Hello, you amazing photographer-in-the-making.

There’s a space between your photos now and the much-better-photos you wish you were taking. That space is about 10,000 snaps. But not just any photos, but those taken with INTENTION.

You could accomplish this in a very earnest month or a merely intense year or for some it’s two leisurely decades before they get there. But that’s the one big secret to great photos: trying to take better ones, over and over.

This course focuses on that intention part. It’s not enough to just take photos. Oh no. It’s a process:

1. Take photos.
2. Look at your photos critically.
3. Try to figure out how to take better photos (improve your technical skill).
4. Apply those concepts the next time you take photos.
5. Repeat!

10,000 photos. However long it takes. Are you in? Let’s start!



What kind of camera do you need for this course? The good news is that you can take better photos with whatever you have. In this first lesson, we’re going to talk about manual settings so if you have a mirrorless or dSLR camera this will apply to you. But increasingly even point and shoot cameras are including some manual settings.

So in an ideal world? We’d like to see you on a mirrorless camera like the Olympus OMD or the Sony Alpha – or on an entry level dSLR from Canon or Nikon.

Recommended mirrorless cameras:

Here’s a good list. I have the Sony Alpha 7 as a “travel camera” (fits in my tote bag) and I love it. I’ve shot on the Olympus and played with many of the Fuji cameras and they produce great images.

Recommended dSLR cameras:

For the great Nikon vs. Canon debate, I have always been a Canon person, although I tell everyone they are nearly identical in quality and offerings, so it just comes down to picking a side and sticking with it. If I had to start again on Canon, I’d go with the Rebel body plus the best lens I could afford (I love the pricey 24-70 mm – $2,000 USD *gasp* but you can sometimes get older ones used). If I had more budget I’d get the Canon 6d.  For Nikon, it’s largely the same, although it seems to me that they are slightly more popular with landscape photographers. They are both great systems though, I’d just get the cheapest body and put most of your budget into lenses because that truly makes a huge difference.

In reality though, you can use anything, even your iPhone, to practice taking better photos, there will just be a gap on how much you can change and adjust your settings.


So how do you find these settings on your camera? Here’s your first assignment: go get your manual. If you have the hard copy that came with your camera, great! If not, go online and search for the digital version. (If you can’t find it, let us know in the FB group and we can assist).

Your manual is very important because while some things are easy (for today’s aperture priority and shutter priority modes those are usually going to be right on your main dial next to auto as AV and TV, respectively – for almost all cameras) however other things like adjusting the ISO or manually setting the f-stop or the shutter speed will be hidden in the little knobs of your camera. So we’re going to take it slow, introduce one feature for you to find and test per week – on your specific camera. That means a little sleuthing and work by you, as we go. Of course we will be there to help and support you too! If you get stuck, we can google your camera and translate that manual-speak. We’re actually pretty good at that.

By the way, this course is called “Beyond Auto” because we want you to be completely comfortable shooting in manual mode or adjusting any of your camera’s settings. So we’re going to push you to leave that auto setting behind – just for now – but you know what? Sometimes even pro-photographers shoot in auto. Many shoot in aperture priority mode as their default. It’s not wrong to use auto, it’s a tool like any of your other settings, the only thing is that for certain situations there are better tools in your camera. That’s what we’re teaching this month!



If you’ve dabbled in photography at all you have probably heard aperture, shutter speed and ISO tossed around. Perhaps you even researched it a bit and realized that they are all interconnected – it’s all about how much light to let in – you can either let light in through the opening in the lens (aperture), the length of time the shutter stays open (shutter speed) or the sensitivity of the sensor to light (ISO). All three are vital to understanding how to learn to set up your camera to take the best possible photos in any given situation. They don’t JUST let light in, they also each have some side effects that can make your photos better (or if used incorrectly, worse).


What it does: When you take a picture, your camera shutter will open up to allow light into the camera. The wider it opens, the more light comes in. In the same way the iris of your eye (the black part) will open wider to let more light in when you are in the dark, then shrink small when exposed to a lot of light, the aperture tells the camera how wide to open up to let light in.

