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Shooting in Manual Mode | Ask Anything



“Wow! Your camera takes great pictures!” — Any photographer has certainly heard this before… and it’s slightly more complicated than that.

Most people think that by spending lots of money on a DSLR camera that it will magically take great photos — While this is partly true, it does take a good camera (and lens!) to produce beautiful images… however, it’s the mechanics behind the image that consistently takes great pictures.

For today’s blog post, I wanted to dive in and explain the basics in how I shoot. Now there are many, many settings on a standard DSLR camera… by shooting in Auto mode (or Program Mode) this will every-now-and-then produce good images. In order to take full control of my images for my clients (adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO — I promise I’ll explain all this), I have learned to shoot in Manual mode.

nikond3200_mode_bNow, I’ll admit, during my high school and collage days it was much much easier to have my camera in Auto mode and snap away! It wasn’t until I started my photography business when I wanted to be more in control of my images so I could produce an image that I envisioned versus letting my camera decide the settings for me.

I will touch on this more in another post but just a little side note about lenses… It is much easier to learn how to shoot in manual mode with a prime lens. Prime lenses do not zoom (you move your feet if you want to get closer), it has a fixed aperture (meaning you control your aperture), and most people say it gives you a sharper image than a zoom lens. Zoom lenses allows you to zoom back and forth, not all zoom lenses have a fixed aperture (I highly recommend a fixed aperture lens), and most kit lenses have a variable aperture so be careful (the aperture changes depending on what focal length you use, not set by you).

For my portrait sessions and the majority of my “getting ready” shots for weddings I use the 50mm f/1.8G lens. I’m in love with this lens — Seriously, I have a crush on it! This was the first prime lens that I bought — it’s very affordable and worth every penny! I love the bokeh (the blurry/creamy background), the sharpness, and the color it presents. It’s fantastic for low light situations. Honestly, this lens lives on my camera. It is a wonderful prime lens and I love that the aperture can go down to f/1.8. Next on my gear wish list (among a few other things) is the 50mm f/1.4G.

OK — So back to what I was saying… When I learned how to shoot in manual mode I needed to know and understand the “exposure triangle”. This is made up of my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I use these three components to get my light meter to be at/near zero (+ 2 . . . 1 . . . 0 . . . 1 . . . 2 -).

Aperture. The aperture or sometimes called the “f stop” is what allows me to have those blurry backgrounds people often ask me about. The lower the number (f/1.8) only has a small part of your photo in focus and then slowly gets blurrier as I go out from my focal point. Here is a good rule of thumb that I use… Lower number aperture = more light and a blurrier background / Higher number aperture = less light and a sharper background.

ISO. Pronounced by the letters, I-S-O. The most common ISO camera settings are: 100, 200, 400 and 800…however, depending on your camera it can go as high as 6400. The lower the number the less light. Something to keep in mind about ISO is it can sometimes affect the amount of “noise” in a picture. Noise is when pictures look grainy or pixelated. Typically if I’m outside shooting then I can have a lower ISO such as 100 or 200. However, if I’m indoors with low lighting I increase my ISO to around 800. During my sessions, I always remember, Lower ISO = less light / Higher ISO = more light. Here is a little chart/graph below so you can get a better idea visually.


Shutter speed. This is the 3rd component of the “exposure triangle.” This is the amount of time that my shutter is open. When looking at my camera my shutter speed is written as 1/(a number). This means that my shutter is open for 1/(whatever the #) of a second. The lower the bottom number the more light will come in because my shutter is open longer. The higher the bottom number means less light will be coming in because it is open for less time. During my sessions, I’m moving around a lot — inevitably, my camera shakes whether I mean to or not, which is why I want to keep my shutter speed as high as possible. This is especially true when photographing children — if my shutter speed wasn’t set properly during these shots below then they would’ve been blurry when Kenley was dancing in her basket, when Tanner was laughing, when Aidan was tickling his Mom, or when baby Luke was wiggling around.

 View More:   View More:   DSC_0989   2013-10-13_0023

By adjusting these three things, aperture/ISO/Shutter Speed, I’m moving the “ticker” back and forth in my light meter. Ideally, I want to adjust them so that the ticker is on the zero so it is considered a properly exposed picture. Although, sometimes I purposefully overexpose — depending on the look I’m going for.

When shooting in Manual mode, I get to choose the focal point — this is one of my favorite features! For instance, in Heather’s maternity session, I told her to hold up her baby’s shoes and smile — I got one shot where I focused on the shoes and then other where I focused on her face. These were two very different images because the focal point changed. I also had a lens that could give me the freedom to add bokeh to my images.

                                                    DSC_0069           DSC_0071

2013-10-09_0044Beautiful bokeh  — I touched on this earlier but it’s worth elaborating a little more. Photographers love bokeh (pronounced like mocha but with a “B”, LOL!). This is what produces the beautiful professional-looking blurry backgrounds in my photographs so my subject is the primary focus. The amount of blurry background is dependent upon my aperture setting — this is why prime lenses rock! The best way to achieve great bokeh is to get my subjects out in the open. If they are up against a wall, it’s hard to showcase the full potential of bokeh in my images because there isn’t much depth of field to work with. This is a shot taken during Brittanny’s jewelry session.

DSC_0969Controlling the light in my photographs is key. If I were shooting in Auto mode during Danielle and Aidan’s family session, my flash would have popped up automatically before I took this photo since were were in the shade on their front porch (and Aidan would have probably made a strange face versus laughing and acting natural in the moment). Instead, I controlled it manually. During my sessions and events, I only turn on my flash when I absolutely have to — like is a low lighting situation at a wedding reception. Otherwise, I keep my flash off and adjust my Manual controls, as needed. Reducing the harsh flash also reduces washed out skin tones, red eyes, and shadows behind your subjects.

Well, that’s my high level overview of the mechanics behind my images. See… I told you it was slightly more complicated than it appears when you see me taking pictures. It’s certainly been a challenge for me to learn to shoot manually. I’m continuing to practice everyday and I’m always learning new things. Each photograph is different. That’s what makes it so fun!

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