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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

Yes Please

Using manual mode in photography is like driving a car. If you use an automatic shift, you can’t drive a manual car. If you learn how to drive stick, then you can do both.

Photography beginners use the same cameras as professionals. But your photos don’t come out like theirs.

That’s where manual mode comes in.

Here’s how to use manual mode.

A stunning coastal cityscape taken using manual mode camera settings

Why Shoot in Manual Mode

Manual mode gives you total control. It is tempting to let the camera control all of the settings. Not only do you not learn anything, the camera will capture using settings it feels is right, not what you want.

When we talk about settings, we are looking at the exposure triangle. We will look at this in greater depth later on in the article. The triangle consists of the three camera settings.

These directly influence how much light comes from your scene. They also add special techniques, such as differential focus and subject freezing.

If you wanted to capture Bokeh, then you need to know about differential focus and a wide aperture. To capture motion blur, you need to know how to use a long or slow shutter speed.

The triangle basically works out the correct light for any given scene, using ISO, aperture and shutter speed. It won’t be able to tell that you want to capture motion blur, so it will set your camera for any number of random settings.

Seasoned and professional photographs know when to rely on specific shooting modes such as Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority. These allow them to focus on one particular setting, letting the camera change the others.

Manual mode lets you harness the power of the camera, allowing you to change the settings as the scenes and subjects change.

It is a learning curve, but we all had to do it. And if I can do it, then a trained monkey will have no problem.

A flat lay of different camera parts

How to Shoot in Manual Mode

Shooting in manual mode requires you to set your camera to the ‘M’ on your camera dial. Now, you are in charge of everything, and no setting will change without your say-so.

Here, one of the typical processes needed for capturing your scene may look like this:

First, raise your camera up and look through the viewfinder. Half-press the capture button down to give you a light reading from the in-camera. The aim is to get the light meter ‘ticker’ lined up with the ‘0’ in the middle.

Pick an ISO setting. If you are outside on a sunny day, then you can use ISO 100. If you are inside, then you may need to use 1600 or even higher. Next, choose an aperture based on what you want to capture. If it is a portrait, then go for f/5.6 as a good base.

Choose a shutter speed. I say this as if you have much choice, but in reality, if you aren’t using a tripod, you need to have a shutter speed above your lens size.

For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, then your shutter speed can’t drop below 1/60th of a second, as you will pick up camera shake.

Choose 1/250th of a second for a good base. Lastly, you need to change your aperture. This is one of the last things we change as we are constrained by the ISO (for quality) and shutter speed (for eliminating camera shake).

This needs to be increased or decreased according to the light metre recording on your camera’s inbuilt light metre. If you follow the Sunny-16 Rule, your aperture should be around f/8.

If your light reading is correct, take the shot.

A beautiful evening shot of hot air balloons flying over a city silhouette shot in manual mode

Light Metre

When you look through the viewfinder, you’ll see a line of numbers at the bottom. They will look something like these: 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.

This is only if you are going for that specific effect. Let’s say that you are correctly exposing on part of a building where the sun hits. The shaded part has some detail, but you want none.

The sunny part of the building is still well lit if you bring the exposure down. This is what you do to make the shadows (and the entire image) darker.

The light metre is a great guide, but you can use it as you wish.

A camera resting on a wooden surface - manual camera settings

Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle helps us understand more about light. In photography, it is all mathematical behind the scenes. Haven’t you ever wondered why the numbers seem strange, and increment in an even stranger way?

Apertures rise from f/1.4 to f/2.8 and go all the way to f/22. Shutter speeds could be 1/125, or 1/250 and all the way to 1/4000 (if you’re lucky). Same goes for the ISO where it jumps from 100 to 200 and keeps going to 3200.

 

 

The exposure triangle - iso shutter speed aperture

ISO

ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light, with a typical range of 100-1600. Some cameras can go as low as 50 or 64, and reach as high as 12,600, but these are found in very expensive camera bodies.

Basically, the lower the ISO number, the less light is hitting your sensor.

More light is needed at the lower ranges to get a good exposure, meaning more light for the higher ranges. The lower the number, the better the resolution and quality of your resulting images.

Higher ISO numbers allow you to photograph in low light conditions, yet these settings bring more grain.

DSLR cameras can cope well with high ISO numbers as their sensors, processors and large pixel sizes are able to cope with the digital noise. However, as a rule, use an ISO with a value as low as possible.

For shotting in a suny day, ISO’s 100-200 are perfect. If you head indoors, you may find that you will need to use ISO’s 800-1600.

a roliflex camera and photography books resting on a table - manual camera settings

Aperture

The aperture is the hole inside your lens, which acts as the ‘iris’ similar to your eyes. A wide or low-number aperture, such as f.2/8 will have a very small focal length.

This means that wherever you place your focus, only a small part of the subject will appear clear.

A narrow aperture, such as f/16 will place the entire scene in focus, as it has a large focal area. Landscape photographers are more likely to use a narrow aperture if they want to show the foreground and background as clear and sharp.

The lower the f-stop, the more light is allowed to enter your lens, and therefore, hitting your sensor. To keep my ISO value down, to retain quality, I shoot live musicians with a wide aperture. This gives me more usable light.

A high f-stop number gives me less light to play with, which tends to mean that a longer exposure is needed. To create images with a bokeh background, you would use a wide aperture.

A close up of changing manual mode settings on a camera

Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed can be thought of as the amount of time your camera’s shutter stays open. The longer it stays open, the more light enters your scene and therefore your image.

These numbers are shown in fractions of a second, where 1/250 of a second is a typical value.

Your shutter speed has an effect on the sharpness of your subject. Slower shutter speeds let in more light, but also allow more blur from your subjects, especially if moving.

A faster shutter speed lets in less light, but gives you a sharper image as the subject is ‘frozen’.

Without a tripod, I wouldn’t recommend a setting below 1/100th of a second, unless you are taking advantage of a creative motion blur.

A cyclist riding down a roadway with blurry background behind - using camera manual mode

Combining The Settings

Well, the numbers do have a pattern and they are chosen so. Look at aperture for example, and see if you can spot it. A typical range would be f/1.4, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/16 and f/22. The numbers almost double every time.

For the ones that don’t (f/4 and f/22), they are usually the previous two numbers added together (or thereabouts).

The same goes for ISO, where the numbers double each time. 100 goes to 200, then 400, 800, 1600 and finally 3200. Shutter speed follows suit with 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000.

Each of these numbers is one stop. They either add or subtract one stop’s worth of light from your image. The reason we show them in a triangle is that they all work together.

For example, you have a correct lighting scene at ISO 100, shutter speed at 1/125 and an aperture of f/16. But what happens when the sun disappears behind a cloud?

The scene just got two stops darker.

This means you need to add two more stops of light into your settings for a correct exposure.

You could add it using ISO, changing it from 100 to 400 (100 -> 200 -> 400). Here, you compromise the resolution and quality of your image. A higher ISO brings grain and digital noise.

Your shutter speed could change two stops from 1/125 to 1/30 (1/125 -> 1/60 -> 1/30). In doing this,  you will have a high level of camera shake in your image. we can’t change them without compromising the image.

In this case, we would change the aperture from f/16 to f/8 (f/16 -> f/11 -> f/8).

Atmospheric shot of a fairground ride at night - manual mode settings for better photography

There we have it. Everything you need to know about manual mode, and how to take your first photographs using it.

Basically, you are aiming to get a correct exposure from your scene, and you camera gives you three settings in doing so.

These three settings also let you capture the scene in a number of different ways. It just take a little getting used to, but you will be shooting in manual mode in no time.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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