Sometimes, I think it’s so weird that I am a photographer. I feel like it came out of nowhere. When I think back on various points in my life, I’ve always wanted to capture special moments and then I think, maybe it’s not a stretch after all. My photography began like thousands of other moms out there. I wanted to capture the every day life of my children and I wanted a nice camera to do it. I got a Nikon D3100 for Christmas in 2013 and never looked back. I shot in auto for about a year, but I found a couple of resources that helped me get out of auto mode. When I did that, my entire life changed. Not only did I capture those pictures of my children the way I wanted, I also found a creative outlet to help me through the hard moments. Raising kids is hard work and as someone who had a career for 9 years, staying home every day with my kids was sometimes kind of boring. Having a way to express myself creatively gave me a bit of a spark.


It seems like so many people want to be a photographer nowadays, and I think it’s made possible with entry level dlsrs being so affordable. You know what though, if that means more people are tapping into their creative side and discovering an outlet for themselves, then I am happy it can be done. Art and creativity shouldn’t be relegated to the few that have the money to do it. Art and creativity are gifts and when we cherish our creative sides, we grow in so many ways. For that reason, I am going to be sharing some posts that help teach anyone wanting to learn how to use their fancy camera. If you’re still trying to figure out which camera to buy, here is a post I wrote discussing various options. If you’ve already got your camera and want to learn how to take it out of auto, read on.

Learn Photography Basics

I want to give a brief preface for what I’m about to right.

1) There are SO MANY things to consider when taking a picture. A great photograph is technically sound, has great composition, lighting, and evokes emotion. I’m saying this because this one little blog post isn’t going to teach you everything you need to know. I have written about lighting before and that didn’t even touch the surface of what one could say about lighting. In my opinion, lighting is the KEY ELEMENT in taking a picture from a snapshot to a beautiful photograph. It is also the most challenging and takes years of study to figure out. (or at least it has for me and is still my biggest challenge). This post is going to solely be dedicated to understanding what settings you need to start with in manual mode.

2) Read your manual. I know, I know, I HATE reading manuals. But for real, your camera has a lots of cool things it can do and understanding how to do them is really important. So do it.

That’s it. Those were two things I wanted you to understand before getting into the meat of the post.

The Exposure Triangle

Getting exposure correct is difficult, especially as you are learning about light. Each situation is different so to determine your settings for exposure are going to depend on the light, your camera, and the message you are trying to send. Practice is going to be what helps you really understand and learn exposure. There are various techniques such as Exposing to the Right and The Zone System. I’m not going into those today but I am going to talk about what each elements of the exposure triangle are and how they work together. A really good book that goes into extensive detail of this is called Understanding Exposure, Bryan PetersonThat books into much more detail that what I will do today.

There are 3 aspects to the exposure triangle, ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture. ISO relates to the sensitivity of your camera body’s sensor. Aperture determines depth of field and the aperture ring is actually in your lens. Your shutter speed is how long the shutter remains open. All of these settings determine how much light enters into your camera so that it can capture the setting.


I always set my ISO first and then try not to adjust it that much. Your ISO setting is going to depend on the environment you’re in. In direct sunlight, your ISO is going to be a low number. Inside, where light is low, your ISO is going to be a high number. Each camera is different, but on my camera body, my lowest number ISO is 100. I don’t even know the highest setting because I don’t ever use it. I think it might be 12,500 or something like that. The higher the ISO, the lower the quality of your image, especially if you have an entry level body, More professional cameras can handle higher ISO, but even the most professional will struggle when the ISO is really high. The trick is to have your ISO set to the LOWEST POSSIBLE SETTING and still be able to have a fast enough shutter speed to keep your picture high quality.  Once I set this, I pretty much keep it here unless the light changes dramatically, like I’m shooting at sunset.

candid photographer greenville sc

My ISO here was pretty low because we were outside, during the day. I think it was around 400


self portrait

My ISO here was 4000. 




Aperture is determined by a ring in your lens. The more open it is, the more light it lets in. The more closed it is, the less light. This directly affects the depth of field. For example, when you see pictures with a blurry background, it’s typically because they have their aperture ring open wide.


South Carolina Photographer Wendi matt

I was shooting at a wide fstop (F/number is how you determine your aperture). A low number means it’s more open while a higher number means it’s more closed. I don’t remember my exact settings but I think it was probably f/2.8 or f/3.2. I was shooting “wide”.


I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about depth of field because I don’t want to overwhelm you with information. Just understand that the lower your number, the less depth of field you have which means that the background will be more blurred. The higher your number, the more depth of field you have and things behind your subject will be more in focus. If you want a blurry background, shoot at a lower number or shoot more “wide”. If you are taking a landscape picture and want more in focus, shoot at a higher number or shoot more “closed down”.


tybee island

Because this was a landscape shot and I wanted things in focus, I shot “closed down”. I think my aperture here was around f/16.

Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed is how long the shutter stays open to allow light in. The faster your shutter, the less light comes in and vice versa. When shooting children, you want to have a shutter speed of 1/250 or higher. Children move around a lot and the faster the shutter, the less blurred they will be. If you are holding your camera in your hand to take pictures, you want your shutter speed to be double the length of your lens. For my 50mm, I want my shutter speed to be 1/100 if I am holding it in my hand vs putting it on a tripod. There are a lot of different things you can do with shutter speed creatively, but for today’s post, let’s just keep it at that.


greenville photographer

My shutter speed here was 1/320. It was fast enough to catch her at the bottom of her jump and you can see her skin is falling down from hitting the trampoline. At a slower shutter speed, the image would have been blurry. 

How Does It All Work Together 

Each component works together to gain the proper exposure. Your goal of a photo is to capture all of the details in the image. If you overexpose, you will lose details in the brightest spots, typically the sky or the skin. If you underexpose too much, you will lose detail in the shadows and create “noise”. Noise just makes the image look kind of like it has multi colored sand and the details are not as sharp. With exposure, you’re trying to find the perfect balance in the photo to make it look good.

Sounds overwhelming I’m sure. Here is what I would do to practice. Get your camera, choose an ISO that is suitable for your environment and leave it there. Then, pick an aperture. Lastly, use your internal camera meter to guide you on shutter speed. Each camera is different and how you decide to expose is different. I would underexpose two notches (I’ll show you what I mean) to make sure you don’t get any super bright spots.


Let’s say I’m going to take pictures of my kids outside this afternoon around 4 pm. It’s an overcast day which means it won’t be as bright outside. 4 pm means the sun will be setting a bit. I would start my settings out like this:

ISO: 500

Aperture: f/3.5

Shutter Speed: That’s going to depend on where you are. Your camera has a little meter when you look through the viewfinder. It looks like this:

just above where it says ISO 500, you can see the meter. EACH CAMERA METER IS DIFFERENT. On my camera, when all the dots are to the left, it means I am underexposed. When all of the dots are on the right, I’m overexposed. When I choose a shutter speed, I try to have 2 little lines to the left of the 0. So, I point the focus point in my viewfinder to whatever it is that I want to focus on, look at my meter and adjust the shutter speed until two little dots are to the left of the 0.




Go outside with your kids. Set your ISO and Aperture to whatever you’d like, and then take pictures of them, paying attention to the meter on your camera. Adjust your shutter speed as the light changes. And see what you get!


If you have any questions, please let me know. I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but I think that I am going to break this up into several posts. Let me know if you like it or not! Thanks so much and I hope I’ve explained it to you in a way that’s easy to understand!