Beginner Cat Photo Skills, Let's Talk About

Let’s Talk About Manual Camera Settings

As a new DSLR user, I’m often told that I “need to go manual” or “only shoot in manual mode to be successful.” This can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Manual is great so I think exploring it as a beginner is an important part of your learning journey. I suggest you incorporate manual practice with experiments using other camera modes as your skills continue to grow.

While you grow your manual skills try these ideas too. First though, here’s a reminder of what your shutter does. How you use this is an essential part on bulding your skills.

Start With A Photo Success

While you build your cat photography skills in Manual you can successfully take photographs using:

  • Program – baby step forward. Flash does not pop up and you can change your ISO.
  • Aperture Priority (Av/A) and
  • Shutter Priority (Tv) modes.

These are not too shabby, and have won me prizes, so try them out. These particular modes will give you fast, encouraging results, and build your confidence as you learn to use the ‘Exposure Triangle’ of ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture.

After some practice, and a few successful cat photos (or dog photos!) you will feel much happier about stepping up to manual skills with confidence. Let me give you an overview of what manual can do for you when the time is right. I will also take a look at the Exposure Triangle to give you an idea of how these three points of the triangle impact on your cat photos.

The exposure triangle is one of the best analogies to understand the photography basics that affect exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and how they interact with each other.

Capture The Atlas

The mode letters on the dial on your camera are Av, Tv, P with M for your manual mode, on a Canon. For a Nikon, the letters are P, S, A and M. If you have doubts about your own camera’s settings and modes check your camera manual.

‘Manual’ Mode Shooting

If you use a Canon, like me, Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv) or P (Programmed Auto mode) lets the camera makes some of the decisions for you. I also take a lot of cat action photographs using ‘Sport‘ mode or Aperture priority but when using manual mode, you control how much light (ISO) to use, how fast the shutter speed is and the size of the aperture.

While this might sound a really powerful place to be, in full control of your camera, ready for anything, remember that this also implies that you, the photographer, know exactly what you are doing when you are taking a photograph. That’s quite a responsibility.

Adobe raw Raw DSLR Camera

Manual mode on a camera allows the photographer to determine the exposure of an image by letting them select an aperture value and a shutter speed value.


Do You Know What You Are Doing?

As a beginner or inexperienced DSLR user, the question is an important one and I think many of us will admit (reluctantly) that we still have a way to go before we become the next Annie Liebowitz or Mario Testino, which is why I encourage you to practice manual a lot before you make the jump to using it at important events or occasions.

Be warned too: people can be ‘mode’ snobs and forget that there is a first time everyone picks up their DSLR but you will begin to see improvement as you practice and youwill be even better ignoring mode snobs 😉

Every journey starts with a single step‘ – Lao Tsu. Take that step.

My First Manual Shots

These were a disaster because I was totally clueless about what is involved and, no you don’t want to see the black and blurry rectangles that were my first manual photographs. No careful composition, no cute pet action shots, no perfect photography. This encouraged me to learn more through a basic online course,and some personal tuition with an expert photographer.

Manual Settings For A Beginner Cat Photographer

How Do I Gain Confidence Shooting in Manual?

There are three key areas that we, as photographers, need to have some knowledge about if we want to try shooting in manual mode with confidence.

The three elements I share below, are called ‘the exposure triangle’ and all together they will allow you to expand your skills in manual mode. Be prepared to practice and make some spectacular errors but you will learn and, as Yoda might say, practice you must – a lot.

Honestly? I think we can all admit that practice is absolutely the most fun part for every photographer. For every disaster there may be a stunning surprise or a setting that made a big difference to your pictures. When these surprises happen, make a note of the settings you used – this is usually a right click on the image.

Let’s take a look at the exposure triangle and see what it might mean for your own personal photography journey.

Dark coated cats look better in natural light

The Exposure Triangle

I admit that the term ‘the exposure triangle’ can still overwhelm me if I think about it too much. The amount of light, the shutter speed and the amount of your aperture all affect each other, adjusting one you need to remember its effect on the other two.

