How to make the jump from automatic shooting to manual shooting

Thanks to modern technology, a high-end digital SLR camera can be just as easy to use as any point-and-shoot pocket camera.  Taking a picture is simple!  Just set the camera on auto mode, point and shoot!  The camera takes care of everything else automatically.  Pretty great, right?

But if you have talked to your camera nerd friends or have read anything online, you've certainly heard of a mysterious "manual" mode.  You've probably also heard that it is "better than automatic" and that "automatic mode is stupid."

Is there really anything to this manual mode nonsense?  If your camera can take perfectly good pictures automatically, why try to outsmart it?

The problem with Automatic

The automatic exposure system on your camera has one goal and only one goal.  It wants to make sure that there is enough light hitting your camera's sensor to produce an image.  If there is too little light, your picture will be too dark.  If there is too much light, your picture will be too bright.  In automatic mode, your camera strives to get just enough light.  Most of the time, it can do a pretty good job of this.

There are three ways to control the amount of light recorded by your camera.  By adjusting each of these three variables, your camera can make sure that every picture you take produces an image with the proper amount of light:

  1. By adjusting the "sensitivity" setting on the camera's image sensor

  2. By keeping the "shutter" open a longer or shorter amount of time

  3. By opening the hole in the lens called the "aperture" wider or narrower

Cameras can automatically control these three variables.  In automatic mode, your camera will decide in a split second exactly how wide to open it's aperture, how long to keep it open, and how sensitive the sensor needs to be to properly record the image.

The problem is that changing each of these variables will drastically alter the final look of your picture!  Opening the aperture more causes the background of the picture to go out of focus.  Keeping the shutter open longer makes everything in the image blurry.  Adjusting the sensitivity of the sensor affects the overall quality of the image by adding ugly "noise".

In automatic mode, you don't have any control over which choices are made!  That's why you just end up with a bunch of generic-looking snapshots.  With a little bit of practice in manual mode, you can create something much more interesting.

This shot would be almost impossible in automatic mode but is very simple in manual mode. The nice blurry background is caused by using a wide aperture opening on the camera.  In automatic mode, your camera would try to close the aperture to a smaller size because of the bright light in the scene.  You would get a totally different look - just a "snapshot" look.

What do I gain by shooting in Manual?

As a photographer, you have exactly two jobs:

  • First, you have to make sure your final image "comes out" by capturing just enough light.  This is the technical aspect of your job.

  • Second, you have to make sure that the final image is interesting by using all the capabilities of your camera to make your picture tell a story.  This is the artistic aspect of your job.

With automatic mode, your camera handles the first task for you (and quite well!).  The problem is that handling the first task means that it makes all the decisions for you which prevents you from handling the second task.

Taking creative pictures almost impossible in automatic, but even more so in low light. This shot was easily done using manual control with very little light.

Let's go through each way you can control the amount of light coming into your camera.  Each method has side effects which change the final look of your image.

Manual Controls

Control #1: Light Sensitivity (ISO Speed)

Your digital camera has an image sensor inside of it.  This image sensor is what records the picture - it is the digital version of "film".

The image sensor from inside of a Canon 5D mkII camera

But just like your own eyes, the sensor can see well in different amounts of light. Unlike your eyes, someone has to tell it how sensitive it needs to be.  Like the volume knob on your television or radio, this sensor has a "volume" control that controls how much light it records.  The higher you turn up the sensitivity, the less light you need to make a picture.  However, higher sensitivity levels push your camera to the limit and add ugly "noise" to your image.

Camera sensitivity is measured according to a confusing scale called the ISO scale.  The history behind the name of the scale is pretty complicated, but all you need to know is that lower numbers mean the sensor is less sensitive and higher numbers mean the sensor is more sensitive.  Typically, ISO 100 is the least sensitive setting.  The most sensitive setting varies according to the capabilities of your camera.

Here is an example of how an image appears brighter with higher ISO settings:

The ISO scale doubles each time the image is twice as bright.  So ISO 1600 is only twice as bright as ISO 800 - it's not 800% brighter.

Note that higher ISO settings make the final image look worse by adding "noise" that appears as ugly dots in the final image.  More expensive cameras typically can operate at higher sensitivity levels without nearly as much noise.  That's one reason that some digital cameras cost $5000 while others only cost $700.  The more expensive ones can often shoot good pictures with much less light.

Control #2: How long the camera shutter is open (Shutter Speed)

The next variable you can control is how long the camera's opening stays open.  The opening in your camera lens is covered by a "shutter".  When you click the button on your camera to take a picture, the shutter opens for a brief moment.  The longer it stays open, the more light comes into the camera.

Shutter speed is measured in a very simple scale - fractions of a second.  So a 1/50 shutter speed means the camera stays open for one fiftieth of a second.  That sounds like barely any time at all, but it's actually quite a long time in photographic terms.  Anything that moves while the shutter is open will appear as blurry in the final image.  By using a faster shutter speed, you can "freeze" the action.  But to use a faster shutter speed, you need more light because the shutter wasn't open as long and not as much light reached the image sensor.

