Learning to Shoot in Manual Mode

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Today’s cameras do a really good job when in fully automatic mode, but in order to make the most of your camera you should learn how to use your camera on the manual setting. manual mode enables us to do things like creating blur with a longer shutter speed, control depth of field better, and be more creative with our shots. To go full manual you will need to have an understanding of shutter speed, aperture settings, and ISO speed. This article will get you all of the basics you need to get going.

Why You Should Learn Manual Mode?

Some people will debate whether you even need to know manual mode, given that today’s cameras are getting better and better with each new model. While many professionals use modes like aperture priority and shutter priority with great success, they also know that manual will give them the control they want when the automatic modes aren’t doing what they want. But even if you master manual mode, you won’t use it 100% of the time. Instead, having the knowledge gives you the foundation to know how to use manual for those times when the automatic modes simply can’t you the result you want. As good as our cameras are these days, they do not know what you want to accomplish. While I shoot almost exclusively in manual, this is a personal choice that I am extremely comfortable with. If you are happy with aperture priority or another mode, don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong, but you should understand how to use manual so that you have total control over your camera if and when you ever need it.

Getting Started

Most cameras, including newer point and shoot cameras will let you shoot in full manual mode. The problem with going manual is that if you don’t have your settings “just right” you can end up with an image that is too dark or too light. Without a basic understanding of the different settings, it can be difficult to get a good shot. However, with a basic understanding of the three variables, even the most newbie photographer can learn to take better pictures by getting away from the automatic settings.

ISO

The ISO settings is the same as the ISO we used in the old days on film cameras. It controls how sensitive the film (or sensor) is to light. The higher the ISO speed, the more light the sensor can pick up. For example, if your camera is set to ISO 800 you can take a well exposed image in a darker room than you could with ISO 100. Knowing that, it seems logical that you’d always want to run your camera at the highest ISO speed possible. While this may sound like a good idea, the downside is that the higher the ISO, the more “noise” will be introduced to the image, thus degrading the image quality. In most cases, you will get excellent results by using ISO 200-400 outdoors and 400-800 indoors.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is one of the easiest settings to understand as it simply determines how long the shutter remains open when you press the shutter button. The faster the shutter speed, the better the camera will freeze the action of an event. This setting is represented in seconds. A fast shutter speed might be something like 1/2000th of a second. A slow shutter speed such as 1/30th of a second can result in blurry images if you don’t use a tripod (or if the subject itself is moving). Like the other settings, the shutter speed also affects the amount of light that hits the sensor. The faster the shutter speed, the less light that comes into the camera. So while a fast shutter speed can freeze action, you need more light in order to prevent getting a dark picture. When you can’t get a bright enough image, you will need to slow down the shutter speed. In some cases you might intend to get motion blur — such as a waterfall or freeway traffic. Shots like these require a very long shutter speed, sometimes several seconds in length.

1/200th Second to Freeze Motion

1/15th second for some motion

1/4 second for lots of motion blur

Aperture

Your camera’s aperture is often the most difficult setting for most people to grasp. The aperture is an adjustable opening in the lens that controls the amount of light that can enter the camera. The aperture setting is expressed in f stops, with the largest opening having a relatively small number. A wide open aperture, for example, might have an f-stop of around f/1.4, while a very small aperture would be around f/16.

The aperture setting has a big effect on depth of field — which allows one part of the image to be in focus and the rest of it is blurry. A shallow depth of field can help highlight the subject of the photograph.

f/28 Aperture for short depth of field

Getting Your Feet Wet

Without a light meter or lots of experience, how do you know what settings to start with? The way I learned was to set my ISO to what I wanted — typically 200-400 ISO outdoors and 400-800 ISO indoors — and put the camera in P (Program) mode. When you press the shutter half way down, the viewfinder displays the settings it will use to take the picture. Then you can put the camera into Manual mode and adjust the settings to match. After some practice you should be able to set some basic settings fairly close to what they need to be, then, by pressing the shutter half way down the camera will autofocus and then take a meter reading which should show in the viewfinder or on a display depending on your camera. Then you can adjust shutter speed or aperture to change the exposure to get it where you need.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There is nothing that will beat getting out and getting behind the camera and learning how to use it well. If you plan on making photography a serious hobby or more, you will need to learn how to use manual mode for those times when the automatic or program mode settings just won’t cut it, or for when you want to create an effect that you just can’t get any other way.

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