  • ISO
  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed

To take your photography to a different level you need to understand how the three elements might fit together. It will become part of your photographic practice in small stages over time. The more photos you take and settings you review helps you understand things like; maybe ISO 200 is a great starting point and 1/350 captures a great cat action shot.

The rear buttons of the Canon Rebel T6 to navigate
Canon camera back showing buttons for rapid adjustment.

Here is a bare bones guide to what each element means and does.

Adjusting Your Camera’s ISO

ISO stands for International Standardization Organization, yes they are official and real. ISO tells the camera how sensitive it needs to be to light. You will find on your DSLR camera that the ISO measurements will range from approx. 100 to 1600. This allows you to adjust your cat’s exposure to light.

Adjusting your ISO up or down can add just the right amount of light to your photograph. However, an extreme adjustment can introduce a grainy effect known as ‘digital noise’ so be aware of the risks of extreme exposure. This grain, or camera noise, starts around the 800 setting but it will not really impact on images until you go over well 1000. Camera’s cope better and better with each new model coming out.

The impact of ISO on your photographs

To gauge the impact of ISO changes, you can try a fun experiment.

Take a photo of your cat, rabbit or dog and start with your ISO set at 100. Then (if your model sits still) repeat the process raising the ISO. 400, 800, 1000. Go as far as your camera will let you. This is an exercise so just point the camera is reasonably good light, like a cloudy day, and take pictures.

  • While you try this, set your aperture to F8, and your shutter speed to 1/125. This is will give you a benchmark to start from.

Changing Your Cameras Aperture

The theory behind aperture can make you cross-eyed with confusion and you do not need to explore it as an absolute beginner. Basically, a small aperture or F-stop had a big number and a large exposure has a small number. The aperture affects the amount of soft-focus background or ‘depth of field’ you will get.

  • F3.5 will give you a very blurry background like Tiger Lily below. It’s perfect cat portrait setting to explore.
  • From F3.5 to approx. F6.0 blurs the background less but still softens it. A sort of middle ground that gives you a great starting point to explore up and down the stops.
  • F6.0+ gives you a wide ‘depth of field’ and keeps everything in sharp focus.

Yes, there are some really fun maths behind it for a deeper understanding but I try to remember that F-16 is a teeny tiny aperture and F-2 is much wider. Then I take pictures and see what happens.

The impact of Aperture on your Photographs

Try a similar exercise to the ISO one. Set your ISO to 400 and then set your shutter speed to 1/250. Once you have done this start at your lowest F-number which might be F1.4 or F5.6 (depending on your lens). Take a photograph at each F stop. This is an exercise so just point the camera is reasonably good light, like a cloudy day, and start shooting.

Manual Settings For A Beginner Cat Photographer
Tiger Lily from Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Cafe

Shutter Speed and What it Does

When your shutter opens it exposes the sensor to light. The shutter speed changes the way movement appears in photographs. Think of it like this, short shutter speeds can freeze a cat in motion and a longer speeds capture a dog as a dramatic burst of speed.

Here are a few simple figures to get you exploring settings on your own camera.

  • 1/60 works for pet portraits.
  • 1/250 will freeze a cat or dog in motion. This is what I am practising right now.
  • 1/500 for active families with a pet having fun in a park or garden.
  • 1/2000 Superfast speed with will help you freeze action.

Lots of shutter speed practice is helping me take better cat action shots although I have a way to go.

PHotographers having fun out in the open air
Practice! Have Fun.
The impact of Shutter Speed on your photographs

A fast shutter speed gives a very short exposure (1/500+). A slow shutter gives a longer exposure (1/8) which will blur the movement. So to see the impact of shutter speeds, try to capture your pet at play.

Work from 1/1000 or your highest setting, then adjust your shutter so it takes longer and longer to close. Again, this is an exercise so just point the camera is reasonably good light, like a cloudy day, and shoot.

Remember, your own camera lens will affect your range of shutter speeds. My Canon 50mm lens the ‘nifty fifty’ reaches a lower F-stop than my kit lens.

