So you’ve finally purchased a fancy new DSLR camera—you’ve seen a noticeable improvement in the quality of your images but you’re blown away by the content some people are able to produce with the same hardware on sites like Flickr. What are they doing different? If you’re like most beginners you probably shoot using auto or standard icon modes, but in order to truly get the most out of your camera, you’re going to want to learn how to shoot in manual mode.
Why Shoot in Manual Mode?
Two words: total control. There are no real surprises once you’ve truly mastered manual mode, as you’ll have full control of the three major points of the exposure triangle aperture, shutter speed and ISO. We’ll go into detail on each of these points later in this article, but for now here’s a brief list of the situations where knowing manual mode is a big plus:
- Bokeh – Those artistic photos with blurred backgrounds filled with circles of light.
- To avoid unexpected flash when shooting in low light conditions.
- Incorporating motion blur for artistic reasons.
- Anything that requires a creative angle, focal point or shot.
While you have total control over your images, it does take longer to prepare a shot with manual mode, as you have to specify each setting. The best photographers know when and where to rely on autofocus, pre-programmed settings, or preset modes. As a general rule, if you have time to take the shot, shoot in manual, if you have a need for speed, another mode may have the settings you need ready at the press of a button.
How to Shoot in Manual Mode
Now let’s return to the exposure triangle—aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The general process of shooting in manual mode might look something like this:
- Check the exposure of your shot with the light meter visible through your viewfinder.
- Pick an aperture.
- Adjust the shutter speed.
- Pick an ISO setting.
- If the light meter “ticker” is lined up with 0 you have a “properly” exposed picture.
- Take the Shot.
You’ve probably noticed the little number line at the bottom of your field of view when you look through the viewfinder that looks something like this: -2…1…0…1…2+ (Canon) or +2…1…0…1…2- (Nikon). This is the light meter, and when aligned with 0 you know that your photo will come out properly exposed. Of course if you are going for a certain effect, it may be necessary to be a little over or under exposed and you can use the light meter to help you achieve the desired effect.
The aperture is the hole at the center of your camera’s shutter or iris. If you’re aiming for professional blurred background or the artistic Bokeh, it helps to set your aperture (also known as f-stop) and can basically be thought of as a means of adjusting the amount of your picture that is in focus. The lower the f number, the more light reaches your sensor, and the more of your background is blurred. The higher the f number, the greater the field of focus and the more of your picture will be in focus. In other words, low f-number gives more light with a blurrier background; high f-number gives less light and a sharper background.
Your shutter speed can be thought of as the amount of time your camera’s shutter is open allowing light to hit your camera’s light sensor. Typically denoted as a fraction of a second (e.g. 1/125), your shutter speed will have an effect on the sharpness of your subject. Lower shutter speeds let in more light, but make your image susceptible to blur and requires a steady hand or tripod. Faster shutter speeds let in less light, but can give you a sharper subject and an image less susceptible to unsteady hands.
ISO can be thought of as your camera’s sensitivity to light, with typical ranges on DSLR’s today being 200-1600. The lower the ISO number, the more light is required to get a good exposure on your photographs and the less noise you will see in your resulting images. Higher ISO numbers allow you to shoot better quality photos in lower light conditions, but the more noise you may see in the background of your images. DSLR’s can producer better quality images at higher ISOs because of the larger size of the pixels in their image sensors. They also often feature noise reduction to further assist in maintaining quality at higher ISO numbers. As a general guideline, shooting outside under the sun, ISO 100-200 is a safe bet, but if you’re shooting indoors under low lighting you want to be in the ISO 800-1600 range.
The Best Way to Learn—Just Do It!
When you’re starting out, developing an intuitive understanding of how the different points of the exposure triangle play off one another may seem overwhelming at first, but shooting in manual gets easier over time. Since you have to consciously select your settings, you’ll develop a feel for how much exposure you need and what combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed is required to achieve a desired effect. Go wild, get creative and practice shooting in manual mode—you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll improve once you master the exposure triangle.