How to take better photos in Manual Mode?

How to take better photos in Manual Mode?

One of the biggest issues new photographers and well even some seasoned photographers have problems with is shooting in manual mode.

It can be a scary mode to be in especially if you are not sure what your are doing. Most often many persons will stick to Automatic mode and with today’s technology you will get a pretty usable shot about 60% of the time.

However there are those times when the camera just doesn’t know what is going on and it makes a decision that is contrary to what you actually wanted to capture.

Luckily there are a few simple steps that will help you minimize your fear of manual mode. Its actually much easier than you may think.

Unfortunately in order to fully enjoy the technicality of shooting in manual mode you will have to learn the exposure triangle like the back of your hand.

This is not necessary as you can still capture good and usable images with this technique but you wont enjoy the process as you will still be guessing.

The process is simple, Just ask yourself these three questions. The answers to each will determine what manual settings to use.

  • How is the light?
  • How much of the image do I want in focus?
  • Do I want to show movement?

So lets break this down because I know many of you are saying, there is no way its that simple. But truly it is. Let me explain.

Each question corresponds to a portion of the exposure triangle, by answering each question you make and adjustment in that portion of the exposure triangle take a shot and then adjust accordingly to which direction you want to go. Lets give it a try.

How is the Light?

When you ask this question you are thinking of the light intensity, quality and direction.

Remember photography is all about light and understanding the characteristics of the light that is in your scene and on your subject.

This helps you to make the first camera setting adjustment in manual mode which will be your ISO.

Is the light intensity strong or weak? Strong light intensity is the difference between the sun at sunrise and sunset vs mid day. Early morning and evening the sun is considered soft.

It feels warm on your skin and you can tolerate the light with your bare eyes without squinting to much. (unless the sun is directly in your eyes). Sunlight mid morning to mid evening is hard strong bright and can burn your skin.

Its difficult to keep your eyes open in any direction because the light intensity is so strong. This intensity of light also corresponds to the quality of light.

Early morning and evening is considered soft light and good quality in terms of portrait photography while mid day sun is considered harsh light and not so good quality for portraits as it produces strong and dark shadows in the eye sockets and under the chin.

Of course depending on your subject you may want strong light with deep shadows such as shooting seascapes or wide open spaces.

Another way to consider light intensity is harsh light or low light. High light will be a direct light bulb or series of bulbs that completely light up a room.

Low light will be considered a low light like a 40 watt bulb in a large room. It just will not light up the entire room. This type of light can correspond to the light direction. The sun is so big but so far it just lights up every thing but when you have a localized light like the sun coming through a small window or a lamp with a light shade the light takes on a specific direction of which if flows.

Low light is easier to learn and to find just turn on your mobile phone camera. and move it around the room. If the image in the camera looks fuzzy like a tv trying to tune into a channel you know the light is low.

However if you get a nice bright image then you know your light is high.

Now the one caveat to all this is that the only light that matters is the light that is on your subject, The ambient light does play a role but a bit later.

Is the light strong, weak, high or low? Once you know what the intensity of the light is then you can make your first camera setting adjustment by changing your ISO to suit the light.

For times when the light intensity is strong strong or high you want to keep your ISO at a low setting 100-200 iso is fine and a good start.

For times when the light intensity is weak or low you will want to bump up your ISO depending on how low it is. A good starting point is often between 400-800iso.

Now that you made your camera sensor sensitive to the intensity of the light available you can move on to the next question.

How much of the image do I want in focus?

Focus can be considered in two ways. The focus in composition when you use techniques to draw the viewer on a particular spot in the overall image and focus when it comes to what you can see in the image clearly.

We are discussing the latter. Focus of what can be seen clearly in an image links to the Aperture portion of the exposure triangle.

This means your second camera setting we will adjust will be your aperture.

I’m not going to go in depth about bokeh but it is a well sought after look for portraits, outdoors in particular.

When ever you see an image where the main subject is in focus but the background is blurred out to basic colors this is the effect of bokeh or better known as a shallow depth of field.

This technique requires a few things but for now we will leave it at the aperture opening which is considered to be a wide opening.

A wide aperture is what helps keep the main subject in focus while blurring out the background.

This aperture opening is known as the F Stop. Remember we are concerned with the light on our subject and now we are considering what look we want for our overall image, hence an aperture opening between f1.4-f5.6 but primarily no wider than f4 is considered to be a wide enough opening to allow for a shallow depth of field.