A peek at the impact of Exposure Compensation. If your manual photo looks almost perfect but s little bit dark (or light) adjust this.

Practice Makes You a Better Photographer

You will find that you can take thrilling photos using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and this will give you so much confidence you continue to explore your camera’s functions and settings.

The experience you gain as you practice will enable you to focus on things like composition, close-ups or adjusting settings to see the kind of difference that happen.

It is a fantastic adventure because it encourages you to keep trying and keep learning. Every time you take a photograph and study what went wrong with any disasters, you will learn from on your pet photography journey every single day.

I will be sharing my own manual journey on the blog over the next few weeks so join me.

Manual Settings For A Beginner Cat Photographer
Miranda in Monochrome

Final photography thoughts

There are no shortcuts to experience and if you want absolute control for creative reasons, then mastering the elements that give you the best manual settings is a goal to aim for. Just remember your camera has different modes for different uses and reasons – use them all.

  • A great way to gain experience with manual photography and get real support is to take a course, either local to you or online.

Have you tried manual setting as a newbie, or are you an experienced user with an important beginners tip. Please share it in the comments. Have you kicked against convention like the ‘exposure bicycle’ ?

Photo Terms Glossary

  • What is Depth of Field? “Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and the farthest objects that are in acceptably sharp focus in an image. (Detailed exploration on Wikipedia)
  • An Exploration of ISO.
  • An explanation of Shutter Speed (Wikipedia)
  • Aperture explained (Wikipedia)

19 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Manual Camera Settings”

  1. This is a keeper – BEST tutorial on manual mode photography I’ve found ANYWHERE. I feel like I’ve hit a barrier in my photography. Trying manual mode might just be the best way to bust that. My problem is that if the cats are posed perfectly, I don’t want to chance getting a HORRIBLE picture in manual mode – when I’m sure I can get a decent photo in automatic. You’ve given us such a great resource – THANK YOU.

  2. You have some great photographs here! I tried manual mode a few times on my Nikon 3300 but I had terrible results. I’m trying to play with some of the other modes, but still get better results on my cell phone. I won’t give up.

    • Good for you Paula. Smartphones are top quality and I use mine a lot. Don’t give up on the DSLR you can do this!

  3. You are so inspiring! I keep hesitating on the DSLR purchase because I’m really a point and shoot kinda gal. But you make it very accessible and your pictures are so beautiful. Maybe I can do it!! Love your blog!

  4. You always make it sound easy Marjorie. I don’t have the patience for it. I just point and shoot with my old iPhone and hope for the best. I love to see your pictures.

  5. This is great advice! Honestly, my first manual shots were SUPER shaky. It took time, research and A LOT of practice before they started to look the way that I wanted to – and even then, I’m still learning each and every day. This is an excellent guide for those that are just getting acquainted with their DSLRs.

  6. I wish I had more time to fiddle with photographing my dog. But I’d rather spot frogs for her instead and grab a few quick and easy shots 🙂

  7. This is a great explanation of the different settings and the basics of manual mode! I started out with a film SLR so I was a little intimidated by all the extra settings when I got my DSLR.

  8. Love this, you explain it so well and it seems very approachable – I’ll get started using manual mode. I like your tip of thinking of it as a triangle ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed can be my friends! 😀

  9. Thanks for the great tips as always and wish I had the patience to learn more and really need to to do so – thanks for blog hop also

  10. You make my fear of DSLR camera a little less…not fear really but a feeling of being over whelmed. I still haven’t used all the things on my Canon SX40, which is a more sophisticated P & S camera…though by now its been made obsolete and there are newer models than mine with similar functions. I do love it though!

    Maybe a self gift if and when I retire, LOL! And a sign up at the local college for a course on camera use…

  11. Thanks for the great tips! My pictures generally come out either overexposed or blurry. I find I don’t have the time to read lengthy manuals but these posts are perfect for me to learn a little bit each time I read them.

  12. I always enjoy your photography tutorials, Marjorie! They are always so informative. And yes, indeed, practice is the way to get better. Hugs!


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