Well, everyone liked the photography posts, so I’m going to throw in another one for those who are scared to start shooting in manual mode. I want to explain what you gain when you do that and what you’re adjusting when you turn those dial. Let me preface this (and all of my photography posts) with the disclaimer that I am not a super-duper-awesome-know-everything-professional-photographer. I do get paid to take photographs, so I am “professional” in that sense, but it’s more by default. I want to share my home, decorating, tutorials and ideas and the best way for me to do that is through pictures. I’m sharing these things in the way I learned and understand them. I’m sure pros would have a lot to add (and they are certainly welcome to in the comments), but I’m trying to explain it in non-technical terms. You also have to remember that photography is part art part tech and very talented people have different opinions and approaches. It’s been great for me to watch several professional photographers shoot my house and see how differently they all worked from one another. So, don’t feel badly if you’re doing something different. If you like the look and it’s working for you – go for it!
So, here are the three basic things you should learn to manually adjust on your camera…
1.) Film Speed – This is new to digital photography. When I took a photography workshop years ago, it was to learn how to use a film SLR (my Nikon N65.) In a film camera, you select the film speed, also called ISO, when you buy the film and put it in the camera. Remember the pictures on film boxes showing you what was good for portraits and what you wanted in your camera for your kid’s soccer game? The bummer about film cameras is you would have a roll of 200 black & white and then you would get in a situation where you needed to capture fast action in lower light and you wanted it in color. Unless you were armed with several cameras with several film speeds, you were out of luck. (Which is why you would see wedding photographers with three cameras around their necks!) Well, the wonderful thing about digital cameras is that you can change the film speed just by turning a dial or pushing a button or selecting it from a menu and you can change it to shoot your products for your Etsy shop one minute and your kids playing outside the next.
Here are some things to keep in mind about film speed –
- The lower the number, the slower the film speed. The speed is slower, but the picture quality is better. I shoot most blog, freelance and photos for print at 100 ISO. Because the film speed is slower and I’m mostly shooting inside in low, natural light, I almost always have to use a tripod to hold the camera steady.
- The higher the ISO number, the faster the film speed. You can take pictures in lower light, but the graininess of the photo is increased, especially in amateur cameras. This doesn’t matter too much for quick snapshots of your family, but it matters if the pictures will be blown up for a magazine or large print.
Why do you want to set your film speed?
- You are smarter than your camera. You know you are shooting in low light and the camera might think it’s better to have a faster film speed, but you know that this picture is going to be your “money shot” for your post and you’re hoping it gets noticed and featured in a magazine, so you don’t want any graininess. You set it at ISO100 to get exactly what you want.
- One of my blogger friends has the same camera I did, the d7000 and I was showing her some tips on working with it. She asked why her pictures were so grainy. I checked the ISO and it was set at 1000, so her beautiful pictures weren’t turning out as well as they could.
Example: In the shot below, I was snapping a quick picture of a ranch hand and his horse before my trail ride in Colorado. The film speed was set fairly low a 200 ISO. The barn was dark and the aperture (see below) was set at f4.5. The ranch hand is blurry because of his movement. If I had bumped up the ISO, he would’ve been in focus. I sort of like the way his movement isolates the stillness of the horse and makes the horse the focus of the photograph, which is what I wanted.
2.) Aperture – That is a fancy term that refers to how wide the lens is open – sort of the way the pupil of an eye dilates. The lower the number, the wider the lens is open. The wider the lens is open, the more light it lets in. (Just how your pupils open wider when you’re in a dark room and slam shut when you walk into bright sunlight.) This is the number that has an “f” in front of it. Like f2.8 or f14. A wide open lens (like an f1.4) lets in more light and smaller opening (like an f18) lets in less light. How wide and small your aperture can be set is determined by the lens, not the camera. When you’re shopping for lenses and want to know the difference between the 50mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.4 – it’s how wide the lens can open. The f1.4 can open wider and let in more light.
Here are some things to keep in mind about aperture –
- This setting does so much to determine the look of your photograph and, if you don’t want to mess with anything else, you should at least try shooting in “aperture priority” which is usually marked by the A on the dial of your camera. This means you pick the aperture and the camera figures out the rest.
- Yes, a wide open aperture lets in the most light. So, if you’re shooting dark interiors, why wouldn’t you want to shoot in the lowest aperture all the time? The aperture not only affects the amount of light let in, but also the “depth of field.” That’s camera speak for how much of the picture or subject of the picture is in focus. (The depth of field is also determined by how close you are to the object, how close the object is to other things in the pictures, etc., but we won’t talk about that in this post.)
