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I had absolutely no idea what any of the buttons on my camera meant when I first discovered my passion for life behind the lens. I started off in Auto mode but quickly felt bored by the lack of control, so I aggressively skipped the dial to “M”, manual mode, and made just about every error you possibly could in the world of photography. I spent months trying a myriad of manual setting combinations on various subjects and lighting situations only to find myself with a whole lot of memory cards filled with some pretty terrifyingly awful images that I was not proud of.

I overexposed dramatically, struggled with improper focusing, ended up with a pile of unclear photos, and the list goes on and on. I know that photographing in manual mode can be intimidating, frustrating and overwhelming. Suddenly you are on your own navigating the ins and outs of your camera on top of trying to bring forth your artistry while directing your subjects. It feels like a lot to juggle. But I do think finding your way in manual mode is well worth the reward of having more creative control.

Here are some simple tips that might make a world of difference in your thought process behind the camera as you continue to find your groove in manual mode…

2 // Learn aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the three main settings you will use when photographing in manual mode. Each of these settings can be manipulated independently to accomplish the desired style while also contributing to the end result together. Understanding how each of these settings affects the overall frame will help you get a stronger grasp on the workings of your camera.

Aperture – Aperture is essentially the hole in your camera lens. When you take a picture, the light will travel through that hole and into your camera body. You can control the size of that hole, and therefore control how much light is passing through, by increasing or decreasing your aperture setting.

The aperture you choose will directly affect the brightness and depth of field within your image. For example, if you choose an aperture of f/1.8, then you are telling your camera to let in more light to create a stronger depth of field with a sharper focus on your subject and increased background blur. If you apply an aperture of f/8, then you are telling your camera that you’d like less light to pass through that hole and for more of the image to be in focus.

Shutter speed – The shutter speed is the length of time that your camera shutter stays open. When the shutter is open, it allows for light to pass through the camera and onto the sensor.

The longer your shutter speed (lower the shutter speed number), the longer you are keeping that shutter open. This kind of image will include more blur if there is motion within the frame. The faster the shutter speed (higher the shutter speed number), the sharper the image will be.

ISO – ISO stands for the International Standards Organization. Without getting too technical, I will just say that ISO determines how sensitive your sensor is to light. You can adjust the ISO to brighten or darken a photo.

ISO can be very helpful in situations when you might not have much light to leverage. Bumping up your ISO setting will tell your sensor to react more intensely and therefore leave you with a brighter image. Be careful though, because on most cameras this also means that your image file will contain more grain which you may or may not be interested in.

Adjusting these settings alongside each other can sometimes feel like you’re playing with a Rubik’s cube but after constant practice, you WILL find your way!

2 // Decide on your intentions first.

Sometimes we get so caught up in decoding the workings of the equipment we’re using that we become hyperfocused on achieving technical “perfection”. Don’t lose sight of the fact that photography is an art form. It’s an extension of your creativity and there are no rules for how to use your camera.

Before capturing your frame, take a moment to decide on your intentions for the outcome of that image. For example…

Are you photographing a bridal portrait and you want your subject to be in focus with intensely blurred surroundings? In this case, you might want to prioritize your aperture setting and dial it down to a 1.8 or 2.0 for that beautiful, dramatic depth of field. Start by setting your aperture, and then decide on the shutter speed and ISO that is most appropriate to establish balanced exposure.

Are you photographing someone who is moving quickly, perhaps running, and you’d like them to be in very sharp focus? In this case, you may want to prioritize shutter speed to avoid possible blurring. Set your shutter speed (most likely very high), and from there correct your aperture and ISO.

>> On the other hand, if you want to celebrate that movement and would like to include some subject blurring, then you may want to slow down your shutter speed.

Are you photographing a portrait in a poorly lit space with no flash and foresee the result as a beautifully soft, grainy black and white photo? With these very specific intentions in mind, you may want to first decide on your aperture (most likely shooting very wide open somewhere between 1.8 – 2.2) and ISO (potentially jacked all the way up to leverage the little light you have available and add to the grainy style), and then lastly decide on a shutter speed (lowest priority) from there.

Photographing with more intention is by far the best advice I can give a new photographer because this approach pushes us to be more conscious of our creativity and continue challenging ourselves and growing as artists. When you envision the shot, you can make the settings work for you, instead of trying to make the shot work for your settings.

3 // Take a test shot, review, adjust settings and re-do.

This seems like such a basic tip, but I’ve still found in my mentor sessions that this step is often skipped because photographers get flustered while photographing. Playing with settings behind the camera while standing in front of your subject(s) who are staring at you awaiting guidance, can make you feel rushed.

Slow down.

If you feel pressured and want to ease any tension, simply tell your client that you are making sure lighting is on point as you review the photo and correct your settings. You are the professional, they trust you, so take charge and own your process. It’s also OKAY to ask them to re-do a pose or movement so that you can correct your settings and get that perfect shot.

What’s in my camera bag? 

Canon 5D Mark iii // Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens // Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 II USM Lens // Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens // Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 II USM Lens // Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Lens // Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens // Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift Fixed Lens // Holdfast Gear MoneyMaker Multi-Camera Harness //  Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite Flashes // SanDisk Extreme PRO 32gb CompactFlash Memory Cards

For more information about what I use each piece of equipment for and why, visit My Favorite Photography Equipment blog post!

Do you have photography or business related questions that you’d love for me to answer on the blog? I want to hear from you! Please contact me so I can get to work on helping you grow your passion and build your career in photography.

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3 Tips for Photographing in Manual Mode Gain Control & Celebrate your Creativity

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