Get the most our of your camera - manual mode

Get the most out of your DSLR – Manual Mode

Get the most out of your DSLR – Manual Mode

This guide is aimed for beginner level photographers who have a basic knowledge of their camera and are wanting to further improve their photography skills and knowledge in manual mode.

Personal Experience

It was only two years ago when I decided to take photography more seriously and forced myself to switch my camera dial from automatic and brave the big, wide world of manual mode.

I was honestly terrified. It seemed so complicated. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO… I knew what they meant but how did they work together? I felt like I had to solve some scientific puzzle every time I put the viewfinder to my eye. I read magazine after magazine and studied the metadata of all the images I could. Why did the photographer use f10 for their aperture? Why did they use ISO 800? Why was their shutter speed set at 1/100?

Shooting automatic was great. No thought, just click… and the camera did everything. That’s what it’s there for; but for those who want to take photography more seriously, and as I came to understand, the camera can’t and won’t do everything you want in automatic mode.

It is YOU taking the photographs and ultimately creating the images, not the camera. The camera doesn’t know what you want. Only you do, so YOU have got to be in charge of the camera.

It took me the best part of a couple of months of trial and error, frustration and headaches. My images were too dark, too light and I couldn’t control the depth of field. But one day those ‘scientific puzzles’ became clear. . And it was as simple as that. It just clicked, and I’ve not once re-tuned that dial from the big M.

Get the most our of your camera - manual mode
Using the camera in manual mode has become as natural to me now as it has to switch the camera on, and that is ultimately what every aspiring photographer needs to be able to do.


The Key to Understanding Manual Mode

The 3 most important aspects of manual mode to understand are aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and how to balance them all correctly to create that killer image. Balance is the key word. Essentially you are looking to manually control / balance the amount of light entering the camera (aperture) and how long it enters for (shutter speed). ISO is slightly different in that is affected by the type of camera you have and its ISO range.

Every DSLR will have a light meter. I am assuming you already know what this and where to find it. The light meter measures the amount of reflected light hitting the sensor and, depending on your surroundings, the readings can change dramatically by just moving the camera around. To test this, point your camera at an area that is generally light. If you’re indoors point it at a window and look at the reading. Then point the camera away from the window and see how the light meter changes.

To start with, you should be aiming for the light meter to hit around the mid-point of the scale at the time you press the shutter release. Changing the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings will all change the light meter reading. By reducing the size of the aperture you are letting less light in so this will shift the meter to the left and darken the image. By increasing the size of the aperture it will have the opposite effect.

By increasing the shutter speed you are letting light in for a shorter time which will again shift the light meter to the left and darken the image (as light is being allowed through for a shorter amount of time). Decrease the shutter speed will again have the opposite effect and lighten the image (as light is being allowed through for a longer amount of time).

Hopefully you’re with me so far…

Have a play with your camera and see if you can balance the light meter in the centre by changing the aperture and shutter speed settings (don’t forget to switch your camera into manual mode first).

On modern DSLRs a 3 click change in the settings of either the aperture, shutter speed or ISO equates to a stop. A stop in shutter speed and ISO is equal to doubling or halving the setting. For example a shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/50 is a stop either way of 1/100. An ISO level of 500 or 2,000 is a stop either way of 1,000. Set your camera’s shutter speed to 1/100 and increase the speed by 3 clicks (the same as 1 stop). Your setting will be 1/200 having gone through 1/125 and 1/160. It is exactly the same for ISO. Double and half the setting to increase or decrease by a stop.

Aperture is slightly different in terms of the f number reading. 3 clicks still equates to a stop but the f numbers aren’t doubled or halved. The aperture settings are determined by your lens. Some lenses start start at their widest at f1.4 whilst others might start at 4.5.

Typically f stops are measured as the following settings: f1.4 / f2 / f2.8 / f4 / f5.6 / f8 / f11 / f16 / f22. See this aperture diagram courtesy of Wikipedia.Aperture Diagram from Wikipedia

There is still a pattern though. Look at the f number every 2 stops. It is either doubled or halved, or between f5.6 and f11 it is almost. It’s something you just have to get used to.

The bizarre thing about the aperture settings is that if you increase the size of the aperture the f number gets smaller and vice versa. In the case of the above settings the aperture will be largest at f1.4 and smallest at f22. Again, it’s something that takes a little while to get used to and may give you a few headaches in the meantime.

Hopefully you’re still with me…

When you eventually get the hang of all this (and you will if you persist) the real secret in creating top quality images is to then understand what effect aperture, shutter speed and ISO have to your image when you change the settings.

As this post is already getting a little long and there’s so much to think about I’ll cover this in a separate post. Get the most out of your camera – Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO