So you’ve bought a DSLR, and you expected instantly fabulous photos. Instead, you’re finding some are good, but most still suffer from the same problems you had with your old compact camera. I’ve been where you are… you’ve realised you need to get that baby out of auto mode, amiright?!
Yep you’re right, it’s not you, it’s the camera… phew! You need to show it who’s boss, and luckily, I can show you how!
Regardless of how expensive or fancy your camera is, when used in auto, it’s not going to take any better shots than a decent compact camera.
When the light is good, without too many variations between light and shadow, your camera will do an ok job. The rest of the time will be a hit and miss affair.
When you shoot in manual mode, you take control of the settings that create your photos. Firstly this means you can deliberately take photos that are properly exposed and have no unwanted blur. Secondly, it gives you the power to reproduce your creative vision (for example that beautifully blurry background you see in professional photos).
Related: Why Shoot in Manual Mode
There are two key things you want to control when taking photos.
This is quite simply how light or dark your photo is. Above all, the ability to control how much light you capture to ensure your photos looks just the way you invisaged is the number one reason for switching out of auto mode.
The second most important reason for switching to manual mode is the ability to control the creative look. For example, you might want to create a blurry background or eliminate unwanted motion blur.
So how do we ensure a well exposed image, and reproduce our artistic vision in manual mode?
The answer lies in understanding the exposure triangle.
There are three elements (or settings) that allow light to hit the camera’s sensor:
Collectively, they’re referred to as “the exposure triangle”.
Each element captures light in a different way, and each one has a different creative effect on the photo.
When we shoot in manual mode, we choose the settings of each of those three elements, to create a balance that results in our desired exposure and our artistic vision.
So we need to examine the exposure triangle and gain an understanding of how each element captures light, and what effect that has on the photo. Only then can we make decisions on our settings for the purpose of avoiding problems such as images that are too dark, too light, out of focus, etc.
The concept of the exposure triangle offers a visual way to remember that an exposure that looks great will require that we balance all three elements.
What is it? Shutter speed is the length of time the shutter remains open after you press the shutter release. The longer it remains open, the more light gets to the sensor.
How is it measured? Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. Eg. 1/100 = one hundredth of one second; 1/10 = one tenth of one second. A shutter speed of 1/100 is faster than a shutter speed of 1/10.
How does it affect the photo? Shutter speed captures or freezes motion. The longer the shutter is open, the more motion it captures (resulting in blur). A faster shutter speed will freeze motion.
What is it? Aperture is the size of the opening of the lens when you press the shutter release. The bigger it opens, the more light it lets in. The smaller the opening, the less light.
How is it measured? Aperture is measured in f-stops, a value that comes from a complicated mathematical equation based on the diameter of the lens opening. But we don’t need to go that far into it!
Depending on the lens, f stops can range from f/1.2 to f/22. f/1.2 has a very large opening, and lets in lots of light. f/22 has a very small opening and lets in less light. A low numbered aperture (eg f/2.8) is referred to as a wide or large aperture. A high numbered aperture (eg f/16) is referred to as a small aperture.
How does it affect the photo? Aperture controls the depth of field, which is how much is in focus in front of and behind your focus point. A wide aperture, say f/2.8, will have much less area in focus than a small aperture of say f/16.
What’s more, the dof is also affected by the lens length, and the distance of subject to lens.
Confused? This should help:
Low number = big opening = more light = less depth of field (blurry background)
High number = small opening = less light = more depth of field (all sharp from front to back)
To put that into a real world situation, you would use wide apertures if you wanted a sliver of focus on your subject and a nicely blurred background, such as a portrait.
You would use a small aperture if you wanted most of the scene in focus, such as a landscape photo.
What is it? ISO is a measure of the sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO value we set on our camera when we take a shot, the more the sensor can make of the light.
How is it measured? Most cameras start at ISO 100, increasing from there incrementally by one third:
100 125 160 200 250 320 400 500 640 800 and so on
Each increment increases the sensitivity of the sensor to the light by one third more than the previous setting. This means that your sensor will be twice as sensitive to the light at ISO 200 as it is at ISO 100.
How does it affect the photo? As you push your ISO higher and higher, more and more grain becomes evident in the shot, and at very high ISO settings you might also begin to notice a loss of sharpness. BUT pushing your ISO lets you capture images in lower light situations!
So this is where you need to choose a setting for each of the three elements that balance together and create an exposure and gives you the creative effect you’re envisioning. How do you do that?
Before we talk about how to choose your settings, I need to mention the EV Meter.
The EV Meter is an indicator of how much light is hitting the camera’s sensor (see image).
Very generally speaking, if the EV meter needle is sitting in the centre when you hold your camera up to a scene, it’s telling you it will be perfectly exposed.
It’s telling you it’s going to be overexposed (too bright) if it’s sitting to the right of centre.
Lastly, it’s telling you it’s going to be underexposed (too dark) if it’s sitting to the left of centre.
If the ambient light or tones are overly bright or dark, the camera can be tricked. Also, the camera’s idea of perfect exposure might not match your vision. However this is a great starting point for choosing your settings for that first test shot, and they might just require a little tweak.
Related: What is Metering?
Start by deciding what effect you’re after – your priority is either going to be freezing or capturing motion, or a specific depth of field.
For example, if you are taking photos of your child riding a bike towards you, to freeze that motion and ensure your photo is sharp, your first choice should be shutter speed as that is the element which freezes or captures motion. Then you’ll use the other two elements of exposure (ISO and aperture) to get a balanced exposure.
In this instance, with your ISO set to 1-200, choose a shutter speed of around 1/800 which should be fast enough to freeze the motion of a child riding a bike. Then choose your aperture, guided by how much depth of field you want in your photo. I suggest trying f/3.5 or the widest aperture (smallest number) your lens allows. Take a test shot of your subject. If it’s too dark, increase your ISO. If it’s too light, increase your shutter speed.
Always try to keep your ISO as low as possible without sacrificing sharp images and the overall effect. Why? Because high ISO causes grain and at the extreme end can even cause a loss of sharpness and clarity. How high? Well that depends on your camera… different models handle high ISO to varying degrees and you’ll need to experiment to figure out your own line in the sand!
That said… don’t be afraid to push your ISO, and never underexpose using high ISO, thinking it will be better to fix it later in processing than boost your ISO. It’s not!
Related: Better Results at High ISO
Conversely, if you want to photograph a portrait with a really blurry background, then aperture needs to be your first choice because it’s the setting that controls depth of field. Presuming you have one subject, set your ISO to around 100, and your aperture to f/3.5 which will get both eyes in acceptable focus. Set your shutter speed to no slower than 1/200, and take a test shot. If it’s too dark, increase your ISO. If it’s too light, increase your shutter speed.
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