Learning to shoot manual

Understanding your camera will provide you more confidence and more artistic photographs.  But how do you do this when everything available seems to confuse you?  There are a ton of manuals, lots of dials and buttons, everything just seems overwhelming. How do you learn without getting frustrated even before you begin?

It’s not about dials and buttons that make someone a manual-junkie, it’s understanding three components – shutter speed, ISO & aperture.  You see them every time you use your camera but isn’t it just more efficient to let the camera choose what they should be set to?  NO!  Nope, no way!  Not gonna get me to agree with that!  The auto setting, you letting your camera choose those confusing numbers, it’s a flat way to photograph.  A camera is a mean machine, and it’s auto setting will want to make EVERYTHING in the view finder in focus – a not so artistic way to photograph unless you are doing landscaping.

To be comfortable shooting manual you will need to know what your necessary adjustments are.  Though these settings are all numeric, there isn’t some insane math equation that you need to do to find out what to dial them into.  You need to play with those number’s prior to each session, within your session surroundings, to get a good understanding.  I usually set up about 10 mins prior to a photo shoot to adjust my camera, I even use my husband as my test model.

Let’s chat shutter speed!

Shutter speed is like your eyelids.  And here is how:

The shutter blinks in your camera.  The number you assign to the shutter speed defines the speed of the ‘blink’.

When you have your shutter speed turned down you are essentially blinking slowly and allowing more light to pass through.  Note:  When you have lower shutter speeds you will also show more camera shake so be careful going too low.

When you have your shutter speed turned up you are essentially blinking fast and filtering out the light and limiting what passes through your lens.

Shutter Speed is the FIRST setting I go to when I need to adjust my light. I take one test photo and then ask myself what I need to do to correct the exposure.  Yep, I won’t blow smoke up my own tail.  My first test shot is never perfect.  Let’s face it, the number combinations for shutter, ISO & aperture are not a math problem you can figure out.  They are merely situational.

What is the shutter speed setting I use before I start any session?  Honestly I don’t preset this number.  I take a look at the light that’s outside and ask myself  ’is it bright or shaded?’ If it’s bright I will twist the dial up high and work my way down until I get the perfect test shot.  If it is shaded I will twist the dial low and work my way up when deciding the correct setting to use for that shot.

· Lower your shutter speed will lighten exposure

· Increase your shutter speed and you darken your exposure.

If adjusting shutter is all you need to get the correct exposure it is not necessary to adjust the other two components.  I always start with shutter first.

Wanna get to know your ISO?

ISO is like blinds on a window and here is how:

The ISO is a light regulator, just as blinds are in your home.  When the blinds are drawn DOWN the light is minimal, when you pull them UP you bring in all the light from outside.  The reason that we choose blinds is so that we can pull them up or down depending upon how much light we want.  This is the function for ISO.

· Lower the ISO number the less light – keep it this way unless you must adjust for a brighter photo.

· Higher the ISO number the more light – however if too high you could introduce noise.

What is the ISO setting I use before any shoot?  I start off at the same ISO setting for every shoot.  I always start with 160 or 200.  The reason for this is I generally don’t adjust my ISO unless I have to.  160-200 will provide no noise and it is where I feel most comfortable.  If adjusting the shutter wasn’t enough then I will increase my ISO number.  So it makes perfect sense to just keep it as low as possible and adjust only when needed.

The icing on your camera cake is Aperture!!

Aperture is seriously the cream cheese frosting to my white cake (ohhhhh my favorite of all kinds).  Without aperture control I would have no ‘style’ to my skill.  I rely on this to create the very thing that draws my attention – narrow depth of field.  What is this?  The beautiful creamy, blurry background that you see in much of my photos.  It’s not for everyone and certainly not for landscape photographers but boyyyyy do I love me a narrow depth of field.  So let’s learn about how it works and why you need it.

Though you can use aperture to adjust light within your camera, it is also a tool for creating depth of field and an artsy photo.  For this purpose I do not use aperture as a light adjuster.  I keep my aperture, the f-stop setting, at its lowest number available.  I like everything but my subject out of focus.  Note:  If I have more than one subject I increase my f-stop one point for each person until I reach 4.5 and then never – as my own personal rule – go over that!

Aperture is measured in F-stops on your camera.  I remembered the F-stop by comparing it to how your pupil reacts to the lighting situation around it.

· A fully dilated pupil is the bodies reaction to less light – a large F-stop number gives less light.

· A small pupil is the bodies reaction to more light, the smaller the F-stop number the more light is provided.

So remember when thinking of aperture, the smaller the f-stop number the more light you will give to your photo. By increasing this number you will slowly close out the light source.

Here is how I captured the following photo. 

The day was bright so I was working to close out the light rather than bring it in.  I started with my ISO on 160, my general starting point for ISO.  My F-stop is always set to 1.4 because I enjoy a nice blurry background, again another general setting that I start with.  Next I need to define my shutter speed which will control the bright sun – do I turn it up or down?

Well, if you are thinking of the scenario I used above, the answer is UP because I want to ‘blink’ faster to lessen the light that is coming through the lens.  I take a shot.  If it’s still too bright, I turn it up more.  If it’s still too bright, I turn it up more.  I take 5 or so test shots working my shutter dial until I get it exactly where I want it.

1/2000 Shutter Speed, 160 ISO, 1.4


Thank you,

Stacie Jensen




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About stacie

Simple Gal with a camera and a passion! I have loved art since I can remember. I excelled in art classes, so quickly I realized I had to make this a career. When I graduated in 1996, I immediately jumped into web design and then naturally went into graphic design and photography. I can’t seem to stop the creative idea’s from flowing. I want to create, create, create! xoxo Stacie Jensen

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