three elements of shooting in manual mode

Marian ParsonsPhotography, Running a Business, Tutorials28 Comments

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.

DSC_2627 (800x530)

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.

DSC_1694 (424x640)

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.)

DSC_1653 (640x429)

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.

You can read my own journey about growing as a photographer HERE and my other posts on photography HERE.

three elements of shooting in manual mode

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28 Comments on “three elements of shooting in manual mode”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this!! I got my first DSLR ths past Christmas and while my photos for my Etsy shop improved a tiny bit my head would spin as soon as I took out the manual to read or read online tutorials. This was so easy to understand that I’m ready to start changing those settings (and break out the tripod)!

  2. I was so happy to see this post! My husband recently bought me a Nikon D90 and tripod.. I have read and referred to my manual numerous times when I switched it to manual mode but it never made sense and my photos were too dark/too bright/ too blurry. You made it so clear and easy for me to finally understand how everything works together. I can’t wait to get my camera out, change it to manual and practice! Thank you for this post!!!

  3. Thanks so much for this! I have been reading everything on shooting “manual”. I am in the process for shooting photos for our online store and this is what I needed to hear. The only other question I have is concerning the “AF-Area Mode”. Can you explain this feature? I have a NIkon D3000 curently with 2 lenses, 18-55mm and 55-200mm. Thanks Again!

  4. Book marking this page ..150 you made it sound so easy…LOve love the tips..and Love ISO setting …have to admit I just found it ..always thought auto was the answer. You rock ! Many prayers….Sheryl…Red Tin Inn

  5. Just what I need! I am actually taking a photography class next week and have been stressing about all the technical stuff that I HOPED I would be able to understand. Your explanation is so simple and clear, it gives me a little more confidence that I can actually learn to use my DSLR. Thank you!

  6. Thank you thank you for this post. I’ve been meaning to learn my camera for almost a year now and just haven’t wanted to dig into my huge manual. This made it super easy and already I can see the difference! I so appreciate you taking the time to explain it! xoxo

  7. OK, I am a nurse so the whole relating Aperture to our pupil dilating or constricting depending on the light (or lack of) in our environment made it so clear to me. The tip of “How do you know if your settings are letting in the right amount of light?” was great. Thank you. Please keep your photography posts coming because great pictures are important not just for cherishing important moments but for selling anything on Craigslist, E-Bay or Etsy!
    I would love more tips on Photoshops Lightroom and have you ever used Photoshops Elements? And does Lightroom convert RAW to JPEG?

  8. Thanks for such a great tutorial. I’d much rather read your tips than that of a technical professional photographer. You’ve learned basically through experience and that makes for the best teacher. I bought a dslr but haven’t taken the time to experiment too much with it for the pictures on my blog, but now I’m inspired to try!

  9. Thanks so much for this post! I just got my very first DSLR that is not even close to what you use but I’m learning and its all I need right now. Shooting in manual mode has scared me to death and I haven’t even tried yet. But I’m going to start! Your explanations have helped tremendously! In my defense, I also had an outdated PC that finally died and bought a new Laptop with Windows 8 that I am trying to learn at the same time. So I have been in new technology overload and very intimidated to say the least! Just want to say thanks for the novice terms and explanations that I believe are going to help take some of the fear away from using my camera. Have fun with your new toys!

  10. A lot of very useful information although I disagree with always shooting ISO 100. I shoot all the way up to ISO 1600 for print and with the use of a program such as Lightoom, you can reduce any noise (grain) with a quick little adjustment. When you always leave your ISO set to 100, other factors will have to adjust: shutter speed and aperture to compensate. So, with the picture you mentioned that you took of the bathroom and needed it to expose for 30 seconds or more, you are also adding noise (aka graininess) to a picture. I would bump that ISO to 1000 for a faster shutter speed, therefore reducing some noise.

    Hopefully, we are all smarter than our cameras but sometimes not faster!! If you are taking pictures of a child’s birthday party, a wedding, etc. you might consider (and believe me I do this as well as many other professionals) setting your camera to aperture priority. You don’t want to be fiddling with controls and miss THE shot!! For stills, manual is great! I know of a couple of professionals that shoot these type of situations in P mode. You just don’t want to miss some shots.

    But the best thing to do is just shoot!! Read the manual!!

  11. I read your post this AM and decided to get out my camera and try again. I’ve had a Panasonic DMC-ZS5 that I’ve gotten frustrated with lately; It’s just a little camera, but it takes good enough photos for my family’s needs. Anyway, I felt it didn’t take as nice of pictures as it used to….you know…it must be the camera, it surely wasn’t me! I’ve basically been leaving it in the Program AE mode and just decided to be content with that. But today I figured I’d just start with the aperture priority setting and see if I could shoot something I liked. I started outside with what’s left of the summer blooms, then I came inside and started shooting all the rooms in my home; I couldn’t stop! I was at it for a couple of hours and I haven’t had that much fun with my camera in years. And I’ve never bothered with a tripod, but we had one from our old video camera and it fits! I even got a foam board from a past school project and shielded the light like you showed the other day. I’ve been meaning to take photos of the the things in our home for insurance purposes and now I feel inspired to do that–I think it will actually be fun! Thank you for the inspiration as well as the information.

