For those of you who are aspiring to get your DSLR onto manual mode (why bother?  Have a look at this post) and have more control over your photography options, I've been trying to help with some photography tips for very beginners.  Have a look at this post on aperture if you haven't read it already.  

Today, I'm going to be talking about shutter speed.  This is a bit more intuitive than aperture (or, at least, I think so!).  So, here are the basics:

1. What is shutter speed?  Shutter speed tells you how long the shutter in your camera will be open.  If it is open for a short time, it will let less light in.  If it is open for a longer time, it will let more light in.  


2. Fast shutter speed.  If you have a short shutter speed, your image will be sharper as you are only capturing that incredibly short moment in time.  This is great for taking pictures of moving objects (or, in my case, children!).  The picture above is Elliott who, essentially, is never still!  He was running after a ball and I wanted to capture that sweet, excited expression without any blur, so my camera shutter speed was set to 1/2000th of a second.  That means my shutter was only open for a small fraction of a second and only captured 1/2000th of a second in time, so there wasn't much room for blur.  This works brilliantly if you are outside or have a lot of natural light, as 1/2000th of a second doesn't leave much time to let a lot of light into your camera.  If there isn't enough natural light, your photo will be under-exposed (too dark) and it'll be difficult to see details and will feel sort of gloomy.  The disadvantage of a shorter shutter speed is that photos can work out looking quite static as there is no movement at all in them.

3. Slow shutter speed.  The advantage of a slow shutter speed is that it lets in lots of light. If you are working in low light conditions, you want to let in as much light as possible.  This is great if your subject is very still, like a dreamy, sleeping newborn.  This was an indoor shoot on a cold, wintery day so there was some natural light, but not very much.  I put my aperture up to f1.8 (low f/stop number = large aperture hole, remember?!) and shutter speed down to 1/160th of a second.  I then had to have a very steady hand to make sure the camera didn't wobble so I could still get a nice crisp image.  

4. Balance. Sometimes, if you are working with natural light, you have to make choices about how to balance the shutter speed with the amount of light available.  This picture of Evie-Rose coming down the stairs required a faster shutter speed, as she was moving, but there wasn't a huge amount of natural light.  I set my shutter speed to 1/320th of a second (which sounds fast, but actually isn't ALL that quick) and then waited for her to be on a step, where she was likely to be slightly more still than when moving between steps.  Her slight trepidation about the 'big' stairs and childlike, pigeon-toed stance make for a great image but it wouldn't have been so successful if she had been moving more at the time.  There would have been a definite blur.

5. Blur isn't always bad. Sometimes you want a bit of movement in your image.  In this photo, I used a slow shutter speed (1/30th of a second) to my advantage to capture motion.  I was standing as still as I could (feet firmly planted, wide apart!) when the man on his bike cycled past. I kept my camera as steady as possible and tracked the man through my viewfinder so that he stayed in focus while the background blurred.  This technique takes a bit of practice and I don't use it very often, but it can be really effective.

I hope that's helpful to those exploring your camera functions.  Let me know if you have any questions and good luck!


I must start today's photography tips post with a confession: I find the technical details of how a camera works incredibly boring.  I have learnt what I know through a combination of endless trial-and-error, painfully long-winded research, Googling and discussion with other photographers.  I would never claim that I know everything.  Or even anything very much.  But I know what I didn't know before.  If you know what I mean!  

When I started out in photography, terms such as aperture, f/stop, ISO and shutter speed were a mystery.  I got incredibly frustrated, trying to read photography blogs that I just didn't understand.  I'm hoping that these photography tips posts might help others in a similar situation by explaining the early basics of photography, the stuff you need to know in order to start experimenting with your DSLR manual mode.

Learning about aperture was a bit of a revelation, actually.  Knowing how to use it gives you a lot of control over the final appearance of your photos.  So, here are the basic things you need to know about aperture:

1. F/stop bigger, aperture smaller

The aperture is the hole in your camera lens that allows light in.  We talk about the size of an aperture in terms of f/stops.  The most confusing things about aperture is that, when talking about aperture size, the higher the numbers go, the smaller the hole!  So an aperture of, say, f/1.4 means that the hole letting light in is much bigger than if you set your aperture to something like f/16. Totally counter-intuitive! 

2. Depth of field - shallow

Photographers often talk about how to achieve the perfect 'depth of field' and the aperture helps to control this.  'Depth of field' means how much of your image is in focus.  If you have a shallow depth of field, only a small plane of your photo is focused and everything else around (both in front of and behind the focus point) gets increasingly less focused as it moves away from the focus point.  

When the aperture is large, the depth of field is very shallow.  In these two photos, above, the aperture was set to f/2.0.  Remember, this means that the hole is large (because the number is small.  Gaaaah!), allowing a lot of light into the camera.   In the image on the right, only Daniel's eyes are in focus, making them really stand out.  I chose a larger aperture for the one on the left as well because when the hand (or anything in the foreground) is out of focus, you get a better sense of the visual distance between the hand and the face, giving the image a bit more depth.  

