Do you have a digital camera that's almost always set to auto mode? If so, you’ve probably got a memory card full of average photos, rather than great ones. By learning how to use manual mode on your camera, you’ll be able to take control of each photo to capture the scene exactly as you want.
It can be intimidating – no doubt about that – so let’s go through specific photo issues that beginner photographers face and simple steps to accommodate for them.
Lightness and Darkness
Problem #1. My photo is too dark or too light.
The easy fix: Exposure Compensation
On your camera: Switch to program (P) mode. Then, look for the +/- icon on the top or back of the camera.
How to use it: There will be a dial ranging from negative 3 to plus 3 (-3 2 1 0 1 2 +3). The camera will shoot at 0 by default. Move the dial to a negative number (darkens) or positive number (brightens), then take the photo.
Problem #2. I’m in a low-light situation, and my photo is way too dark.
The fix: ISO. ISO is the light sensitivity of the image sensor in your camera. By increasing or decreasing the ISO, you make the sensor more (brighter) or less (darker) sensitive to light.
On your camera: Switch to manual (M) mode. Look for [ISO], which ranges from 100 to 3200.
How to use it: Increase the ISO number to add light to your photo. But beware, with each incremental increase, the quality of the image becomes poorer. Images taken with high ISO will have more digital noise, i.e. will appear grainy and pixelated.
Depth of Field and Background Blur
Problem #3. My subject is sharp, but so is the background. I want a background blur.
The fix: Aperture. The aperture is the round opening within your camera that regulates the amount of light that will pass through. This changes the depth of field.
On your camera: Aperture is controlled by a dial, which is just below the shutter button (Canon) or on the back of the camera (Nikon). If shooting on manual mode, press and hold the +/- button then adjust the dial. On aperture-priority mode, wherein the shutter speed adjusts automatically, just turn the dial.
How to use it: Set your camera to a large aperture opening, referred to as a low f-stop (e.g. f-2.8 to f-4). This will provide a shallow depth of field. In other words, it gives you the most background blur.
Problem #4. My landscape photo is only sharp at a certain depth, and the rest is too blurry.
The fix: Aperture once again.
How to use it: Set your camera to a small aperture opening, referred to as a high f-stop (e.g. f-11 to f-16). This provides a deep depth of field, where more of the image is in focus. This will make your whole landscape sharp, including the foreground and background.
Photographing a group of people? Go for the aperture sweet spot: f-8. It’s the happy medium that gives some background blur but keeps people sharp, even if they’re at varying depths.
Problem #5. I want to stop a subject in motion, but it's too blurry.
The fix: Shutter speed. Shutter speed is the amount of time that a shutter is open, typically a fraction of a second.
On your camera: Shutter speed is indicated on your DSLR camera screen as a fraction (e.g. 1/250), the denominator only (e.g. 250) or as a number of full seconds (e.g. 1”) wherein the quotation mark indicates seconds. Set your camera to shutter-priority (Tv / S) mode (wherein the aperture adjusts automatically), or use manual mode.
How to use it: Select shutter speed, then use the rotating dial to set the shutter speed to a small fraction of a second like 1/250. This tiny amount of time will capture a mere instant of your subject, freezing every detail.
Problem #6. I want to capture water blur, but the photo is too sharp.
The fix: Shutter speed.
How to use it: Switch to shutter-priority (Tv / S) mode. Use a stabilizing object, such as a tripod. Use the rotating dial to set the shutter speed to 1 second or longer, then take the photo (gently!).
Want to catch a little blur? A mid-range shutter speed like 1/60 will help you capture the essence of movement with some blur at the edges of an otherwise crisp subject.
The Exposure Triangle
Although we’ve only scratched the surface, this provides the groundwork for which camera function to look at depending on the photography issue you're facing.
As you progress in your photography skills, you’ll see how these three aspects of digital photography interact with one another, and you’ll learn how to find the right balance. For now, let’s sum it up with the exposure triangle below.
Notice how shutter speed, aperture and ISO each range in how much or little light they’ll let in. The purpose of this triangle is to illustrate that restricting light through one aspect means that you’ll need to let more light in through another aspect to accommodate.
Grab your camera and practice photographing specific subjects, adjusting one camera setting at a time. You’ll be ruling manual mode soon enough!