Okay, so you’re probably just starting out with a new camera and haven’t even played with settings yet… GOOD! It’s easier to learn on Manual Mode than it is to adjust to it later. So, what is it? Manual Mode means you’re in charge of all the settings, specifically the lighting triangle known as ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture. Auto Mode chooses these for you, you can even set it to prioritize Shutter Speed or Aperture. Why does this suck? Because you’re smarter than you camera. The camera will pick settings based on the light needed, not based on what you’re shooting, and you’re about to read why that’s a problem.
So to shoot in Manual Mode, you have to understand those three settings. It will take time, don’t stress yourself out about it. Just practice (free shoots, the orange tree in your backyard, whatever) and you’ll get faster at it naturally. And if you’re still a slow adjuster, that’s cool too. Just let your clients know with a “just changing my settings!” …they wont mind and might even be super impressed at how legit you are. #TooLegitToQuit.
In this post, I will explain these settings in a way I think is easiest to memorize them. I call it Picking Your Poison. Why? Because while each setting lets in light (good) they also each have an ugly side that can mess your photo up (bad) Manual Mode is all about picking which setting you can compromise on, depending on what you’re shooting. Ideally you will always have sufficient light but there will inevitably be times the lighting sucks; either slightly or downright awfully, and in those times you will have to pick your poison.
The lighting triangle…
- Positive: Lets in light
- Negative: Grain / Noise (Those pixelated dots you’ve seen in photos taken in bad lighting.)
- Lower the number, the less light is let in but image is clear. 100 is lowest, most ideal setting.
- Higher the number, the more bright but grainy the image is.
- Positive: Lets in light
- Negative: Motion Blur (Those photos where the moving subject isn’t properly frozen, looks blurry.)
- Lower the number, the more bright but slow/blurry the subject is.
- Higher the number, the quicker it snaps subject but also darkens image.
- Positive: Lets in light
- Negative: Reduced focal point/ Surround blur (Can be a positive when highlighting one person, but in a group shot only has the middle people in focus.)
- Lower the number, the brighter the image but focal range is reduced.
- Higher the number, the darker the image but more can be captured in focus.
With aperture, how close or far away you are plays a significant role. If you stand farther back you can drop the aperture lower and still get it all in focus. Think of aperture as looking through a paper towel tube. If you are right next to someone you may only see their eye in your tube, but the farther you back away, you can see their whole body in the tube. Aperture works like that.
Did you notice a pattern with the positives? LIGHTING IS KING. Good, sufficient lighting means your camera wont have to compromise in order to brighten your image, but knowing what the settings do is still so important because they each have a very important job. You must know what they are in order to properly pick your poison in each situation. Here are some examples:
Sporting event- let’s say you’re shooting your daughter’s soccer game where there is lots of movement on the field. Right off the bat you know Shutter Speed is the one you can’t compromise on because you need those fast captures in order to get her movement in focus. So if you needed to let more light in, you would compromise on Aperture or ISO.
Family Photos- Ok now you’re photographing a family of 6. You know that you can’t sacrifice aperture because in group photos you need the surrounding people to be as in-focus as the middle ones. You could sacrifice ISO but what about Shutter Speed? If the people are standing still that’s probably fine, but what if it’s a candid of the kids running around or dad throwing toddler into the air? In that case you wouldn’t want to drop your shutter speed.
Indoor decor shots- Now let’s say you’re photographing a a room for real estate. The room is kinda dark, with limited window light. But you know turning on *gasp* -overhead lighting- would be the kiss of death so you’re going to lighten the image with settings. You can sacrifice shutter speed here because nothing is moving, you can possibly sacrifice aperture depending on how much space you need to capture in focus, but you probably wouldn’t want to sacrifice ISO because those dark walls will show grain like a m’fer.
Does that make sense? Picking your poison is just knowing which setting you can sacrifice in order to let more light in. If you’re in a really terrible lighting situation you may need to sacrifice more than one (or all) and if you’re in ideal lighting you may have to sacrifice none. That’s why finding the best lighting is key for optimal shots.
Once you find settings that are producing the type of lighting you like, you can keep it by changing the settings to keep a balance. Like if you’re photographing a person but decide you want more background blur, you might drop your aperture down 4 stops, but now your photo is blown out because of all the extra light let in. So you would bump your shutter speed UP 4 stops to account for it, since higher shutter speed darkens the image. And higher shutter speed quickens the snap too so, win/win. You’ll get the hang of it! Don’t feel overwhelmed or confused, it just takes practice and it will become muscle memory.
My personal setting preferences…
The thought is that your shutter speed should never be lower than double your lens millimeter. For example, if you are shooting on a 50mm you wouldn’t want to drop your shutter speed below 100. For me personally, I always like to keep my shutter speed no lower than 200 if I can help it. I always try to keep mt ISO right at 100, but I would raise my ISO to avoid dropping shutter speed lower than 200. For aperture, I change that one the most depending on what I’m shooting. If it’s a portrait of one person, I might drop it to the 1.4 – 2.8 range, but if it was a couple or a family I would probably not go lower than 2.8. But keep in mind how distance affects aperture focal range.
Worth noting- aperture capabilities is a big factor in determining what lenses cost, as the lower f/stop it has, the more expensive it tends to be. The camera controls shutter speed and ISO but the lens controls aperture. That’s why the 50mm 1.8 is a great first upgrade because going from the 5.6 or whatever the kit lens offers, to the 1.8 will not only give you more flexibility with bringing in light, but also allows you to get creamy background blur. I recommend that one as a first upgrade, and it’s only about 100 bucks.
I hope that helped. There are tons of YouTube videos that also explain this, but for me the “pick your poison” mantra is what helped me understand the idea that the camera needs light and how you provide it depends on the settings, which depend on what you’re shooting. Let me know if you have questions, you can reach out on email or instagram and I will do my best to assist however I can 🙂