Day 2: Shooting in Manual Mode

It’s day 2 of my 100 days of photography and we are talking about shooting in manual mode. If you missed yesterday, click here for an explanation of the big three – aperture, shutter and ISO.

I decided the day I got my camera that I was going to put my camera in manual mode and never take it off. I hit my shutter button and it stayed open for thirty seconds and gave me a big white image. I legit thought my camera was broken. I remember all I could think to do was lightly shake my camera to see if that would fix it.

At my first session ever I did all I could to prepare, but the pressure of the moment made me forget everything I knew. I did everything correctly (or so I thought) and my image was really dark. I remember thinking “I swear this thing is broken.” If I would have taken a minute to collect my thoughts I would have realized there was no reason my aperture had to be set at 4.5 and my shutter at 1,000. I could have brought both of those way down to get a good exposure. Instead I was too nervous in the moment to look like I didn’t know what I was doing in front of a 3 and 6 year old, so I just shot on.

While I had studied shutter, ISO, and aperture for weeks beforehand and could give you a textbook definition for each, I didn’t know how to balance the three to get a good image. And that’s the secret to shooting in manual; it’s a balancing act. Let’s go over three “what if” scenarios:

Scenario 1: You’re shooting a group of 12 people in the shade. You have your camera on ISO 100, aperture value (AV or F Stop) 2.8 and shutter 1/400. You realize half of the group is out of focus because of your low F stop. You bump up your F stop to 5.6 and suddenly your image is too dark. To compensate, you can either choose a higher ISO or slow your shutter. You slow your shutter to 1/120 and the image is still a bit too dark. You don’t want to slow your shutter anymore because people are moving and you want to keep a sharp image. So you choose to bump up your ISO to 400. The image looks great and everyone is in focus from your higher aperture value!

Scenario 2: The wedding ran a little long and the sun is setting fast. You only have a few minutes with the couple before your light is gone. Your image looks a bit dark and a little dreary at aperture 3.5, ISO 200 and shutter 1/100. You want those images you see that are full of light with buttery backgrounds and creamy skin tones and it’s just not happening. You bump your ISO to 400 to keep your ISO moderate with minimal grain. It’s still not doing it for you… you don’t want to bump the ISO anymore so you open your aperture to 2.0 and suddenly all your woes are gone! The lower aperture creates an image that is soft, beautiful, and bright with a shallow depth of field that lets in tons of light.

Scenario 3:  Your client requested a shoot in the desert and it’s bright out! You want soft backgrounds so your F stop is set to 2.8 and your ISO is as low as it will go at 100, but the image is still almost white. Your shutter is at 1/200. You position your clients with the sun coming from their backs and speed your shutter up to 1/1,000 so you can keep the low ISO and low F stop. Your image is exposed perfectly in the bright sunlight.

When you make a change that affects the image, you might need to change other settings to compensate. Opening the aperture might require you to speed up your shutter or lower your ISO. Sometimes it’s not ideal… shooting in a dark church might require a high ISO that gives you grain you’d rather not have. But to nail an exposure, you have to be able to balance these three settings. When you’re shooting and your image is too dark or too bright, see what settings you can change to let more or less light in.

A few more tips:

  • When you’re shooting in low light, it can be tempting to think “I’ll just shoot a little dark and then lift the image in Lightroom later. Unfortunately this method rarely looks good. When you’re shooting in lower light, it’s better to max out your camera settings and get a proper exposure than it is to try to brighten an image more than a stop later in post production.
  • While not part of the three settings, I do like shooting in Daylight for white balance. Auto white balance will work really well most of the time but I like daylight for a little extra warmth. Try experimenting with all your white balance settings and see what works for you!
  • Don’t be afraid to explore different settings. I was terrified for years to go below F2.0 but then I shot some wedding details at 1.4 and loved them! It was a “where have you been all my life” moment.
  • If you want to shoot in real life settings without the pressure of client expectations, try attending a local fair / public event and doing some “Street photography.” This will give you the opportunity to shoot with different lighting situations and you can take your time finding the right settings. Once you’re done, you can submit your images to a local publication and maybe get your first feature! 🙂

When you’re shooting and your images don’t look quite right, you have to either change your subject, as in, where they’re standing and where you’re standing, or you need to change your settings. Stop, take pause and figure out WHAT doesn’t look right. Is your image too dark? If so, you know that in order to make a brighter image, you can up your ISO, you can lower your F Stop, or you can slow your shutter. Those are your three options. So what, given what you’re photographing and your current settings, is the best option? If your F Stop is already as low as you can go and your shutter is already slow, then ISO it is! I understand these will take a long time to “Click” into place when you’re shooting. That’s why it’s important to slow down and really determine why you’re not getting the results you want and what needs to change to make it happen. Likewise, when a shoot is really working for you, take a moment to note your settings and where your subject is positioned in relation to your light source. This will help you recreate that look in the future. Read through these scenarios slowly a few times. Really imagine they’re happening and why each solution makes sense. You will absolutely get it!

That’s day two! Thank you so much for being here! Tomorrow we are going to be talking about finding your first clients!

denise karis photography blog 100 posts in 100 days for photographers

Denise Karis is an Arizona photographer who enjoys musicals, Doctor Who and breakfast burritos. IG @denisekaris