Shooting In Manual Mode

I have seen a lot of people post and say that they shoot on some sort of priority mode, if not total automatic mode because they don’t know how to shoot in manual. Basically they are letting the camera control them instead of them controlling the camera. I have to admit that I shoot in APERTURE mode most times because the way I shoot I am usually just concerned with DOF (Depth of Field) in my images. But that is usually when I am shooting in the daylight in between the golden hours and I don’t have to worry about the light playing havoc with my cameras meter.

So what happens when the light gets low or you are shooting in a tough lighting situation? Yes, you could just bracket series, after series of shots and hope that you get a useable image. But that wears out your cameras shutter faster (Yes all cameras have a shutter life expectancy before they need to go to the Camera Doctor and get fixed) and you also spend wasted time shooting un-necessary images which will run your battery down too because you know you are going to look at each shot on your LCD screen.  Or you could switch over to manual and nail the shots.

Shooting in manual mode requires that you understand how to read the scene and meter correctly. I will delve into that in another post. But the two go together and you need to understand how a camera works first before you can know how to set it when you read a scene which is why I am posting this first.

So how does a camera work? A camera is a tool that just controls the light that strikes the cameras sensor (or film) and records it to the memory card. Light, that is the key to photography. Understanding how to see and control that light is the key to successfully making great images. And how do you do that in manual mode? It is easy.

There are 3 settings you have to control the amount of light that hits the cameras sensor. They are the ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture or the f/stop. They all work together to allow you to control the light.

Let’s start with the ISO. What does ISO mean? Back in the days of film ISO was an acronym for ‘International Organization for Standardization’. It was the standard used to measure how sensitive the film speed was. Today the term is still used to measure how sensitive the cameras sensor is to the light. Most cameras ISO speeds range from 200 to 6400 iso, with a few now going up past the 100,000 ISO range. When you have it set to ISO 200 (or the lowest you can go on your camera) that is the least sensitive setting to light you have. But it is the best for controlling digital noise. Digital noise basically put is the amount of color “grain” you see in the dark areas of images. Also the lower the ISO the better details you will have within your images. When you raise the ISO you raise the sensors sensitivity to light and increase the digital noise and in turn have less fine image detail.

If you are shooting in daylight most likely you can keep your ISO set in the 200-400 ISO range all day long and get wonderful sharp images with excellent detail. That is why I always consider my ISO setting first when I am shooting because I want my images to be of low noise and as sharp as possible with as much detail as I can have.

Now let’s understand the Aperture or f/stop. Basically all the aperture does is control how much light comes through the lens by moving a series of blades inside of the lens. It acts like your pupil by opening and closing the opening. But it does one very important thing while allowing how much light comes through the lens and that is it controls the DOF (Depth of Field). The DOF is what can either give you a sharp image form foreground to background or it can isolate the subject of the image and give you smooth defocused areas in images which is commonly referred to as Bokeh. I will explain more on this shortly.

The f/stops can range anywhere from f/1.4 through f/22 or more. Now the biggest confusion when it comes to understanding the f/stop is how the numbers work. They are backwards from the way you normally would think. The smaller numbers are actually the widest openings. Huh? There is a mathematical formula which I won’t go into because I am about KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) which explains this. I don’t worry much about the mathematical side of things. I just worry about how they work to help me make images.

So the smaller numbers (i.e. 1.4, 2.8) are actually the wider openings of the blades and allow the most light to pass into the camera. The larger numbers (i.e. 11, 22) are the smallest opening for the blades. If someone says they “Opened their lens up all the way” they mean that they put their f/stop at the smallest number they have to allow as much light in as they can. And if they say “I stomped it down” they mean they closed the blades or went to the higher numbers. After you shoot in manual a bit this becomes second nature to you, trust me on this.

Now there is one more very important thing to understand about the aperture numbers, they double in size to equal one stop. Now read that again…”One Stop”, let me explain. The basic f/stop scale goes like this, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. Those numbers are one stop away from each other or doubled sized down. On your cameras you can control the opening (f/stops) by 1/3 of stops or with some cameras ½ stops too. Those numbers can look like this, f/1.4, f/1.6,f/1.8, f/2, f2.2, f/2.5, f/2.8..ect. Those are 1/3 stop examples. This is important to remember because it is the language we use to communicate not only with each other but our cameras as well. Here is an example. If you were to ask me about metering a scene and I said to you that you “Needed 1 stop less light” to control the highlights what does that mean? Yes, you would move your dial 3 clicks (if your camera is set up for 1/3 stops, or 2 clicks if it is ½ stop) to go from f/2.8 to f/4 for example. We are now both talking the same language and completely understand one another.

Now how does that correlate to creating DOF or Bokeh? That is easy if you think like the pupil of your eye. The wider the opening is (i.e. f/2.8) the shallower the DOF is. And the smaller the opening is (i.e. f/22) the greater the DOF will be. I use the eye as an example because really that is what a camera is like, your eye. If you squint you are usually are trying to see something far away, or increasing your DOF.

