A [Bloggers] Guide to Camera Conundrums, by Laura Lawson

Recently I have been getting more and more frustrated. Like a lot of bloggers I suspect, I have a huge interest in photography. I also have a little knowledge, having been taught by my Dad how to use his fancy Canon SLR before I even hit my teens. A combination of the passage of time and little time to practice means that put my beautiful Canon 40D into my mitts and I cannot get it to behave.

Not only do I want my photography to get better but I want great images for the blog, and as it’s me who produces those images, in the main, I need to get learning fast. However, the ‘T’ word gets in the way again… time. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m not exactly swimming in the stuff. Things have gotten so bad recently that I have even thought of selling my camera and over the weekend I abandoned it all together in favour of our old Canon Coolpix then was hugely disappointed at it’s lack of function while we were in London. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that I can’t seem to get the images off the darn thing right now.) One of my biggest issues is that I need my camera to be be a little bit more compact and portable than the huge DSLR that is the D40. I always need it in my bag, literally everywhere and so when Laura Lawson offered to write a bit about cameras and how to use them, I knew my blogging readers and perhaps those of you interested in photography would love to hear her tips. It doesn’t hurt that she’s not only a brilliant photographer but a funny girl, and if you’re coming to the Florence Finds Afternoon Tea in Manchester you can meet her (and her equally talented husband Pete) too!

Thanks Laura – you’re a star. ๐Ÿ™‚

– A guide to camera conundrums by Laura Lawson.

I have a DSLR and I’m scared to take it off Auto!

Your camera is simply a tool. It doesn’t have a life of its own, it just does what you tell it to do, and once you figure out a few simple things you will feel completely in control. There is nothing more freeing than flicking that little switch off Auto and onto Manual!

Image courtesy of Lawson Photography

Firstly, all cameras are different and it’s important to actually read the instruction booklet! You’ll come up against some stuff you won’t understand – google it. There’s nothing difficult about knowing what settings to use.

The three main things:

ISO – This is how sensitive to light your camera is. A lower setting is like sunscreen โ€“ protecting those precious pixels from โ€˜burning outโ€™. When a pixel โ€˜burns outโ€™ you get a white image (donโ€™t worry โ€“ itโ€™s not permanent!). If you’re outside and it’s sunny then go for a low number like ISO100 or 200. If you’re inside you might need to choose one of the higher ISOs that your camera allows like ISO1600. The higher your ISO the more grainy the picture will be (which is why you always get a bit of grain when it’s dark).

Shutter Speed – This is how long the sensor in your camera is exposed to light. If a shutter is open too long the picture will be too bright, and if it’s not open for long enough it will be too dark. If your picture is too blurry you’re probably using too slow a shutter speed.

Image courtesy of Lawson Photography

Aperture (or ‘f stop’) – This is the size of the opening in the lens, which controls how much light is coming in. A large aperture like f1.8 lets in lots of light, whereas a small aperture like f16 lets in very little light. It can seem confusing because a LARGE aperture is a SMALL number – but basically the lower the number, the better your camera will deal with low light (and as an added bonus, the more awesome and blurry your backgrounds will be!).

When you put your camera on Auto you are giving away the chance to get brilliant pictures. Your camera doesn’t know what you want a picture to look like! A good stepping stone to setting everything yourself on Manual is using Aperture Priority (or AV mode). This basically means you decide what aperture you would like, and what ISO you would like, and your camera will guess the shutter speed itself.

Image courtesy of Lawson Photography

Laura, can’t you just tell me a couple of settings which will probably work?!

  • Inside, with some windows so it’s not exactly dark: Put it on AV mode. ISO1600, f1.8 (or the lowest number your lens will allow).
  • Outside: ISO100 (or 200 if it’s cloudy), f1.8 (or the lowest number your lens will allow)

If your picture is kinda blurry it means the shutter speed your camera chose was a bit too low, put your ISO up a bit.


The lens you use is so important, and getting your hands on a good one can take your photos to the next level. Personally I am a massive fan of prime lenses as opposed to zoom lenses. A prime lens is a fixed distance, so you have to get used to moving your feet rather than standing still and zooming in and out! The benefit of a prime lens is that they have large apertures, and your images will have shallow depth of field. As professional photographers, we go for the top of the line ยฃ1000 lenses, but there are actually some great bargains out there which will make a big difference to your pictures and aren’t crazy expensive!

A 50mm lens is a great start and these f1.8 beauties are a bargain at around ยฃ100!

The biggest thing to keep your eye out for is a camera with a big sensor; an increased sensor size gives you better performance in low light, more depth of field (pretty fuzzy backgrounds!) and generally better image quality. The great thing is there are lots of great cameras out there that fit this ‘handbag friendly and much better than your iphone’ category.

Image courtesy of Lawson Photography

ยฃ700 BUDGET

ยฃ450 BUDGET

Image courtesy of Lawson Photography

Pro Tips…

Ok so you’ve got the camera and you’ve had a play with the settings. Here are some general tips for pretty picture taking:

1. Position yourself so the sun (or main light source) is BEHIND the person/thing you’re shooting. Although it may seem natural to have the sun shining on your subject, this kind of light is actually really harsh and nasty – it will give you bags under the eyes and no one wants that! By back lighting your subject you get a lovely flattering rim light and creamy skin. Even better – if you can choose a spot where a bit of light is bouncing back onto them (i.e. the sun is behind the person and a white wall is behind you – they’ll be lit by the light bouncing of the wall). You’ll have to shoot on Manual mode and have a play with your settings so your subject is exposed correctly and doesn’t appear too dark (slow your shutter speed down a bit if they’re too dark and speed it up if it’s all a bit bright!)

Image courtesy of Lawson Photography

2. When shooting products try to choose a background with complimentary colours. A popular look in magazine product shots is using a shallow depth of field; to emulate this get as close to the item as your camera will allow and use the biggest aperture you can like f1.8. Textures look great when they’re fuzzy in the background, so have a play using floorboards, patterned sheets, old doors etc.

3. Organise your pictures so you can find them easily! We organise our folders by date, so for example: ‘2012_03_09 Tea Party’.

4. Print the pictures you love. There really is nothing like flicking through an album, it beats scrolling through images on your computer any day! I love Blurb books for personal stuff, they’re a total bargain.

Happy snapping!

I’d love to hear if you are a camera enthusiast and have any tips on the right (compact-ish) camera or like me are learning the ropes and frustrated with set backs… Laura will be reading and available to answer any questions you have for her, and Pro togs, feel free to pitch in too! ๐Ÿ™‚


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43 thoughts on “A [Bloggers] Guide to Camera Conundrums, by Laura Lawson

  1. Such a great post! The tips translated into normal speak (opposed to the stupid book) is so helpful.
    We’ve got a Sony DSLR and as much as I love it, it isn’t hand bag friendly we’ve been leaving it behind, this post has regnited my love for it so I’ll be getting it out this weekend to capture my first Mothers Day as a mummy!
    Thanks Laura & Rebecca

    • Arww what a brilliant event to take pictures of! Lugging around a big SLR (when I’m sure you have plenty of baby stuff to carry!) is annoying, but it’s so worth it!

  2. Great post – will definitely be bookmarking this page!

    I am thinking about investing in something better than my compact camera, and have been looking at the Lumix G1… but to be honest, the more reviews I read about various DSLRs the more confused I get!

    Laura, can you shed any light on this one – do you think its any good/worth investing in?!


    • That’s a great camera, pretty similar to the Olympus PEN on my recommendations list. It’s actually not a DSLR, it’s a mirrorless compact (which is great because it means it’s smaller than most DSLRs but still has interchangeable lenses.

      One from the Lumix GF (like the GF3) range is probably what I would go for – it’s smaller, but it has the same size sensor/takes the same lenses. It also has a movie mode which is cool.

      I’m all for the smaller option that’s still really good quality – you’re way more likely to take it everywhere you go!

      If you do go for any of the Lumix cameras, a great lens option would be the 20mm f1.7.

      • Thank you so much Laura – this helps a novice out A LOT!

        It’s the one that I keep coming back to, so I think I may have to just go for it!


  3. This is such a great article – I am obsessed with photos (I have a photo wall going up my stairs at home) but am useless at taking them, so I will be printing this off and bookmarking it! xx

  4. An excellent post with some really helpful tips…I’m looking forward to trying them out this weekend and turning that auto button off!

