Man Oh Manual

The Three Pillars of Photography 

By the title you might have already guessed this post is about manual settings for your DSLR camera. Man oh man, manual has given me heartburn. And I bet it’s given you some too, especially if you have no idea what any of it means and how the various settings come together to affect your image output. In this post I am going to run through the general functionality of the three main pillars of photography: Shutter Speed, Aperture an ISO.

DISCLAIMER: I am an amateur. I do not have any formal training, and everything I have learned had been self taught or gleamed through my many visits to the local camera store. Please, if you are a professional paparazzi, gentle cc is welcome, but don’t take me down if I use incorrect terminology!! I’m only trying to pass on some assistance to other non-professional laypeople mamrazzi types to help improve their recreational photography.

When I started shooting with a DSLR I did so by dusting off my relatively unused Canon T3i back in April. I wanted to try and capture some better shots of Liam. After taking photos with my iPhone 6 and not achieving the level of quality I wanted I decided to bite the bullet. I created a little set-up in a room of our home with a lot of natural light and went to work. Sometimes the shots worked out, other times they didn’t. It was endlessly frustrating. I asked questions of those with knowledge, I watched YouTube until I’d pass out from exhaustion with the laptop on my chest and I scoured the internet for understanding late into the night whenever possible. Things were not getting much better.

You see it’s easy to find information for someone who already knows what they are doing, the actual photography professional, but it’s the basics that lack definition through the internet’s plethora of photography knowledge! And mainly it’s lack of info on all three basics (the three pillars) in ONE PLACE. I couldn’t find anything, and for me, someone who needs to see the information written along with diagrams (I’m admittedly a visual person – my baby styling skills might have given that away) it was near impossible to learn any of it! A tidbit here on ISO, a snippet there on shutter speed… Yikes.

But I didn’t give up and learn I did. It sure took forever to get it and then to apply it, but hopefully I can help a bit (and maybe be put a tad to shame if you know more than I. Ha!). Okay, I’m not a professional photographer, but for an amateur I feel like I’ve got the hang of this and can be of some help to other amateurs who are feeling as stuck in the rut of AUTO shooting as I was a few months ago.

FYI on my equipment before we start. I shoot with a Canon T6s now. I usually use a Tamron 17-135 f2.4 with internal image stabilization, but I also have a 50 mm f1.8 that I like. These would be considered my workhorse lenses or the ones I generally use to shoot Liam, and It’s good to note because the FStop/aperture capabilities of these two lenses are such that I can get good light, even in dim settings by shooting with a low aperture number which is not achievable by all lenses and certainly was not something my kit lenses were capable of. Your equipment will paralyze you into certain settings to be sure to understand what your capabilities are by reviewing your lenses and DSLR body.


Photography Cheat Sheet posted in a brand rep group which is really very helpful!


You can assume that it is the speed at which the shutter (the curtain which rolls over the image sensor inside your camera body) opens and closes on a particular shot. If your shutter speed is low the curtain opens and closes slowly allowing in more light and brightening a photo output. Shutter speed set high means a faster open/close of the curtain and thus less light and a dimmer photo results. Set shutter speed too low and you will get too bright an output and possibly a blurry image. Set shutter speed too high and your photo will come out too dark.

A slow shutter speed can also cause motion blur to appear in your photo because your curtain is opening and closing on an image slowly enough to catch that hand waging or a head start to turn. There are thresholds for use of a tripod to help eliminate operator blur or camera shake, but most of us aren’t set up for that, nor are we photographing subjects which remain still enough for the need!! Blur is something I know we all want to freeze when shooting children. I have found that I can stop Liam’s motion from showing up in my output by setting shutter speed at 100 or higher. In my flash photography I can get pretty high, but in a natural low light setting where I need more light in the output shutter speeds anywhere between 100-200 might be fine. Again, you have to be cautious as setting shutter speed too high will result in a dark output which means a lot of post-production to fix exposure.

Low Shutter Speed = Brighter Photo, more possibility for blur

High Shutter Speed = Darker Photo, crisper image conveying little to no motion


Also known as the FStop setting on the camera, aperture is the honeycomb inside your lens which opens and closes, based on the setting you choose, to let in more or less light. Aperture also controls the area/depth of image focus. TWO major functions of your photography are controlled by this setting and its VERY important to understand the numbers and what they mean as I found aperture the most confusing because all of the ideas are counterintuitive to one another!

A low aperture number achieves a lot of light and background blur as it opens the honeycomb inside the lens to its widest capability (see, Low = wide which kind of doesn’t fit, but it is the way it is). Also the wide open, low aperture number creates a narrow area of focus, thus keeping the subject sharp and blurring the background. Again, super confusing and counterintuitive. But, it is the way it is and it works!

Have you ever seen the photos with the blurred out backgrounds and wondered, “How did they do that?” and if it wasn’t an app it was most definitely by setting aperture at 2.8 or less. So, here is where a lens with this capability comes in to play. A lens with the ability to set aperture at a low number lets one: a. Produce a brighter output, especially in low light settings and b. Produce that fabulous background blur. The look of a fully blurred background is not something my Canon kits lenses were capable of.

If the aperture is set to a higher number the honeycomb inside the lens narrows and you let in less light resulting in a dimmer image, however you increase your area/depth of focus and items in your foreground as well as items in your background will be in focus with sharper lines and  more clarity. And why would any of this be important? it’s balance, again. With a small child on the move you might not be able to set your aperture to the lowest allowed by the lens you have selected without creating subject blur in your output. You have to find the right mixture of settings!

Low aperture number = Brighter image, smaller depth of focus, background blur

High aperture number = Dimmer image, longer depth of focus, greater overall image sharpness


ISO is basically a numerical qualification of your cameras sensitivity to the available light source. Your camera can automatically adjust ISO to provide the brightest image when shooting in Auto ISO mode. Inside the camera is a component called the Image Sensor which turns the light entering the camera into an image. Making the Image Sensor more sensitive to light by increasing it’s setting number (ISO 800 to very high ISOs like 3200) you create a brighter image. The draw backs are that you can generally begin to see increased visible noise (when an image looks visibly pixelated or peppered, that graininess is called noise) when your shooting at ISO 800 or higher.

You recall, I shoot with Canon. I typically shoot at ISO 100 or 200 when shooting with strobes. When shooting in natural light or low light I never go above my preferred threshold of ISO 800. If I cannot get the brightness I desire with an ISO of 400-800 I will turn to adjusting other settings (either lowering the aperture number or shutter speed which both increase the amount of light entering the camera but can also affect motion and depth of field) in order to achieve the desired brightness/exposure.

ISO Low Number = Less light entering the sensor and translating to image, dimmer image, less “noise”

ISO High Number = More light entering the sensor and translating to image, brighter image, possible increased “noise”

I really hope that this very general layperson’s overview of the three pillars will be helpful in some way to some of you other amateurs out there just trying to understand what all the numbers on the back of the camera mean! So here is my advice – give it a go. Turn that dial to M for manual shooting and start manipulating your settings to get that desired image. And remember, practice makes perfect!


Courtney & Liam

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