Shooting in Manual

Learning to use your camera without using auto seems to be one of the scariest things for any DSLR owner. Put it on P and just shoot and go, easy peasy. But wait….one image may be too bright or another may be too dark. Sometimes your camera gets it just right, but not always. Your camera just needs to make sure that there is enough light to make an image, which is why you can get inconsistent results. Even the best technology on the market is no match for a skilled artist who has honed their craft.

When your camera is on auto mode (P), it is making all the decisions for you. The only thing you are in control of is where you are pointing the camera.  Your camera decides how how wide to open the aperture, how long to keep it open and what your ISO  needs to be in order to create the image. 
When people first get their camera or a new lens, I can understand them using auto. Each camera feels different in your hands and getting the feel for the new camera or the new lens is an adjustment period. But if you are a professional photographer (or working towards being one), you should not be using auto mode. You should be making the decisions for your camera in order to create the images as you see them. This is your art and you should be in control of every point of creating it! You don’t have to jump in all the way just yet. You can try out Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode first, but eventually you are going to need to move over to Manual. 
So, let’s take your training wheels off and move that camera from the P on the dial and switch over to M. Are you ready? Of course you are!!!
First, let’s talk a little about the Exposure Triangle. The Exposure Triangle consists of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. These components all work together to make sure your in camera light meter is set at zero. (Sometimes I bump it up one little ticker to the right to overexpose it just a hair! But that’s just me! You will find what you like and what works for you!).

When photographers used film cameras their ISO was a choice they made BEFORE taking the images because they had to specifically choose their film. Digital photographers can now choose their ISO on the fly and change it with every image in a sequence if they wanted to. Film photographers could not do that!

When shooting in manual, after get your aperture set and your shutter speed, then it’s time to set that ISO. The higher the ISO used, the more noise or grain you will see in the image. On a sunny day you would set your ISO to 100. Shooting indoors means raising your ISO. I usually start at around 400 and work my way up depending on the light source in the room. I would rather have some noise in the image and have it sharp than to shoot in a lower ISO and have blur in the image.

If you have never heard of the “Sunny 16” rule, it says that on a sunny day the correct exposure is f/16 at the shutter speed nearest to the reciprocal of the film speed. Did you just say “What?” Here is an example of how to calculate using the Sunny 16:
ISO 100 = 1/100 at f/16
ISO 200 = 1/200 at f/16
ISO 400 = 1/400 at f/16
ISO 800 = 1/800 at f/16
That helps you get the correct exposure, then you would need to figure out if you needed to adjust your shutter speed or aperture.
(There is also the “Cloudy 8” rule for overcast days.)
People worry about grain and “noise” in their images. But with programs like DeNoise you can actually decrease the amount of grain that ends up in your final image.


Next we are going to look at our aperture. Aperture means changing the size of the opening in the lens. Inside the lens are these little “blades”. Those blades contribute to exposure by controlling the amount of light that passes through the lens and then to the sensor.

Aperture sometimes confuses people because it’s measured in F-numbers (or F-stops) and if you are using a smaller F number the opening of the lens is actually larger. A lower aperture number means that more light is coming in (the opening is larger) and this creates the blurry background (or “bokeh”). A higher aperture number means that less light is coming in (the opening is smaller) and the image will be sharper and more of the image will be in focus. Lower aperture is better for portraits!

The aperture blades are “stopped down” or closed in order to allow less light or they are opened up to allow more light to pass through. 

Aperture also controls the depth of field in the image. When people are looking for that dreamy blurry background, that is created by adjusting your aperture.

Shutter Speed
The next thing you will need to set is your shutter speed. Shutter speed is the measurement of the time that the shutter stays open to expose the sensor. When you press the shutter button, the shutter opens up to reveal the digital sensor. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light that reaches the sensor.

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. A 1/50 shutter speed means the camera shutter stays open for one fiftieth of a second. You probably think that sounds really quick, but in photography, it’s not really. Any sudden movement can cause a blur during that time. For crisp action shots, your shutter should be no slower than 1/500. Yes, your camera is so advanced that it can do that!

If you are shooting outdoors you should try to keep your shutter speed above 1/50. Ideally, even 1/80 works great. When you are outdoors what you will want to do it look at your meter in camera and make sure it is centered. Shooting kids and animals or anything that makes sudden movements mean setting your shutter speed to 1/125 or above! When shooting children your shutter speed needs to allow for the fact that they probably aren’t going to sit still. One of the single most challenging issues most people have in children’s photography is getting their images sharp and not having any blur, and this is why shutter speed is so important!

Putting it all together

If you are just switching over to manual, here is an easy way to start learning your settings.
1. Set your ISO (200-400 four outdoors or 400-800 for indoors.)
2. Put your camera in Auto (P) mode. (I know we are learning manual but you will see why we are doing this…)
3. Focus on your subject and then press your shutter button down half way.
4. Look at the view finder and read the settings on the screen. That is your starting point for getting those settings.
5. Switch over to Manual (M) and then adjust your camera to get those settings. You can even play with adjusting the settings a bit to see how it changes.

(I didn’t go through setting your white balance, but you can use your auto or custom white balance. I always use custom white balance and set that right after I change my ISO.)

Once you have your aperture, shutter speed, and your ISO set, your ticker on your in-camera light meter should be sitting in the middle at 0.
Learning to shoot in manual takes practice, but learning anything new in photography does. To be better photographers we have to be willing to take that leap and commit ourselves to learning. Shooting in manual gives you more control over your images and eliminates the camera thinking for you. Getting better images  straight out of camera means less work in post processing, so it can save you a lot of time in editing. If you are looking to shoot weddings, getting your images better SOOC will save you a lot of time in editing. 

(Living in the Stills has a great little Manual Cheat Sheet that you can use until you get the hang of it. You can order a print and keep it in your camera bag! Check it out…it is pretty awesome!)

If you want to practice without getting your camera out, this is a great little tool  that is a DSLR Simulator. You can practice seeing how the different components change the image! You can even see the difference in using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual.
I hope this helped you. If I could sit one-on-one with everyone and walk you through it I would gladly do so. But in the end, practice and learning your camera is going to be the best way for you to learn. Every camera is different and every photographer has a different “style”. The important thing is to find your way, your style and then just keep working and learning!

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to email me at!


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