Course Content

Total learning: 7 lessons / 3 quizzes

Choose your own settings

You have arrived at the most important and final lesson: Applying all that you have learned in the lessons so you can start using the manual mode! But how do you do it? How do you determine what settings to use? In this lesson, the everything from the previous lessons gets tied together. We are in our final lesson of this course so everything in the previous lessons has built up to this lesson. When you’ve taken this lesson you should be able to adjust the settings of your camera yourself.

A summary of all the effects

Let’s first start with a summary of all the effects you can achieve by changing different settings, this is a summary of previous lessons. Understanding this, or at least knowing this by heart will be important to really be able to choose your own settings. Therefore we’ll go over the effects of aperture, shutter speed and ISO once again, just to get this fresh in your memory. Repetition is key here.

Aperture – depth of field

Firstly, we started this course with the effects of the aperture. Firstly aperture determines the depth of field (note that aperture is not the only thing that has an effect on the depth of field though!). So if you pick a bigger aperture (that is a smaller f-number) your depth of field will become smaller, therefore the fore- and the background becomes less sharp. Secondly, with a bigger aperture, your photograph will become lighter.


Small aperture = big f-number = larger depth of field/more sharpness = darker photograph
Large aperture = small f-number = small depth of field/unsharp fore- and background = lighter image

example of a small aperture
example of a medium aperture
example of a big aperture

Shutter speed – frozen or moved photo

Secondly, we continued with the effects of shutter speed. The longer your shutter speed, the more movement you create in your photograph. Your photograph might become unsharp if your shutter speed is too slow. If you pick a faster shutter speed, the movements in your photograph will become frozen.

If you want to take a sharp photograph freehand, there are two different kinds of blur to take into account; Motion blur and camera blur. With camera blur, I mean the blur that appears because you shake your camera a bit while the photo is being taken. To avoid this kind of blur you can use the following rule of thumb: 1 / the number of millimetres your lens is zoomed in. For example, if you are zoomed in on 200 mm, your maximum shutter speed would be 1/200th of a second. If your lens has image stabilisation you might be able to use a slower shutter speed of up to 4 stops.

If you want to avoid motion blur the slowest possible shutter speed depends on your subject and how fast it moves. When your subject stands perfectly still, your shutter speed can be quite slow, but when your subject moves very fast (for example, flying birds) your shutter speed needs to be very fast.


Fast shutter speed = (if below 1 second, which is indicated with an “) higher number = frozen photo = darker photo
Slow shutter speed = (if below 1 second, which is indicated with an “) lower number = movement in photo = lighter photo

If you want to take a sharp photo freehand there are two kinds of blur to take into account:
Motion blur, the blur that appears because your subject moves
Camera blur, the blur that appears when you shake your camera, rule of thumb to avoid this: 1 / the number of millimetres your lens is zoomed in.

example of a short shutterspeed
example of a medium shutterspeed
example of a long shutterspeed

ISO – clear or grained photo

Lastly, ISO. This setting has an effect on how much the signal of your photograph is amplified. A more amplified signal gives a brighter photograph but also introduces more noise in your photograph. Therefore using a higher ISO comes with a price. But it’s still better to raise your ISO in camera than to brighten your photograph in post-production as you introduce more noise that way. It’s best to get the exposure right in the camera, to avoid even more unnecessary noise.


High ISO = more grain = lighter photo
Low ISO = less grain = darker photo

If you need to choose between a higher ISO in camera or brightening during post-processing, choose to get it right in camera.

example of a low ISO
example of a medium ISO
example of a high ISO

Now, how to adjust your camera settings manually

First, put your camera in manual mode!

Often you can switch modes on the camera mode dial button on the top button of your camera. Read the manual or look on the internet to see how you can change the settings for your camera. Usually, your shutter speed and aperture can be changed with the scroll wheel near your thumb, but sometimes camera has a dedicated scroll wheel on the front as well.

If your camera has an LCD on top, the settings will often be displayed there. It might also be displayed on the LCD on the back and if you look through the viewfinder. In the viewfinder, you will most likely see the settings in the middle of the bottom or on the side of the bottom.

Here you can find the camera-mode-button

Now the simple steps you can follow to adjust the settings yourself (don’t worry, we will get into each step more in depth).

  • Determine the bandwidths of your settings
  • Set aperture and shutter speed
  • Set ISO (while checking the internal light meter for guidance)
  • Make a test shot to check your settings

Before you get daunted and think this is oversimplified; yes, you are right. These steps are indeed oversimplified because it would be too complicated if I would write down all there is to the steps at once. However I will take you through each step along the way, so don’t worry. Just know if you adjust the settings of your camera yourself often enough, this becomes second nature. Hence there are enough photographers out there who wouldn’t do it any other way anymore, including me.