However, having a very shallow depth of field can make an image look a bit distorted, by enhancing one feature. If Daniel had a very big nose, the image on the right would make it stand out even more by increasing the sense of visual distance between his eyes and the end of his nose!  Luckily, he doesn't have a very big nose!

I like to do portrait photography with a larger aperture (anything from f/1.8-f/3.0 and I mainly use a prime 50mm lens, for those who are interested!).  It means that backgrounds are nicely blurred (that's the bokeh I was talking about in my last Photography tips post), features are softened and key elements such as beautiful eyes really stand out.  In the photos below, the first two are taken at f1.8 and the third one is f2.8.  

3. Depth of field - deep

If you are taking a group photo, you need to have a deeper depth of field, so that everyone is in focus.  For this family photo, below, I wanted everyone in focus but they are all sitting at different 'depths', so I upped my aperture size to f/4.8 (making the hole smaller and the depth of field it starting to make sense, yet?!).  This is still quite a large aperture as I didn't want the background to be in perfect focus.  I would use a much smaller aperture (say, f/18) if I was photographing a landscape and wanted all the details in focus. 


In this photo, below, my aperture size was f/3.5, but it would have been better if it was smaller (like an f/5-f/6) as the baby in the foreground is out of focus.  Had my depth of field been deeper, the baby would also have been in focus.  I still like this photo for the sweet, shared moment between the two women but if I had been quicker to change my aperture size, it would have been even better!

4. Balance

Photography is all about balancing how much light gets into your camera.  If you have a lot of light coming in through a large aperture (such as f/2.0), you will need to balance that with a quicker shutter speed, so less light comes in during the moment the photo is taken (shutter speed will be my next 'Photography tips' post).  If you are taking photos somewhere with not much natural light and you don't want to use a flash, you might want to use a wider aperture so that more light is allowed in that way.  Or you might make the shutter speed longer.  Both of these things have advantages and disadvantages, so you have to balance them to work out the best fit for the situation you're in.  


  • Aperture is the hole through which light gets into your camera (larger hole --> smaller f/stop number).  
  • A large aperture size (smaller f/stop number) will create a shallow depth of field and vice versa.  
  • You need to balance aperture size with shutter speed and ISO.

I hope that gives you a starting point.  Now, go experiment with manual mode!

The best photography course I've ever done was a long weekend in Goa when we were told to put our camera in manual mode at the start of the weekend and keep it there!  I had experimented with manual mode before but, to be honest, it had always seemed a bit too complicated and time consuming.  Auto always felt so much easier.  

I can honestly say that since that weekend in India, I have had my camera in manual mode almost constantly and I love it!  It was the start, for me, of going from being a 'hobby' photographer to really wanting to do it as a profession.  

So, why is manual so much better?   Here are three reasons (as I've been dreaming of spring recently, I'll use this beautiful bunch of tulips as my teaching aid!):

1. No flash!

The photograph on the left is taken in auto mode.  Auto almost always reverts to using a flash when the light is not super bright (so, basically, for at least 8 months of the year in Britain!) so you get a flat, washed-out foreground and a dull background.  Also, the reflection from the flash often shows up and is visually very distracting.  You can see it here, reflecting in the window behind the tulips.  On the right, there's no flash.  The light is completely natural and so the colours are more natural too. The light is more uniform across the subject, so you don't get one part (like the yellow tulip in the left-hand image) dominating the foreground.

2. Control

In manual mode, you are in control.  I wanted to capture the light just skating the tops of the flowers.  My camera's auto mode didn't know that.  It just did what it is best at: got a clear, bright image of what's in front of me.  No subtlety.  For the image on the right, I turned down the shutter speed a touch to darken the shadows and make the light areas pop (I'll do posts about shutter speed, ISO and aperture in the near future, I promise!).  In manual mode, you also get a lot more control over the focus, so I homed in on those two middle flowers that are particularly catching the light.  The photo becomes about light and colour rather than just about the flowers.

3. Background blur / 'bokeh', call it what you will.

Bokeh is one of those words that photographers love using because it makes you feel you are 'in the club' and know what you are talking about!  It comes from the Japanese word for 'blur' and essentially means a combination of the quality of the background blur and the background light.  When bokeh is good, it gives a soft, smooth background that enhances the photo rather than distracts from the subject.  Good bokeh is not actually produced by the camera, but by the aperture of the lens (again, I promise I'll do a post about apertures in the future), so it's not entirely to do with manual / auto mode, but if you want a nice, soft background blur, you need to be in manual so you have control over how much light you let into the camera.

I hope this post has encouraged you to switch your DSLR to manual mode and start experimenting! It doesn't come naturally at first and requires a lot of trial and error.  But, if you're anything like me, that's the best way to learn! 

AuthorRosie Wedderburn