  12. Thanks for sharing this super helpful information! I am learning bits and pieces along the way, but my photography skills are still in great news of improving! Looks like I know what I’m going to be doing this afternoon! Life to the full! Melissa

  13. Thanks got sharing these tips! I have been wanting to try my DSLR on manual but shutter speed has always confused me. I’m ready to give it another try now 🙂

  14. Well, Marian, could you hear that? That sound…. “click, click, click,” as we collectively turned the dial to “manual” on our cameras! I want to add my kudos as well for a job well done, and…..I think we’re all waiting for the NEXT photog lesson!

  15. My eyes just glazed over, but I am coming back to read this tomorrow morning because I will learn alot just from the little I read, thanks for these posts Marian!

  16. OMG…such a good tutorial. Although I want to be a better photographer for my Etsy shop, it has always seemed too confusing. I actually feel like I might “get it” this time.
    Thanks for taking the time to teach!

  17. I so appreciate your photography posts, DH bought me my first “big girl” camera for Mother’s Day and I am SLOWLY learning how to use it. Thank you for explaining photography terms in an understandable way. You taught me how to make my first slipcover and now this! Maybe someday I will take the plunge and refinish a piece of furniture!

  18. Marian, what a great post. I’m no slouch when it comes to photography but I can always learn something from others. I too upgraded my equipment recently from a Canon to a Nikon d7100. I was on the fence for so long as to go full frame or buy the d7100 and then decided the d7100 had a couple things the full frame I could afford didn’t have. Hope I don’t regret it. I am still feeling my way around the Nikon and the best recommendation to anyone wishing to take better photos is just to SHOOT and SHOOT and then SHOOT some more. Pick an object in one lighting situation and shoot it in every mode then you can visually see when you upload them what the difference is. To help me get the feel for my 7100 I took a stroll through my park and shot one scenes at a time in different modes. Can you share what settings you used on the rose shot?
    Thanks for all the info you share so freely!

  19. [Not a pro by any definition here.]
    For ISO: For most daylight purposes- 100.
    You might need to boost the iso in a darker corner outdoors on a cloudy day or in a room corner inside. My rule of thumb: Go one less iso setting than the max YOUR camera supports for fireworks and night time shots.
    Playing with camera during a power outage with candles and oil lamps? Then try the full range of ISOs, including your max ISO setting on your camera taking one shot of the same subject while you wait for power to pop back on. 🙂 Really shows off the graininess while you pass time and learn.

    Yes, you are smarter than your camera. The difference between a pro and an amatuer is pros can use any camera to get the photo they visualized. Amateurs, can usually use only their own camera, maybe.

    Take your camera out of the bag, have your little helpers set up the photo shoot for you. Blocks or favorite toys lined up on a table edge while you are only allowed to change one setting for the whole shoot through the full range of values. Camera stays on the tripod.
    Or you lay down on your patio to capture the slugs digitally one evening in closeups- caution, they move fast in closeups. Or flowers, or the birds at your feeder.

    I spent one evening in my back yard with camera and tripod trying settings to take full moon pictures. You can find suggested camera settings online and start playing from there. Just remember, the moon is moving across the sky and so are you on the Earth.

    For the visual folks [manuals- eeek! snore!]:
    your camera maker likely has videos on its site to teach you. Do one little part of the video, try the skill on your camera and rewind/watch until it sticks. You can also find DVDs from camera stores and Amazon to watch on your tv. I spend days watching and rewinding to get some concepts hammered into my thick skull.

    Shutter speed: if you’ve ever taken a photo and the shutter noise sounded odd and the photo looked bad, that was your clue to slow down the blinking of the shutter. It couldn’t handle the setting you chose. Redo the blink rate and try again while you are still at the garden or reunion, whatever.

    Cameras are fun. Digital cameras give instant gratification. Even kids like watching people take digital photos. 😉 Might as well be a kid while you learn.

  20. Just getting around to reading this post and I want to say thank you! I have major issues with taking interior shots and this post has kicked me into action. I took some time the other day and got out my manual finally. And, using my tripod and handheld shutter release I finally took some pretty clear non grainy shots inside my dark dining room. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  21. Thank you so much Marian for sharing these very helpful photography tips with us. I’ve been admiring your blog photos for months and wondered how you got such beautiful images, especially with the blurred backgrounds. I don’t have a “big girl” camera yet, it’s on my Christmas Wish List but I’m amazed at how much I can apply these tips using the manual settings on my Canon Point and Shoot digital camera.

  22. Thank you so much for this post. I had a love for the artistic side of photography and took a class when digital was just becoming popular. I never really got the hang of the dSLR, but because of your blog I’m starting to get back into photography as I work on my own home decorating posts.

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