Up until about my sophomore year of high school, I shot in either Automatic mode or Aperture priority mode on my camera. I was happy enough with my final images, but I could never get my images to look great straight out of the camera. I knew the only way to fix that was to learn how to shoot in manual mode, but that TERRIFIED ME!
Figuring out how to make the combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together seems like a lot to think about, especially when you’re working with a client on a shoot. But with a little practice, I promise you’ll get the hang of it, and it’ll become second nature!
Manual mode is usually the “M” on your camera’s mode dial. The settings for manual mode are different on each camera model, but typically, there is a dial each for aperture and shutter speed, then and a button (or button/dial combination) for ISO. You’ll have to look up the specifics for your specific camera body to figure that out!
Enter the Exposure Triangle! This diagram is to give you a visual of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together and affect one another. Below, I’ll break down each aspect of the triangle and give some tips for how I typically set them on my camera.
Aperture refers to how wide open your lens is, and it’s the very first thing I set on my camera. In fact, I rarely change my aperture throughout a shoot! The smaller the number after the “f/”, the wider your aperture is. Wider aperture = shallower depth of field. Depth of field refers to how “blurry” your background is behind your subject.
For portraits, I stay somewhere between f/2.8 and f/1.8. I love the look of a soft, blurry background with my subject tack sharp, so I try to have as wide of an aperture (which translate to as low of a number) as possible! While I try not to go lower than f/1.8 to help with focusing, I do sometimes push my aperture wide open to f/1.2 for certain shots.
Since having that very shallow depth of field with the blurry, soft backgrounds is so crucial for my style, aperture is the very first thing I set. All of my other settings are based on what I set my aperture at unless I absolutely HAVE to make it smaller (like if it’s SUPER bright outside!).
In the image above, notice how blurry the background is, and how sharp the focus is on her eye! This happens with a very shallow depth of field. Both these images were shot at f/2.0.
This may be a little out of order from the way some people do it, but ISO is the next thing that I’ll change. ISO affects how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light, so a higher ISO = a brighter image. But, that comes at a cost. The higher your ISO is, the grainier your image will be. While I do like adding grain in during post-processing in Lightroom, I don’t like grain in my images straight out of camera!
I set my ISO at 100 for most outdoor settings, especially on a bright, sunny day. But this setting is much more flexible for me than aperture. Most high-quality cameras these days are able to handle a higher ISO, so you won’t see too much grain in your image until you get into those higher numbers.
ISO is a balancing game with shutter speed for me. More on that in the section below and you’ll see what I mean 🙂
The image on the left was shot on a bright, spring day about two hours before sunset. Since we had plenty of light, I kept my ISO low. The photo on the right was shot about 30 minutes before sunset on a dark, overcast winter day. In order to get a good exposure, I had to bring my ISO up a bit higher to compensate for the lack of light.
Finally, the last thing I’ll adjust when setting my exposure! Shutter speed refers to the length of time your camera’s shutter is open, letting in light. Shutter speed also affects blur in your images. For example, if you’re photographing someone running, a fast shutter speed will capture them perfectly sharp without any blur. A slow shutter speed would show them as a blurry blob as they run past.
Camera shake can also affect your images if you have a slower shutter speed. Even the steadiest hands will create camera shake from your body’s movement as you breathe.
A good general rule of thumb is to never go lower than two-times the length of your lens. So, if I’m shooting on a 50mm lens, I should never go lower than 1/100 for my shutter speed. Likewise, an 85mm lens shouldn’t be shot at a shutter speed slower than 1/170 to avoid blur.
When shooting portraits, I’m not the only one who could potentially be causing blur in my images, because my subject is a living, breathing human too! For this reason, I generally don’t go below 1/250 when photographing people.
Now let’s say you’re shooting really close to sunset, and it’s starting to get dark. You’re photographing a person, so you know you don’t want to go below a 1/250 shutter speed. You’re also shooting with as wide of an aperture as you possibly can, like f/1.4. This is when you should bump up your ISO! By raising that number higher, your camera will be more sensitive to light and you’ll get a brighter image.
In the image above, the bride was twirling back and forth in her wedding dress, so I knew I’d need a pretty fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. It was also a very bright day outside, so I didn’t need a high ISO to compensate for a lack of light. I had my aperture set at f/2.0, my ISO at 100, and my shutter speed at 1/2,000.
I hope that was helpful! Shooting in manual mode definitely takes some getting used to, but I promise you, it’s so worth it! Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or need some more help!