Why go out of “auto mode” at all?

No matter what kind of camera you have, the chances are high that you don’t use it’s full potential. And as a result you will question yourself a lot of time, why your photos don’t turn out as nicely as the photos you see online or at friends all the time.

So let’s start with the question, “What’s annoying you about your own photos?” Here are probably the major three problems:

Motion Blur vs. sharp photos

1) They are blurry, have motion-blur and/or are not sharp?

Example: Left with motion blur & right a sharp photo

bokeh versus no bokeh in portait photos

2) You want the object sharp, but the background blurry?

Example: Left a normal photo & on the right with "bokeh"

Make the colours go boom!

3) Your photos look boring and your colours don't go "boom"?

Colours and editing play an important role!

And the solution to these problems is quite simple: Just learn the very few basics of photography. Don’t be worried, it’s simple, it’s a short read with many pictures. And once you get it, your photos will improve quickly.

Before we start, please note: This guide might not help you with the most simple point and shoot cameras, priced below 150 to 200 Euro/Dollar. But it will help you with everything from SLRs, DSLRs, SLTs, mirrorless cameras, bridge cameras and even high-priced point-and-shoot cameras like a Sony R100 series, as well as smartphones with good camera apps that let you make certain settings manually.

That last word, “manually”, is the key here. Most of your photos turn out badly, because you use the wrong settings. Simple as that. And before you get afraid, be assured, it is simple. And there are only three settings you need to know to master every camera.

Note: I linked all the technichal terms above to the corresponding Wikipedia website, so you can get familiar with thethe terms. You won’t have to look these terms up to understand this lesson, but they will help to understand the future lessons.

With this guide, I want to talk about the examples one and two, as shown above. We will tackle blurry, un-sharp photos and also point out how to get the famous “bokeh-effect”, which shows your “target” tack sharp, but blurs out the background. And you will be able to handle your camera in semi and full manual modes.

About the third example we will talk in one of the future lesssons, because you should be able to handle your camera manually first.

The necessary technical stuff…

Like I said above, there are only three settings and these are: (1) Shutter speed, (2) Aperture and (3) ISO. I will explain them to you and tell you how they work together.

To understand these three settings, you should know how a camera works, in a very, very simple way:


From: Nikon USA VR Mini-Site, shows a full size DSLR
  1. The picture you take (consisting of billions of light rays) comes through the lens of the camera. (Magenta zig-zag-line.)
  2. Inside the lense, there is a lot of expensive glas, which focuses these light rays onto your cameras sensor. (glas-elements = blue, round things in the lens.)
  3. Still inside the lense, the light rays also go through the “aperture”, an opening consisting of many lamellas, which can open up or close down until it is a very small hole. This determines how much light you let through the aperture and onto the sensor.
  4. And then the light perhaps travels through a mirror, if you have a full-size DSLR or manual SLR camera. (Mirror as depicted above.)
  5. Then the light rays go through a shutter, a mechanism that opens up “quickly” in the moment the picture is taken, and then “shuts down” again, keeping any further light from falling onto the sensor. (Shutter as depicted above.)
  6. And finally a sensor, which transforms the light rays focused on it into a picture (file). On an old manual camera here would have been the film. The digital sensor or the manual film could have different “sensivities” to the light falling onto it. How senstive the sensor is to the light falling onto it, would be determined by the ISO number or ISO setting.

The process described is more or less the same, from an old analogue, manual film camera from (e.g.) 1967 to a modern day full size DSLR from 2017 or anything inbetween, your smartphone, point-and-shoot digicam or mirrorless camera. And you can only make three settings in all of them. You can basically tweak the process described at numbers three (aperture), five (shutter) and six (ISO).

What exactly can you change at these three settings?

A) You can set the aperture size at number three >>> How much light should go through the lens (how wide is it open)?

B) You can select the length of the shutter opening up >>> How long can light fall onto the film / sensor?

C) You can select the ISO setting (digital) or what kind of film you take (analogue) >>> How sensitive is the film / sensor to the light falling in?

I will continue explaining all three settings further down, but before I do, you probably already realise at this point, that all three settings are working together. In the end they determine, how much light goes onto the sensor/film.

