You’ve seen the Instagram photos from your favorite brand, blogger or photographer and think to yourself, “Gee! Only if I had a better camera!” (you know, if you were 12 and raised in the 60s) but the truth is that the camera you own is only a small part of the photography experience. I’d say that the composition of a good photo is 30% equipment, 50% knowing the basics of photography, and 20% editing. While you may not be ready to invest the thousands, yes, thousands into a full frame camera and multiple lenses – you can make a world of a difference by learning how to use your camera on manual settings.
This post will cover the most important parts of using a camera on manual, but will not cover everything. There is so much that goes into the makeup of a good photo like white balance, post-production editing, the delivery of the image (RAW or JPEG) files, etc. But if you are looking for a place to start, this is what you need to know first.
“Cameras are so advanced these days, why do I need to learn manual? Automatic settings will do the work for me.”
False. You use a camera in manual for one simple reason: total control. Is it more work? Yes. Worth it? Hell Yes. When you get to choose every factor that goes into your photo settings you will be able to configure them based on each unique environment, what you are trying to photograph, and the artistic detail you want to achieve.
Here’s a breakdown that will make it easy for you.
The most important thing you need to understand is exposure. That means, how much light the photo has. Exposure is made of three main components: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.
I’ll explain each of them in detail, including what they mean, what effects they have on the photo quality and suggestions for a starting place. Ready? Deep Breath, let’s go.
This is also known as the F-stop. Basically, if you turn your camera into the manual mode you should see something at the bottom of the screen that looks like “f/1.8”. Basically what it means is that this is your depth of field. Why is this important? It does 2 things: 1) Allows you to have a blurry background (hello blogger pics!) and 2) Affects how bright your photo is.
The higher the F stop number the less open the camera iris is. Meaning if the F stop is low (under f/4.0) then you will likely have a blurrier background and more light in your photo. As the F-stop number gets larger (e.g. – F22), the aperture gets smaller – so more focused and darker photos. When photographing blog photos, I usually start at 1.8 or the lowest F-stop available on my lens.
Portrait of a person? Lower F-Stop. Want to take a landscape picture of a beautiful view? Higher F-stop. (Don’t worry if it makes your photo darker, there are ways to change that with the other 2 components that make up your photo’s exposure, more on that below.) In the meantime, check out this handy chart explaining aperture.
With me so far? You’re doing great. Let’s move on. Your shutter speed can be thought of as the amount of time your camera’s shutter is open and allowing light to hit your camera’s light sensor. You’ll typically see this as a fraction of a second (e.g. 1/125). You generally want to keep this around 1/100 to start. Feel free to adjust up or down to 1/80 or 1/125, but I would be cautious of doing more. If you go under 1/80 the photo will be brighter yes, but it will take time to actually photograph the image (slow shutter speed) so you have a higher chance of a blurry image. Opt for a tripod or stability help if you decide to drop under 1/80. Similarly, going above 125 will give you a faster image, but at a price. Your image will be darker. Faster shutter speeds let in less light but can give you a sharper subject and an image less susceptible to unsteady hands.
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Here’s where the fun starts. My personal recommendation is to stay within the lower ranges of both ISO & Aperture, but there’s more room to play when it comes to ISO. So what is it? ISO is the element that brightens your photo.
The ISO scale is easy to remember. At higher numbers, your photos will be brighter, but you also will see more and more noise or grain. The main stops on the ISO scale are 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400. Some cameras go beyond this range, in either direction.
As a general guideline, if you’re shooting outside under the sun, an ISO range of 100-200 is a safe bet, but if you’re shooting indoors in any low lighting setting, you want to be in the ISO 800-1200 range.
See. That wasn’t so bad! Even if your goal is to be in front of the camera, the absolute best way to ensure that you have quality photos is to set it up yourself! Ask the person who will be taking the photo of you, to stand in for you. Adjust the settings yourself and take a few test photos. Once you feel comfortable with the shot, switch spots and just tell them where to click. Remember that this post is manual photography 101 and while using your camera on manual will make a world of a difference you should also consider things like optimal natural light, shooting in RAW v. JPEG, editing, and basic angles and lighting.