Another option of aperture is having a wide depth of field. This means more of you overall image is in focus and can be seen.

Most often this is the technique used by landscape and seascape photographers to ensure their viewers can see from the foreground all the way to the background.

To achieve this the aperture is set anywhere between f8-f16 which is considered to be a narrow opening and shallow depth of field. This will keep most of your foreground and your background in focus and viewable.

Once you made a decision on which depth of field you want you can set your aperture setting based on that decision.

For a shallow depth of field set your aperture at its widest, which depending on your camera may be between f1.4 – f5.6. If you want to show more of the background and foreground then set your aperture between f8 – f16. On both ends of the spectrum it all depends on your individual lens on the range of aperture opening you will have.

Fast more expensive lens will have apertures between f1.4-f2.8 Usually wide angle lens will have higher numbers up to f32. Either way make a decision based on your subject and what you want your overall image to look like.

You just made your second manual adjustment just by asking a simple question. Now lets ask the final question and make your final manual adjustment.

Do I want to show movement?

I know what you are thinking… movement? We are shooting still images not video so why be concerned with movement. Well the third part of the exposure triangle deals with movement in your scene.

You can allow for movement of your subject and show that they were moving or you can completely freeze the moment in time.

This movement is controlled by your shutter speed and its the third and final adjustment you will make with your camera.

Movement in photography is not the same as in video. Movement pertains to a blur of items that are moving in the scene but not recording their actual movement just the direction of their movement.

This movement of either your camera or the something in your scene is called motion blur. It is related to focus as the item moving will not be in sharp focus but it will blur not in a soft manner but in a streaked movement manner.

On the other hand if you don’t want any movement in you image you can make that decision at this time and set your shutter speed to reflect a completely still image.

This technique can be used when you subject is already in motion and you want to freeze all movements. Race cars, athletes running, cars passing by, trees blowing in the wind, a river or waterfall all can be frozen in time with the use of your shutter speed.

When making this decision understand that you will either have a slow shutter speed or a fast shutter speed. This is more straight forward than aperture as slow means slow and fast means fast.

Shutter speed is represented in your camera as a number usually a 3 digit number but it can be 2 digits. On paper is written as a fraction such as 1/250. For a slow shutter anything below 1/60 of a second is considered slow and you will begin to see some motion blur depending on how fast your subject or items are moving. As for a fast shutter speed 1/100 is the middle ground but 1/250 is considered a fast shutter.

You can actually hear the difference when you take a photo at both settings. At 1/60 its a chick….click sound when taking a photo vs at 1/250 its more like click.

These are just starting points and you can go higher or lower for both of them.

In long exposure photography such as in astrophotography or when it comes to seascape photography its not uncommon to have a shutter speed that last for a whole second or even 10 seconds.

Whereas when it comes to sports on a sunny day a photographers shutter speed may be up to 1/5000 of a second THAT’S REALLY FAST!

Once you made up your mind based on your subject you can use your camera dials and adjust your shutter speed to its starting point.

There you have it you just manually set your camera based on 3 questions.

Answer these questions three.

These three questions when answered takes less than 60 seconds and as you get used to it, it will take you anywhere between 5-8 seconds to determine your settings and you will adjust without even thinking too much about it.

Your starting point, after answering your questions, will most likely not be your best photo but you should take a shot of your subject or scene at this time and see where you are.

Yes its ok to chimp at your back screen thats what its there for. Look at the image and determine is the image too bright to dark or does it need some more creative effect.

Making those adjustments will fall back to your original three questions. If its too bright then you have the option of adjusting your ISO from lets say 800 to 400. If its too dark you can go from 200 to 800.

Another option to darken is to close down your aperture if you are at a wide opening or if its too dark to open it.

Just keep in mind when you make adjustments of the aperture and the shutter to balance your exposure you are also changing either your depth of field or introducing or removing motion blur.

Practice asking yourself these three questions when you are out shooting in manual mode. You cant expect to learn with out practice so you have to pick up your camera and actually do it .

Over and over and over again until you are comfortable with the process. Remember the questions until it becomes second nature to you

  • How is the light?
  • How much of the image do I want in focus?
  • Do I want to show movement?

Be sure to comment or ask questions if there was something you were not sure about. I’m always open to helping others grow their photography skills.

About the Author

rashadpenn: Rashad Penn is a photographer, Teacher, Ad man and amateur blogger based in the Bahamas.

1 Comment on "How to take better photos in Manual Mode?"

  1. Richard

    Love the information, thank you for writing this article