  5. This is a brilliant post and perfect timing for me! I invested in a Cannon D3100 a while ago and haven’t managed to get off Auto, every time I try and get my head around the settings I get frustrated and give up.

    This is nice and clear and not full of jargon so thank you so much, need to get practicing so I can make the most of my honeymoon snaps!

  6. Just wanted to say I’ve forwarded this onto my husband as it’s perfect timing for him! (He was a bought a night photography by my Mum for his birthday.) Hopefully he’ll read it and not just ignore it like he does other things I forward!

    • Sorry that should read night photography course! And I was supposed to ask any tips for night photography? (Damn those pesky customers interrupting me!)

      • Brilliant ๐Ÿ™‚ Night photography, it really depends on what the subject matter is, but basically it’s all about using a slow shutter speed (a 30th of a second or longer), high ISO, and probably using a tripod so it’s not all blurry! (That would be great for scenery/roads and twinkly lights etc).

        If he’s thinking of shooting people then he’ll need to get to grips with lighting and flash techniques. Also choosing a good spot – i.e. with some lighting coming from other sources.

        It’s good fun having a play!

  7. Such a useful post! I forced myself to move over to manual almost straight away and learnt through trial and error and reading the instructions but those tips are so so helpful to understand the ‘why is this happening’ side of it rather than the what/how.

  8. Thank you for this! I’m camera shopping at the moment and until now didn’t have a clue where to start. I’m going to bookmark this page for sure!

  9. Great post! Just had a chance to have a proper read through.

    Laura, what are your thoughts on compact system cameras? I thought this may be a step up from point and shoot camera whilst being cheaper than a DSLR.

    Do you have a favourite brand? I am a fan of Panasonic Lumix cameras as my last camera was the TZ8 but wonder if I should branch out to looking at other brands.

    Laura x

  10. Such a fab post Laura and Rebecca. I have a Canon G11 which is compact but with manual settings. I love the size of it as not too big for the handbag and it seemed to do what I wanted. Im just yet to explore it properly yet but really want to. I will be giving the above a go very soon and getting out of the habit of auto. I also have a good old groupon photography course booked for the end of the month which I hope will help too!

  11. Eeeeek, I’ve been so excited about posting this – mainly because I feel like by just reading it, I’ll be making some progress!
    It’s reignited my enthusiasm after all the frustration too – thanks Laura!


    • You’re so welcome, it’s lovely inspiring people to get out and have a play! I don’t know everything about my cameras and I’m constantly learning new things; it’s all about experimenting and having fun.

  12. Can I just add that ‘Flickr’ has proven itself invaluable with me in learning how to wield the unwieldy beast that is a DSLR . There are loads of groups to cover any particular interest that you have and is pretty easy to start to get feedback on images . I would say start by photographing anything and everything and a natural trend in what you enjoy (and are usually best at -it shows!!) will develop . And if photography was simple it wouldn’t be as satisfying when it all comes together ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. This post is perfect!! We bought a big fancy camera (Nikon d3100 I think!) and despite having it for a year it rarely comes off auto but that will change!! I even booked the boy a wee photography lesson for our anniversary as we need to make the time to use it properly. This mini guide is an excellent place to start, thanks Laura ๐Ÿ˜€

    • What a cool anniversary present! As I said, using AV mode (or aperture priority mode – it’s different on all cameras) is a great step in between using auto and using fully manual settings. Just give it a go!

  14. Hi Laura & Rebecca, thanks for this great post, you’ve managed to explain the technical jargon in such a way that everyone can understand. I’ll be showing this to my friend tomorrow when I go round to show her how to use her camera!

