How to Take Better Pictures- Part 2: Camera Settings

How to Take Better Pictures Series
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Ahh! It’s time for part 2 of my latest series: How to Take Better Pictures! I am so excited about these posts. and can’t wait to continue sharing some of the things I’ve learned since beginning my photography business. Today I’m focusing on camera settings and I’ll be honest.. it’s a doozy, y’all. But there’s lots of great info, and will hopefully shed some light on how to make the switch from automatic to manual! 

Wanting some tips on picking the right camera? Check out last week’s post!

As always I’m more than happy to answer any questions you may have in the comments below! 

How to Take Better Pictures
Part 2: Camera Settings

Before beginning my photography business, I always wondered why I wasn’t able to get the awesome pictures I saw in my head. I’d see the amazing lighting on my subject, imagine a creamy dreamy background, and snap the picture. But the final product was never quite what I had envisioned, and it discouraged me! Turns out the automatic setting I was using on my entry-level DSLR was what was holding me back. And the minute I made the plunge into manual settings, I never looked back.

How to Take Better Pictures - Camera Settings | read more at

But let’s get real for a minute. It took me a few months to fully understand and correctly use my settings to their full potential. And the key to my success was definitely Amy and Jordan’s Shooting and editing course (< affiliate link)! They are amazing teachers, and were able to explain everything in such detail and easy to understand instructions. If you are seriously wanting to improve your photography game (either for professional use or simply to take better pictures of your family) I cannot recommend their course enough! 

But for today’s purposes, I’m going to break down the three main settings that you deal with in manual mode that will help get the pictures you want to get! I could probably go on for days about settings, but hopefully today’s post will shed some light on the beast that is manual mode. : )

*When I go in to do my camera settings, I always start with the aperture (f/stop), ISO, and then do my shutter speed. Most of the time, this works great, but sometimes it requires a little tweaking to nail it all down. It’s a fluid system!*


The aperture (also known as f/stop) dictates how much light enters the camera. You may have heard of a camera being “wide open” which means the aperture is as open as it can be, letting in the most light possible. It’s like your pupils… The wider the pupil, the more light it lets in! 

The aperture doesn’t just affect the amount of light let into the camera, but also your depth of field. The wider the aperture (aka the smaller the f/stop), the shorter your depth of field. That is key to getting lots of bokeh in your pictures (that blurry background that helps get the creamy dreamy look you see in lots of my pictures!). 

Image from

I generally prefer the lowest aperture possible in my pictures, because I like the subject to stand out from the background. Also, when more light that enters your camera, you can use a lower the ISO and faster shutter speed, which helps get a sharper picture! The only time I use a higher aperture is when I do group shots and want everyone in focus, or when taking pictures of landscape. In those instances, I adjust the ISO and shutter speed to still get the correct exposure in my pictures. 

Here’s a before and after showing how aperture changes everything! In the first picture, look at how in-focus the building is behind her. That was with a higher aperture. But in the second picture, I used a much lower aperture and got a more blurry/bokeh-y look.


The ISO determines your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is. Once I’ve decided what my aperture is going to be (Do I want a lot of bokeh in the background? Am I taking a group shot?) I then change my ISO based on the aperture and the amount of light around the subject I’m shooting. 

Becca’s Rules of Thumb:
– If it’s a bright day, I usually have my ISO around 200-400.
– If it’s overcast or I’m in the shade, I change it to around 400-800.
– If I’m indoors, it can vary anywhere from 800-2000+ depending on how dark it is in there.
*It’s important to keep in mind, though, that a higher ISO can also lead to more grain in your picture. However, the better the camera, the less grain you’ll get, so when I upgraded cameras, I wasn’t afraid to shoot with a 2000+ ISO as much as I was with my starter camera.

Problems I faced in the beginning:
My pictures were too dark because my ISO was too low (I was terrified of grain!). 
My pictures were too bright because I forgot to adjust my ISO when I went from a darker lit place to a brighter one. 

ISO is crucial to getting a properly exposed picture! It determines whether or not your pictures will be blurry too, since when the ISO isn’t correctly set, your shutter speed will have to make up for that, which can result in lots of blur and camera shake. And you don’t want that! 

In this example you can see how changing my camera’s sensitivity to light- aka ISO- and adjusting shutter speed I was able to get two totally different looks of the same place. In the first example, my camera is more sensitive to light (higher ISO) so the picture is brighter. In the second, the camera is less sensitive to light (lower ISO) so it’s darker. 

Shutter Speed

Now for shutter speed! This is the amount of time your shutter is open to let in the light and to capture the image. The longer the shutter speed, the more light it lets in. The shorter the shutter speed, the less light it lets in. And both a long and short shutter speed have their time and place in photography. 

