take control – shoot in MANUAL

by Mary Jane

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There is something magical about having control. And we all want it, don’t we? We all crave to have control over our future, our family, our appetites, our finances, etc., etc.? And while some things we seem to loose control over again and again – there is one thing that I can guarantee you control in – with time and practice, practice, practice…

If you want to take good photos and do it consistently – you have to take control. You can’t leave it up to the camera. While they are getting quite saavy and smart, they are still machines. They are still extremely limited – they can’t think or feel or understand your vision.

Put your camera in MANUAL. It will change the way you take photos. It will challenge you and frustrate you and in the end, make you learn. At some point, you’ll look back and wonder why it took you so long.

Let me help you see the light at the end of the photography tunnel. Here is a simple list of things you need to know to put that camera in the M mode and do it confidently.

The Three Things You Have to Know to Shoot in Manual are:

1. What is ISO?
2. What is an F-Stop?
3. What is Shutter Speed?

I’m going to delve into each of these in a very quick, simple fashion – but please watch my video series for more info. I’ll also be writing more in-depth articles on each of these concepts in the future – so keep checking back or subscribe to my RSS feed – HERE.

When you push the shutter on your camera – the shutter opens and exposes the camera sensor to light. The light recorded on the sensor is what creates the photo that you will ultimately see. But the questions is – how WIDE will the shutter open and what is the DURATION that it will be open?

A correct exposure takes into account all three of the concepts I listed above – ISO, F-Stop and Shutter Speed. It’s a love triangle in a sense – they all need each other and must work together to obtain a correct exposure. There is an infinite number of different combinations of ISO, f-stop and shutter speed to get a good exposure. So, there is essentially no one right exposure (which can be frustrating but also liberating!).

Here are a few example of photos I took that have a good exposure – but the combination of ISO, shutter speed and f-stop are all different.

ISO – ISO is kind of like a digital film speed. It’s a very general adjustment and it’s the first one that I do when I’m figuring out my exposure. Once you get the ISO dialed in, then you can fine-tune it with the f-stop and shutter speed – depending on the look and situation that you’re shooting.

The brighter light you’re going to be in, then the lower your ISO will be. A very low ISO like say 100 or 200 would be perfect for shooting in bright sunlight, then more of a mid range ISO like 400 might be perfect for shooting in open shade or magic hour (hour before sun goes down) and a higher ISO like 800 or higher you would use when shooting in window light or anywhere inside.

F-Stop – The f-stop corresponds to the actual size of the shutter opening. One way to think of it is like the pupil in our eye. The brighter the light, the smaller our pupils become and the dimmer the light, the larger they become. This is exactly how f-stops work. The wider the shutter opens, the more light is let in. So dimmer light situations often call for wider f-stops. Bright light situations, often require a smaller f-stop or a smaller opening in the lens to get a correct exposure.

In a perfect world or at least in one that makes sense, the wider the opening of the shutter, the bigger the number – right?!?!? But in actuality, as the shutter opens wider and wider, the corresponding f-stop number gets smaller and smaller. So at least for me, it’s the opposite of what you would think. ANNOYING! But, the more you practice the more it will make sense, I promise. So a really, really wide shutter opening might be f2.8 and really, really small shutter opening might be f22. I could get into the hows and whys of numbering – but let’s just leave it at this – the wider the opening of the shutter, the smaller the f-stop number will be and vice versa.

Shutter Speed – Shutter speed is the actual duration that the shutter is open. The longer the shutter is open, the more light can be let in and the shorter the duration, the less light will be let in. The shutter speeds you will be using will be fractions of a second, like 1/250 (1/250th of second) or 1/1600 (1/1600th of a second). These are almost too fast to even comprehend – but they allow us to freeze and capture action.

When shooting anything living and braething, I usually don’t like to shoot much slower than 1/200th of a second. If your shutter speed is too slow, like under 1/125th of second, often times you won’t be able to freeze the movements of your subject and/or you won’t be able to hold the camera still long enough to get a crisp photo. This results in blurry photos, which is yucky.

Once you have a slight understanding of these three things – you can begin to play with the exposure triangle and see how it all works. If you’re shooting in manual for the first time – start by setting your ISO. What kind of light are you shooting in? How bright is it? Then pick a mid-range f-stop and a mid range shutter speed and see where your exposure is falling. Look on the back of your camera – is it too dark, is it too light?

Now, just start adjusting things – play with it – go on girl, get crazy! Change the f-stop, take a picture. Change the shutter speed, take a picture. Keep playing with the ying/yang of your f-stop and shutter speed until you get something on the back of your camera that you like. It really is fun to see how it all works! And this is just the beginning! There is so much more to learn about f-stops and shutter speeds, but let’s just get you started.

The first thing about shooting in manual is letting go! Make mistakes, make lots of them. You’re going to take some dark photos, you’re going to take some light photos, but each one will get you closer and closer to understanding how your camera works. It really is a fun process. I hope you start it soon!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bets March 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Thank you for this article! I have a DSLR and have been shooting in an automatic mode and feeling pretty good about it, but now I think I am ready to try Manual! Thank you for your simple explanations and encouraging remarks! Here goes nothing!

Andrea Gibson April 8, 2013 at 3:20 am

Thank you. You do a great job of explaining things clearly. I am a first time photographer and just got a DSLR camera. I needed some pointers to get started and you have been very helpful.
Thanks again,

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