Saturday, December 27, 2014

Manual Mode in Photography - go for it!

This month's Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge - Shooting Modes - has been leading up to this point: full manual mode. Manual mode is far less intimidating than it may appear at first. This post will walk you through the basics of how to use manual mode to your advantage. (Missed out on the earlier shooting mode posts? Catch up by reading about program mode, shutter priority mode, and aperture priority mode.)

Manual Mode

Manual mode puts you, the photographer, in charge of all of the settings involved in your final image. While this might sound like a lot of responsibility, it is actually only a small step up from shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes. In those modes, you choose two of the three major settings, while the camera chooses the third. (There are, of course, many other settings within your camera, but you can read more about those settings elsewhere in Missed the Shot? Remember Camera Zero.)

In manual mode, you choose all three settings: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. But you are not simply pulling numbers out of thin air. You have two different strategies that you can use when shooting in manual mode: using your light meter or using the 'rule' of Sunny f/16. Each of these options is explained in detail below.

Using Your Light Meter in Manual Mode

The first option for choosing your settings in manual mode is to rely on your camera's internal light meter. When shooting in any mode other than manual, your camera relies on its light meter to determine the correct exposure for the given composition. When shooting in manual, the light meter still provides an estimation of the correct exposure. (Read more here about correct exposure.)

The light meter line graph is visible through your viewfinder when you are shooting. Different camera brands and models will have slightly different displays, but the main idea behind the light meter graph is the same.

If the flashing arrow under the line is pointing to zero, it means that the camera's light meter has determined that your composition is correctly exposed. A negative value means that the composition is too dark (according to the light meter) and a positive value means that the image is too bright.

This is where you, as the photographer, come into play. You now get to decide how you want to change either the ISO, aperture, and/or shutter speed to get the exposure that you want. You do not have to "agree" with your camera and choose values that will give an exact zero, according to the light meter, but it is a useful guide if you are unsure about which settings to use.

Quick Aside about the Exposure Triangle

You can find a lot of information and long digressions about the exposure triangle, but the key point is that you can change the exposure value (as recorded by the light meter) for a given picture in one of three ways: you can change the ISO, the aperture, or the shutter speed. (Sound familiar?) Many people picture this as a triangle-shaped graph with all three variables on it, but I have never found that visualization particularly useful.

I prefer to think about it situationally. Lets say that your meter says your photograph is too dark by one stop. (Your light meter is pointing to -1.) You can ...

  • Double your ISO (say, from 100 to 200 or 400 to 800), which would increase your exposure by one stop. The trade-off is the possibility of increased noise with a higher ISO value.
  • Open up your aperture (make it wider), say from f/8 to f/5.6 or from f/4 to f/2.8, which would increase your exposure by one stop. The trade-off is a decreased depth of field (amount of the image in focus).
  • Double the time for your shutter speed (say, from 1/250th of a second to 1/125th of a second or from 1" to 2" long), which would increase your exposure by one stop. The trade-off is that a longer shutter speed might not work with a moving subject or a shaky photographer.
  • Some combination of all three.
What if you are unsure of where to even start with your settings? That brings us to the other topic I have already mentioned, the "rule" of sunny f/16.

Sunny F/16 and Manual Mode

Sunny F/16 is such a popular concept in photography, that if you Google it, you can find a plethora of t-shirts and other memorabilia with its diagram. Back in the days of film photographers, you would have to carry around a light meter as an additional piece of equipment, rather than having it handily inside your camera. So this was where the "rule" of sunny f/16 originated.

So, here's the rule (or guideline, as it were): if you are shooting on a sunny day, you can set your aperture for f/16 and then set your shutter speed as the reciprocal of your ISO. For an ISO of 100, shutter speed of 1/100th. ISO of 800, shutter speed of 1/800th. Easy.

Want to take it beyond sunny days? You can probably guess the rest of the "rules" by the t-shirt above. Somewhat overcast? F/11. Totally overcast? F/8. Bordering-on-dim overcast? F/5.6. Sunset? F/4. And a bonus: super bright snow or sand? F/22.

Each of these sets of settings will give you a starting place for your manual photography. But what if you want to shoot outside on a sunny day with a wide open aperture for effect? Rather than do all the math of counting f-stops and converting your aperture changes with how to correspondingly change your shutter speed, may I suggest my favorite method?

Guess and check.

Switch back into aperture priority mode, dial in your ISO 100 and f/1.8. Hold your shutter down halfway and take note of the suggested shutter speed. Then switch back into manual and dial in those same settings. Now you can tweak your shutter speed as needed, referring to your light meter or histogram as your guide. (Read more about Demystifying the Histogram for help.)

Shoot in Manual Mode

This week your challenge is to try shooting in manual mode. Take it step-by-step and see how it goes. Find some situations to try out the "rule" of sunny f/16 or one of its counterparts. Try relying on your light meter to get your exposure close and then tweak it to get what you want. You may be surprised at how easy it is to make the jump!

Share a link or a photograph in the comments below, or consider joining the BYP 52 Weeks Google+ Community to share your weekly photograph and see what others are capturing.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.
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