WFMW: A Beginners Guide to Mastering Your Digital Camera: Part 1 – Shutter Speed and Exposure … (Bowling Green KY Photographer, Bowling Green KY Photography)

Lately, several people Manuela and I know have expressed a desire to learn more about taking photos, especially when it comes to taking their cameras out of auto mode and using them to their fullest potential. Why is it important to shoot in manual mode? Because in manual mode, YOU control everything.

Today’s cameras are incredibly advanced, and they can do a lot of things in auto mode, but only YOU know what you want your picture to look like, and only you can tell the camera exactly what to do in order to get the image you want.  All SLR cameras have a manual option, and many higher end point and shoot cameras also allow for shooting in manual mode, so check your instruction manual to see if your camera allows for this.

In this series of articles, I’m going to attempt to keep things incredibly simple and extremely basic, and give a very general overview of shooting in manual mode. As you go out and photograph using these methods, you may come across unexpected surprises (for instance, you might not be able to properly expose the picture you want, due to the maximum aperture of the lens, which is something I’m not explaining here.) I’m also not explaining technical’s such as f stops and how they’re measured. My hope is to give you a general idea of how your camera works in manual mode, give you the tools you need to figure out the basics, and explain things in greater detail, as needed, in future articles. If you run across any problems, or have questions after reading this article, please feel free to email me.

Shooting in Manual – the basics

Too keep it simple: there are four basic things you’ll need to know about in order to shoot in manual mode. Those four things are…


Shutter Speed



To give a brief definition of each:

Aperture is the width of the opening in your camera’s lens

Shutter Speed is the amount of time that the shutter stays open

ISO is a rating system to tell how sensitive the image sensor is to the light present

Exposure is the amount of light collected by the sensor in your camera.

Proper exposure means your picture is as bright or as dark as you want it to be, and aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are all the tools that help you get it there. I’ll start with explaining aperture and shutter speed, and next Wednesday we’ll move on to understanding exposure and ISO and the relationship between them all. For now, here’s a more detailed description of aperture and shutter speed and what they control…


A camera’s lens works a lot like the pupil of an eye. If it’s bright outside, the pupil gets smaller to limit the amount of light entering the eye, and when it’s dark, the pupil opens wide to allow more light in. Aperture controls how big and how small the “pupil” of the lens is, which determines how much light your lens lets in. Aperture also controls something called “depth of field.” Depth of field refers to the range of distance that appears sharp in the image. The larger the aperture number, the more is going to be in focus (more on this, in a bit.)

Apertures are measured in something called “f-stops.” Some cameras have longer aperture ranges than others (from 1.8 to 16, for example), and some don’t have a range at all (these are called “fixed” lenses.) The smaller the f-stop number, the wider the aperture. The wider the aperture, the more light is let into the sensor, and the brighter your picture can be. (For instance, I’ve taken pictures at night with a very low aperture number and a high ISO [more on that later] and even though it was almost completely dark when I took them, the pictures look as if they were taken during the day time.)

So, to understand more about the relationship between aperture and light, let’s say I want to take a picture of my daughter, inside a dimly lit house. I’m going to need to let more light into my lens in order to properly expose the picture, so that it won’t be too dark. In order to do this, I lower my aperture number (which widens the opening in the lens) to allow more light in. Now let’s say that my daughter decides to go outside, where it is significantly brighter. My aperture number can (but doesn’t have to) go up, narrowing the opening in the lens and allowing the lens to let in less light (we’ll discuss reasons you’d want to narrow your aperture outdoors in a moment.) So, generally speaking, the darker your surroundings, the lower the aperture number needs to be and the brighter your surroundings the higher your aperture number can go, (but doesn’t have to.)

So we’ve established that low light situations generally require low aperture numbers, but why wouldn’t you want your aperture number to be higher, when in brightly lit situations?  Well, you might, depending on what effect you’re going for.

The reason for this is that aperture also controls depth of field. As I mentioned before, depth of field refers to the range of distance that appears sharp in the image. (Check it out: I finally found a use for my husband’s golf balls!):

In this picture, my aperture is at f/1.4:

Here it’s f/3.2:

Here it’s f/6.3:

And here it’s all the way up to f/16:

You can see that the higher my aperture number goes, the more of the picture is in focus. Depth of field is a beautiful thing to play with in pictures. By changing the aperture, you can create beautiful blurred backgrounds:

(aperture: f/ 1.8)

(aperture: f/2.2)

background “bokeh” (points of blurred light):

(aperture: f /1.4)

and sun stars:

(aperture: f/11)

Depth of field is also an important aspect when photographing more than one person. If your subjects are sitting side by side, you can get away with a pretty low aperture. But if one of your subjects is slightly behind the other (on a different plane of field), then your aperture number needs to go up, so that one of them doesn’t end up blurry. Generally speaking, I try not to go below an aperture of f/5 when photographing a small group of people standing close to one another, or f/8 if photographing a large group. If you go too low with your aperture number, someone in your picture is going to end up blurry (incidentally, that’s why it’s important to always take a test shot and check your LCD screen… sometimes you can get away with a lower number, and sometimes you can’t.  [This is where the lens length comes into play… the longer the lens, the shallower the depth of field, the shorter the lens the greater the depth of field.  I won’t go into detail about that here, but play with your lenses and see what works for you.]) Depth of field is also important in landscape work (which I don’t do much of.) In landscape photography, you generally want as much of the background in focus as possible, hence a high aperture number (and, usually, a shorter lens.)

