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The Basics of Photography : Getting Started with Manual Controls

The Basics of Photography : Getting Started with Manual Controls

Sony A7RII  with the  Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8  taken with the  Sony RX1R , 35mm Sonnar f/2, 1/160, sec, f/4, ISO 3200

Sony A7RII with the Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 taken with the Sony RX1R, 35mm Sonnar f/2, 1/160, sec, f/4, ISO 3200

Written by and photos by Dan Hawk

Years ago...

I took a shot at learning how to take photos with a big camera with manual controls and it was a big mess of "try everything and hope something works". ... and I was shooting on film.  Things have changed quite a bit since then and now with digital you realistically could use that approach because there is literally no additional cost involved in shooting 50 versions of the same photo. But that's not very rewarding and I wish that someone had given me a couple basic lessons to get me started. 

So, after figuring this stuff out by trial and error over the last few years, I wrote this guide as a primer.  I'll go over the basic settings on your camera, tell you what they do, how they work together and when it might make sense to use automatic modes.   

Ready?  Get out your camera and follow along.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO - A Three Legged Stool

There are 3 basic settings that are common to most every method of making photos.  Shutter Speed,  Aperture and ISO.  My film camera literally only has these three settings.  Modern digital cameras have a lot more things you can adjust, but these are the basics and everything else is just a variation.  In order to manually control one, you need to understand how all three work and how they affect each other.

Sony A7RII  taken with the  Sony RX1R , Sonnar 35mm f//2, 1/100, f/3.2, ISO 2500

Sony A7RII taken with the Sony RX1R, Sonnar 35mm f//2, 1/100, f/3.2, ISO 2500

Your camera probably has a few modes on a dial or in a menu labeled M, A, S, P and some green label or box that represents Full automatic.  I'm not going to talk about Automatic or P – which is Program mode as they both leave most of the decision making to the camera. While there's a time and place for that, we're dealing with more of a hands-on approach here.

M stands for Manual, where – surprise, surprise –  you manually choose all three settings. The other modes are presets that allow you to choose one (or more) of the three parameters and allow the camera to take care of the rest. 

If you are a real hands-on sort of learner, Just pick one parameter and take the same photo at every setting to see what it does.  Do this with shutter, aperture and ISO.  Start with fairly neutral settings across the board. Shutter at 100, aperture at 5.6, ISO at 200.

So with that, lets talk about the big three

Sony 55mm f1.8 Sonnar  taken on the  Sony A7 , Adapted Olympus OM 35mm f/2, 1/5 sec, F/2, ISO 500

Sony 55mm f1.8 Sonnar taken on the Sony A7, Adapted Olympus OM 35mm f/2, 1/5 sec, F/2, ISO 500


The aperture, which is located in the lens, is the camera's iris and which controls how much light is allowed to reach the sensor.  It might be helpful to think of the way a human iris constricts when you go from a dark room to bright daylight. The aperture measurement number, also called the f/stop, is a measurement of the lens's focal length divided by the width of the aperture opening  .  The "f" stands for Focal length.  A smaller f/stop number means the aperture is larger or more open. A larger number means that the iris is constricted, often referred to as "stopped down"

While the aperture controls the amount of light that reaches the sensor of the camera, It's also important to note that the aperture also controls depth of field.  Depth of Field is the term we use in photography to describe how much of the scene is in focus.   

Taken on the  Sony A7RII ,  Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 , 1/250 sec, f/1.4, ISO 200

Taken on the Sony A7RII, Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4, 1/250 sec, f/1.4, ISO 200

The wider your aperture is set, the narrower the depth of field. This would be useful for a portrait where you want to isolate the subject of your photo and have the background appear blurry and out of focus.  It's possible to have such a narrow depth of field that a person's eye ball is in focus, but the end of their eyelashes are blurry. 

The more stopped down and small your aperture is, the wider your depth of field. This is how most landscape photos are made, where there are a lot of important details in the photo that should all be in focus.

How Does This Apply to Your Camera Gear?

Most lenses for modern cameras have the ability to stop down to f/18 or f/22 which makes them well-suited to landscape photos.  Most any kit zoom lens will work well for this purpose, but a lot of people move to a "real" camera because they want to make photos with blurry backgrounds or they are wanting to shoot in low light. If this is your goal, you will want to open up the aperture as wide as possible. 

Sony A7 , 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6, 1/400, 28mm, f/8, ISO 100

Sony A7, 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6, 1/400, 28mm, f/8, ISO 100

Most beginning and intermediate level cameras come with a basic zoom lens. This type of lens usually has a maximum (largest) aperture of f/3.5 when it is at its widest focal length and f/5.6 when you are fully zoomed in. Remember how the f/stop is focal length divided by the size of the aperture? Because the focal length changes with a zoom lens, you actually need a larger aperture opening at longer focal lengths to get the same f/stop.   This is the reason you can’t get to a larger aperture when zoomed in with inexpensive kit lenses.  They just don’t have large enough glass lens elements because of size, weight and price.  There are zoom lenses out there for your camera that have apertures that stay constant at larger apertures but they are heavy and expensive because of all the large glass elements. 