Notice how these birds appear at different shutter speeds:

The moving bird appears quite blurry at 1/50th of a second.  But at 1/800th of a second, the flying bird is very sharp.  That's because even a flying bird doesn't move much in 1/800th of a second so it appears to be "still" in the picture.

In most cases, you want the shutter speed to be fast enough to capture your image without any blurryness.  However, there are many cool effects that you can do by keeping the shutter open for a long time while the camera is fixed on a tripod.  For example, water in a waterfall or ocean will take on a very "dreamy" effect if you leave the shutter open for a long time.

Notice how the ocean water in this picture has a cool "flat" look. This was done by keeping the shutter open for a long time to smooth out the water. With automatic mode, this shot would have been a boring snapshot.

Control #3: Aperture Size

The third way to control light coming into your camera is to change the size of the opening in the camera's lens.  This hole, called the aperture, is the place where light enters the camera.  Obviously a bigger hole lets in more light than a smaller hole.

But this is where things get complicated.  Because of the way light focusing works, a larger opening causes the background of the image to become blurry.  A small opening causes more of the background to be in focus.

The scale used to measure the size of the size of the opening (again, called the aperture) is the "f-number" scale.  It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.  There is just one trick- a smaller number means the opening is bigger.   The f-number scale is what a math major would call a geometric sequence.  If you aren't a math major and don't know what "a power sequence of the square root of 2" means, just memorize it:  f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.

Here's a chart that shows how the background is very blurry at big settings and sharp at small settings:

Each lens you own will have a number written on it like "F4" or "F1.8".  The number written on the lens is the biggest opening the lens can handle.  It can always make the hole smaller to let less light in.  Lens with low numbers like F1.4 or F1.2 are more expensive because it takes more optics inside a lens to handle larger holes.  It can also make the lenses heavier.

This also means that an F1.8 lens can open wider than an F4 lens and thus it can also blur the background more.  That's why lenses with low f-numbers (and thus large openings) are preferred for portraits.  Portraits look good with the background blurry.  This blurry background effect is called "bokeh".

This photo was taken with the lens set at F1.8. That means the lens was open really wide and let a lot of light into the camera. It also means that the background is completely blurry which is nice in a portrait.  Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

When you are taking a landscape photo, you don't want a large aperture opening.  That's because you want the entire landscape in focus.  It is the opposite of portraits.

This landscape shot was taken at F/11 so that more of the landscape would be in focus. At F1.8, most of the mountain would be out of focus which would look really bad in most cases.

How to actually take a picture

I'm sure you already know how to take a picture in automatic:

  1. Set the camera to automatic mode

  2. Point the camera at something

  3. Zoom in (if you are using a zoom lens)

  4. Click the shutter button

Taking a picture in manual is just four extra steps:

  1. Set the camera to manual mode

  2. Set the ISO sensitivity at an appropriate value - ISO 100 for a sunny day, ISO 400 to ISO 3200 for inside a building (depending how much much light you have in the room)

  3. Point the camera at something

  4. Zoom in (if you are using a zoom lens)

  5. Dial in either the shutter speed or aperture speed that you want to create the desired look

  6. Press the shutter button half way down.  This triggers the camera's light meter.  It will tell you if your picture will be too dark or too light

  7. Based on what the light meter says, dial in the aperture of shutter speed (whichever one you didn't set in step 5) until the light meter tells you that your exposure is right in the middle

  8. Take a picture!

Do all these steps sound complicated?  It really isn't bad at all.  You just need to practice!  Pick up your camera right now and try shooting in manual!  Remember, the light meter on your camera is your friend.  It will help you get your exposure correct.  Listen to it and it will guide you in the right direction.

Once you are used to setting the shutter speed and aperture size quickly and can create pictures that look good, move on to the last section of this guide.

A Post-Manual World

As you practice shooting in manual mode, you will start to see a pattern.  You are setting either the aperture size and then adjusting the shutter speed to match or you are setting the shutter speed and then adjusting the aperture size to match.

Well here's a dirty secret: Most pro photographers don't shoot in manual mode!  Instead they shoot in "Aperture Priority mode" or "Shutter Priority mode".

Aperture Priorty mode is where you set the aperture size and then your camera sets the shutter speed automatically.

Shutter Priority mode is where you set the shutter speed and then your camera sets the aperture size automatically.

Both modes will save you a lot of time when you are shooting.  Now that you have mastered manual, give them both a try.  Most photographers use aperture priority mode.  Shutter priority mode is more common for wildlife or sports photography where freezing the action is vital.

Recent cameras have also introduced an "Automatic ISO" option which allows the camera to adjust the ISO level automatically with each shot.  This is great when you are moving fast between different locations that have different lighting.