You want crisp, clear photos and you know shooting manual mode is key, but how?! By the end of this article, you’ll be shooting like a pro. We’ll keep it simple and skip the stuff you don’t need – the purpose of this guide is to get you shooting in manual TODAY. Read on to learn my exact strategy for perfect photos, every time!
We have three factors to work with: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each of these work as a team to control how bright or dark your image is (exposure), but each one also has its own side hustle. That is what makes manual mode so confusing for beginners – not only do your 3 factors need to work well in a team, they need to be brilliant at their own job, too. But don’t fret, I’ll teach you the easiest path to mastery.
Next, I’ll briefly explain each factor, and add a condensed cheat sheet at the end so you can start practicing today with confidence. You can skip right to the cheat sheet if you prefer, but it doesn’t hurt to learn basic theory. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use a 50mm 1.8 lens as our example but these steps will work with any gear/lens. Here’s what you’re going to do on any given shoot:
Aperture controls how much light enters your camera, as well as depth of field (beautiful blurry backgrounds). Set your aperture based on the number of subjects you’re photographing. If you have one subject, go as high as your lens allows (low = high in aperture world – f1.4 is high and f12 is low). With our 50mm 1.8, that means we’ll set our aperture at f1.8. If you’re photographing two subjects, stop down to f2.8. For 3-5 subjects, f4 ish, and so on. Now, when you get above 5 subjects, you can stick to f5 or f6. I shoot groups of 12 at f6 and they turn out beautifully. The more subjects you have, the more likely people are to be on different focal planes. Think of focal planes as how many feet in front of you your lens will focus on – f1.4 is going to focus on, say, 5 feet and 5.5 feet in front of you, and everything in between. Now imagine how much wider a focal plane f12 is going to focus on – for the sake of example, lets say f12 will focus on 5 feet & 10 feet in front of you and everything in between. This is where blurry backgrounds are achieved. If you’re shooting 2 subjects, and set an aperture of f12, it’s focusing on a LOT of the background behind them. Alternatively, if you set an aperture of f1.8, you’re only focusing on the space the subjects inhabit, meaning the background is nice and out of focus. To recap: Aperture is set based on # of subjects; the more subjects, the lower your aperture (remember, low = high in terms of aperture. F12 is low, f1.8 is high).
Now that your aperture is set, start by setting a low ISO. We won’t worry about how the exposure looks just yet because we still have another step to go. So, set your ISO to 100. ISO controls how sensitive to light your camera is, as well as maintains a nice, clean photograph without noise. High ISO creates a noisy, grainy photo. Low ISO is preferable if you can swing it, because who wants noise?
Time for the last step, shutter speed. A good rule of thumb is to quadruple your focal length at least (50mm lens, set SS to 1/200). A caveat here is if your subjects are moving fast (kids!), quadruple your focal length and add 200.. So, your 50mm lens would have a shutter speed of 1/400 for wiggly kiddos. If your lens is a zoom, use the longest length for this equation (24-70mm, use 70 as your length, so 1/280 or 1/480 for moving subjects). Higher shutter speeds freeze movement. It’s not a bad idea to stay above 1/200 no matter what if you don’t have super steady hands, to avoid camera shake. Go lower only if you need that extra light.
Too bright? Bump that shutter speed up! It never hurts to have a higher SS than you think you need. Too dark? Turn up the ISO. At this point, you can’t change your aperture or your subjects might not be in focus, and you can’t lower your shutter speed if you’ve started at the minimum guidelines, so ISO is your only option. On some camera bodies, it’s ok to underexpose a bit and fix it in Lightroom. On others, your best bet is to use ISO to expose properly to avoid the grain that comes with underexposure on starter cameras or older cameras. You may want to do a few test shots to determine what your camera can handle.
Cut a piece of paper slightly smaller than the size of your camera’s flip screen. If your camera doesn’t have a flip screen, you can use the bottom or back of your camera. Now, write out “cheat sheet” steps 1-5 on your piece of paper, and tape it to the inside of your screen, or the bottom/back of your camera. Now you won’t have to worry about forgetting these steps at your next session! Once you’ve practiced for a week or two, it becomes second nature and the rest is history.
That’s it! Now you know the basics of exposure, what each factor does, and the exact steps to control light, movement, depth, and noise in any scenario possible. You even know that high = low and low = high in terms of aperture – is there anything you don’t know?!