Manual Photography: Understanding The Basics

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What is full manual mode?
Full manual mode (Often represented as an ‘M’ on the mode dial of a camera) is a mode that allows you to take full control of what your camera does when you are composing a photo. In this mode you can fully influence how  your camera responds to the light in its immediate environment.

What’s the benefit?

A long exposure, which includes light trails. I could not have captured this shot without manually programming my camera settings.

Whether your camera is a smartphone, or a feature-packed DSLR, most will feature an ‘automatic’ mode, where all you need to do is find a position that you like and shoot, and the camera will do the rest. If Photography can be this easy, what’s the benefit of manual mode? Automatic mode, as intelligent and convenient as it may be, will not always capture the photo that you the photographer want to capture. understanding and using manual mode will open up more freedom and artistic creativity for you as the photographer and equip you to deal with many different situations to get the exact results that you want.

Three necessary things to understand

To understand and improve your photography, it’s important that you understand the ‘Three pillars’ of photography, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

What is Aperture?

Aperture, put simply, is the hole within a lens that lets light through and  into a cameras body. It behaves in a similar way to how the pupil of an eye behaves. When in automatic mode, depending on how much light is available, the aperture or hole in the lens will either expand or shrink so that the appropriate amount of light is used to capture what the camera thinks is a well balanced exposure. In manual mode you will be able to control aperture and decide how light or dark an exposure is recorded, along with ‘depth of field’ (which areas of your photos are sharp and which areas are blurred out). As seen in the picture above, aperture is represented by an f and a number, commonly called an ‘f stop’. The f stop will tell you how wide the hole in your lens is. Here’s something that may be confusing at first. The smaller the f number, the wider the hole in the lens. Aperture f/1.8 as seen in the picture is a ‘wide aperture’ and f/22 is a ‘narrow aperture’. 

When to use a wide aperture

A wide aperture will let in more light and blur out the background of the subject you focus on While keeping the subject sharp. This is espescially useful for macro photography and portraits. It will also be useful in some dark situations. Below is an example:

This shot of an orchid was taken with a wide aperture of f/2.8. One of the flowers is in sharp focus whereas the rest of the flowers and the backround have been purposely blurred out.

When to use a narrow aperture

If you’re shooting a landscape or a cityscape and want to capture crisp detail across the whole scene, a narrow aperture is essential. Why? Let’s look at how the eye works again. Have you ever looked at something that seems out of focus, and after squinting got a clearer picture? This is similar to what a narrow aperture does. As the hole in your lens gets smaller, details become clearer and sharper. Another example is provided below: 

This seascape shot has a narrow aperture of f/16. Everything -from the sand in the foreground to the background water and sky- is in sharp focus along with the main subject, the lighthouse.

What is shutter speed?

Within your cameras body you will have something called a shutter. It acts like a curtain. When not being used, the shutter covers your cameras sensor. When the shutter button is pressed, your shutter will open to expose the sensor to the light that has passed through the lens. ‘Shutter speed’ is the length of time that the shutter opens to expose the sensor. Just like aperture, learning to control your cameras shutter speed will allow you to be much more creative when composing your photos. With a fast shutter speed (such as 1/1000) the sensor is exposed to light for a very short period of time and will freeze action. a slow shutter speed (such as 5 seconds) will capture the motion of anything that is moving in front of or across the sensor (which is why a tripod is highly recommended for slow shutter speeds).

This shot was taken at a shutter speed of 1/8000. A fast shutter speed will enable you to freeze action.
For this long exposure shot, the shutter was open for 72 seconds. The sensor has captured the motion of passing cars. These are called ‘light trails’.

What is ISO?

A cameras ISO sensitivity is the level of sensitivity the sensor has to the available light. Yes, You can control this too! Why would you want to control the sensors sensitivity? If it is dark and you need to capture an action shot (e.g. A child who is full of energy and can’t keep still), having a low sensitivity would mean that the exposure would need to be long to gather enough light. A long exposure would capture lots of movement and cause motion blur. Increasing the sensitivity will mean that the sensor can gather more light in a shorter period of time. You can shoot in low light using a fast shutter speed by increasing ISO sensitivity. That is just one example. If the surrounding light is very bright and you want to catch the detail of the clouds in the sky, you would then use a low ISO so that the details are not blown out. There is a downside to increasing the cameras sensitivity. The higher the ISO, the higher the chance of noise (graininess) and loss of detail in your image. Due to advancements​ in technology, this situation is improving, but this downside still holds true. The ISO of a camera usually starts with a base number of 100 or 200 (The lowest or ‘base’ ISO Sensitivity), and this number is typically doubled each time ISO is increased (400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400…). Below is a chart that explains this better than I can:

Here are some examples of photos that I’ve taken at different ISO sensitivities. Notice how both the available light and the aperture and shutter speed directly affect the ISO sensitivity that is needed for a balanced exposure.

Sunny Outdoors: Aperture = f/14, Shutter Speed = 1/30, ISO = 100
Indoor low light: Aperture = f/2.8, Shutter Speed = 1/15, ISO = 1600
Cloudy Outdoors: Aperture = f/11, Shutter speed = 1/50, ISO = 400
Night Outdoors:  Aperture = f/3.5, Shutter speed = 1/50, ISO = 2000
Sunrise outdoors: Aperture = f/2.8, Shutter speed = 1/80, ISO = 200
Night outdoors (long exposure): Aperture = f/6.3, Shutter speed = 13.6 Seconds, ISO = 100

Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of how your camera works and how to have control over the photos you take. No matter how much I say in this post though, to master manual control you will have to pick your camera up, find out where these settings are, go out and experiment and record which results work best for you (This is where the histogram may be useful).  All the best with manual shooting! 😊 

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