So just one very simple example, to point this out: A photo, which turned out way to dark, due to your camera auto-mode making the wrong settings. How could we change this? You take a photo of someone, who has the sun behind him and his face is dark. You probably know this situation, right?

We correct this by changing one, two or all three settings. Because what do we need if the photo is to dark? More light on the sensor! So we could (A) either open up the aperture, (B) we could select a longer shutter speed, letting light longer onto the sensor or (C) select a higher ISO setting to make the sensor more sensitive to the light falling onto it. Or (“D”) we could tweak two or all three of these settings just a bit to get the desired result.

So now that we understood these basics of photography, I want to tell you a few more pros and cons of these three settings, which are important for you to understand.


The aperture, also called f-stop, blind-window or rarely diaphragm, determines how much light your lens should let through to the sensor. You can open it by selecting a large aperture or closing it by selecting a small aperture.

From: From Wikipedia, shows aperture lamellas

But beware! For the aperture setting, you select a number in your camera and a small number stands for a large (wide-open) aperture, while a large number stands for a small (closed) aperture. Example: Aperture f1.8 = very wide open, lots of light falling in / Aperture f22 = totally closed, only a small hole open, just a few light rays coming through. Note: Not all lenses can open up to f1.8, most of them only open to f2.8, f3.5, f4 or even smaller apertures. But some also can open up even wider up, to f1.4 or f1.2.

Beside selecting how much light to let into your camera, onto the sensor, the aperture also fullfills another important role. It decideds about the DoF, the Depth of Field. Which is the depth of the area which is sharp on your photo. Let’s say you focus on a subject 3 meters in front of your lens and your DoF is 1 meter. Everything from 2 meters to 4 meters away from your camera will be sharp, while the rest gets blurry.

When wanting to get the bokeh-effect, with your subject sharp and the rest of the photo blurry, you probably go for a very small Depth of Field, which could be as small as a few centimeters (for you Americans, way below an inch), so only the face of your subject (assuming you photograph a human or animal) is sharp, while the rest gets blured out.

The depth of field can’t be selected directly, but instead just follows your aperture setting. So when selecting a small aperture number (=large aperture = lots of light falling in) your depth in field gets shallower. When selecting a high aperture number (=small aperture = less light falling in) you get a large/deep depth of field.

Three more things you should know about aperture and depth of field:

  • Beside the aperture number, the depth of field is also determined by the focal length of your lens. Longer focal length = shallower DoF!
  • Also the size of your camera sensor will determine the depth of field. Larger sensor = shallower DoF!
  • Beside “smallest” and “highest” aperture number, there usually a lot of settings in the middle available. And most lenses have the highest optical quality at aperture number f5.6 to 8.0.

Take this three things as granted for now, they are too complex for this first lesson and I will come back to all of them in the following lessons.

Remember about Aperture:

  • Small number = wide open aperture = lots of light (image brighter) = shallow depth of field (bokeh-effect)
  • High number = closed down aperture = less light falling in (image darker) = deep depth of field (foreground & background sharp)

Optional foray into the aperture numbers:

You might ask yourself, why do they use these strange numbers for aperture like 2.8 or 6.3, right?

Actually that is very simple, but it never gets explained anywhere. It just the mathematical result of dividing the focal length of your lens through the size of the aperture. At least it was like that when photography started. So if you have a 50mm lens, with a aperture diameter of 25mm, that would be f2.0. Quite simple, right?

When this system started it was assumed that a theoretical perfect lens would have a aperture of f1.0 and from there on the number would double with each step of closing down the aperture (making it smaller). So you had f1.0, f2.0, f4.0, etc. But soon this wasn’t enough and photographers demanded aperture openings inbetween, because the jumps from one step to the other were so huge.

