Thanks to modern technology, a high-end digital SLR camera is just as easy to use as a cellphone camera. Just set the camera on Auto, point, and shoot! The camera takes care of everything else automatically. Pretty great, right?
But if you have read anything online about taking better pictures, you’ve certainly heard of a mysterious manual mode. You’ve probably also heard that it is “better than automatic” for some vague and unspecified reasons.
Is there really anything to this manual mode nonsense? If your camera can take perfectly good pictures automatically, then why try to outsmart it?
It turns out that there’s a huge difference. There’s nothing more important that you can do to be better at photography than to learn how to shoot in Manual mode. And it’s not hard to learn!
The problem with Automatic Mode
The automatic exposure system on your camera has one goal — To make sure that just enough light hits your camera’s sensor to produce an picture that doesn’t look obviously terrible. Not enough light or too much light will ruin the picture.
There are three ways your camera can control how much light is captured in the picture:
- By adjusting the image sensor’s sensitivity setting (called ISO).
- By keeping the camera’s shutter open for a longer or shorter time.
- By opening the hole in the lens (called the aperture) wider or narrower.
In automatic mode, your camera will decide in a split second how wide to open it’s aperture, how long to hold it open, and how sensitive the sensor needs to be to properly capture apicture.
The problem is that changing each of these variables drastically alters the final look of your picture!
Opening the aperture wider causes the background of the picture to go out of focus. Keeping the shutter open too long makes everything in the image blurry. Increasing the sensitivity of the sensor too high adds ugly noise to your picture.
In automatic mode, you are letting the camera decide how these choices are made. In other words, you are letting the camera decide how your picture will look. That’s why you end up with a bunch of generic-looking snapshots when you use automatic mode.
With a tiny bit of practice, you can learn how to use manual mode to take pictures that are much more interesting than what the camera would come up with by default.
What do I gain by shooting in Manual?
As a photographer, you have exactly two jobs:
- The technical part: First, you have to make sure you capture a picture that doesn’t look too dark or too bright so people can see it.
- The artistic part: Second, you have to make an interesting picture by using all the capabilities of your camera to make your picture tell a story.
In automatic mode, your camera completely handles the technical job for you (and quite well!). The problem is that handling the first job requires the camera to make all the decisions for you which prevents you from doing the second job.
Let’s go through each way you can control the amount of light coming into your camera. Each method has side effects which change the final look of your image. These will be your main tools to change how your picture looks.
Control #1: Light Sensitivity (ISO Speed)
Your digital camera has an image sensor inside of it. This image sensor is what records the picture — it is the digital version of film.
Like the volume knob on your television or radio, this image sensor has a “volume” control that controls how much light it records. The higher you turn up the sensitivity, the less light you need to make a picture. However, higher sensitivity levels push your camera to the limit and add ugly “noise” to your image.
Camera sensitivity is measured according to a confusing scale called the ISO scale. The history behind the name of the scale is convoluted, but all you need to know is that lower numbers mean the sensor is less sensitive and higher numbers mean the sensor is more sensitive. Typically, ISO 100 is the least sensitive setting. The most sensitive setting varies according to the capabilities of your camera.
Here is an example of how an image appears brighter with higher ISO settings:
The ISO scale doubles each time the image is twice as bright. So ISO 1600 is only twice as bright as ISO 800 — it’s not 800% brighter.
Note that higher ISO settings make the final image look worse by adding noise that appear as ugly dots in the final image. More expensive cameras typically can operate at higher sensitivity levels without nearly as much noise. That’s one reason that some digital cameras cost $5000 while others only cost $400. The more expensive ones can often shoot high-quality pictures with much less light.
Control #2: How long the camera shutter is open (Shutter Speed)
The next variable you can control is how long the camera’s opening stays open. The opening in your camera lens is covered by a shutter. When you click the button on your camera to take a picture, the shutter opens for a brief moment. The longer it stays open, the more light comes into the camera.
Shutter speed is measured in a very simple scale — fractions of a second. So a 1/50 shutter speed means the camera stays open for one fiftieth of a second. That sounds like barely any time at all, but it’s actually quite a long time in photographic terms. Anything that moves while the shutter is open will appear as blurry in the final image. By using a faster shutter speed, you can “freeze” the action. But to use a faster shutter speed, you need more light because the shutter wasn’t open as long and not as much light reached the image sensor.