- The smaller the aperture, the smaller the depth of field (the less of the picture is in focus.) So, you wouldn’t want to shoot a full room shot in f1.4. If the camera needs more light, you can use a tripod and reduce the shutter speed (see below). You can also increase the film speed (ISO.)
- Not all lenses are super sharp when they are open as wide as they can go. Some lenses are sharpest at 2-3 steps up. You’ll just have to play with it and see what looks best to you. All gear is different.
Example: This shot was all about the q-tip holder, so I had the aperture wide open and allowed the background to be blurry.
For this shot, I wanted the clock, roses and bead board to be in focus, so I closed the aperture a bit. (I can’t tell you the settings for these pictures, because they’re on my computer that is being repaired.)
3.) Shutter Speed: For me, this setting usually revolves around the other two. The shutter speed is exactly as it sounds…it’s the speed at which the camera “blinks” or opens and closes the shutter. It’s what makes the clicking sound. When the lighting is really good, the shutter can go super quick and when the lighting is low, as is often the case inside a house, the shutter will need to be open longer to let in enough light for the picture to be properly exposed.
Here are some things you need to know about shutter speed:
- The slower the shutter speed, the more movement it will capture. For example, the ranch hand in the picture above. If my shutter speed was faster (or the ISO), his movement wouldn’t have been blurred. A slow shutter speed will also capture any movement of the person holding or touching the camera. It will even vibrate slightly when you press the shutter down, which is why a remote shutter release (a cord or remote button that is connected to your camera to take the picture) and a tripod are important for slow photography. Even walking on the floor around a camera mounted to a tripod can make the picture blurry.
- The shutter speed has limitations. A camera can only “blink” so fast and most cameras (I’m not sure about all), but a lot of them only stay open for a maximum time (my d7000 was 30 seconds.) That sounds like a lot, but I needed the full 30 seconds when I was shooting my half bathroom, which has no windows or natural light source, so the room was almost pitch black when I shot it a little over a year ago.
So, how do these three elements work together? The answer is part technical, part artistic. All three have to work together in order to make the picture properly exposed. Have you tried shooting in manual and your picture is bright white or washed out? Or pitch black? Either your settings were letting in too much light or not enough. If you’re shooting a room and want everything to be crisp and in focus, so you set your aperture at f18, then you’ll probably have to decrease the shutter speed and use a tripod OR increase the film speed if you’re holding the camera. Does that make sense? How they all work together?
How do you know if your settings are letting in the right amount of light? When you look through the viewfinder of your DSLR, you’ll see a series of numbers. One is the shutter speed, which might be 60 or 100 or something and should increase or decrease as you turn a dial. (On the Nikon d7000, this is the dial by your thumb and the number to the far left.) The number that has an “f” in front of it is your aperture. Again, you should be able to turn a dial to adjust it. (On the d7000, this is the dial on the front of the camera, controlled by your index finger and the second number from the left.) On the d7000, I had to push a button to display and adjust the ISO. So, usually in the middle of the view finder is a meter. It’s usually little hash or tick marks with a “0” in the middle and a “+” on one side and a “-” on the other. When there are tick marks towards the plus side, that means the picture will be overexposed and you have to either decrease the aperture, decrease the film speed or increase the shutter speed until the mark is at “0”. If the tick marks are towards the minus side, the picture will be under exposed and you either need to open the aperture more, increase the ISO or decrease the shutter speed to let in more light. Making these adjustments will bring the tick marks to “0”.
Now, you have to remember that you’re smarter than your camera and some camera meters like darker pictures than you do and others like them brighter. Your meter can also be tricked when you’re shooting towards windows or other light sources. You have the ultimate say in how bright you want your pictures, so use the meter as a guide and learn your camera and where your sweet spots are.
I know it sounds overwhelming, but shooting in manual is really simple once you grasp the concept of how those three work together. And when people refer to “manual mode” those are the three controls they are talking about. You don’t have to focus manually or manually control your white balance and all of that stuff. Save that for later. These are the basics and getting a good handle on these will dramatically improve your photography. (Well, it may make it worse at first, but be patient and persistent and it will surprise you.)
So, if you currently have a dSLR and you’ve been thinking about upgrading, but you’re still shooting in Auto, you’re not ready to upgrade. You’re basically using your beefy camera as a point & shoot an it’s not worth the money to get an even fancier point & shoot. Learn how to use your camera first and then upgrade.
I hope this post is helpful and, if it gives even a few people an “ah-ha” moment about photography, then it is worth it. Now go…get out your camera manuals and start fiddling with those dials you’ve been scared to touch. Play around with settings, especially the aperture, to get a sense of what looks you like. (I remember the moment when I learned how to get the blurry background in photos and I was totally hooked on wide open apertures!)
The unique way you control your camera and compose your pictures is what makes photography an art.