Getting That Out-of-Focus Background Look

If you are planning to take lots of photos of people and find that you aren't getting a shallow-enough depth of field from your kit zoom lens, I would strongly recommend making your first upgrade a prime fixed focal length lens such as a 50mm f/1.8. Most camera systems have a pretty affordable 50mm lens in the $200-$300 range.   This type of lens has a much larger glass element and a larger aperture for better low-light performance and narrow depth of field. As a growing photographer, this will open up all sorts of options and show you the value of a good fixed focal length prime lens.

Sony A7RII ,  Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 , 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 2500

Sony A7RII, Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4, 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 2500

While not specific to aperture, focal length also has a large impact on depth of field. Shorter focal lengths with a wider angle of view such as 18mm have a naturally large depth of field. A longer focal length like 50mm has a tighter field of view and will also have smaller depth of field at the same aperture setting.  You can use this to your advantage by changing to a longer focal length to get a shallower depth of field. 

While you are learning about Aperture, the A mode will allow you to concern yourself only with Aperture while the camera chooses the shutter speed for you.

Shutter Speed 

Sony A7RII ,  Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 , 1/40 sec, f/1.8, ISO 400

Sony A7RII, Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8, 1/40 sec, f/1.8, ISO 400

The shutter is a curtain that controls how long the image is exposed to the sensor. A slow shutter speed (anything longer than about 1/80 of a second) will allow more light to reach the sensor and is useful in low-light conditions. A shorter shutter speed, is useful in bright, well lit conditions and can also be useful to avoid blur caused by people moving – including you, the photographer.  If you get into the 1/1000+ range, you can get great stopped motion shots of sports and other fast paced stuff.

Sony NEX 7, Sony 18-55mm  f/3.5-5.6, 10 Sec, 18mm, f/20, ISO 100

Sony NEX 7, Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 10 Sec, 18mm, f/20, ISO 100

Playing with the shutter speed is one of the most common ways to experiment with composition.  You can leave your shutter open to capture the motion of water, clouds, people, cars....pretty much anything.  But, remember that because the shutter is exposed for longer, it will also be affected by any movement of the camera.  Get yourself a tripod. 

You can use the S or TV (Time Value) setting to focus on Shutter speed and let the camera choose the correct aperture.

Sony A7II ,  Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 , 1/3 sec, f/22, ISO 50

Sony A7II, Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2, 1/3 sec, f/22, ISO 50


Trillium Lake Lights,  Sony A7RII ,  Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4  , 20 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

Trillium Lake Lights, Sony A7RII, Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 , 20 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

ISO is the sensitivity of your sensor. The numbers are based on the rating system for film sensitivity. Film comes in different sensitivities which are optimized for different conditions  and our digital cameras have settings to match. The higher or lower sensitivity of the sensor is achieved by varying the amount of electrical charge to the sensor. Because of this increase of power to the sensor at higher ISO settings, you may start to notice more noise or grain. You should experiment with hight ISO settings to find out how high you can go before you feel the image is too noisy.

In addition, I personally feel that with digital cameras the higher the ISO, the more you are compromising on color.  Most sensors have a base ISO of 100 where the color is most accurate. On every digital camera I've used, I see some shift in colors especially in skin tones as you move upwards of ISO 400.  Just something good to remember. 

Sony A7RII ,  Sony EF 70-200mm f/4 , 1/20 sec, 188mm, f/4, ISO 5000

Sony A7RII, Sony EF 70-200mm f/4, 1/20 sec, 188mm, f/4, ISO 5000

In light of the above, I recommend that you start with ISO set to 100. Aperture and Shutter speed have a much larger effect on composition and it will serve you better to start with them.  Starting with ISO 100 gives you a baseline understanding and a sense of how your camera sensor handles light.  

Here are some guidelines: 

ISO 100 is good for bright daylight and good lighting conditions and the resulting images have little to no noise or grain and color is most accurate.

ISO 400 is still good in moderate to bright light, but can be used in overcast and indoor situations with very little noise.

Sony A7 ,  Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 , 1/15 sec, f/1.8, ISO 3200

Sony A7, Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8, 1/15 sec, f/1.8, ISO 3200

ISO 1600 or 3200 is great in low light, and even night time scenes without a flash if you use a longer shutter speed.  You will probably find that above 3200, the sensor noise starts to be an issue and because the sensor is now able to pick up more light than your actual eyes, colors can get a little weird. 

The high ISO response is so good in many modern cameras, many people just set the camera to auto ISO and forget about it. I would advise you to trust your camera, but always think about color and optimize for a lower ISO if possible.  Most modern cameras allow you to set ISO to auto in all of the P, A, S, and even M modes.  

Remembering what's important

Sony A7RII ,  Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 , 1/6400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 160

Sony A7RII, Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4, 1/6400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 160

While you are learning how all this works, I highly recommend using the automatic modes in situations when the stakes are high - important events.  You probably go this camera to capture photos of things that matter to you, and you really don't want to miss an important shot because you are fiddling with your camera.  Eventually this stuff will be second nature, but while you are still learning, don't be afraid to use the Auto modes so you just don’t have to worry about any of it, and can just focus on the shot or the thing you’re doing.

I hope this helps, and please do reach out if I can answer any questions that come up as you are learning!

Original Article DanHawk.com

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