quality of an image, so it’s good to keep this number as low as you can when you’re getting started.  Aperture is an area where it’s really easy to get the wrong thing in focus if you’re not really careful. Larger numbers that allow more of your image to be in focus are easier to begin with.  Also, learn about what shutter speed you can safely shoot handheld without blur at.  I know that lots of people can shoot at 1/60th and get great images;  my threshold is 1/125th. As you build your confidence dealing with each of these building blocks individually you’ll learn how they relate to one another.

Leave a comment below and ask a question.  I’m planning on continuing this series, so follow along.