A beginner’s guide to shooting in Manual mode

It’s time to take control, stop shooting in automatic, and explore the world of manual photography.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Sharan Pillai
© Sharan Pillai

For a lot of photo enthusiasts, the idea of clicking in manual mode is something so complex, they would rather sit and solve mind-boggling integration, differentiation equations when actually it is as simple as addition and subtraction.

To shoot in manual mode, first of all, one has to understand how a camera functions. Let’s take a look at how a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera works, be it digital or film. A camera in simple terms is a lightproof box that lets in a bit of light just at the right moment to capture an image.

Let’s imagine you want to click a picture of your little nephew playing in the backyard. You lift the camera to your eyes and as the light reflects off him, it enters the lightproof box of your camera through the lens. The light then hits the reflex and relay mirror and bounces onto the pentaprism (five-sided glass) and into the eyepiece, for you to see exactly how the image will be captured. When the right moment arrives and you click the shutter button, the reflex and relay mirror moves away to allow the light to fall on the sensor and the image gets captured.

Image result for camera section
Cross-section of a single lens reflex camera. © Emaze.com

The next step is to understand light and how it is measured and controlled by the camera.

In photography, exposure is the amount of light per unit area reaching a photographic film or digital sensor. In order to control the light, one has to control the exposure. While in automatic mode, the camera does this for you; in manual mode, you are in charge of how much light is allowed into the camera.

A photograph’s exposure determines how light or dark an image will appear when it’s been captured by your camera. Believe it or not, this is determined by just three camera settings: aperture, shutter speed and ISO aka the “exposure triangle”. And in mastering this triangle, lies the key to unlocking that camera dial, stuck in automatic.

Before we jump into the exposure triangle, let’s take a look at how light is measured by the camera. A camera uses a light meter for this purpose and light is measured in terms of what is called a stop. You’ve probably noticed the light meter on the bottom of your viewfinder, it looks something like this:

Esmer Olvera at Flickr

Each stop doubles or halves the amount of light in your scene. If the light meter reads:

+1 stop – there is double the amount of light that is required to expose the scene correctly

+2 stop – there is four times the amount of light that is required to expose the scene correctly

0 stop – there is the correct amount of light that is required to expose the scene correctly

-1 stop – there is half the amount of light that is required to expose the scene correctly

-2 stop – there is four times less the amount of light that is required to expose the scene correctly

© Nikhil Sreekandan
© Nikhil Sreekandan

Now it’s time to master the “exposure triangle”. Here’s a detailed look at how the three pillars of the exposure triangle work:

1. Aperture is the measure of how open or closed the lens’ iris is. A wider aperture means more light is let in and a smaller aperture means less light is let in. Aperture is measured in what is called f-stops, you have probably seen these numbers on your camera: f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4.  The larger the number, the smaller the aperture, which means less light. Smaller the number, larger the aperture and therefore more light.

© Esmer Olvera at Flickr

Now to apply this to the light meter, remember stops? Suppose the aperture is set to f/4 and your light meter reads +1, it means the light is double of what is required, that the image is over-exposed.

In order to bring the reading to 0 or to reduce the reading by 1 stop, you need to reduce the light by half, that is you need to reduce the aperture size (move to a larger number), so you move the aperture from f/4 to f/5.6.

2. Shutter Speed (SS) is the measure of how long the shutter is open, which means how long the sensor is exposed to light. Faster shutter speeds mean less time and slower shutter speeds mean more time for the sensor to collect light.

SS is also measured in fractions, fractions of a second. Larger the number, faster the shutter speed and less the light. Lower the number, slower the shutter speed and therefore more light. Common shutter speeds are 1/4,1/8,1/15,1/30,1/60 and each is one stop apart.

© Esmer Olvera at Flickr

To apply this to exposure control, let’s again use an example. Suppose your shutter speed is set to 1/60 and your light meter reads -1, it means the light is half of what is required, that the image is underexposed.

In order to bring the reading to 0 or increase the reading by 1 stop, you need to increase the light by half, that is you need to reduce the shutter speed (move to a larger number), so you move the shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/125.

3. ISO measures the sensitivity of your sensor. The lower the number, the less sensitive your camera becomes, and the higher the number, the more sensitive the camera becomes.

ISO is expressed in numbers 100-200-400-800-1600-3200-6400. While the ISO allows for better images under low-light conditions by increasing the sensitivity of the sensor, it comes at a price, the image loses its quality. The lower the number, more light is required to get the correct exposure and cleaner the image. The higher the number, the less light is required to get the correct exposure but noisier the image.

© Esmer Olvera at Flickr

For beginners, it is best to leave ISO in auto and just play with aperture and shutter speed.

Let’s summarise. How to shoot in Manual mode in four easy steps:

Step 1: Do a meter reading

Step 2: Analyse your meter reading and decide how much more or less light you need in order to expose the scene correctly

Step 3: manually select a shutter and aperture combination to get the correct amount of light.

Step 4: Capture the perfect shot!

If you are interested in learning more, please drop a comment below and we will be happy to follow up this with another lesson.

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