There’s a reason many DSLR camera owners veer away from manual mode. If you’ve tried it before, you know how easy it is to end up with blurry, incorrectly exposed images.
Try it a few times and you’ll come to love how convenient auto and semi-auto modes feel.
So why do so many professional photographers live in manual mode 90% of the time?
One reason: control.
Every artist worth their salt has vision. The more they can control what they produce, the closer their work will come to that vision.
Manual mode gives you total control over your photography.
Avoid manual mode and you could keep yourself from capturing a scene exactly how you want it. Sure, you could use semi-auto modes in a similar way.
But after we cover the simple 5-step ‘manual mode loop’, you’ll see how much easier full exposure control is. You’ll also be able to apply some of the techniques to semi-auto modes like shutter and aperture priority.
If you’ve never worked in manual mode, no fear.
As manual mode puts exposure fully in your hands, we start with the most essential settings and move along, connecting the dots.
For the sake of simplicity, this lesson is sticking to photography focused on aperture choice. Your choice of aperture will then be used to pave what other settings to use.
First things first, you’ll need to set the ISO of your camera. A setting you may never have played with in fully AUTO modes.
Step 1: Which ISO is Best?
The ISO controls the sensitivity of your camera’s light capturing mechanism. For film cameras this is set via the film speed you choose to put in your camera. Back in the day, you had to buy different rolls for different speeds.
Faster ISO’s are more sensitive to light, allowing you to shoot easier in low light situations. The drawback is that these faster ISO’s tend to produce more image grain.
Slower ISO’s are less sensitive, working great for bright scenes. They also produce a cleaner, higher quality image.
Working in manual mode, your first step should be to figure out which ISO you think is right for the scene at hand.
While ISO will change based on other settings you pick in the coming steps, you can easily gauge whether you need an ISO of 100 or an ISO of 800.
Fast action scenes in lower light will demand higher ISO’s as will low light scenes (indoors, late night, or afternoon).
Bright scenes such as full mid-day sun, the beach, or snow will typically need ISO’s from 100 – 400.
While you may not pick the exact ISO you’ll use for your shoot, choosing an estimated number is a vital start to the next steps.
Step 2: Know the Clarity You Seek
What is the depth of field you want for your photograph?
To quickly recap, depth of field controls clarity within your image on the imaginary Z-plane – the depth of your image.
Shallow depth of field has a small amount of depth. This causes you to see a smaller range with sharpness. Everything outside of this range gets blurred.
Common uses for shallow depth are portraits, close-ups, and macro photography where isolating the subject is needed.
Expansive depth has a large amount of clarity on the z-axis. It’s for this reason that landscape photographers use expansive depths to capture entire vistas, from foreground to background.
You control your depth of field via your aperture choice.
Large aperture sizes create a shallow depth of field. Large aperture choices include:
With these aperture choices, you are telling your camera to open its aperture to a large size when it exposes an image.
This causes more light to enter during your exposure, causing a few results:
- You have more light to work with (you can use a faster shutter speed)
- Your depth of field becomes shallow
Smaller aperture sizes, conversely, create a more expansive depth of field. Small aperture choices include:
When you select one of these aperture sizes, your camera opens a much smaller hole during exposure. This causes let light to be let in, creating a more sharp image on the Z-plane.
Causes of small aperture use include:
- Less light to work with (you can use a slower shutter speed)
- A more expansive depth of field
The main thing to note is that smaller apertures let less light in at the advantage of clarity. But less light means a longer time needed to expose your image.
If you find the above somewhat confusing, I recommend not starting with manual mode just yet. Spend a bit of time first understanding depth of field and aperture.
The lesson here is a great start for understanding how they work together and influence your exposure choice.
The big thing to get from all of this is that aperture choice will dictate the rest of your exposure choices, mainly your shutter speed.
Before, however, we have to cover an important necessity for shutter speed.
Step 3: Know Your Minimum Shutter Speed
Ever shoot in manual mode and despite focusing clearly on the subject, end up with blur? The likely culprit is your shutter speed.
Shutter speed controls how long light is let in your camera during exposure. If light is exposing an image and your camera or subject moves during this process, blur will occur.
To illustrate, here are a couple typical scenarios where this happens:
- Fast-moving cars
- Moving athletes
- Birds, animals, and insects
- A person moving around, children playing, etc
- Photographing hand-held in a low light scene
You prevent image blur with a faster shutter speed.