 Photo by Ishan
 Photo by Qingbao Meng
 Photo by RD Gray


Bandwidth per setting

As a first step, I often determine what kind of bandwidth I have per setting. I can imagine you don’t know what I’m talking about so let’s illustrate this with an example; I often photograph horses so when I have to photograph a horse in action there are a few things to take into account. Firstly most of the time I’d like to have the action frozen. Therefore my shutter speed needs to be fairly fast. Secondly, I like the out-of-focus backgrounds so I need to use a big aperture and finally, I want to have the least amount of grain in my photograph as possible.

The bandwidth per setting would look like this:

Shutter speed: 1/800th as slowest shutter speed and everything faster than that;
Aperture: f/2.8 or f/4;
ISO: As low as possible but as high as needs to be.

So if I keep my settings within these ranges I can play with the settings and get the result I’m looking for.


You can always write something like this down at the beginning of your session while you have the ease of mind to figure it out. In that way, you can always look at your homemade “cheatsheet” whilst doing your session. Because you did the “think work” before the session you prepared yourself. After a while of doing this, you’ll notice this will come more and more natural to you. You’ll even be able to figure this out on the fly. That’s when the magic starts to happen!

Light meter

The light meter of your camera is going to help you in the manual mode. You can see the light meter when you look through your viewfinder. It looks a bit like this: + 2 . . . 1 . . . 0 . . . 1 . . . 2 – . (Nikon puts the + on the left and the – on the right, Canon and Sony do this the other way around!).

Lightmeter viewfinder correctly exposed

You will see a little line or triangle flashing under the meter (the indicator). When you are adjusting any of your settings or if the light situation changes you’ll see the position of the flashing indicator change. When the indicator is right in the middle, the exposure is correct according to your camera, but keep in mind, this might not always be the case. As explained in previous lessons there are plenty of situations when the internal light meter might indicate a correct exposure while you would actually like to over- or underexpose. For example in a scene with a lot of snow or when you are photographing silhouettes in a sunset.

However in most situations aiming for the indicator to be in the middle is just fine.

 Photo by Travor Cole
 Photo by Jack Seeds
 Photo by Ahmet Sobah


Let’s first get that indicator to the middle!

It’s already an important skill to be able to get the indicator to the middle by choosing the settings yourself. There are a few steps in order to do this, let’s walk through them:

Firstly, I always start by setting the ISO to a low value, for example, 100. Secondly, start with both setting your shutter speed and aperture to a value within the bandwidth you’ve determined. Thirdly, check your internal light meter, can you adjust the indicator of the light meter to be in the middle by adjusting your shutter speed or aperture within the bandwidth you have determined? Then do so. If the photograph is still underexposed, now is the time to raise the ISO. If the photo is over-exposed it is time to determine which of your settings needs to drop outside of the bandwidth you have determined. Or you could look if there are other ways to darken the photograph a bit, for example, put your subject within a place of shade or add a darkening filter on your lens.


  • Start with a low ISO (100)
  • Set shutter speed and aperture within the bandwidth
  • Check internal light meter and adjust settings within your determined bandwidth so meter indicates correct exposure

Exposure still too low, raise your ISO
> Exposure still too high, determine what setting is going to drop out of bandwith or find other ways to darken your photo, for example put your subject in the shade or use a darkening filter on your lens.

Lastly, make a test photo

After you determined and adjusted the correct settings, it’s time to make a test photo and see if you got it right. If everything looks good you can start your photo session. Throughout your session, you will probably keep doing micro adjustments of your settings (if the circumstances don’t change a lot). So keep checking your photographs every now and then and look for “quiet moments” within your session to do so, but don’t fall in the trap of checking EVERY photo (it’s called chimping).

When to check your settings
I always check my settings in a quiet moment in the session. For example, when I’m photographing horses in action there are often moments when the horse is brought into position or running away from you. That would qualify as a quiet moment. Take that moment to briefly check your camera settings. However, if the horse is in full action, keep photographing and trust the settings you choose. It would be a shame to miss out on great action shots because you were gazing at your camera screen.

However, if circumstances change a lot (for example, first the sun was shining but now a cloud got before the sun) it’s a good idea to check your settings.

This was the last lesson of this course. I truly hope it helped you along the way to mastering your camera and therefore becoming a better photographer! Thank you for taking this course! I hope you’ll keep on learning and above all, keep photographing with lots of joy!

Woman photographing a castle

Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel

Skip to toolbar