Day 18: A DSLR Manual Settings Primer

A Digital SLR Manual Settings Primer When I’m learning something new, one of the more frustrating challenges is finding out what the fundamental elements are, and what element goes with what observable effect. From this, I can derive a basic mental model that I can use to fumble my way around whatever logical systems have evolved. Most fields, at least at the very beginning, are not that difficult to understand if you assemble these pieces of knowledge; everything after that is familiarizing one’s self with the conventions that have evolved over time. The problem is that the experts talk shop using those conventions, and explanations become self-referential. Today’s product-of-the-day tackles the challenge of explaining manual camera controls.

The idea was inspired by my good friend Sid Ceaser, the photographer who explained to me how strobe lighting worked. When I had been learning more about cameras, I was constantly confused by the use of the term “F-stop” in the various contexts that it applies. Over time I developed a simpler mental model and “got” it, but it took quite some time to discover the underlying principles in a way that tied it all together. Today’s product of the day, I decided, would be an attempt to lay out what I knew on a small piece of paper. After about 4.5 hours I have a nifty 4×6 inch recipe card that has some useful information on it. Though it’s not what I expected, it’s something, and I’m again surprised at how much one can get done when not obsessing over NOT knowing what will come.

Anyway, this could be a beginning of a series of cards I work on with Sid, covering the basics from a more artist-friendly perspective. You’ll note that I completely avoided mentioning F-stops, instead presenting rules for making an image brighter or darker along a scale that is clearly-marked. That way, I avoid explaining concepts like how aperture numbers seem to get bigger when they are really physically smaller, which lets in less light, if you even notice that they are fractions. I also avoid talking about the doubling of light meaning a stop, but then having to explain that stops of exposure for ISO, shutter, and aperture are all slightly different. What a mess! Other cards can start to sort that out; some knowledge of the properties of light is necessary for understanding the inverse-square law and studio lighting. But if you just want to use your new Canon Rebel to take some pictures? Turning a few knobs in the right direction is far more rewarding I suspect, at least in the beginning…

Let me know what you think! Here it is:

» Download DSLR Manual Camera Settings Primer: Basics PDF

Adobe Acrobat Reader is recommended for printing. The built-in "Mac OS X Preview" and "Chrome Browser" PDF viewers do not always draw dotted lines correctly.


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  1. Amit Patel 4 years ago

    Cool! Some thoughts:

    1. It’s about digital cameras (and maybe all cameras), not only “DSLRs”.
    2. Are the three sections supposed to be ordered? If so, I’ve been doing it backwards apparently! I think about aperture & shutter first, and then let the camera pick the best ISO it can get.
    3. There’s some symmetry in aperture and shutter that you might be able to incorporate somehow. Aperture produces blurring over space (seen as front/back); longer shutters produce blurring over time (seen as left/right/up/down if there’s movement). I’m not sure if there’s something clever to be done here.
    4. There might be something clever showing the parallels among ISO, aperture, and shutter, especially given that they all use a factor of two as their basic step.
  2. Author
    Dave Seah 4 years ago

    Thanks Amit!

    1. I went with DSLR because the word was shorter than “Digital Camera” and fit better while still being technically accurate ;-) Also, an earlier version had me thinking about Flash sync speed, which doesn’t affect non-SLR cameras. I ended up removing it, but the DSLR abbreviation stuck. But you’re right that it could be all digital cameras that allow manual settings…there’s probably a better umbrella term for this! It’s interesting how many ways that this can go! :)

    2. Originally I had the Aperture and Shutter first, but then I thought if I’m using completely manual controls the first thing I’m thinking is ISO. Using a semi-automatic mode like aperture or shutter priority, or even program mode with auto ISO doesn’t count as “complete manual” control, so the way you’re doing it makes sense. I usually pick the ISO manually on my Canon 40D, but if you have it set to auto then you really don’t have to do anything.

    3. In the original idea, I thought this might look like a subway map that showed interconnects between the various tradeoffs. I think it’s still a viable idea, but it was challenging enough just to identify what I thought were the basics and put them on a single 4×6″ card. With cards, I can create expanded topics that discuss specific tradeoffs and how to compensate for them. Hm…the DSLR collectable color card game? :) :) :)

    4. Yep, I tried to maintain the 2x factor because it builds up to talking about f-stops. But to talk about f-stops intelligently means tlaking about how light perception works, and understanding the camera as a light bucket with various light control valves and modifiers. Which only makes sense, I think, if one has the epiphany that “what I see isn’t what a camera can see” and “black and white are fluid, relative concepts” and other such mind-blowing ideas. I think that might take several cards AND a puppet show :)

  3. Amit Patel 4 years ago

    Yes, I guess I can’t think of a compact alternative to “DSLR”. :(

    1. My pocket camera (Canon S100) has the manual modes, and two dials (one for aperture and one for shutter) whereas my wife’s DSLR has only one dial, with a somewhat awkward toggle. As the market for people who leave it on Auto is going away (due to cell phone cameras), the pocket cameras will probably continue moving in that direction.
    2. If I understand flash sync speed (and I probably don’t, as I’m a camera newbie), it does affect other cameras, including the non-SLR I have (E-M5), but probably not most pocket cameras. You no longer need the “SLR” (single lens reflex) to get the things that DSLRs have (interchangeable lenses, separate/wireless flash, tethering, manual controls, etc.).
    3. I should try setting ISO first. It’s just not that way I think normally. I think of shutter and aperture as having more of an effect on the photo. Sometimes I want larger and sometimes I want smaller aperture. Sometimes I want faster and sometimes I want slower shutter. I want to choose those first, and then I choose the best ISO I can get, because I never want higher ISO. But I admit, I’m a newbie, and I rarely use full manual mode :)
    4. The exposure triangle is what I was thinking of in terms of pretty pictures. This is what I usually see: but this is probably the coolest one I’ve found: .
  4. Author
    Dave Seah 4 years ago
    1. I suppose it’s a shrinking market, manual controls, like the way that manual transmissions are now the rare exception in automobiles.

      Speaking about dials, when I was picking between the 40D and the Rebel back in 2007 or so, the 40D was twice as much for not all that many differences in function, but it had an extra dial that allowed you to adjust TWO parameters at once…I thought it might make the difference between a camera I liked to use and one I didn’t. I’m so glad I made that decision.

    2. You’re right..the synch speed tends to be higher with non-mechanical shutters but it still exists. Flashes are so instantaneous that they actually are unaffected by shutter speed except when the shutter is in the way. For a fully-exposed flash image, the shutter needs to be completely exposing the sensor before the flash fires, and the fastest my camera can guarantee that is 1/250s (the synch speed). It’s due to the shutter having two shades, and achieving speeds faster than 1/250s by using a “rolling shutter” design that exposes a narrow strip of the sensor, giving it an effective exposure that is higher. An all-electronic shutter doesn’t have this limit, I think.

    3. The times I care about ISO are when I’m shooting stuff on my table with a strobe, but you have me thinking now that I should just switch to Auto ISO and save myself some time when going out :)

    4. THE EXPOSURE TRIANGLE IS AWESOME! I haven’t seen that before. It’s a lot better than what I have come up with.

A message from Dave:

I believe we all benefit when we respectfully share our perspectives on common experiences. My house rules are "please be respectful of divergent views" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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