Aperture settings are also known as the F-Stop. Counter to conventional thinking, you have to remember that the larger the F-Stop, the smaller the shutter opens up to allow more light in. So:

F/1.8 = Larger aperture, more light.
F/32 = Smaller aperture, less light.



Over exposed, too much light allowed in.


Under exposed, too little light allowed in.

What does this mean for your pictures? The aperture controls your depth of field. The depth of field is what creates or eliminates that sweet blurry background behind most well done personal portraits (that blur is known as “bokeh”). Depending on your camera, you will have varying ability to control this.

SHOOTING WIDE OPEN (smallest f/stop, largest opening, gives the most bokeh). Look at the image below. The trees and points of light almost look like little circles. It’s not just blurry, it’s practically creamy. Gorgeous! This is the effect we want for portraits: the clean, crisp face with the softened background. To get this effect, shoot in the lowest aperture your lens allows. (By the way, this is why we recommend investing in lenses over expensive bodies because aperture is controlled by the lens you use.) If your camera isn’t giving you the effect you want, we can enhance it in post-production editing, aka Lightroom. We’ll talk about that in future lessons.


Another way to think about it: the small f-stop gives you a small sliver of focus. the large f-stop gives you large range of focus. In the above photo the f-stop is small and the plane of focus goes from about his ears to his nose, a few inches. That’s the plane of focus. It’s small. 2 inches. Small f-stop. If we used a big f-stop, it would be in focus for hundreds of feet… everything from his nose (closest part to the camera) all the way back in the distance — to the horizon line if it was in the shot.


TIP: When evaluating a portrait lens to buy and wondering if it will give you a good blur… look for the smallest f stop possible. 2.8 is going to give you an image like the one above. 2.0 and below might be so thin a slice when it’s wide open that only his eyes would be in focus, his nose and cheeks might be blurry. But for some photos that can be an incredible effect.


ASSIGNMENT: Put your camera in aperture priority mode (AV on most cameras) using the main dial. Then based on your manual’s instructions, lower your aperture to its lowest setting, the lowest f-stop for your lens. Practice taking photos with it, particularly getting as close as you can (but still in focus) and see if you can create some bokeh.


Here’s the method I use with my students in our street photography workshops –

1. Order a latte at a cafe with good natural light – not too dark but not harsh sunlight either.
2. Put your camera in AV mode.
3. Turn the aperture to its lowest setting (wide open).
4. Point your camera at the latte and get a little closer to find the point where you lose focus.
5. Press your shutter half-way to focus. You might be able to just get one rim of the cup in focus, depending on your lens.
6. Hold that shutter and move your camera down, so it’s almost even with the coffee cup – it should be coffee cup in focus and blurry background to the side and beyond.
7. Press the shutter all the way to take your photo.

(This method helps avoid your camera putting the table or some object in the background in focus.)


For aperture we talked about blur. For shutter speed we’re going to talk about motion. Aperture and shutter speed both do the same thing, they let in more light. The aperture does it through the lens opening, shutter speed does it through the speed of the shutter. So ultimately what you end up deciding as a photographer is this: is it more important to have a blurry background for this shot or to make sure this fast moving object is not blurry?

Here’s an extreme example of freezing the action:


The above photo is using a fast shutter speed, which means not much light comes in. Look at the droplets of water. If you want this effect, it’s always about shutter speed. What happens if you make the shutter speed slow and allow it to stay open for a long time? Blur… but not necessarily the kind you want. There’s motion blur from your hands (and if you ever wonder how much your body moves even when you’re trying to stay still, try doing night photography without a tripod), PLUS the blur from the motion of the subjects.


Anyone wanting to capture the night sky in a creative way will need to keep their shutter open for a long time (while using a tripod to avoid human shake) to let that very low source of light build up enough to render a usable photo. Depending on how dark it is, that could mean letting the shutter stay open for 10-30 seconds or more.


For these extreme low-light situations it’s good to have all the help you can get including a lens that has a really low f-stop (1.4 is common for pros) but you can try doing this on the camera you have. It’s just as simple as setting the camera to TV (shutter priority) then making the shutter speed 10 or more seconds and taking a photo. Okay to REALLY get into this there’s some other tricks, but if you have a tripod you can experiment with taking long exposure photos right away.

