One of the challenges when starting out as a photographer is getting yourself out of your comfort zone. Many students find themselves using their Auto mode on their cameras because they are intimidated by the Manual mode.
When using Manual mode, you have to know how to use all of the settings on the camera, what is known as the “Holy trinity” of photography. What I mean by this is ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. Once you have the hang of these three settings on your camera and how to use them to create the proper exposure, you are well on your way to becoming an accomplished photography professional.
Now it doesn’t matter if you shoot with Canon, Nikon, Sony or another manufacturer’s camera, they all have these three basic settings and balancing them is how to create the proper exposure. Additionally, all of these cameras have whats known as an exposure meter and it is usually visible on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, as well as in the viewfinder.
The exposure meter in the camera is the set of tick marks toward the top of the screen with the numbers from left to right starting with -3 and moving to +3 on the right. “Perfect” exposure is the point in the dead center with the 0 and each tick mark is 1/3 of an F-stop. When your exposure meter is to the left of the 0, your shot will be under exposed and when it’s to the right of the 0, your shot will be over exposed. The next thing you are probably asking is “ok, how do I move my indicator to the 0 when I am taking a photo, is there a proper sequence?” Yes there is and I am going to share that with you now.
One of the things that throws new photographers off is figuring out how to adjust their settings under Manual mode so that they get a nice, clean shot with “perfect” exposure. I will share the formula that I use. The first thing you want to do is set your shutter speed and the best shutter speed to use is one that is proportional to the focal length of your lens, especially if your
lens doesn’t have IS (Canon’s Image Stabilization) VR (Nikon’s Vibration Reduction) to compensate for the shake of your hand as you hold your camera. Many students don’t realize that if you set your shutter speed too low it will actually emphasize hand shake and their images turn out blurry. So, let’s say you are using a 70-300mm lens and you are shooting at the 300mm end of your focal length, you want to set your shutter speed to 320 or 400 as it will compensate for the camera shake and your photos should turn out nice and clear and not blurry.
The next piece of the formula is the Aperture of your camera/lens combination. You want to start with your lens at it’s widest Aperture, or lowest number if it’s easier to remember that way, so on your 70-300mm lens, let’s say the Aperture is F/4-5.6. This means that when you are shooting at 70mm your widest Aperture is F/4 and as you zoom in with the lens the widest is F/5.6 at 300mm. So on your 70-300mm lens at 300mm you start at F/5.6 and you can narrow the Aperture from there to reduce the amount of light that enters your lens. Now I don’t like to go too small on my Aperture, so I will usually top at around F/8-10. At this point you are probably wondering what ISO you should use. Well if you ask most professional photographers they will tell you that you want to use the lowest ISO you can to get the shot. Most pros won’t use anything higher than ISO 800 and the reason is as you raise your ISO you introduce more noise into your photos. What is noise you ask, noise is the little speckles you see in your images when the ISO is too high as in the example photo below, which I took in my office with low light at night time.
If you look you will see the little speckles of noise in this shot because I used ISO 3200, which on my older Canon 5D causes noise as it does not have the newer electronics of the Canon 5D Mark III, which can use ISO 3200 with less noise in the final image. But in order to prevent noise entirely, I recommend starting with your ISO at 100 or 50 if you have a Pro body that can do ISO 50, most consumer cameras like the Canon T3i you can get through AI has ISO 100 as it’s bottom end.
So now that we have talked about ISO if you start at ISO 100 and you are shooting outdoors in good daylight, then you want to only adjust your shutter speed and Aperture to get your shot to “perfect” exposure. Now, let’s say you are shooting in low light and want to get to perfect exposure and you are using say the Canon 85mm F/1.8 USM portrait lens. In this case, again start with ISO 100 and your shutter speed at 100 and then open your Aperture wider to introduce more light, so instead of using F/5.6, open those blades and get your Aperture down to F/2 or F/1.8 and see if that will get you to the 0 on your exposure meter. If Aperture does not do the trick, then start adjusting your ISO higher but I would recommend capping it as ISO 800. If at ISO 800 you are still too under exposed then it’s time to introduce a flash to your shot. The flash will help raise the amount of light in the room, but I do not recommend using your camera’s built in flash, I would recommend an external flash preferably one that has bounce and zoom and turn the flash to point behind you at the ceiling or a wall so that the light will not be too harsh. Equipped with the flash, you can now set your ISO much lower and reduce the possibility of noise in your images.
Now you know the formula for using your camera in Manual mode, so get out there make some awesome images! Please feel free to comment and ask any questions you might have.