All those buttons and dials on an SLR can be a little daunting. Everyone knows that you’re “supposed” to shoot in Manual mode, but it’s all rather complicated; yet another thing to think about when you’d rather be concentrating what’s in front of your camera.
It’s so easy to slip into the habit of using one of the Priority modes, or even Auto. I used Aperture Priority mode for the first couple years I had my camera, I loved it, I could choose the depth of field by adjusting the aperture and let my camera do the rest.
Then one day a lightbulb went off and I realised that shooting in Manual is only one little adjustment – two if you’re currently shooting in Auto. I challenged myself to shoot only Manual for a week and simply forgot to switch back. In fact when I was on a shoot a little while later I decided to use my old-faithful Aperture Priority to make it easier while I was shooting, the lack of my new-found control frustrated me so much I switched back to Manual and haven’t used anything else since!
So here’s how.
First of all we go back to the Exposure Triangle: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. I’ll show you how to pick the settings for each of these to make it easy to achieve balance and the perfect exposure every time.
Your camera’s internal light meter will be how you judge the light in your scene. You will go by this to choose your settings.
If the light meter shows that your scene is underexposed you can simply adjust one of the settings to allow in more light, if it’s showing as overexposed you can adjust the settings to allow in less light.
If you’re not sure how much it is under or over-exposed, simply take a photo and look at it in the back of your camera and make the adjustments based on what you see there. At first this will be trial and error, but soon it will be second nature.
This is the aspect of this triangle that has the least impact on the particular aesthetics of your image. Choosing an ISO tells your camera how fast you would like the light to be absorbed by the sensor. A low ISO makes for a nice clean image, while a high ISO adds noise to the image. Digital noise isn’t the prettiest thing, so for the most part we’ll try to keep the ISO as low as possible.
For this example I’ll be shooting a portrait outside on a slightly overcast day. ISO 100 will be a little too low for the light I’m getting, but ISO 200 should be just fine.
I select my ISO and leave it. I shouldn’t have to touch that again unless the light changes dramatically, or unless I decide I want to change it for creative reasons.
I love my wide apertures and narrow DoF, so for me personally the main thing is to get my aperture set to a position that will give me the look I want in the final photos. In this case I think I’ll go wide open for a lovely buttery soft background, so lets say f/1.8.
I select my aperture and leave it for the time-being.
Shutter speed is the last of the settings I put into place. For the most part the only thing I worry about with the shutter speed is that it is fast enough to avoid any motion blur, and that it’s high or low enough to balance out my creative choices with the other settings and give me a perfect exposure.
For this instance I think the light requires me to select a shutter speed of around 1/600. I take a test photo and, oh, a little too dark. I adjust the shutter speed one stop to 1/500, much better. Now as the sun comes out from behind the clouds or disappears further in all I have to do is adjust the shutter speed.
Now it may be that I decide I want to change the settings, perhaps I want a slightly wider Depth of Field. If the exposure is correct before I make the change all that is needed is to increase the light from the shutter speed the same amount of “stops” as I decrease the light from the aperture.
For instance if I was to close the aperture one full stop, taking it from f/1.8 to f/2.5, closing out one stop of light, I would also slow the shutter speed one full stop, taking it from 1/500th of a second to 1/250th of a second, allowing that one stop of light in using the shutter speed to balance out the smaller aperture.
This way I’m able to get exactly the same amount of light on my sensor, but am allowing myself creative choices in the way I do so.
Tricking the Light Meter
Sometimes the light meter is just plain wrong, whether it’s dazzled by snow or an open window, or confused by a dark patch in the middle of your scene. You may find that you need to tell the camera to go ahead and take photos that the light meter is sure are wrong. And this is where shooting in Manual comes into its own.
With one of the Priority modes you would need to use your Exposure Compensation button/dial to tell the camera to purposely over/underexpose the image. When you’re shooting in Manual you can quickly adjust whichever setting you like to make this fix yourself with much more control.
With a little practice you’ll soon be wondering how you ever shot in anything other than Manual. You’ll have more control over your images and a practical understanding of the exposure triangle.
An added bonus is a far simplified post-processing workflow with an even exposure throughout all your images. If you use batch editing software such as Adobe Lightroom, you could easily knock half the time off your workflow.
Have fun, and feel free to get in touch with any questions whether by email or in the comments below!