For handheld shooting, it’s recommended to use at least a 1/60 shutter speed or faster for full-frame DSLR’s. This is the ‘minimum’ when shooting hand-held.
Be sure not to forget the shutter and focal length rule for non full-frame cameras.
This means that your choice of focal length will also influence your shutter speed minimal needed for hand-held.
If you’re shooting with a 200mm lens, for example, you want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/250 (rounding up since 1/200 isn’t an option on many cameras). Any slower shutter speed makes blur very likely.
If you’re shooting objects that are moving quick (birds, people, etc), then you’ll want to use an even faster shutter. The shutter needs to be fast enough to capture the subject with no movement during the process.
So if you’re photographing people walking, a 1/250 may work with a smaller focal length (50mm, for example). This shutter, however, would be way too slow for a bird or running animal.
You’d want something even faster, such as 1/1000.
Now with that covered, you know you need a MINIMUM threshold shutter speed handheld.
Shooting on a tripod allows you to skip this requirement – unless you’re shooting fast-moving objects you want to ‘freeze’.
The next step is to figure out what combination of aperture and shutter speed will create a correct exposure.
Step 4: Meter the Light
Most DSLR’s have a built-in camera meter that helps you find out what you should set your exposure to.
Point your camera anywhere and you’ll see an EV chart saying whether you should increase or decrease your exposure. You can then do this via either the shutter speed or aperture.
When the dial goes to the center “0”, your camera is essentially saying ‘you’re good’.
Now for the sake of simplicity, let’s pretend this ‘good’ is actually good.
Most likely, your camera’s meter will be right 60-80% of the time. Light is dynamic and varied from place to place.
Camera meters gauge light and their recommendations based on the law of average. Based on all the light within your frame, your camera spits out the recommended settings to create an image with an average light tone (grey).
One area of your frame could be bright and another area dark, creating a difficult job for your camera meter.
If you’re interested in learning more about these exposure hurdles and how to overcome them, check out the Exposure Den. It takes a unique ‘exposure is composing’ approach to aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Moving on, you’ll want to point your lens at the area you want to capture.
Make sure your desired aperture is set. Zoom in as much as possible to the area you want correctly exposed.
If it’s a portrait shot, this is the model’s face. If it’s a shot of a bucket in the shade, it’s the bucket.
Your meter will tell you whether your shutter speed is too high or too low. Click your dial left or right until the line is set to 0.
Do note the ‘average gray’ effect. If you point your meter at a scene that’s primary dark, boost it up 1 or 2. If it’s primarily bright, push it down -1 or -2 EV.
Examples of these extreme light scenarios are snow, sand, or shade.
Your dial will now give you a shutter speed to use.
So now you have your aperture and shutter speed. But wait, what if the shutter speed is below the threshold we set in the previous step?
Step 5: Gauge Your ISO
If your meter tells you to use a shutter of 1/15 and you’ve selected an aperture of f/8, you have a problem. Assuming you are shooting hand-held, blur is likely to occur.
The only option you have to keep your aperture is to boost ISO.
This will let more light in and allow you to use a faster shutter speed.
Just boost up your ISO, re-meter your scene, and do this until you have the right shutter for the job.
Step 6: Make Creative Changes on the Fly
Now what happens when you decide you want to move in and go from an expansive, small aperture shot to a shallow depth of field close-up?
Does this mean you have to go through the entire five steps above? That would be quite a pain, right?
Fortunately, you can save a lot of time and make things way easier with the EV table.
The EV table lists all the aperture and shutter combinations and calculations already done. All you have to do is find the aperture and shutter combination you’re using and simply ‘slide’ to the choices you want.
Shooting in manual mode can be either extremely difficult or easy. Follow a simple, structured approach to manual mode like the following six steps to guide you on your way:
- Step 1: Gauge ISO
- Step 2: Determine Aperture
- Step 3: Know the Minimum Shutter
- Step 4: Meter the Light and Select a Shutter
- Step 5: Gauge your ISO and Shutter choice, Adjusting if Needed
- Step 6: Use the EV Table to Adjust for Changes
By following the 6 steps, you create a plan of attack to ensure success. This makes exposing easier and allows you to exert more control over your creative output.
This process may be intimidating at first, but gets easier the more you go through the manual exposure ‘loop’.