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Taking your DSLR off Auto

Taking your DSLR off auto

Taking your DSLR off Auto

“You spent some serious dollars getting a DSLR in the hopes of taking beautiful images of your loved ones or creations and you’re still using it on automatic? You may as well have spent that money on a fancy point and shoot! The beauty about your DSLR is you get to control it all. If you have ever wanted to take your camera off of auto and lacked the confidence now is the best time to do it. I know the settings can be a little daunting at first but I promise, once you go manual you will never go back.”

Today on the blog we’ve got Liss Brewer from Liss Brewer Photography sharing some tips for taking your DSLR off auto!  This blog post first appeared in One Thimble Issue 6.

First things first.

Most of you have probably already discovered that on camera flash is unflattering. It’s unflattering to people, it’s unflattering to any product you might want to be photographing and it seems to alter the colours and saturation of the final image. Changing to manual will automatically switch this off. That’s good. Your flash will no longer pop up unless you activate it.
There are three main settings on your camera you will need to know first, your aperture, your shutter speed and your ISO.

Taking your DSLR off auto


Aperture controls how much light is entering the camera, as well as depth of field – you know those portraits with the subject in focus and the background all blurry? That’s created by increasing the size of hole allowing light into your camera, the lower the number, the more light that comes inside.
How low you can set your aperture will depend on your lens, a typical kit lens that comes with your DSLR usually has a variable aperture, for example 18-55mm 3.5-5.6.
If you spend a little bit of money you can pick up a ‘niftyfifty’ – a 50mm prime lens with a 1.8 aperture. They usually retail for around the $150 mark for both canon and Nikon. Remember, low isn’t always better, sometimes, when shooting a group for example you want a smaller aperture to ensure everyone is in focus but it’s always nice to have choices.

If you want to play around with your aperture a good, fun exercise is to line up some apples, focus on the front apple and take a shot at your lowest aperture. Up the aperture and take a shot every time you change your settings. You’ll find that the apples behind your ‘leader’ apple will gradually become more in focus and the image will gradually become darker. It’s a good test to understand how changing this
setting affects both depth of field and light in an image.

Shutter speed

Shutter Speed is how fast your shutter is going to open and shut to take an image. For sports photography a fast shutter speed is essential, if your taking pictures of the night sky you will want a slow shutter speed and a tripod in order to allow enough light in for your camera to pick up
all the stars.
When I am shooting kids I try to not let my shutter speed drop below 1/125. This is because even when kids are trying to be still they still move a lot. Also, if your shutter speed is too slow you will get blur caused by camera shake from the small movements in your hands you aren’t even aware of while you’re holding it. I aim for about 1/250 when shooting children and I find that ideal.

To play with this get your kids to run around in circles in the back yard (I know, a hard one), start with a high shutter speed, say 1/400 and gradually get lower until your kids begin to blur in the preview image on the back of your camera’s display. The image will also get lighter. If you don’t have willing running subjects you can also try this by photographing cars on a busy road, play with your shutter speed and see how this affects the image. Sometimes the blur can be quite a cool effect, and mastering it is a great tool to have in your kit.


ISO used to be about how fast your film is in a typical film camera. Your capabilities will depend on your camera.  The aim is always to keep your ISO as low as you can have it and still have enough light in your image to keep it crisp.  100 is usually as low as most cameras can go it will go up
from there.  My camera has up to 6400 ISO but the downside to bumping it is you get ‘noise’ or grain in the image.  Ensuring you are shooting in a well lit place will help to keep your ISO low.
Most cameras will have a built in ‘meter’ to check what your exposure is like before you even take a shot.
If it’s bang in the middle you can be fairly sure your image will be perfectly exposed, too far to the right means it’s under exposed, and too far to the left and your image will be over exposed.
Light meters in camera can sometimes be tricky. I use to own a 450D that I consistently had to shoot with the exposure set to 1 stop over exposed. It gave me perfect exposure every time despite the light meter saying it was too light. So take a bit of time to get to know it and see how yours is working for you.

White Balance

Lastly in your basics kit you will want to understand your white balance. This is altered by going into menu in your camera and clicking down until you get to it. MOST of the time setting to AWB (automatic white balance) will be fine but it’s good to understand how it works and how to change it in case you’re taking an image and the colours are ‘off’.
It’s all about selecting the correct setting to match the ambient light.

Have a play with taking the same photo using different white balances and get a feel for how it works and alters the colours of an image.

Liss Brewer Photography

Please don’t be shy to play with your camera’s settings, you will find even the most professional photographer will do some test shots to check everything is matching up before they take a shot so it’s perfectly okay if it takes you a little fiddling to get it right when you’re learning. Before you know it you will be automatically setting it to what you need by instinct and being correct most of the time.

For more blog posts in this series start here:

Photo Fortnight - let's start at the beginning

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