The moving bird appears quite blurry at 1/50th of a second. But at 1/800th of a second, the flying bird is very sharp. That’s because even a flying bird doesn’t move much in 1/800th of a second so it appears to be “still” in the picture.
In most cases, you want the shutter speed to be fast enough to capture your image without any blurriness. However, there are many cool effects that you can do by keeping the shutter open for a long time while the camera is fixed on a tripod. For example, moving water will take on a smoothy, dreamy effect if you leave the shutter open for a long time.
Control #3: Aperture Size
The third way to control light coming into your camera is to change the size of the opening in the camera’s lens. This hole, called the aperture, is the place where light enters the camera. Obviously a bigger hole lets in more light than a smaller hole.
But this is where things get complicated. Because of the way light focusing works, a larger opening causes the background of the image to become blurry. A small opening causes more of the background to be in focus.
The scale used to measure the size of the size of the opening (again, called the aperture) is the “f-number” scale. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. There is just one trick- a smaller number means the opening is bigger. The f-number scale is what a math major would call a geometric sequence. If you aren’t a math major and don’t know what “a power sequence of the square root of 2” means, you can just memorize it: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.
Here’s a chart that shows how the background is very blurry at big settings and sharp at small settings:
Each lens you own will have a number written on it like “F4” or “F1.8”. The number written on the lens is the biggest opening the lens can handle. A lens can always make the hole smaller to let less light in. Lenses with low numbers like F1.4 or F1.2 are more expensive because it takes more optics inside a lens to support larger openings. It can also make the lenses heavier.
Since an F1.8 lens can open wider than an F4 lens, it can also blur the background more. That’s why lenses with low f-numbers (and thus large openings) are often preferred for portraits. Portraits usually look good with the background blurry. This blurry background effect is called “bokeh”.
Of course that doesn’t mean every portrait should automatically have a blurry background. You can make the aperture smaller to keep everything in focus. This is useful if the background itself is a key part of the picture.
But when you are first learning manual mode, try using a large aperture for close-up portraits. Then once you get the hang of the blurry background ‘look’, try experimenting with other looks too.
When you are taking a landscape photo, you usually don’t want a large aperture opening. That’s because you want the entire landscape in focus from front-to-back. It is the opposite of portraits.
But just like with portraits, feel free to experiment with other looks. You can use a blurred background to focus the viewer in on one area of the landscape.
How to take a picture in Manual Mode
I’m sure you already know how to take a picture in Automatic Mode:
- Set the camera to automatic mode.
- Point the camera at something.
- Click the shutter button!
Taking a picture in Manual is just four extra steps:
- Set the camera to manual mode.
- Set the ISO sensitivity at an appropriate value — ISO 100 for a sunny day, ISO 800 to ISO 3200 for inside a building (depending how much much light you have in the room).
- Point the camera at something.
- Dial in either the shutter speed or aperture setting that you want to create your desired look.
- Press the shutter button half way down. This triggers the camera’s light meter. It will tell you if your picture will be too dark or too light.
- Based on what the light meter says, dial in the aperture or shutter speed (whichever one you didn’t set in step 5) until the light meter tells you that your exposure is right in the middle.
- Click the shutter button!
Do all these steps sound complicated? It really isn’t bad at all. You just need to practice! Pick up your camera right now and try shooting in manual! Remember, the light meter on your camera is your friend. It will help you get your exposure correct. Listen to it and it will guide you in the right direction.
Once you are used to setting the shutter speed and aperture size quickly, move on to the last section of this guide.
A Post-Manual World
As you practice shooting in manual mode, you will start to see a pattern. You are setting either the aperture size and then adjusting the shutter speed to match or you are setting the shutter speed and then adjusting the aperture size to match.
Well here’s a secret: Most pro photographers don’t shoot in manual mode outside of a studio! Instead they shoot in “Aperture Priority mode” or “Shutter Priority mode”.
Aperture Priority mode is where you set the aperture size and then your camera sets the shutter speed automatically.
Shutter Priority mode is where you set the shutter speed and then your camera sets the aperture size automatically.
Both modes will save you a lot of time when you are shooting. Now that you have mastered manual, give them both a try. Most photographers use aperture priority mode. Shutter priority mode is more common for wildlife or sports photography where freezing the action is vital.
Most cameras have also added an “Automatic ISO” option which allows the camera to adjust the ISO level automatically with each shot. This is great when you are moving fast between different locations that have different lighting.