As a newbie DSLR user, I often read about other DSLR camera users suggesting that ‘you need to go manual’ or ‘you need only shoot in manual mode for success’. As I studied and learned more I discovered a lot about the other photographic modes, and they are not too shabby at all so why the crazy insistence on using manual settings?
As a pet photographer beginning their manual journey I am not so sure this is the best advice to take on board. Manual photography gives a tremendous amount of creative control but it requires experience built up over a period of time.
Photography beginners may not use manual in the start, or much at all, but I think knowing how it all fits together will give you insights into a new area of camera practice and will encourage you to explore further.
What does mean to shoot in ‘manual’ mode?
You will know the mode letters from the dial on your DSLR camera. These are Av, Tv, P with M for your manual mode, on a Canon. For a Nikon, the letters are P, S, A and M.
TOP TIP: If you have doubts about your own camera’s settings and modes check your camera manual.
If you use a Canon, like me, Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv) or P (Programmed Auto mode) lets the camera makes some or all of the decisions for you. I take a lot of cat photos using ‘Sport‘ mode or aperture priority. You will find modes have their uses – try them all.
However, when using manual mode, you choose the ISO (light), shutter speed and aperture. Everything about the photograph and the taking of it is within your personal control.
While this might sound a really powerful place to be, in full control of your camera, ready for anything, remember that this also implies that you, the photographer, know exactly what you are doing when you are taking a photograph.
Manual mode on a camera allows the photographer to determine the exposure of an image by letting them select an aperture value and a shutter speed value.Shuttermuse
DO You Know What You Are Doing?
As a beginner or inexperienced DSLR user, the question is an important one and I think many of us will admit (reluctantly) that we still have a way to go before we become the next Annie Liebowitz or Mario Testino.
- I tried manual just after I got my camera with disappointing results. For me, a great piece of new photographers advice will be to take pictures, ANY picture and use Automatic Mode. Why? Because you will prove to yourself that you can take photographs with your new DSLR.
- People can be real ‘mode’ snobs and forget that there is a first time everyone picks up their DSLR. You can feel so intimidated by the responsibility you have for your wonderful new equipment and you panic. Automatic mode gets you up and running, then you can explore every mode and setting.
- ‘Every journey starts with a single step‘ – Lao Tsu. Take that step.
My First Manual Shots
These were a disaster because I was totally clueless about what is involved and, no you don’t want to the black and blurry rectangles that were my first manual photographs. No careful composition, no cute pet action shots, no perfect photography, and I was so frustrated.
There are three key areas that we, as photographers, need to have some knowledge about if we want to try shooting in manual mode with confidence.
The three elements I share below, are called ‘the exposure triangle’ and all together they will allow you to learn the basics and expand your skills in manual mode. Be prepared to practice and make some spectacular errors but you will learn and, as Yoda might say, practice you must – a lot.
Honestly? I think we can all admit that practice is absolutely the most fun part for every photographer. For every disaster there may be a stunning surprise or a setting that made a big difference to your pictures. Taking photos is what you love to do right? So, let’s take a look at this triangle and see if you want to use it in your own photography.
The Exposure Triangle
I admit that the term ‘the exposure triangle’ can still overwhelm me if I think about it too much. The amount of light, the shutter speed and the amount of your aperture all affect each other, adjusting one you need to remember its effect on the other two.
- Shutter Speed
To take your photography to a different level you need to understand how the three elements might fit together. It will become part of your photographic practice in small stages over time.
You will note I do not say ‘the next level’. Manual is not part of a staged process for improvement. It is always a creative option, not a requirement.
Here is a bare bones guide to what each element means and does.
Adjusting Your Camera’s ISO
ISO stands for International Standardization Organization, yes they are official and real. ISO tells the camera how sensitive it needs to be to light. You will find on your DSLR camera that the ISO measurements will range from approx. 100 to 1600. This allows you to adjust your pet’s exposure to light.
Adjusting your ISO up or down can add just the right amount of light to your photograph. However, an extreme adjustment can introduce a grainy effect known as ‘digital noise’ so be aware of the risks of extreme exposure. This grain, or camera noise, starts around the 800 setting but it will not really impact on images until you go over 1000.
