Amateur Guide to Photography

Forget the numbers.

I am going to keep this simple for you so we can move on and actually start doing the cool stuff and not worry about the complete science of everything. Skip this by the way if you are already using your camera on Tv, Av or Manual.

To alter your settings on your camera, you are going to have to turn the dial on top so that it reads (for Canon) M, Av or Tv. If you are using the little pictures on top or the green square your camera is still on auto and will not let you change much. If you have your camera right now, set it to M. Don’t be scared, we are just playing with settings not taking a master class.

STOP! – F-stop – so what’s F/16? or F/5.6 right in the middle of my camera?

This number is a control for your lens (light is measured in stops the same as on a ruler distance is organised in to centimetres, I am not going into the history and science of these numbers here) only and it does two things.

Assuming you have a standard cheap kit lens (the lens they gave you with the camera) it will be capable of giving you F3.5 to F32. Now, it is cheap and due to technical issues it can’t hold these numbers if you set them and zoom in or out – I will go into more detail later on a compare between a cheap lens and a pro lens. Just know for the moment we are going to work on F5.6 to F22 OK.

So clear your head and forget these numbers have odd numbers like F3.5 or F4.0, just know each time you raise this number from its lowest to highest number you are making two changes at once.

We will start with F5.6 to F8. Setting a low number opens a doorway inside your lens allowing light to come in and once you have focussed onto something it creates a more blurred background. This is one of the most popular settings to use for portraits and even landscape photography.

To increase this blurring, zoom in to your subject and take a shot (stand back and zoom in if you have to) and see the result. Although you will get some background blur without zooming in, when you zoom in with a low F-stop number the background magnifies even more. On another article I will go into Bokeh/Prime lens vs a zoom lens later on and more.

So guess what the high number does…

Yes, from F/8 to F/22 you start to increase the depth of field and the photo gets sharper front to back and you are also limiting the amount of light coming into the camera. Again, if you want front to back sharpness don’t zoom in too much!

So forget the numbers, just know that a low number is good for low-light photos with blurring and know that a high number is good for front to back sharpness and limited incoming light. The next trick is balancing the light to control your photo.

The Next Trick

You might be taking a photo on a very bright day but want to use F/2, but your shots are coming out very very bright or white almost (over-exposed). You need a way of controlling the light without changing this number. This is where your shutter comes into play and the shutter also controls two things. It can be slowed down to allow more light to come in which helps with your exposure, but the draw back here is anything moving in front of the camera could potentially be blurred. In this case we are talking about more light in the scene so if your shooting at F2 then push the shutter speed higher and freeze frame the scene.

One way to experiment with this is set your camera to Tv mode (shutter priority) and try some shots on a slow speed and some on a high speed. Compare your photo’s and you will see the camera made adjustments for you to effect the photo because of the shutter speed changes you made fast or slow.

Shutter Play.

Sunset Settings…

When you press that button to take your photo, you here a “click-click”. That is the little door inside your camera (shutter) moving out of the way so the light coming into your lens passes through to your camera sensor (device that records light and ends up on your SD card).

You can control how slow or fast this shutter opens and closes. So the longer you leave it open the more light hits the sensor until you get the desired exposure.


The camera is sensitive to light which is why sometimes your photos may come out too bright or dark if you’re not in control. Let’s say the photo you want to take take was at the end of a sunset and the light was not very plentiful, but I wanted to shoot it at F/16. Which as you should now know this number limits light coming into the camera but gives front to back sharpness of the scene?

SO... by slowing down the shutter I have given the camera more time enough to compensate for the lack the light of the day (ambient light) and the controlled light coming into the lens and expose the camera long enough to create a balanced photo exposure. If you hear someone saying “I exposed for 5 secs” he may not be a flasher…

Now I say slowing down the shutter, the average normal speed of your shutter is considered to be 1/125 sec. This speed is reasonably fast enough to hold your camera steady to take a photo. I can hold my camera and take a snap-photo at 1/60 sec, anything slower and I will likely have a blurred photo from my own movement. But in this case my camera is on a tripod so I can have more shutter control at my disposal as and when I need it.

Now this is where it starts to come together, let’s suppose I took the same photo with an F-stop of f/2.8. I can’t leave the shutter at 1/4 as so much light would come into the camera the photo would be “over-exposed” and be bright and washed out.

You’re a juggler with intent

So to compensate I would have to increase the shutter speed so that it opens and closes quicker. And this is where I am starting to get to with all this, to get the photo the way we want it we have to learn to balance light. If you make a change of your F-stop, you will need to make an adjustment of another sort elsewhere to compensate for this. As we go on you will hopefully understand this better.

Know that your camera is your tool, it may have lots of fancy processors and metering systems but you are in the hot seat (I would not want it any other way!) and your camera does not know what you’re trying to do or what it is looking at. So as a juggler of light, you will eventually know when to press that shutter button and make that photo.

The other control your shutter offers is a sense of movement or the opposite, complete motion freeze. Now if you need your F-stop number to stay where it is, Tv mode is not for you because in this mode it is going to keep your shutter speed fixed at what ever you terll it to but the auto-ISO and F-stop is going to be constantly changing (take a photo indoors on Tv mode and outdoors and look at its settings – see manual for photo details).

Something to try;

Now for this quick experiment we want to control the speed of the shutter and you can’t do this in Av Mode. Instead M for manual is what we will need here but we are going to leave the ISO to the camera (as we are not talking about the ISO right now, make sure it is set to auto and not a number and we will come to this eventually).