So jumping through photography history a bit, you could say that today, the f-stops are always potencies of the numbers 1.0 and 1.4. So these potencies in a row would look like this:

Full f-stops:

  • 1.0 | 2.0 | 4.0 | 8.0 | 16

Half f-stops:

  • 1.4 | 2.8 | 5.6 | 11 | 22

Additionally, to have further f-stops inbetween, the quarter f-stops were introduced, which usually only get used in the lower numbers. These f-stops are not potencies, but just multiples of the number 0.6:

  • 1.2 | 1.8 | 2.4 | 3.5 | 4.5 | 5.0 | 6.3 | 7.1 | 9.0 | 10.0 | 13 | 14 | 18 | 20

As you see, sometimes it was decided to round the numbers up or down or even use arbitrary numbers that are totally out of line. Combined into each other this would like this for a modern DSLR lens starting at f2.8:

  • 2.8 | 3.5 | 4.0  | 4.5 | 5.0 | 5.6 | 6.3 | 7.1 | 8.0 | 11 | 16 | 22
    • Just an example, but a very realistic one.


The shutter, a mechanism that opens up in the moment the picture is taken, and then “shuts down” again, keeping any further light from falling onto the sensor. On small cameras or smartphones, this often is a digital shutter, basically activating and deactiving the sensor, instead of opening and closing a mechanical shutter.

Mechanical shutter, Source: Click here to go to Wikipedia.

The shutter speed setting is probably the setting most of you already know. You select the timeframe how long the shutter should open (how long light should fall in). And even if you have never used it, you’ve probably seen the setting in the settings display of your camera or the viewfinder (if your camera has one).

For normal operations (meaning no long time exposures), your camera usually will display the shutter speed setting in tenth, hundredth or thousands of a second. Some camera cleary show you this by displaying “1/200” for “two hundredth of a second”, other will just show “200” meaning the same, but then to avoid confusion show at slow shutter speeds “1s” for “1 (full) second”.

Your shutter speed must be set to the appropriate setting depending on the subject(s) you are shooting. Taking pictures of the stars, you are into the long-time-exposure category and probably will take a very slow setting like 15 seconds. For panning shots, read following a moving subject, like a race car, which should turn out sharp without motion blur, but the background should be blurred to highlight the speed, you select a slow setting like 1/8th to 1/60th of a second.

For portraits, in good light situations, you probably would go for 1/200th to 1/500th of a second. Or even higher. And for very fast moving subjects, like birds, airplanes, playing kids, you first of all need lots of light, because you need a very fast shutter speed of 1/800th to 1/2000th of a second.

One important fomula to rember is: your shutter speed should (in tenth, hundreth or thousands of a second) should be the same or larger than the focal length of your lens. Read: if you use a 200mm lens on your camera, you want the shutter speed to be at 1/200th of a second or quicker. If you photograph moving subjects, you need a way faster shutter speed of course. But even for still photos, it is recommended to go to focal length x2 to avoid motion blur (100mm = 1/200s) if enough light is available.

Remember about Shutter Speed:

  • Quick shutter speed = less light falling in (image darker) = sharp moving subjects / no or less motion blur
  • Low shutter speed = lots of light (image brighter) = blurry moving subjects / motion blur


On manual film cameras you had to buy a roll of film and when buying it you usually bought either ISO 100, ISO 200 or ISO 400 films, with all others ISO classes only being available in professional photo stores. And ISO 100 was your standard grade film. The film consisted of a huge number of little grains, each of them taking up the light falling in. And on ISO 100, these grains were very small, thus it gave a very clear picture, you barely could see the grains, but you also needed a lot of light falling in to properly expose these grains. If you maxed out your shutter speed and aperture to let in the maximum amount of available light, you could only switch to a higher ISO film, which back then meant changing the complete roll of film in the camera.
Going to a higher ISO film, would mean that the grains on the film were fewer, but larger. Thus you saw a more grainy photo. But better a grainy photo, than no photo at all…

ISO 25 versus ISO 1600

Left: ISO 25 / Right: ISO 1600 (grainy)

On a digital sensor you can just set the ISO-number in your camera settings and of course you can do this for every photo. No need to throw away half a roll of expensive film, like in the old days, because the available light changed and you needed a higher or lower ISO number now. The ISO number can usually be set from 100, up to a very high number, depending on the camera. On some lower end digital cameras this would ISO 1600, on the newest, most expensive DSLRs this could be ISO 128000 (yes, 128-thousand)! It’s amazing how good the newest digital sensors cope with high ISO settings.

