Step 1 to becoming a photographer

In this article, I will discuss in detail how and why to shoot in manual mode.  Some of this may seem harsh and blunt but bear with me.

I mentioned in So you want to be a photographer, the first step I recommend is getting out of auto exposure mode and I mean total manual as in the “M”.

“Why do you say that?  I’ve read others say to learn in auto or start in program or aperture mode.” Some may even say, “You’ll miss shots”.  First of all, you should not repeat should not be shooting for clients paying or not until you understand what you are doing and why.  I know that sounds harsh and like I am attempting to discourage others from working towards their goals and dreams.  I am not wanting to discourage anyone.  I want to help others from failures and undo pressure to offer professional quality photographs until they are ready.

We could commonly refer to manual exposure mode as the “creative” mode.  This mode will allow us, the photographer, to decide how we want our exposure to look and not the camera attempting to guess based upon its program.

Let’s take a look at two examples to see the difference between manual mode and auto mode.

This was shot in manual mode.  I metered, using the camera’s built-in reflected light meter on the brightest part of the lamp shade using the spot metering mode which we will discuss in another article.  To obtain a good or balanced exposure the settings were adjusted to 1/60th a second shutter speed (since I was using a 50mm lens I did not want to go below that speed.  We will talk more about that later in this article), the aperture was set to f/2.5 at ISO 400.

As you can see we get light from the window on the right to light our subject giving it shape and dimensions.


Manual Mode

The image below was shot on auto mode.  While we have a good exposure this image is much less dramatic, at least in my opinion.  It looks flat due to the built-in flash firing.  The camera decided the settings, 1/60th of a second, aperture at f/4, and ISO 400.

You can also see we have a hard shadow caused by the flash firing.

The camera decided it needed to use flash.

In using manual I was able to decide how the image looked.  In this image, I wanted to use the light coming in from the window to light the subject (the lamp shade).  While emphasizing the shadows from the light fall-off and a shallow depth of field (how much of the scene is in focus) to give less emphasis to the wall behind the lamp.  Much of this creative thought the camera could not know.

You may be asking yourself, how do you know and learn all that?  It is learned by shooting in manual mode.  Practice, review, adjust, practice more.

Learn how to adjust exposure in manual mode.

I mentioned in the section above that I used the camera’s built-in meter to measure the light to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  Most modern cameras that allow you the option to shoot in manual mode have a built-in light meter that measures reflected light (how much light a subject or scene reflects back to the camera).

The meter reading is displayed as a bar graph similar to the image below.

If you look through the viewfinder you will see a series of numbers at the bottom.  When you are not in an auto mode, A or Av, S or Tv, P, or M (manual) you will see the meter bar graph.  You will also notice a larger hash in the center (often marked with a zero) with  + or – signs (some models will also have numbers).  As the graph moves towards the plus (+) sign the image is overexposed or as it moves towards the minus ( – ) sign underexposed.  When centered, it is said to be a balanced exposure, neither under or overexposed.

There are three settings to adjust the exposure in manual.

  • You can change the shutter speed.  A faster shutter speed opens and closes the shutter faster allowing less light to strike the sensor while a slower shutter speed will allow the shutter to stay open longer allowing more light to fall on the sensor.
  • You can also adjust the aperture, the opening in the lens allowing light into the camera.  A larger number aperture is a smaller opening and a smaller number is a larger opening (Think fractions, 1/4 is larger than 1/16).
  • You can adjust ISO (film speed) to make the sensor (film) more sensitive to light.  A higher ISO makes the sensor more sensitive to light.

These three settings are often referred to as the exposure triangle.  We can adjust exposure by using changing one or more of the three settings.

Shutter speed.

The inside of our camera is light proof.  The mechanism controlling this is the shutter, think of it as a door or light proof curtain on a window.  The shutter can be opened for a fraction of a second to seconds (or longer in a special setting called “bulb”).  We are most commonly operating in fractions of seconds, as with the photographs above of the lamp shade where the shutter was open 1/60th of a second.

As a word of caution your shutter speed should be, at least, equal to the focal length of the lens you are using, or the current zoom setting.  For example, in the photographs above of the lamp I used a 50mm lens so I needed a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second or faster to hand hold the camera to prevent what is referred to as camera shake.  Camera shake will make an image blurry looking.

To see the shutter in action watch the video below.


Amazing isn’t it?

The shutter can also be used creatively to freeze motion or to blur motion (we will discuss this in more detail in another article).


Aperture is the opening of a lens (not the same as the front element).  

As you can see in the photograph above, the front of the lens is larger than the aperture setting, in this case, this is a 50mm Nikon f/1.8 lens set to f/5 (the aperture setting is written as f/ followed by a number.  I will not go into the why it is written like this for this article).  Aperture will also control the depth of field, how much of a subject or scene is in sharp focus.  The smaller the opening (larger number) the greater the depth of field.  For example, f/11 will have more depth of field than f/4.

Think fractions.  For example 1/4th is larger than 1/11th.

While the shutter controls how long the “window” is open allowing light into the sensor, the aperture determines how large of a window we are using.

ISO or film speed.

ISO is a designation on how sensitive the film or digital sensor is to the light.  The higher the ISO number the more sensitive the film or digital sensor (Unlike film the digital sensor isn’t really “more” sensitive to the light but rather amplifies the signal created by the light much like an amplifier makes a sound louder).

Putting these settings to use.

As you can see, each of the three components can be used singularly or in conjunction with each other to control the exposure of a scene.

Here are the steps to use:

  1. Set your camera to M(anual)
  2. Look through the viewfinder while pointing your camera at the scene you want to photograph
  3. Adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to get the graph where there are few or no visible hashes on either side of zero (check your camera’s specific manual on how to make these adjustments).
  4. Focus
  5. Press the shutter to take a photograph.

Here is where you may need to practice.  Once you become accustomed to making these adjustments you will become faster and more proficent.  Also, once you are proficient at obtaining a “balanced” exposure you can use the skills you learned to become more creative.







1 thought on “Step 1 to becoming a photographer”

Leave a Reply