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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

A beginner's guide to shooting on Manual

Knowing how to shoot on Manual mode, where you take over control of your camera's Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO settings is a must if you want to take full creative control in your photography. Although camera's often give a decent result on automatic modes, there are many situations where automatic simply won't be able to give you the result you are looking for; for example when you want to blur the motion of water in a waterfall.

Although I can't promise that this article will make you proficient in shooting on manual overnight, hopefully I can dispel the myth that it's really difficult, and give you some insight into how to unlock the full power of your camera.

1. Is manual the right mode to use?

In any situation, the first thing to ask yourself is whether Manual is the right mode to use. It's a myth that professional photographers use Manual all the time; if I'm at an event where I'm taking photos of people moving around, it simply takes too long to change Manual settings, so I will often use Aperture Priority instead ('A' on the mode dial). However, if time is on your side, such as in landscape photography when the scene is not changing quickly, then Manual mode ('M' on your mode dial) will give you complete control, so head over to your mode dial and select 'M' for Manual. 

2. Understand how to individually change settings

The first step you will need to take is reading your camera manual, in order to understand how to adjust the Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO individually as this varies so much between camera makes and models.

The location of the controls on my Sony A7RIV to change Aperture (1), Shutter Speed (2) and ISO (3) are shown on the images below.

3. Know where to find your camera settings on screen

As you change the aperture, shutter speed on ISO, you will need to be able to see what you have set your camera to. This can normally be seen somewhere on your camera LCD screen, and sometimes through the viewfinder as well. If you can't see these settings, try pressing the 'Display' button multiple times until you can see them on the screen. The settings on my Sony camera display are shown circled on the image below (shutter speed 1/60th second, aperture f4.5, ISO 400).

4. Understand how to check your exposure

As you are taking full control of your camera settings, your camera will no longer set the exposure for you, so you will need to understand how to check that your exposure is about right (i.e. not overexposed or underexposed) This article on my blog explains the various ways to do this, but I highly recommend identifying and using your exposure meter, which normally shows a scale from -3 (underexposed image) to +3 (overexposed image); your image is well exposed when the arrow is in the middle (near or at the zero))

5. Understand the thought process

The following process is the one that I go through when shooting on Manual,

  1. ADJUST THE APERTURE. Decide what DEPTH OF FIELD you require. If you want to blur the background, choose a large aperture such as f2.8. For most landscapes, it's best to start with a relatively small aperture around f11 (but not too small such as f22 as this shuts out too much light). 

  2. ADJUST THE SHUTTER SPEED. If shutter speed is not critical (i.e. if nothing in the scene is moving) then just make sure you set shutter speed fast enough to stop camera shake (around 1/50th second) if you're hand held. If it is critical then set the shutter speed appropriately (e.g. if a person in the scene, shutter speed needs to be at least 1/200th of a second to reduce motion blur). To slightly blur the moving water of a waterfall, you will need a shutter speed of around 0.5 seconds. For ideas on starting points for shutter speed for various scenes, see my Understanding Exposure cheat sheet HERE

  3. Note that if there is a lot of light (e.g. in the daytime) and you want to do long shutter speeds to blur water, you may need to use ND filters to cut down the amount of light sufficiently to not overexpose the image. See this blog for an intro to ND filters.  

  4. CHECK THE EXPOSURE using your exposure meter. 

  5. If your image is too dark (underexposed), you can either increase the ISO, open the aperture slightly (choose a smaller f number) or decrease the shutter speed slightly. If it’s too bright (overexposed) then you can decrease the ISO (unless it’s at minimum ISO), close the aperture slightly (larger f number) or increase the shutter speed to let less light in. In either case, you will have to ensure that your key aperture and shutter speed criteria (whether you want to blur the background or freeze / blur movement) aren’t compromised too much

6. A worked example

The image below was taken on manual, on a tripod, without any ND filters, using the following settings: Aperture f8, shutter speed 2.0 seconds, ISO 250. Because light levels were low in the woodland (and it was cloudy), I could get to a 2 second shutter speed without needing ND filters.

The thought process was as follows:

1. Set the aperture to f8 to give a reasonable depth of field

2. Change the shutter speed to give a nice blur to the water (which with experience I know is somewhere between 0.5 and 3 seconds)

3. Change the ISO until the light meter shows a well exposed image (arrow near the middle of the -3 to +3 scale)

4. Take the photo (using a 2 second timer so I didn't jiggle the camera when I pressed the shutter)

As the main setting was to have a shutter speed of around 2 seconds, in different light levels I could have chosen any aperture between about f5.6 and f22, and any ISO and the resultant photo would have looked almost exactly the same.

Want to jump-start your learning?

Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses for Devon based folks. If you're not nearby then I also  offer residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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