    After years of shooting in Auto I’ve finally started shooting in Manual for the last few months after joining Clickinmoms.com (great website for anyone interested in photography by the way – hobbyists & professionals), which has been great although still very much hit and miss with my photos but I have learnt a lot in just a few months!! I’d really like to get a new lens, I have the standard 18-55mm kit lens plus the 35mm 1.8 lens for my Nikon D5000 crop sensor but didn’t realise when bought it that the auto focus needs to be on the lens as it’s not in the body (arrgh!) so the lenses I need to get will be more expensive. I really want to get rid of my 18-55mm lens as I don’t find it works great for me in low light and I much prefer the nice fuzzy backgrounds on my 35mm lens. What lens would you recommend to compliment the 35mm and which is good to shoot portraits and a baby that will be moving more and more, I want to be able to shoot her outside but not necessarily run round after her so can be a bit more discreet about it. I’ve been practicing taking photos of my friends toddlers and i don’t always want to be up in their face taking the photo as they get distracted or don’t want their photo taken so thought about something which I could use to shoot further away with and capture them without them realising? Any thoughts please?

    Also do you ever use Back Button Focusing, I learnt about it on Clickinmoms but haven’t got my head round it and wondered if you use and if so whether you find it useful?

    Thanks Laura ๐Ÿ™‚ xx

    • Hey! How about a 50mm lens (the Nikon 50mm 1.8G – the ‘D’ version won’t focus on your camera)- would be a good complimentary lens; perfect for portraits and with the crop it’s pretty zoomed in so you can take a step back. That’s definitely a great way to shoot children running around without them being too aware of you!

      Back button focusing is not something I’ve ever really fancied. I think it’s just what feels natural to you, but I’m so used to focusing using the centre focus point and then composing – I wouldn’t be able to do it differently!

  15. PS sorry just one other question….I also have the same problem with lugging a big camera about along with all the other paraphernalia that comes with a baby so was thinking of getting a good carry around too. I know you have the fuji x100 but wondered if you knew anything about the fuji x10 which is within the ยฃ400 budget as can’t stretch to the fuji x100? Is it worth it or would you say the ones you’ve mentioned above are better? x

    • It’s hard to say because there are definitely things going for the x10 (it’s pretty, it’s compact, the f2 lens) but the sensor size isn’t really big enough to create pictures as good as you are used to with your Nikon. That said it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than the x100. Such a tough call!

      • Thanks for the replies Laura, I’ll look into the 50mm lens ๐Ÿ™‚

        Can’t make up my mind re the carry around, have looked at the Nikon and Sony too, too much choice!!

  16. So excited to comment on this post but been super busy today so sorry I’m so late! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I would definitely recommend the Canon G11, I LOVE mine, it’s the one I use on nights out now or if I don’t fancy lugging my Nikon SLR (D300s) & lenses out with me. I find it’s such a great wee camera for all sorts of photography, even the macro is pretty good on it. It’s the one I use for my underwater stuff as I can’t afford the housing for the SLR (or have the skills yet for that matter!) and I’m delighted with the results using it! AND it’s the one I used at PenDo so even though it’s a chunkier compact, you can still squeeze it into a small bag on a night out – just! It’s so easy to use and even as a compact still lets you have full control in manual. I also love the tilting/twisting screen – very handy in a crowd or to take self-pics!

    Great post guys – so encouraging and really well written for beginners! ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Fantastic post. We bought a DSLR about 18 months ago, and we love it! However haven’t really discovered how to use it properly. Often when we have good results I feel it’s more by luck than judgement!! I’m of the trial and error school, and I guess that’s the great thing about digital cameras – play around with a few things and instant feedback on success (or otherwise!). I get so confused about which numbers should be high and low in which conditions, so thanks for putting this in to simple terms! Please can we have a regular feature on this?!? xxx

    • Sarah I learnt in exactly the same way, by just playing around and then figuring out why it looks wrong as I went along! Photography is all about being creative and looking around you, getting bogged down with all the numbers is BORING! You really don’t need to know all the technical stuff (even I drift off when people talk to me about megapixels) it just helps massively to get your head around the three main settings.

  18. “Textures look great when theyโ€™re fuzzy in the background”.

    I prefer to call it the sexy blur Mrs Lawson, as you well know ๐Ÿ™‚ ….and thank you for introducing it to said blur some time ago now.

    Can’t beet a nice big aperture.

    Great post + bookmarked xXx

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  20. Just bought a Nikon D3100 my very first DSLR!! And what a find this post has turned out to be…brilliantly explained and great tips. Big thank you! will print off and work through some of your advice. EXCELLENT!

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