So, to review:

Higher Aperture number (narrow aperture) = less light through the lens, more things in focus

Lower Aperture number (wide aperture) = more light through the lens, less things in focus

Shutter Speed

Really simple application of shutter speed: the faster the shutter speed (higher the number), the better the ability to freeze action. Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second… the slower the shutter speed (lower the number), the more blur is going to happen with subjects in motion. In the following two pictures, the first was taken with a high shutter speed to freeze the action, while the second was taken with a low shutter speed to create image blur:

Generally speaking, a guideline for proper shutter speeds to freeze moving objects are as follows:

Trees on a windy day: 1/250-1/500

Children sitting: 1/300-1/500 (because children never sit completely still!)

Children and pets at play: 1/500 – 1/1000

Sporting events: 1/1000-1/2000

Shutter speed is also a lovely thing to play with in pictures. By choosing a low shutter speed, you can create silky waterfalls:

(photo by whobee)

and the illusion of motion:

 (photo by pincusvt)

And by raising the shutter speed you can freeze moments of action:

Photo by Beverly and Pack

(Photo by A Magill)


It should be mentioned that the higher the shutter speed the LESS light will enter the camera. So if you’re photographing in a dimly lit room, chances are you’re not going to be able to photograph with high shutter speeds unless you have your camera set to a very low aperture number, and even then it might be too dark to go high with your shutter speed (this is where ISO can come into play, which we’ll discuss next week.)

It should also be mentioned that the distance between you and your subject will affect the shutter speed necessary to freeze the action. For instance, if you were taking a picture of a child running on a baseball field, it’s possible you could get away with a shutter speed of 1/500. If that same child was running five feet from you, your shutter speed would need to be much higher (the same can be said of your lens length… once again, we see how lens length effects the camera settings… the longer the lens, the faster it needs to be to freeze motion.  The shorter the lens, the lower you can set your shutter speed.  This is because longer lenses are bringing you closer to the action, while shorter lenses are taking your further away.)

One last thing, regarding shutter speed: When you’re holding your camera with your hands (as opposed to a tripod) keep in mind that the natural shaking of your hands will affect the quality of your image if your shutter speed isn’t high enough (it will cause blur.) Due to this, your shutter speed should usually be HIGHER than the length of your lens. If you have a 200mm lens, your shutter speed should be set at or higher than 250. If you have a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should not get below 60, and so on (generally speaking, you never want your shutter speed to get below 60, regardless of your lens, unless you’re on a tripod because natural hand shaking will cause the image to blur, even if you have a shorter lens.)

To review:

Higher Shutter Speed = less light through the lens, more ability to capture action without blur

Lower Shutter Speed = more light through the lens, less ability to capture action without blur


I hope I’ve left you with a better understanding of aperture and shutter speed and what they do. Please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact me via email if you have any questions or concerns. Next week, we’ll talk about exposure and the relationship between aperture and shutter speed and discover what ISO is, and its contribution to properly exposed photographs. For now, I’ll leave you with a few exercises to help you better understand your cameras aperture and shutter speed.


1. Shutter Speed

Assignment A: For now, set your camera to shutter priority mode (check your manual for instructions on how to do this.) Set your camera to the highest shutter speed it will allow, and take some pictures of moving cars. Don’t change your lens or the zoom, but keep taking the shutter speed down. At what point does your picture become blurry?

Assignment B: Practice “panning,” by setting your shutter speed to 1/30 or 1/60 and pointing your camera toward a car and following it with your lens as you press the shutter (in other words, your eye will be tracking the car through the lens, as opposed to waiting for it to cross your field of vision through the lens.  You’ll push the shutter and your camera will be following the car as it takes the picture, rather than standing still.) It takes some practice, but the effect you get is a sharp object against a blurry background, giving the image a feeling of movement.

2. Aperture

Assignment A: Set your camera to aperture priority mode and set up several objects from around your house. Place all of the objects in a line leading away from the camera and focus on the object in the middle. Take a picture with the aperture set to the lowest number your camera will allow (with the flash off, you may have to do this outdoors), and take a picture. Now, raise your aperture number and take another. Continue to do this until you’ve reached the highest number your camera will allow. Check out the effects this has on the objects before and after the one you’re focusing on.

Assignment B: Take a picture of a friend or family member with the aperture number very low and then take the same picture with the aperture high. Which picture is better? Why? Are there things out of focus that should be in focus?


If you want feedback, or would just like to share, send your practice pictures to me via email (rina [at] rinamarie [dot] com), and I’ll post them here on the blog!  And please don’t hesitate to ask questions if anything is unclear to you, or if you need help.  I look forward to hearing from you!


For more great tips on just about every subject, visit Works for me Wednesday



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7 Responses to WFMW: A Beginners Guide to Mastering Your Digital Camera: Part 1 – Shutter Speed and Exposure … (Bowling Green KY Photographer, Bowling Green KY Photography)

  1. Love this guide breakdown. May I link this post and subsequent ones to my blog?

  2. chris hake says:

    Ok awesome! I believe my readers can benefit from your breakdown and easy to understand instructions. May I add you to my blogroll?

  3. Susan says:

    Great, Great, GREAT explanations, Rina! It can be pretty confusing sometimes! Thanks for walking through it all ~ and keeping it SIMPLE!

  4. Pingback: WFMW How to take a great family portrait (Bowling Green KY Family Photographer, Bowling Green KY Family Portraits) | Rina Marie