Short shutter speed: This is what I always use. I want my images to be clear and sharp, and the way to ensure that is by having a fast shutter speed. I don’t have to worry about motion blur from my subjects or from myself if my hands shake while capturing the image, which is critical when taking pictures of moving subjects like kids. If you follow my way of setting up your aperture and ISO, then you will be able to take bright, crisp pictures at a shorter shutter speed. 

Long shutter speed: I don’t generally use a longer shutter speed, but it can be used to create those cool, artsy pictures you see around the internet. Pictures with lots of light movement (like car headlights and sparklers) that you can “watch” from start to finish. A longer shutter speed shows movement, and it can be used in really cool ways, but I just don’t do that in my photography. 

My general rule of thumb is to not allow my shutter speed to go below 1/2x the focal length of my lens. This helps reduce blurriness caused by my hands holding the camera, or the subjects moving slightly while the picture is being taken. 

For example: If I am shooting with my 35mm prime lens (which means it doesn’t zoom in and out), I always make sure my shutter speed doesn’t go below 1/70. If I can’t get proper light exposure at that – or any faster shutter speed – then I go back and change my ISO to be either more or less sensitive to the light. 
If I’m shooting with my zoom lens, I need to make sure that when I’m zoomed all the way in at 200mm that my shutter speed isn’t below 1/400 AT LEAST. When you zoom in (which I’m sure you’ve realized from taking pictures in the past), your hand movements are much more noticeable and it can be hard to capture a clear image of your subject. So by having a faster shutter speed, you’re reducing that problem immensely. 

Here you can see how shutter speed really affects the way a picture turns out. In the before, not only was I in automatic mode, but the shutter speed was WAY too slow, causing the picture to look a bit fuzzy, and the moving hands are a blur. In the second one at my brother’s wedding, the shutter speed was faster, meaning her dress was fully in focus even though he was spinning her around at the time. 

Aaaand in case that wasn’t enough information, here’s how the camera settings all go together for proper exposure!

Metering for Proper Exposure

So now that you know a bit more about aperture, ISO and shutter speed, it’s time to properly expose for your pictures. Some of it comes with lots of practice, but knowing your camera also comes in to play. 

If you have a DSLR, have you ever noticed the little meter at the bottom of the view finder when you’re taking a picture, or on the LCD screen when you’re looking at the back of your camera? If you haven’t, don’t worry… I swear I didn’t know mine was there until I started taking photography classes. #epicfail 

The meter basically tells you what the exposure looks like for your camera. It takes some of the guess-work out of it for you, and helps ensure consistency in your images. The goal is to move the little ticker at the bottom to where you want it to be. If you like the darker, moodier pictures, then you’ll under expose. But if you’re like me and prefer a more light and airy look, then juuuust slightly over expose to add some brightness to the image.
*Make sure you don’t go too far, though, because you don’t want to blow out the highlights in the picture!

To change the location of the ticker all you have to do is change any or all of the camera settings above. 
The lower the aperture, the more exposed the picture.
The higher the ISO, the more exposed the picture. 
The slower the shutter speed, the more exposed the picture. 
And vice versa! 

Image from

If you know your ISO and aperture are exactly where they need to be, then just change the shutter speed until you get the desired exposure on your meter (as long as the shutter speed still meets the 1/2x focal length rule). On most DSLRs, there’s a little wheel right next to the shutter button that will change the shutter speed, and I just scroll through the wheel until the ticker is where I want it to be. 

Y’all… The camera meter is a LIFE SAVER. So many times I’ve forgotten to adjust to different lighting (especially when I was first starting out), but just glancing down at the meter helped me correct my mistake before it was too late. Because the last thing you want is to accidentally miss out on a picture because it was WAY too under or over exposed. Trust me- Been there, done that! 

And there you have it! A quick and sort-of condensed intro to manual camera settings. If you want a more slowed down, hands on approach, I definitely recommend (once again!) the Amy and Jordan Shooting and Editing Course (< affiliate link). They broke everything down in such easy terms that I was finally able to understand what all the settings meant! It’s expensive, but definitely worth every. single. penny. : )

But for real… Check out this before and after! 

Now it’s your turn to talk! Answer one of these questions in the comments below:
Have you ever tried using manual settings on your DSLR?
What is the thing that you’d most like to learn about taking better pictures?

How to Take Better Pictures - Camera Settings | read more at

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I'm becca, and I'm so glad you're here.

I'm a sinner saved by grace who loves staying active and eating healthy. I am married to my high school sweetheart, Isaac, and I'm mama to James and an adorable puppy named Lillie.

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