DSLR Learning

Shooting in Manual: Breaking the Automatic Bond


When I first started to get into photography, I only shot in auto mode.  That’s what you do when you are not familiar with the power of your camera.  It’s a time where you start to experiment and get comfortable using a DSLR, and are amazed that you can take these amazing photos with your 18-55 mm kit lens.  The image quality is good, and you start to develop an “eye” for great images.  All photographers go through this stage. Auto mode gives you a real taste of what you can do with your camera, and  when you become addicted to learning as much as you can, that is when you will make the most improvements.  There is no shame in shooting in auto mode; heck I still really like some of my images from those days.  However, when I started to learn how to shoot in Manual mode, the quality of my photos greatly increased (as well as purchasing some higher quality lenses).  Here are the basics of shooting in manual, hopefully, in laymen’s terms.


{Light Meter} This helps you determine what you need to adjust in your manual camera settings in order to have proper exposure (i.e. not too dark, not too light).   If you look into your camera and press the shutter half way down as if you were focusing, these images will appear in your viewfinder.  You want your exposure to be at the “0” mark, or slightly higher or lower by a notch or two.  If it doesn't show up on the scale, you will notice in the viewfinder whether you are way over or under exposed, and will need to make the appropriate adjustments with your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

{Shutter Speed} This determines how long the shutter is open for, which basically equates to how much light you are allowing into the photo.  Long shutter speeds (1/20) are usually only used when you have your camera on a tri-pod and don’t anticipate any movement from the subject. Quick shutter speeds (1/2000) are used for sports photography or where you need to capture something in action. You can also modify how light and dark your photos are.  If your image is overexposed, you can bring your shutter speed down (i.e. 1/2000) which would darken the image, or if it is underexposed you can bring it up (I.e. 1/20) which would allow more light into the picture.  I rarely have my shutter speed that high or low, and normally stay with the 1/160 (minimum to reduce camera shake)-1/800 range;  1/160 for low light or poorly lit areas, and 1/800 for bright, sunny days. However, sometimes you need to max out your shutter if it is really bright outside and you want to keep your depth of field where it is.

{Aperture/F-Stop } This determines how wide open your lens is.  When you buy a lens, there are numbers written on the side with your aperture settings. On the Canon 18-55 mm lens, the aperture is f/3.5-5.6.  This lens is “wide open” at 3.5 where it lets the most light in, and maxed out at 5.6, which keeps light out.  Within these bounds, when you’re “wide open” you can only focus on a small portion of the subject, versus when your at your maximum aperture, you can keep the entire subject in focus.   You want to be at your minimum aperture setting (3.5) when you are shooting in low light and want good Bokeh (blurry background behind your subject), and your maximum when you’re shooting in bright light and are capturing a group photo (so everyone will stay in focus).  This is where the quality of your lens can make a difference, and buying lens with apertures as low as 1.2 is ideal for both artistic and adaptability reasons.

{ISO} Your ISO setting determines how sensitive you want your light sensor to be.  You want a very low ISO setting (100), and only increase it when you have to (Last setting to adjust and only if needed).  If you can’t do much to adjust your shutter speed and aperture, then you may have to resort to using your ISO to properly expose your photo.  When using a lower grade DSLR, you will notice a significant deterioration in your images (noise-aka grainy photos) when you pass the 600-800 ISO mark.  High quality DSLRs, however, can go up to an ISO of  6400+ without showing much noise (around 32000ish is the max I like to go though and prefer not to even go that high).  The Canon 5D Mark III has max ISO settings of 102,400,  where the Canon Rebel T1i has max ISO settings of 12,800.  You can only imagine how much their performance differs in lowlight settings.

{Tip} I recommend shooting in RAW format, which lets you adjust all of those settings manually on your computer after the fact if you messed up the picture a bit.  RAW format basically stores all of the information from the image, instead of compressing it like a JPEG would do. It does take up more memory card storage.

This post doesn’t cover every manual setting, however, it does detail what I would consider to be the most important settings.  You can also manually adjust your white balance, focus points, or shoot in shutter priority or aperture priority mode which can help breakdown the learning curve of adjusting your shutter speed or aperture settings.   I will cover all of these at a later point in time.  This guide should get you started, and through some experimentation with your camera, you will begin to tell a huge difference in your photos.  Just remember, Practice, Practice, Practice!