More or less what happens, is the same as in the old anlogue film times. Your digital sensor has no grains, but it has pixels, usually around 16 to 50 million pixels (=Megapixels). And once you set the ISO above 100, the sensor starts putting pixels together into a larger surface, to more easily expose these “layed-together” pixels in low light situations. Thus higher ISO settings in your digital camera will also result in more grainy photos, like in the analogue days.
The major difference is that modern-day digital cameras can just cope way better with high ISO numbers and settings. Up to ISO 800, or on professional cameras even up to even higher settings,  there is  nearly no visible grain in a computer screen filling photo. Of course the smaller and cheaper the sensor, the more easily grain will be visible and colours will be distorted.

Remember about ISO:

  • low ISO number = less sensitive sensor (image darker) (more light required by going to a wider open aperture or slower shutter speed)
  • high ISO number = more sensitive sensor (image brighter) (less light required by going to a smaller aperture or faster shutter speed)


You need a brighter image:

  • lower aperture number (= larger aperture opening, comes with shallower depth of field)
    lower shutter speed (risk of images getting motion blur, thus not looking sharp)
    higher ISO setting (risk of images getting grainy)

You need a darker image:

  • higher aperture number (= smaller aperture opening, comes with deeper depth of field)
    higher shutter speed (no risks)
    lower ISO setting (no risks)


If you understood all the above, you will now realise, that you can make total different settings in each of the three modes and get the exact same result regarding the image not being to bright or to dark. Of course the results will differ regarding field of depth (aperture) and or grainyness (ISO), but on the first look it will be same image, at least with the same brightness.

Here some examples:

(1) 1/30s | f2.8 | ISO400 /// (2) 1/30s | f5.6 | ISO1600 /// (3) 1/6s | f5.6 | ISO400

Settings of the photos shown above:
(1) 1/30s | f2.8 | ISO  400
(2) 1/30s | f5.6 | ISO 1600
(3) 1/6s  | f5.6 | ISO  400

If you did not understood this, please read everything again. This is very important to understand, so you can really manually tweak your images before you take them and have full control of your camera.


How to set aperture, shutter speed and ISO manually? First of all, we need to get out of the auto-mode in which your camera does all the adjustments on its own. “Need” is a relative term, because the auto-mode in most cameras is really good these days. But still, as long as you stay in auto, you will have never full control over your photos or at least a partial control over the settings you would like to make on your own.

So let’s us start with partial-auto or semi-auto modes and finally the full manual mode.

First a look at three typical cameras from different price ranges and manufacturers:

Nikon D850 (pro/semi-pro) / Canon 750D (amateur) / Sony a6000 (amateur/semi-pro)
Program mode selection on Nikon D800, Canon 750D and Sony a6000.

Program mode selection (click on the image to enlarge):
Left: Nikon D850 (semi-pro to pro)
Center: Canon 750D (amateur)
Right: Sony a6000 (amateur to semi-pro)

All proper cameras, from the amateur DSLRs like the pictured Canon 750D (middle), via mirrorless semi-pro solutions like the Sony a6000 (right) or the semi-pro/pro DSLR Nikon D850 (left), they come with a program mode selection function. The amateur and semi-pro cams have a simple mode-selection wheel (see pictures), while on the semi-pro/pro bodies you usually press a “mode” button (see photo of the Nikon D850) and then use one of the other selection wheels to change the program mode.

On amateur/semi-pro cams there usually is a mode selection wheel “green picture” mode, which more or less could be described as an “super auto mode”. The camera will not only make all settings on it’s own in this mode, but also tweak many picture settings in post-production, at least in the case you having selected “JPG” and not “RAW” as file format for your pictures. Usually this super-auto-mode also doesn’t let you select any settings on your own, not even ISO.

