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Noob's Guide To Manual Photography

A quick overview on camera settings and how they affect a photo

October 18, 2018

So... I got this camera to take vacation photos. But unlike past vacations, I wanted to go beyond the camera's "noob mode" (automatic/intelligent mode) and take photos like a pro. A quick internet search later returned a plethora of resources. But I ain't got time fo' that! And so, I managed to skim through and condense the topic to the bare essentials. Here's the noob's guide to manual photography.

Camera parameters explained

Of all the features available in a camera, only three of them are important when doing manual photography: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.

Aperture controls the depth of field. Wide apertures cause a shallow depth of field, producing the Bokeh effect. This is commonly used for portrait photos. Small apertures cause a deep depth of field, producing a photo with everything in focus. This is commonly used for landscape photos.

Shutter speed controls how long the sensor is exposed to light. Fast shutter speeds expose the sensor to light for a short period time, producing the effect of freezing time. This is commonly used for capturing fast-moving subjects. Slow shutter speeds expose the sensor to light for a long period time, producing long-exposure photos. This is commonly used for capturing motion.

ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera sensor. High ISOs make the sensor more sensitive to light, producing bright photos. This is commonly used in low-light situations. Low ISOs make the sensor less sensitive to light, producing dark photos. This is commonly used in scenarios where there is abundance of light.

The catch

Aperture deals with focus. Shutter speed deals with motion. ISO deals with brightness. Sounds easy right? Hahaha, nope.

Aside from their distinct functionality, aperture and shutter speed also affect the brightness and darkness of a photo. Enlarging the aperture and/or increasing the shutter speed can also brighten a photo. On the other hand, shrinking the aperture and/or decreasing the shutter speed can also darken a photo.

Additionally, higher ISOs increase image noise - the random, "grainy" patches of red, green and/or blue pixels on a photo. It's usually more noticeable on uniformly-colored portions of a photo. This makes ISO, whose sole purpose is to lighten/darken the photo, sort of the last setting to lighten/darken a photo.

So how does one go about adjusting these parameters when they all act like tumblers of a rotary combination lock?

Full check-list

After doing some trial-and-error, I came up with this rough guideline to systematically tweak all three camera parameters to get the desired photo.

  1. Set ISO to the lowest available (e.g. 80).
  2. Set aperture to something mid-range (e.g. 5.6)
  3. Set shutter speed to a reasonable speed (e.g. 1/60)
  4. If quality is as desired, stop here.
  5. Set the desired aperture.
    • If shooting portrait, go larger.
    • If shooting landscape, go smaller.
  6. Adjust shutter speed to compensate for darkening/lightening caused by aperture.
    • To darken, go faster.
    • To brighten, go slower.
  7. If quality is as desired, stop here.
  8. Set the desired shutter speed:
    • To freeze motion, go faster.
    • To capture motion, go slower.
  9. Adjust ISO to compensate for darkening/lightening caused by shutter speed.
    • To darken, go lower.
    • To brighten, go higher.
  10. If quality is as desired, stop here.
  11. Set the desired ISO
    • To darken, go lower.
    • To brighten, go higher.
  12. If quality is as desired, stop here.
  13. Repeat 5-12 to fine-tune.

The reasoning for the specific order of the items are as follows:

  • ISO starts low to avoid the noise introduced by higher ISO.
  • Aperture starts at 5.6, an arbitrary midway value.
  • Shutter speed starts at 1/60 because 60fps is the minimum framerate for a smooth video. Just applying the same concept to photos.
  • Aperture is adjusted first because it is defined by the type of photo being captured.
  • Shutter speed adjusts the brightness/darkness first since the photographer can control motion. For instance, the subject could already be still, making long-exposure an option to brighten the photo.
  • ISO is only adjusted as a last resort. Best case, you never reach this part of the list. Worst case, it is adjusted only because the photo has very specific aperture and shutter speed requirements.


I may have oversimplified things, but that was kind of the point. However, I may have butchered some terms and/or used terms interchangeably, so feel free to correct me where I'm wrong. I intended this article not as a definitive guide but as a rough guideline that can be tweaked where necessary. Hopefully this helped you (and me) grasp the basics of manual photography and not fear the exposure triangle.

PS: Everything assumes zoom and flash did not exist. That's a topic for another time.