“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” Ernst Haas
Do you ever ask yourself why the images you capture are not like the ones you see in your mind’s eye?
Do you ever wonder why your photos don’t look as good as a professional’s? What makes theirs look so great?
The answer is – probably because you are shooting in Auto!
5 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 100
Get more creative with Manual Mode
A professional takes full creative control over every aspect of the photo and makes creative choices in the image creation process. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the base. If you don’t control these then you will be unable to create the best possible image.
Digital cameras nowadays make exposure so easy. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to shoot on manual. But there is – it’s creativity. Specifically, creative exposures.
1/200th, f/2.2, ISO 500
Take control of the process
If you want awesome photos, then shooting with control is the most important part of the creative journey with photography. With Manual Mode, you get full control. Total creativity.
I know a lot of people feel intimidated trying Manual, but I have taught hundreds of people to feel comfortable and confident with it so I know it’s totally possible for anyone to learn.
Even if you aren’t tech-minded, you can do this! All you need is the basic understanding of the process – and practice.
30 seconds, f/10, ISO 200
The camera cannot (at least at the moment) make creative choices in the way that you can. You’ll often end up with un-dynamic exposures when the camera chooses for you.
How many well-exposed photos do you see on Facebook? The majority are shot using some Automatic Mode or another. They are all the same base density. Sure, they are properly exposed, but that base exposure is just the beginning when shooting with intent.
All those exposures start from the same base, zero. Many photographers just leave it there because it looks good, it looks “correct”. That is Auto.
1.6 seconds, f/10, ISO 50
Exposure is part of photographic artistry. Don’t pass on it just because your photos look good….they can be so much better!
Here is the simple method I use to explain the process of shooting in Manual Mode.
The Exposure Triangle
Shooting in Manual Mode means controlling three fundamental settings in photography:
- Shutter Speed
Together they are collectively known as “The Exposure Triangle”.
13 seconds, f/9, ISO 250
What do these three controls do?
- ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. Think of it this way – do you want the sensor to absorb light quickly, sacrificing detail and contrast (high ISO), or do you want to let the light in slowly absorbing every color, capturing every juicy detail (low ISO)?
- Aperture controls the INTENSITY of the light flowing onto the sensor. Think of coming out of a Saturday afternoon matinee and how intense the light is after being in the dark for a few hours. You’re practically blinded for a moment (until your pupils adjust to the light and become smaller – the aperture opens and closes much the same way). That’s intensity!
- Shutter Speed (SS) is a time value – in other words, how long is the exposure. The time is combined with the intensity of the light from your Aperture setting. Shutter speed is represented as 1/250th of a second, for example.
These three settings are all you need to know about making a manual exposure. That’s it. Now let talk about how to approach it.
1/30th, f/2.2, ISO 3200
Think ISO first
When making a manual exposure ISO should always be your first consideration!
There are two questions you have to ask yourself before you start making exposures.
- How much light is on the subject?
This is essentially a technical decision. (ISO)
- How can I make my subject look its best?
This is essentially a creative decision. (Shutter speed and Aperture combination)
The answers to these questions are the key to the whole process. Once you have the answers, you can set your exposure.
1/125, f/13, ISO 400
This is how I shoot in Manual Mode, explained in three easy steps.
Step #1 – How much light is on the subject?
Do I have:
- Full daylight
- A gloomy interior
- A heavily shaded area between buildings
- And so on…
2 seconds, f/10, ISO 320
First off, I’ll set my ISO accordingly. I usually go for the lowest ISO I can get away with shooting handheld. If I have a tripod I’ll go even lower. You can go almost a whole day without needing to change your ISO much.
It’s the easiest thing to set and forget. But if you need to move it you can. This is not a big deal on modern cameras where image quality is amazing at almost any ISO.
Set your ISO and don’t think about it unless the light level changes a lot – like you go indoors, the sun sets, or you walk into a heavily shaded area, etc. You get the point.
Look at the light! Photography is a study of light, after all, so your first step is to learn to really see it, to observe what it is doing, its strength and quality. When you have a deep familiarity with light from willfully observing it, you grow to know it.
Being aware of light levels makes shooting in manual much easier. When you are out, be tuned in to the light.
Step #2 – I ask myself “What is my priority?”
How do I decide what is the priority for my shot?