The impact of ISO on your photographs
To gauge the impact of ISO changes, you can try a fun experiment.
Take a photo of your cat, rabbit or dog and start with your ISO set at 100. Then (if your model sits still) repeat the process raising the ISO. 400, 800, 1000. Go as far as your camera will let you. This is an exercise so just point the camera is reasonably good light, like a cloudy day, and take pictures.
- While you try this, set your aperture to F8, and your shutter speed to 1/125. This is will give you a benchmark to start from.
Changing Your Cameras Aperture
The theory behind aperture can make you cross-eyed with confusion and you do not need to explore it as an absolute beginner. Basically, a small aperture or F-stop had a big number and a large exposure has a small number. The aperture affects the amount of soft-focus background or ‘depth of field’ you will get.
- F3.5 will give you a very blurry background like Tiger Lily below. It’s perfect cat portrait setting to explore.
- From F3.5 to approx. F6.0 blurs the background less but still softens it. A sort of middle ground that gives you a great starting point to explore up and down the stops.
- F6.0+ gives you a wide ‘depth of field’ and keeps everything in sharp focus.
Yes, there are some really fun maths behind it for a deeper understanding but I try to remember that F-16 is a teeny tiny aperture and F-2 is much wider. Then I take pictures and see what happens.
The impact of Aperture on your photographs
Try a similar exercise to the ISO one. Set your ISO to 400 and then set your shutter speed to 1/250. Once you have done this start at your lowest F-number which might be F1.4 or F5.6 (depending on your lens). Take a photograph at each F stop. This is an exercise so just point the camera is reasonably good light, like a cloudy day, and start shooting.
Shutter Speed and What it Does
When your shutter opens it exposes the sensor to light. The shutter speed changes the way movement appears in photographs. Think of it like this, short shutter speeds can freeze a cat in motion and a longer speeds capture a dog as a dramatic burst of speed.
Here are a few simple figures to get you exploring settings on your own camera.
- 1/60 works for pet portraits.
- 1/250 will freeze a cat or dog in motion. This is what I am practising right now.
- 1/500 for active families with a pet having fun in a park or garden.
- 1/2000 Superfast speed with will help you freeze action.
Lots of shutter speed practice is helping me take better cat action shots although I have a way to go.
The impact of Shutter Speed on your photographs
A fast shutter speed gives a very short exposure (1/500+). A slow shutter gives a longer exposure (1/8) which will blur the movement. So to see the impact of shutter speeds, try to capture your pet at play.
Work from 1/1000 or your highest setting, then adjust your shutter so it takes longer and longer to close. Again, this is an exercise so just point the camera is reasonably good light, like a cloudy day, and shoot.
Remember, your own camera lens will affect your range of shutter speeds. My Canon 50mm lens the ‘nifty fifty’ reaches a lower F-stop than my kit lens.
Practice Makes You a Better Photographer
You will find that you can take thrilling photos using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and this will give you so much confidence you continue to explore your camera’s functions and settings.
It is a fantastic adventure because it encourages you to keep trying and keep learning. Every time you take a photograph and study what went wrong with any disasters, you will learn from on your pet photography journey every single day.
I will be sharing my own manual journey on the blog over the next few weeks so join me.
Final photography thoughts
There are no shortcuts to experience and if you want absolute control for creative reasons, then mastering the elements that give you the best manual settings is a goal to aim for. Just remember your camera has different modes for different uses and reasons – use them all.
- A great way to gain experience with manual photography and get real support is to take a course, either local to you or online.
Have you tried manual setting as a newbie, or are you an experienced user with an important beginners tip. Please share it in the comments. Have you kicked against convention like the ‘exposure bicycle’ ?
Photo Terms Glossary
- What is Depth of Field? “Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and the farthest objects that are in acceptably sharp focus in an image. (Detailed exploration on Wikipedia)
- An Exploration of ISO.
- An explanation of Shutter Speed (Wikipedia)
- Aperture explained (Wikipedia)
- Local courses in Wellington