Now for the last piece of the puzzle, the Shutter Speed. The shutter speed is just that, how fast the shutter opens and closes. A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) has a mirror that raises and lowers to allow the full amount of light to enter so the shutter curtain (or curtains) can move across the sensor. So the faster the shutter speed is the faster the shutter curtain will move across the sensor and vice versa. So if you want sharp handheld images you would use a faster shutter speed. If you’d want to create movement or flow in your images you would use a slower speed.

And here the numbers make more sense. They refer to speed per second so you can easily relate the shutter speeds to time. For example, 1/30 = 1/30th of a second. The smaller fractions are the faster times. These numbers too are figured by doubling the numbers for one stop exposures. An example is 1, ½, ¼, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/120..ect.  And like the aperture settings you can adjust these settings by 1/3 of a stop too. 

Now how do you put these settings together to get a correctly exposed image? On my Nikons the meter is on the right side when I look through the viewfinder. Some cameras have it at the bottom. Either way they all do the same thing; they tell you whether or not you have a correct exposure. They are easy to read. They all have a zero point, and then depending on the manufacturer, either the left or right, top or bottom represents the settings are going to give you a bright (overexposed) image or a dark (underexposed) image. And by moving one of the three settings will bring that meter into the correct exposure range.

When I was learning metering the easiest way to think of metering and the camera settings was to think of them working together like a bubble level. On a bubble level you want to keep the bubble within the lines which would mean that you are holding it level or “Correctly Exposed”. Now think of that bubble itself as being one part of your 3 settings. Because I always think of ISO first I will put the ISO in place of the bubble. That will be the one setting I don’t change or will change last to get the correct exposure. So I set my ISO to whatever setting I choose. And now with the ISO set there are just two settings left to adjust.

So on one end of the level you have the aperture and on the other you have the shutter speed and if you move one side it affects the other and moves that bubble. This is making some sense now isn’t it? So now you have to decide which setting you want to set next. Is the subject stationary or a portrait? If so I would choose setting the aperture, because most likely you will be more concerned with DOF than anything. If the subject is sports or people/animals moving then you most likely would be setting the Shutter speed so you can freeze the action.

Once you set whichever setting you chose for the second that leaves just one to set last to get the exposure correct. And that last setting most likely will be the first you adjust to keep the camera set for correct exposure.

Here is an example; I am shooting landscapes outside on a partially cloudy day (without a tripod because I do not like tripods.). I first set my ISO at 200 because I want as fine an image as I can get with little noise and fine subject details. And because I am shooting landscapes I am thinking DOF because I like a lot of the scene to be in focus in my landscapes so I set the f/stop at f/11. That leaves me just one setting to change to get the image exposed properly, the shutter speed. Now if it is sunny I may have a 1/800 of a shutter speed for proper exposure. But if a cloud moves in front of the sun and the light dims I will adjust my shutter speed to allow for more light. So I will slow it down to maybe 1/400 to maintain the correct exposure.

Now let’s say the sun is now setting and I am losing light, and I’ve slowed the shutter speed down to as low as I can go to handhold it and not get camera shake what is the next setting I will adjust? Yes, the aperture. Remember, I said the ISO is the last thing I will want to adjust. So now I open my lens, remember “opening” means that I used the lowest number, and now I am able to get the settings in the ‘correct exposure’. I shoot a few more shots, but the sun is getting lower in the sky and now my f/stop is at its widest, what do I do?  Yes, now I adjust the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive to the light. After I adjust the ISO I check the meter and decide if I need to make any further changes to the settings to get the correct exposure.

Now that was just an example of the way I would make adjustments. And each situation dictates in which order you will change your camera settings.

As I said, you can replace the “Bubble” with any of the three settings. For me that “bubble” setting is the last thing I will change to get or keep the correct exposure because it is usually the most important thing I am thinking about for what subject it is that I am shooting. This is also the way your camera thinks when you use a program mode.

What is the first setting you usually set when you go out and shoot for the day or you just leave set on your camera at all times? It is the ISO right? And most times you don’t even think about changing that setting unless the light gets so low that you have to. Now you are out shooting and you throw your camera in a priority mode, and let’s say it is shutter priority. The only setting your camera is going to adjust is the f/stops. So you see you can do the same thing by shooting manual, but with more accuracy.

Why do I say more accuracy? Because built in camera meters are stupid. They are set to meter every scene to 50% neutral grey. Neutral grey is the baseline for an optimal exposure. The problem is not every scene is a 50% neutral scene. And most all built in meters meter off due to how they are made.

I have a Nikon D3S which is a professional camera and it meters outdoor scenes at up to 2/3 of a stop overexposure. That means it overexposes the images and gives me bright images without good blacks and sometimes blown out highlights. Because I know this I leave my camera’s exposure compensation set at minimum -0.3 to -0.7 depending on the light. A quick explanation of the exposure compensation button is that it lets you control how bright or dark you want the meter to read. I will go into more depth of this feature in a later post.

So there it is the basic understanding of the cameras 3 settings that will allow you to shoot in manual mode and for you to control your images instead of your camera doing so.


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