Photography 101 for Mom: THE 3 BASICS OF MANUAL MODE

The Three Basics

There are three main parts that make up the settings in Manual Mode: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what each one does and how to adjust it. It’s important to remember that each one of these three settings affects the others when changed. With that being said, by setting each one of them, you are taking away all the guesswork from the camera. You are telling the camera how blurry to make the background, how quickly to snap the photo, and even how much light to let in at any given time.

I cannot stress how important and valuable I think these settings are. No matter where or what you’re photographing, you can adjust them at any time to ensure the best possible photo.

Aperture

We’ve all seen those photos where the kid is eating a piece of birthday cake out in the yard, but only the kid’s frosting covered face is in focus and everything else has been blurred, but still looks amazing. That, my friends, is the aperture.

Think of it this way. Your aperture setting will determine how blurry your background appears. A lower aperture (or f-stop), will get a blurrier background, but your focus area, or Depth of Field, will be much smaller, which means you may get that piece of cake looking sharp, but the rest of the face looks softer, or blurrier. If you have a higher f-stop, you’ll get a less blurry background and your Depth of Field will be much larger.

If you’re still a little confused, try thinking about it this way. The lower your aperture, the more light is being let in the lens, creating a brighter photo. The higher your aperture, the less light is being let in the lens, creating a darker photo. Remember, that if you do adjust your aperture, you will need to also adjust the shutter speed or ISO to compensate. To help you further understand it: If you are taking a photograph of just one person, f2.2 to 2.8 will work well. If you are photographing more than one person, use f2.8 or higher.

As moms, we want nothing more than to capture all the special moments. It doesn’t matter if it’s our child’s first birthday or first school dance or if it’s the everyday fun times around the house—we just want to remember them.

Maybe you’re the new owner of your very own camera, or maybe you’ve been taking pictures for a while now. Either way, hearing the words “manual mode” can be daunting. But it doesn’t have to be!

It might be tempting to rely on auto mode for all your pictures—and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you do! I personally used it for quite a while. But the reality is that manual mode can help you take even better pictures, as it gives you more creative control and can even help you get quality shots in tricky lighting situations.

In this post, I explain the three basic settings of manual mode to help you feel more confident in capturing those precious moments. Let’s get started!

The Basics of Manual Mode

The manual mode consists of three main settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. It’s important to remember that, when you make adjustments to one of the settings individually, you’ll need to make changes to the other two settings to compensate, as each setting is affected by the others. But as you take care to set each one, it eliminates guesswork because you are telling the camera how blurry to make the background (aperture), how quickly to snap the photo (shutter speed), and even how much light to let in at any given time (ISO)

Aperture

We’ve all seen those photos where a kid is eating a piece of birthday cake out in the yard but only the kid’s frosting-covered face is in focus. Even with the blurry background, the photo still looks amazing. That’s the magic of aperture!

A lower aperture (or f-stop) will create a blurrier background and smaller focus area (or depth of field), which means you may get that piece of cake looking sharp, but the rest of the face looks softer or blurrier. With a higher f-stop, you’ll get a less blurry background and a larger depth of field.

You can also think about it this way: The lower your aperture, the more light is being let in the lens, creating a brighter photo. The higher your aperture, the less light is being let in, resulting in a darker photo. 

My tip: Not sure what aperture to use? If you’re photographing just one person and aiming for a shallow depth of field, which means only whatever is closest to the lens will be in focus, you might choose a smaller aperture like f/2.8. On the other hand, if you’re photographing your whole gang, I’d recommend an aperture above f/4. The best way to find the optimal setting is to experiment! 

Visual aid showing you the difference large vs small aperture.
Photo credit: photographylife.com

Shutter Speed

Just as you might guess, shutter speed is how fast your camera takes a photo. When selecting a shutter speed, you’ll notice that it’s listed as a fraction—for instance, 1/100, or one-hundredth of a second. The higher the denominator, the faster your shutter speed, and the lower the denominator, the slower shutter your speed. A high shutter speed allows you to take more photos quickly, while you’ll take fewer pictures on a lower shutter speed. 

Let’s say you’re hoping to capture your daughter’s soccer game. Because of the speed at which she’s racing down the field, you’ll want a higher shutter speed, as this will allow your camera to take more photos in a shorter window of time and give you more opportunities for getting that perfect shot.

My tip: Personally, I rarely go under 1/160 for the everyday shot. And if I’m trying to capture a fast-moving subject, I would recommend not going under 1/250.

Visual representation explaining  how shutter speed works. Depicts when and what to use high and low shutter speeds for.
Photo credit: borrowlessness.com

ISO

The ISO refers to the overall brightness of your photo. A lower ISO means you’re letting less light into the lens, resulting in a darker photo, while a higher ISO means more light enters the lens, giving you a brighter photo.

My tip: A good rule of thumb is to keep your ISO as low as possible. In some situations, you may need a higher ISO if you’re shooting in low light, though you’ll want to watch out for a grainy quality in the darker areas of the photo. When I shoot on my Nikon Z6, I usually stay within an ISO range of 100 to 2000, and they turn out just perfect.

Photo credit: photographylife.co

If you’re still feeling nervous about manual mode, just remember that practice makes perfect, and get out there and have fun with it! With a little patience and experimentation, you’ll figure out how to make manual mode work for you and capture those perfect shots in no time!

Also, if you want to learn about different camera settings, read this blog HERE.