So in manual set your F-stop to F5.6 and then adjust your shutter dial to a slow low number say 1/20secs take a shot (and dont worry about what you shoot) and then set it to 1/200 and take a shot. Assuming you have set it correctly your camera has kept the same photo exposure (by changing the ISO setting in the background) but you managed to keep the F-stop the same whilst making adjustments to the shutter. You can do the same process to the shutter as well by repeating the same experiment but instead change the F-stop number.

Set the shutter to 1/80secs for the moment but instead change the F number to f5.6 and take a shot and then set to F22 and shoot again. So, the same exposure but the same shutter speed too and let’s not forget the lessons of blurring or bokeh as it is also known. So what did we just learn? here is a breakdown;

Photo at Shutter 1/20 – too blurry for hand held but quality of shot is good (ISO)

Photo at shutter 1/200 – Sharp, frozen photo with some bokeh

Photo at F5.6 – Generally sharp for hand hold and background begins to blur from focus point

Photo at F22 – Sharp front to back but picture quality may have been sacrificed (ISO, don’t panic ISO is almost next!)

The Big Freeze

So here is a little bit more of shutter speeds, the faster your shutter speed is, the quicker it opens and closes inside your camera which limits light into the camera. On a bright summer day you can happily take photos at a speed of 1/200secs and get good hand held photos and if its really really sunny you can push this up higher as you see fit. The more you push this number the quicker the photo and the more “frozen” the scene is. Not because its cold of course but movement is frozen in that time. For example pick up any sports magazine and you will see footballers in mid air, sweat drops and footballs in a solid state. The photog that took these shots would have used a fast shutter speed like 1/800 – enough to catch a Formula One car!

Find a fountain and shoot at 1/4000 secs!

If you shoot at this speed on a bright day you can see the water is choppy and frozen in motion.


ISO-50 on my Canon 6D is the highest quality recording it offers, it is also the lowest light sensitivity setting as well. So let’s recap a second, are you seeing a pattern forming yet? three controls, each does two changes at once and all three controls effect light either up or down in volume. Or do they?

The ISO when set to it lowest number simply records faster digitally and so requires more light to do this and if pushed to its higher numbers like say ISO-128000 its very sensitive to light and is a lot brighter and needs less light to record a photo for you. The ISO settings cannot stop light coming into the camera once it travels through that lens and passed through the shutter, so technically speaking its not a control of light but just keep in mind that playing with these settings does make a change in the camera’s behaviour if you happen to set an ISO at a particular number in Av or Tv modes.

Let’s suppose I am indoors on a bright day and my camera is set to Av mode. If I changed my iso to iso-400 or even 800, this would be sensitive enough with the room light for the camera to auto increase the shutter speed and get you a reasonable exposure hand held.. The down side to increasing this ISO number is it creates more noise in the photo which means decreasing the quality as well. Remember the fountain photo, I shot mine at 1/4000secs in Tv mode and its ISO only went to 640 as it was a bright day on the coast plus it was a white fountain reflecting more light.

Would like to say at this point that ISO-640 is not bad! ISO quality varies per camera or mobile phone. You can shoot a pretty good photo up to 3200 ISO and with noise reduction software can make it look very good.

More about quality in a sec, I want you to understand a little of the impact of your changes in camera are making as as I said earlier – you are a Juggler of light. So here is a little exorcise, like before set your camera dial to Av and set your ISO to 100 and take a photo of something.

Next set your ISO to 800, take a shot and then 3200, Which photo’s worked out better for you? have a look on the back and zoom in using your display screen onto the object you focused on and see if the photos look any different. There are settings recorded attached to each file that the camera adds in every time you take a photo called Exif data (wiki this please). To get to this data varies per camera so look this up but if you get to this data you would see that the camera made adjustments to the F stop and the shutter speed as you changed the ISO.

HIgh ISO is Bad!… and Good!

I am hoping your not feeling to overwhelmed with all this, but if you get your head round these three main camera settings everything else is easier as all the other settings in your camera usually only need setting just once depending on what your doing but exposure is very important.

Usually its good practice to shoot in the best quality possible, especially if there is enough light as after all its our job to get the best capture possible right?. As you saw in the landscape photo with the tree the ISO was set to 50 and noise reduction was applied (more on noise and post processing in another blog). Now, it seems like a terrible thing to shoot in any ISO higher than 800 (I will go into quality on high ISO’s later and how to manage them) but there are situations when a high ISO can actually give a photo an improvement in camera without having to muck about in Photoshop.

It’s a judgement call! When canon released the 24mm to 70mm mkII lens in 2011 (a fast lens) I was lucky enough to be the first few to get hold of one and try it out shortly after buying it. I fired the shot in Av mode (Aperture Priority) at F2.8 and zoomed in at 70mm the widest & tightest it can go to see how it looked. The Canon 550D came back with a photo setting; shutter speed of 1/40s and iso6400. In colour the photo was noisy and even with noise reduction did not look good, but I knew this. I knew the camera in the low light would have to choose these settings, even with a wide aperture (or low F-stop number).

I was looking to make a black & white photo and I wanted to have natural grain in the photo as close to those old black & white film photo’s we used to see from the pro’s. I believe Sir David Bailey shoots digital now but when he does create B&W he shoots film still. So when I processed this photo I made sure no noise reduction was applied and once I added a black and white layer (and there are many to choose from in Photoshop and other filter software) the noise was now an advantage towards the look I wanted.