Manual Mode – Guide to better photos – Part 1a

The most important thing I have learned when taking photos is learning how to use your camera.  By this I mean, learning to using the Manual Mode, usually there is a dial on the camera that has an M on it, this is manual Mode.  You will probably see additional letters and pictures on this, stuff like P – Program, A – Aperture Priority, Auto – Automatic, S – Shutter Priority (also known as speed – the shutter speed). There could be pictures of a Track star, Mountain Top, and a few other types of pictures.  This is a picture of my camera dial on my Nikon D90.  Let me begin by talking about the different modes from a high level and what they do.


Auto – This is pretty much point and shoot, the camera determines what settings to use based on some pretty good computer algorithms and makes the choice on the White Balance, ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, or if to use a Flash if one is attached.

Program – This is an extension of Auto, but allows a few things to be set by the Photographer, such as ISO, White Balance and the Camera’s computer figures out the rest.

Aperture Priority– The photographer sets the Aperture and the Camera’s computer determines the shutter speed to use based on the Internal Exposure that the internal Light meter in the camera is reading.  This is very useful if you know what the depth of field you need (I’ll discuss depth of field later).

Shutter Priority– The photographer sets the Shutter Speed and the Camera’s computer determines the best Aperture to use.  This is best used for taking action shots, such as sports or cars racing by, or if the Subject and the photographer both have motion.

Manual – The photographer sets everything manually.  This give the most amount of control and takes the most amount of practice to learn.  There are some complicated math that goes into determining the best settings for ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed.  But when you figure this out, you can take the best photo’s.  Just by setting these settings correctly, you can turn darkness into daylight and daylight into darkness.  Make everything in Focus, or just a specific subject in your photo.

So I have told you the 5 different modes that your camera can use.  I didn’t talk about the different pictures on the Dial, mostly because, I never use them and I don’t want some Programmer in Japan, determine what the ideal settings are to talk a Portrait, picture of a flower, action photograph or pictures of mountains.  I want to determine that myself.

So lets discuss what each of the different items in a camera that are part of the picture taking process.  There are three Primary things that effect the quality of a photo. These three things effect the amount of light that is allowed into the camera to capture a photo.  Let to much light in and it will be very Bright, let too little light in and it will be dark or even Black.  The three primary components required to take a photo are: ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed.

ISO during the time when everyone took photos with Film was sometimes called Film Speed.  Basically this is the sensitivity setting of your camera’s Image sensor.  The Image Sensor in your camera actually captures the available light coming into the camera and then saves it to your memory card.  The more sensitive the Image Sensor the Higher the ISO can be set, meaning you can have less light available to capture an image.  On your DSLR, you can set your ISO to one of many different settings 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, or 12800.  These are the most common ISO settings on many cameras, there might be additional values on your camera depending on what your Exposure Level  has been set to.  But the way that ISO works is that 200 ISO requires half has much light as 100 ISO, and 400 ISO requires half as much light as 200 ISO.  The higher you set the ISO the less amount of light is needed to get your photo to proper Exposure.  Now you might be asking why don’t I set my camera to a higher ISO all the time.  You would think this would be a good idea, and you might be right if you had a VERY EXPENSIVE Camera, which as a very SENSITIVE and expensive Image Sensor.  The downside of using a higher ISO, is that the picture quality starts to degrade, this can be anything from be less sharp or blurry, or the photo have a lot of ‘noise’.  Picture Noise can be though of an a very old photo that has lots of specials or dots like you might see of a picture in the newspaper.  The photo isn’t as sharp or very good quality.

The rule of thumb I use, is that if you camera has a max ISO of 3200, then picture quality will start to degrade at about 800 ISO, if you have a camera that does 12,800 ISO then the picture will probably start to degrade at 3200 ISO.  This doesn’t mean you can’t take pictures at a higher ISO, just know that your pictures will have little spots or noise in them.  If you use your camera in Program or Automatic mode, you have probably seem this in your photos when you took a picture when it wasn’t very bright or the Flash didn’t work very well.

Aperture is the size of the hole in your camera lens that effects how much light is allowed in and placed on the camera sensor.  Now this is going to sound funny, but the lower the number the wider the or more open the Aperture is going to be.  The larger the number, the smaller the hole is going to be.  So if you have the Aperture set to 1.4 or 2.8, then there will be a lot of light coming into the Camera Sensor.  If the Aperture is sett to 22 then it will be very small and very little light will be let into the Camera Sensor.  Now Aperture does two very important things, first was the amount of light it lets into the camera sensor and second it affects the depth of field.  Depth of Field, is basically, how much of the photo will be in focus.  If the Aperture is a low number like 2.8, then very little of the photo will be in focused.  An Example of low depth of field, might be taking a photo of a little girl in front of a field of Sun Flowers.  The little girl if she is the object that you focused on, she will be sharp and the flowers behind her will be fuzzy.  Now if you set the Aperture to a higher number say 22, and you focused on the little girl, it is possible that the little girl and the field of Sun Flowers will both be in focused.

In summary, Aperture effects Field of View or what is in Focus and Available light that allowed into through the Lens to the Camera Sensor.

Finally Shutter Speed, the shutter speed is the amount of time light is allowed through the Aperture and  on to the Camera Sensor.  Shutter Speed is measured in Seconds or fractions of a second.  I.E. 3 Secs, 2 Secs, 1 Sec, 1/2 Sec, 1/4 Sec, 1/8 Sec, 1/16 Sec, 1/32 Sec, 1/64 Sec, 1/128 Sec, 1/200 Sec, 1/400 Sec, etc.  The amount of time your shutter again is affected on what your Exposure Level  has been set in your camera.  Shutter Speed also effects movement in your photo.  A very slow shutter speed can be used to allow a lot of light to the Camera Sensor, but if the item your taking a picture of moves, then there could be motion.  One important thing that effects motion is the photographer himself.  It is very difficult to impossible to stop from moving when taking a photo.  It is very hard to be perfectly still when taking a photo.  You probably have seen the photo, that you took that you remember looked perfect, no wind was blowing, it was in the later afternoon, the subject was stationary (like a building or tree) and the picture you took was blurry.  More than likely you were moving just enough to cause the picture to be blurry.

So you might be asking how, do I take better pictures that aren’t blurry.  Well, the best thing to do is set your camera on a Tripod and take the photo.  This will take the absolute best and sharpest photo as long as your photo is properly exposed.  Now realistically this won’t work, since you might be on vacation walking through the streets of Paris, and you don’t have the time to pull out the Tripod and setup a shot and take the photo.  One, the lighting conditions may have changed by them that won’t be what you wanted, you could be a nuisance to the the other tourists because you just stopped in the middle of the side walk and setup a tripod and they have to walk around you.   There is a time and place for a tripod, and this may not be it.

So how do we make sure we take sharp photos when you can’t be perfectly still?  Well this is where Shutter Speed comes into play.  If you can take a photo at a shutter speed of 1/150 or faster (up to 1/4000 sec on some cameras) you can freeze action and take a photo that is very sharp.

You’ll probably be thinking to yourself, “Is that it?  just take photos at a 1/150 sec or faster?”  Well in Part 1b, I’m going to help bring this all together and talk about why that isn’t it.

Continue to  Guide to taking better Pictures – Manual Mode – Part 1b