10 seconds, f/11, ISO 50
It all comes down to what I’m shooting – prioritizing shutter speed or aperture to whatever I think will make my subject look its best.
- Am I shooting landscapes and want a wide depth of field? (select a small aperture like f/16).
- Am I shooting portraits and so want a shallow depth of field? (aperture again, this time a wide setting like f/2.8).
- Perhaps I am shooting sports or action, and want pin-sharp images of fast-moving subjects? (shutter speed this time – choose a fast one to freeze the subject like 1/2000th).
I’ll make my choice of shutter speed or aperture as my top priority. Now I have two points of the exposure triangle set. For the last setting, I adjust the exposure on the light meter scale.
1/15th, f/4.5, ISO 12,800
Step #3 – Adjusting the exposure
Now is the time to look at the camera meter.
Use the light meter scale – get the marker near the center or thereabouts with the one remaining dial (in other words if you chose the aperture in step #2, the last one being set here is the shutter speed). On this -2 to +2 scale, where you place the exposure matters a lot! This is the essence of creative exposures. It dictates the mood of the photograph.
Being in the centre or “0” position is rarely the right exposure for me.
Light Meter Scale
Remember, each point of the exposure triangle is NOT fixed. Each click or interval (usually in 1/3 increments) are equal, so 2 (+) clicks of ISO is equal to 2 (-) clicks of aperture or shutter speed. These are called reciprocating exposures and they are the key to shooting creatively.
So, if you find yourself in a situation where you would like a little faster shutter speed, then do it. But compensate with an equal but opposite amount of another setting. What choice you make at this point is completely creative, not technical.
3.2 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 100
TIP # 3
Let’s say you are shooting a landscape with a good foreground, a large tree perhaps, You set your aperture to f/16 for good depth of field (priority), ISO is at 100 and you have a shutter speed of 1/60th. This is a classic landscape exposure – with a lot of Depth of Field.
For an alternative image of the same scene, you could think of the tree as a portrait photo and open up the aperture to f/4 (+4 stops) and adjust the shutter speed to 1/1000th (-4 stops) keeping the ISO at 100 and the exposure the same.
You would lose most of the Depth of Field, but gain a nice bokeh making the tree isolated, like a good portrait. Now you’ve created a different feel to a classic landscape using a reciprocating exposure. But wait, there is still more you can do!
2.5 seconds @ f/4.0 ISO 100
Now, how about underexposing this scene by 1-1.5 stops to create a more low-key moody image. If the tree was in bright sun and the background shaded, I would instinctively underexpose to emphasize that contrast.
Putting it all into practice
You will miss a few exposures now and then. Everyone does, but don’t let it discourage you. I think a big part of the fear of shooting in Manual Mode is the, “I will miss the shot”echoing in people’s heads. Like I say, it happens to everyone.
Losing a few shots is still worth the wealth of knowledge and creativity you get from sticking with it and totally controlling your photography. Those missed shots will appear less and less as you improve, and your new found skill shooting in manual will reflect in your photos.
2 seconds @ f/5.0 ISO 50
I recommend you shoot at least 1,000 images in your practice. If you really focus, you could nail Manual Mode over a weekend. There is no substitute for practice.
Slow down and have fun! It will be worth every bad shot you take.
Study your images in post-production
Once you have taken your images, it is a really good idea to study your images in post-processing. All of the information about exposure is stored in the metadata which you access in a program like Lightroom (you can filter and sort your images by ISO, Aperture, etc.).
1/30th, f/8, ISO 50
A few more final words – and action steps!
Did you know that two of the best ways to fully learn something is to:
- Practice it
- Explain it or teach it to someone else
By practicing it over and over you are teaching it into your body, almost like muscle memory. You do it so many times you’ll end up with it being automatic like it is for me (and those with years of experience who make it look effortless).
1/400th @ f/4.0 ISO 200
By explaining it, preferably a few times, to someone else, your brain starts to build new neural networks (which happens anytime you learn anything). So if you want to remember anything, you need to keep the neural networks alive, and by repeating it, explaining it, and practicing it over and over you’ll make that a solid memory in your brain.
So the short term work of repetition leads to remembering it long term. How cool is that?
I really, really hope this has helped you “get” Manual Mode. I love the creative possibilities of photography, and it makes all the difference when you feel comfortable with your tools. I would love to know if this has helped you – and if you’ll take the leap to practice shooting in manual.