So making a jump ahead and including the semi-pro/pro model cameras, you will find a “P” mode on all camreras. P stands for program mode or program-automatic and is the normal automatic mode, where the camera usually doesn’t make any further settings to your camera (beside aperture, shutter speed and ISO) and let’s you choose certain settings on your own, despite being still in “full auto mode”. Usually in P you can select ISO on your own or use auto-ISO. The cameras will also let you tell them to make the images a bit brighter or a bit darker, if the auto-result isn’t good enough for you.

But we don’t want to talk to much about the auto-mode, because while having it’s place in the photography world, it’s not useful for us and we want to get out of program-auto and into a semi-auto or full manual mode.

How can we achieve this?

There are two semi-auto modes and one manual mode on all cameras, be it Nikon, Canon, Sony or every other proper camera. And yes, even smartphones with the right apps (example Lightroom Mobile for iOS or Android) can do this these days. On real cameras, these modes are set via the before mentioned mode selection wheel:

  • Aperture Priority Mode (A on Nikon and Sony, or Av for “Aperture Value” on Canon)
  • Shutter Priority Mode (S on Nikon and Sony, or Tv for “Time Value” on Canon)
  • Manual Mode (M on Nikon, Sony and Canon)


Aperture Priority (or Aperture Value on Canon) (A / Av) is probably the most easiest mode to get out of the Super-Auto or Program-Auto modes. Like the name hints, you will set aperture on your own, basically give “priority to aperture” and the camera will set ISO and shutter speed on its own.

This is great for example, when you want to take photos (in preferably in good light conditions) with the mentioned bokeh effect (subject sharp, background and foreground blurry). Be it portrait shoots, artsy architectual shots or anything else where the effect is desired. You just go down to one of your lowest apertures numbers (this largest aperture opening), thus you let a lot of light in and also get a very shallow depth of field.

Of course sometimes you want the opposite. Example, you want to make a large group shot of people, and they are not all standing in one row, so you need a deep depth of field, to have them all in focus and tack sharp. So you need a high aperture number and thus low aperture opening. This means not much light is falling in and your camera will automatically go to a lower shutter speed and/or higher ISO value.

Note: Usually the ISO setting can me made manually in Aperture Priority, but can also be used in Auto-ISO.


Shutter Priority (or Time Value on Canon) (S / Tv) is the next semi-auto mode which can come in very handy on your way of getting out of the full auto modes. It let’s you select the shutter time; the time the shutter is open for light to fall onto the sensor.

Your image is too bright? Lower the shutter value in this mode. But beware, too low speeds might result in motion blur and unsharp images. Or your camera is selecting a too low shutter speed in auto-mode and all your images have motion-blur? Select Shutter Priority and go for a higher shutter speed, thus stopping the motion blur and creating sharp images.

Also in this mode, the camera will react to your shutter speed setting for the other two values, aiming to create a picture with the “right” brightness. You lower the shutter speed? The camera will close the aperture and/or lower the ISO setting. You raise the shutter speed for quick moving subjects? Now light is missing and the camera will open the aperture and/or go to higher ISO setting.

Note: Usually the ISO setting can me made manually in Shutter Priority, but can also be used in Auto-ISO.


Manual Mode (M) is the “final mode” for you. Once you have reached “M mode”, you probably mastered your camera and understood all the stuff explained above. In M mode you select Aperture and Shutter Speed on your own. ISO can be set manually, but (despite this being manual mode) can be set to auto-ISO, too.

So basically, regarding ISO, we have two manual modes inside the “M mode”. For easier understanding, auto-ISO can be useful in M, for example if you track moving subjects, have set a certain aperture and shutter speed set, but the subject is going in and out of dark and bright places. For example a bird, going out into the open field and moving back into the shadows under a row of trees. You won’t be able to select the right ISO setting manually in such a quickly changing situation.

Another would be sightseeing. In case you are in a hurry, and haven’t time to set ISO for every shot on your own, set aperture and shutter speed manually again, then select auto-iso, because you probably will shoot into the sun first, the next shot away from the sun, then one partially into the sun, etc., the buildings, statues and all the stuff you will take pictures of won’t all be aligned in the same direction and there will be shadows, sunny areas, and so on. Thus going into M, but selecting auto-ISO can be useful.

