Your Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode
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I had my “fancy” DSLR camera for well over 10 year before I took the time to learn how to use it to its fullest potential. I can’t believe I waited so long. Don’t you do the same! Don’t get me wrong – AUTO is a great feature and there is most definitely a time and a place for it. Keep in mind, though, that once you learn how to use your camera in manual mode, you will have the option to choose auto when it makes sense and not just because you don’t know any other way.
When you study the dial on top of your camera, you can see there are several modes in which you can shoot. Here we are going to learn how to change that dial from “A” for Auto to “M” for Manual Mode!
"Skill in Photography is Acquired by Practice and NOT by Purchase!"
Percy W. Harris
The Manual Mode Exposure Triangle
The perfect exposure for a photo is made up of a balance of three camera controls, Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right immediately. You will likely need plenty of practice to get these three settings in balance for just the look you are after. But before you can practice, you’ll need to know where to begin.
One third of the triangle is Shutter Speed
Here’s a couple of facts about shutter speed to get us started:
- Shutter speed refers to how long the shutter inside the camera will open up and stay open to let light in.
- The faster the action, the faster you need to set your shutter speed if you want to freeze that action. You can read some more detailed info on freezing motion in Capturing the Pour – Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action
- The shutter needs to be open for the correct amount of time to get the desired amount of freeze or motion blur in your photo.
Next, let’s move on to Aperture
One of 3 Critical settings to master for shooting in Manual Mode
Here are a couple of facts about aperture to keep in mind:
- Aperture refers to how far the shutter will open up to let light in.
- The smaller the number, the more light gets let into the camera.
- A larger aperture (smaller #) has a narrower slice of focus and will allow a blurry background (known as Bokeh) that gives separation from your sharp subject.
And finally, let’s look at ISO
ISO stands for International Standards Organization (this little nugget of detail doesn’t matter so much, but I knew you’d ask, so there ya go! If you’re really interested, CLICK HERE to learn more.
Basically, ISO measures the level of sensitivity your camera has to the light that enters through the shutter. The higher the number, the more sensitive the sensor becomes. This sounds wonderful for lower light situations, and it can be, as long as you remember there’s a trade-off. The higher you set your ISO, the more grain you will get in your photos. If that’s the look you are going for, then great! But if you want to steer away from grain, then it’s important to keep ISO as low as possible.
Manual Mode - Putting it all Together!
Now let’s bring it all together through a practice scenario. Imagine it’s a pretty spring day and you are outside enjoying the sunshine with your family. You’d like to take some photos of your kiddo doing a cartwheel in the yard.
It’s midday and the sun is out, so there’s plenty of light. plenty of light means we don’t need a high ISO. Set ISO to 100 – check.
Kiddo is moving at a medium speed (not as fast as a race car, not as slow as a snail – remember what we learned in Capturing the Pour – Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action) so let’s start out with a shutter speed around 1/600 – check.
And finally, let’s think about aperture. We don’t need the background in sharp focus. In fact, we’d like to have that a little soft so the detail of that kid-sized cartwheel stands out from the background, so let’s set our aperture fairly wide open (smaller #), around 6. This should be a big enough slice of focus to get focus on our whole subject while leaving enough creamy bokeh in the background.
Make friends with your Meter!
Once you’ve got your starting point for your settings, now you can refer to your in-camera meter to fine tune those settings. When you look through your viewfinder into the camera, you will see a screen that looks something like this:
This is the in-camera meter, which will become one of the most important tools in setting your exposure correctly while in Manual Mode. You want to line up the tiny line on the bottom of the meter, so it lies in the center. Once you start with your basic exposure scenario, you can check your meter to see how close your estimate is to a good exposure by looking through your viewfinder at your subject and then peeking at that meter. Remember that all three of the elements of the exposure triangle can be adjusted and tweaked at this point, so now’s the time to fine tune your settings.
The fastest and simplest way to fine tune is to use the Main Control Dial (I call it the “index finger dialy-thing”) on top of your camera to adjust shutter speed. Just remember that sometimes it will work better to adjust your ISO or aperture for better results. When? Time and practice will help you sort that out.
When you see the small line at the bottom of the meter lined up perfectly with the “zero” symbol in the center, you will know you have achieved the optimal exposure (as determined by your camera) for the overall lighting scenario. Just remember that photography is an art, and what looks good to your eye may not look perfect to someone else. So the meter is best used as a guide to get you in the ballpark of the type of exposure you like.
It takes practice to master Manual Mode
Once again, it is important to remember that the meter is a guide. All of these details can be overwhelming when you’re learning how to shoot in manual, but don’t forget… The most important detail to remember is to JUST. KEEP. PRACTICING.
If you have any questions, please comment below. I am here to help and happy to answer questions!