ASSIGNMENT: Using shutter priority mode (TV-mode on most cameras), capture someone or something in motion. Using your manual, figure out how to adjust just the shutter speed and test. Try getting people jumping, running. Try it again using a slower shutter speed to see what the difference is. Play with speeds to test the effect until you have something you like.


Here’s the method I use with my students in our street photography workshops –

1. Go somewhere outside where there are cars passing by regularly.
2. Put your camera in TV mode.
3. Point your camera at a passing car and take a photo – but here is the trick – as it passes, track it with your camera as you push down the shutter. Twist and click. Twist and click. Do it a dozen times with different passing cars until you get the hang of it.
4. It takes some practice but if you move your body at the same speed as the car going by as it passes, you should get the car in FOCUS and the street in motion blurs.

Note: if everything is super motion-blurry then make your shutter speed faster. If nothing is motion-blurry adjust your shutter speed to be slower, until it is.


This is the hardest to describe. It essentially means the sensitivity of the sensor to light. If you have a camera that they say, “does well in low light” they are referring to ISO and the camera’s internal sensor and ability to make that sensor MORE sensitive – so you can have less light overall and still see the subject in the photo.

When is this used? Low light! In restaurants, an increased ISO lets you still get creamy bokeh even though there’s not much natural light. In night photography, the ISO lets you have faster shutter speeds than the situation requires (remember the motion blurred photo from above?). Have you ever tried to take a photo of your friends in a bar and everything is motion lines? That’s the shutter speed. It’s trying to let in enough light to compensate for the dark bar, but you lose that motion-freezing effect so every movement, from your subject to the photographer holding the camera is showing up in the photo as motion lines or blur.

ISO can help with that. By making the sensor more sensitive to light (increases light), you can make the shutter speed faster (decreases light) and still add up to enough light to see the subject. It’s magic.

But it comes with its own side effect. Aperture gives us bokeh. Shutter speed gives us frozen motion. ISO gives us magic to overcome low-light. But use too much ISO and you get pixelation and grainy photos. You’ll see this all the time from photos from a cell phone. This is mostly identifiable in photos taken in low light – while cell phone cameras are improving, most take fairly poor pictures in low light. In those instances, you will most often see graininess in the photo itself. This graininess in low light photos is a byproduct of ISO.



You can see they were able to have the aperture wide open, to get that bokeh in the background (see the circles of light above?) by turning their ISO way up. But if you look at the photo closely you can see the cost. Especially around her face you can see the grainy result from too much ISO.

ISO is a great tool but you have to find your ISO limit. For your gear. Forget what other people say, you’re going to test this yourself.

ASSIGNMENT: Go to somewhere fairly unlit (not dark, just like a restaurant indoors). Take photos of food, using AV mode, but adjust your ISO slowly up until you it’s grainy in your photos. Maybe that’s around 3200 ISO. It will depend on your camera. But you should know how much ISO you can use because if it’s 3200 for you, that means your camera probably offers you 10,000 or more…

Here’s the method I use with my students in our street photography workshops –

1. Go to a restaurant.
2. Put your camera in manual mode.
3. Change your aperture to “wide open” for your lens (the lowest number f-stop you can get).
4. Set your ISO to 800.
5. Take a photo. Now adjust the shutter speed and take another photo, repeating until is exposed correctly (you can see the subject and it’s not too light or too dark, but we don’t have to be perfect for this exercise).
6. Adjust your ISO up, change the shutter speed again.
7. Keep going until you hit an ISO that looks like crap. You’ll know. That’s your no-go zone for your camera. Your limit. It’s extremely helpful to know.

NOTE: You can never use as much ISO as your camera gives you because it ruins the photos.

Your assignments:

1Get your manual!
2Aperture priority photo & share with the group on FB
3Shutter priority photo & share with the group on FB
4ISO photo and record your ISO limit


NOTE: This course does not work if you don’t do the assignments. Just take it slow, one at a time and ask questions after you have taken out your camera and manual and attempted to do it. There’s no substitution for hands on learning. This is not an academic class!! It’s a workshop, so get to work!