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7 Tips to get you in Manual mode on your fancy new DSLR or Mirrorless camera.


Anyone worth their salt will always tell you that shooting in the ominous ‘M’ mode on your new camera is the way to go and what the pro’s do! I don’t want to trivialise the point that photography is a science, make no mistake! But you don’t need to get too caught up on the technical and tie yourself in knots. Don’t get me wrong you do need a basic understanding of what photography is and how it works but you also need to use the features of that expensive camera you just bought to it’s fullest extent. I’ll attempt to make a technical topic easy to understand.

You’ll never really explore the power of your photography and creativity until you get off AUTO and in control of all the elements. There is a time and place to let the technology help you but you should always try to remain in control of the process. In this article you’ll essentially be using the camera’s sensors to help you make the decision on the right exposure for the picture. Leaving the comfort zone of letting the camera make the decisions can be a little daunting but once you get the hang of it, it’ll change your life. You don’t have to have a degree in the science of light or be able to fly the space shuttle to be a good photographer, never forget that.

Do yourself a favour though and read the manual to your camera so you understand the basics of how to drive it. You don’t need to be a geek about it and read every line but at least the getting started section. Keep it close though, it’ll become your best friend.

I say drive it because you’re in charge, you’ll be making all the decisions, you’re the BOSS!

So let’s do it!


1. It’s very important to make sure your camera’s features are set to a ‘base’ so that you have a point of consistency to work from. Reading the ‘quick start’ portion of your manual is a great place to start. These settings are mainly to determine the ‘behaviours’ of the camera and how it’s computer thinks.

2. Setting your camera’s BASE SETTINGS which works for most situations; Focus – Single Shot Auto Focus Focus Area – Zone or Wide (as opposed to a single spot) Light Metering – Evaluative (sampling overall light in the scene) Aspect Ratio – 3:2 White Balance – Auto (most modern cameras are great in this mode) ISO – Manual Colour Space – Adobe RGB File Type – For the sake of keeping things simple, we are going to set your camera to record JPEG files. This is a basic image file that is by far the most common ‘final’ image file used. We still need to make sure that you capture the maximum resolution possible for your camera. Set your camera to JPEG (Fine) with the largest file size value (normally about 12mb or greater and often referred to as FINE resolution). *Modern cameras often have a ‘picture mode’ as a consumer feature that allows the user to create a look straight out of the camera. It’s best to have this feature set to STANDARD for the sake of this exercise. Once you become familiar with working in Manual Mode, you can have a play and explore these built in filters or viewing modes. An important point to make is, if you intend to move your photography to a semi-serious hobby or professional career you’ll need to consider shooting in RAW. There really are no buts about this for a multitude of reasons. It’s doesn’t mean you’ll make better photos but it will certainly make your life easier in the long run. I’ll write a separate article on this, so watch this space. Remember that these are only base settings and can be changed at anytime to achieve different results. I will not discuss any of the above further in this article (except for ISO).


3. Choose your priority first. When movement or sharpness is important in the shot you’ll need to think in ‘Shutter Brain’. If Depth of field or what’s in focus is important you’ll need to be thinking in ‘Aperture Brain’. Regardless of which you choose always remember that if you’re hand holding your camera, your shutter speed needs to be at least the same value as your focal length (best is double). So if you are using a 50mm lens then your shutter speed needs to be at least the same value. This basic decision sets a minimum setting that the other values have to support.

4. Once you’ve chosen your Brain’s Mode, set the relevant value to achieve the goal for the image. In this exercise we’ll choose Aperture Brain as this is the one you will use most of the time (unless you are an official photographer for Formula One). It’s a portrait shot and we’d like the subject’s facial features and most of their head in focus, the background can blur out because there is nothing of interest there. For this type of shot we’ve chosen F6.3 (bear in mind that each lens behaves differently so you’ll need to experiment). This setting gives us a good balance between focus and amount of light.

5. Now make sure that your Shutter Speed is set to at least the focal length of your lens. Remember that there is a ‘safe’ minimum and if you can double it, that’s best! This will ensure that your subject’s features like eye’s and lips are in focus, even if the model moves slightly. Remember to ask the model when they move to do it smoothly rather than rushing from pose to pose.

6. The last of the 3 main settings is ISO, this is essentially the sensitivity of your sensor to light (in the old days this was the ‘speed’ of the film). Back in the day once you loaded the camera with your film, that was it, you needed to rely on Shutter and Aperture to get the shot you needed and you absolutely needed to know how to read exposure. These days life is much easier with modern cameras able to make razor sharp pictures by candlelight. All you need to do now is wind the ISO value up and down and watch the camera’s light meter in your viewfinder. As long as the key objectives of your shot doesn’t change all you need to do is adjust the ISO value to ensure that your exposure is correct. Your camera will tell you if you are over or under exposed as far it’s calculations go. Remember your camera is evaluating the scene constantly and making average assumptions, you will notice these changes particularly when you half press the shutter button. You now have the power to override that logic by quickly adjusting your camera’s values to get the ‘look’ that you want.

7. Practice makes perfect, take the time to change the Brain you choose and practice the setting adjustments to get what you want. Remember that this post is you’re your first insight into using Manual Mode, from here you’ll create a foundation for your style of photography. Before you know it, it’ll become second nature and you’ll rarely get a pure white (overexposed) or black (under exposed) photo. Happy shooting!!!

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