Of course I would advertise to go full manual, including ISO. For most situations, you will find out it’s absolutely useful and will get you the best results in all situations, no matter if you are doing portrait shoots, nature, landscape, sightseeing, architecture, weddings, whatever it is…

When discussing Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority above, I showed you examples, why setting aperture and shutter speed on your own is useful. Now we will see why manual is THE BEST mode and will I try to make this clear with a few examples.

It starts with the fact, that only in full manual, you will have full control over your photos. Think about this. Why give up control?

You might argue “i have no time do make all the settings” or “it’s too much hassle”. And I tell you, it is not. Once you got the hang of it, making these settings is a matter of seconds, you will just make the right settings while picking the camera up and bringing it in front of your eyes. And often you don’t have to change these settings for a long time.

Let’s say depth of field (the bokeh effect) is not important for us…

Aperture: Fix set to f6.3! Why? Because most lenses reach their best quality at between f.5.6 and f8.0.

Shutter speed: Anything that not causes motion blur and doesn’t make the photo too bright or too dark.

ISO: Fix set to 100! Why? Because this means the lowest grain in your photos, clear and tack sharp photos as long as your focus is right on the subject.

Why these settings? Because in situations with a lot of available light, these usually would result in the best images, quality-wise. And I would use them, for example, when doing sightseeing, landscape, nature and so on…

From there on, we can then adapt to the situation. Shooting portrait? Wanting Bokeh (low depht of field)? Good. Go down with aperture to f1.4, f1.8, f2.8, f3.5, whatever your lens can do. To counter act and get the same brightness, just raise your shutter speed a little bit, because you just let more light in with the lower aperture value (and wider opening).

Or another situation, shooting birds, shooting airplanes, race cars, every fast moving object? We raise the shutter speed. What happens? Less light falls in. I’m at shutter speed 1/2000 now, really fast, but thus I let the light in only for a very short time. So what do we need to do? Open up the aperture and/or set the ISO higher to get the same amount of light overall on the sensor.

Manual is easy, once you understood all this. Go for it. Give it a try! Start with the semi-auto-modes, then go into manual with auto-ISO and work your way from there to full manual with all three settings controlled by you. Then you will have full control over your images.

I wrote this, assuming you are a fresh starter at photography. And that you use auto-focus in your camera. Which is okay. I won’t tell you to focus manually, even pros use auto-focus all the time, because these days it’s better and quicker than what you can do manually (for 90% of the situations and assuming we talk photography and not movie-making).

There are situations when we have to use manual focus, especially in low light, for long-time-exposures or generally in when recording movies; but this is something we can disucss in another lesson.


I showed you above where the mode-selection wheel is on your camera or how it looks on the three models of Nikon, Canon and Sony. Usually most amateur cameras come with one additional smaller wheel, so you can select aperture OR shutter speed manually, depending on if you are in shutter priority or aperture priority.

Nikon D850 (two wheels) / Canon 750D (one wheel) / Sony a6000 (two wheels)

Nikon D850, 2 wheels / Canon 750D, 1 wheel / Sony a6000, 2 wheels ||| (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Very good semi-pro and pro cameras always come with a second smaller wheel so you can set shutter speed AND aperture directly. On the amateur / cheaper semi-pro cameras you usually have a “slight problem” when in full manual mode, because you can only select shutter speed directly on the single available smaller wheel and have to haggle through the menus for the aperture setting.

BUT, even at those cheaper cameras, usually there is a button you can press and hold and then while holding the small wheel will set aperture, instead of shutter speed. Also there is usually a quick-selection button for ISO.

For details on your specific camera model, please read the manual. There are too many different cameras out there to explain this for every one of them. And because this also works with good smartphone apps these days, this list could be very long if I would go by every device. If you are not sure how to make the settings in your camera, and the manual is too much for you, watch a tutorial on YouTube or Vimeo.

Thanks for reading and I hope you will have a great start getting out of full auto and into controlling what kind of photos you take.



Copyright information:
All photos are my own work, except where a different source was mentioned. The photos of the three depicted cameras come from Nikon, Canon and Sony and are freely available on their company websites.