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How To Use Your DSLR Camera in Manual Mode

Nikon DSLR D3100

Nikon DSLR D3100

Taking the next step with your DSLR, and switching over to manual mode can be overwhelming at first. Let's be honest, that's why you're here. In this post, I'll help you understand the basics of your manual mode settings: shutter speed, aperture, ISO. I even threw in how I check my exposure when adjusting these settings. So, take my hand, and I'll help guide you on your photography journey.  

What is Shutter Speed?

Let's take a couple steps back before getting into choosing your shutter speed setting. Okay, so DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex. The Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) part means there is only one shutter mechanism moving when you take your shot. It will move up to let the light into the part of your camera where the digital sensor is, and then back down. The amount of time the shutter mechanism is up and letting light hit the sensor is your shutter speed, which is measured in seconds.

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Now that we covered the background information, what should you choose for your shutter speed? Honestly, it depends on the shot... I'll walk you through why I might choose a slow shutter speed, and why I might choose a fast one.

Slower Shutter Speeds: I'm going to get this out of the way now: if you're using a very slow shutter speed, you're going to need a tripod. Now that we have that out of the way, lets talk about the two reasons why you might end up shooting with a slower shutter speed. First, it's a low-light shot. These are typically at night or indoors with absolutely terrible lighting. Second, you want to emphasize motion in your images. These include images like blurred cars racing around a track or moving water blurring into a silky texture. For those situations, I'd be shooting below 1/50.

Faster Shutter Speeds: When I'm shooting at higher shutter speeds, I want to stop a moving object. For portraits of people who are fairly still or landscapes, I prefer my shutter speed will be set at 1/150 or higher (but I can make 1/100 work if I'm in a pinch). If I'm taking photos of a child, who is most likely going to be on the move the whole time, my goal shutter speed will be at least 1/500. When taking photographs of fast animals (dogs, birds, etc.), athletic events, or moving vehicles, I would want a shutter speed of at least 1/2000. For those types of shots, you can probably get away with a shutter speed of 1/1000, but if it's possible shot at 1/2000 or higher.

Minimum Shutter Speed to Shoot Without a Tripod: This depends on the lens you have on your camera, and if you're using a full- or crop-frame camera. I'll start with full-frame, because there's less math involved... For full-frame cameras you want the denominator of your shutter speed to be greater than the maximum millimeters your lens can shoot. Confused? That's okay, stick with me. If you're using a 50mm lens, you want your shutter speed to be 1/50 or higher. If you're using a 70-200mm lens, you should set your shutter to at least 1/200. For crop-frame cameras there's a little math involved (sorry...). The reason for the math is because crop-frame cameras basically have a build in zoom (AKA crop). Because of this, you'll need to use a shutter speed that's actually faster then if you were using that size lens a full-frame camera. I know... it's super confusing... BUT! From all the research I've done, if you multiple your lens' maximum millimeters by 1.6, you should be good to go. For example, if you're using a 50mm lens, you'll want to use a shutter speed of 1/80 (50 x 1.6 = 80). Now if  you're using a 70-200mm lens, you'll want a shutter speed of at least 1/320 (200 x 1.6 = 320).

What is Aperture?

Have you seen those photos with the super blurry background? That's done thanks to aperture. What is aperture? In a nutshell, it's the hole in your lens that lets light through to your sensor. When you open your aperture more, you will let more light in and reduce your depth of field. By reducing your depth of field, you get those buttery, blurred backgrounds, which are perfect for portraits. If you are taking a landscape photo that you want to be in focus for miles, you'll want to close your aperture.

Now, if you're looking at the aperture setting, it might seem a little backwards. Let's clear this up a little bit. If you want to open your aperture and have a wider opening, then you'll want to reduce the number in your setting. So, if you follow that idea, an aperture of f/22 is a smaller opening then an aperture of f/1.8. I know... confusing right?! Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Something else to keep in mind, is some lenses (including kit lenses) have variable apertures.  This means your widest aperture changes as you zoom.

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What is ISO?

This is the shortest section, but it's pretty straight forward. Your camera's ISO setting adjusts how sensitive it is to light. As with all the other settings, there is some give and take with this. You trade an increased sensitivity to light (higher ISO) for a decrease in image quality (more grain). Personally, when I shoot in manual mode, ISO is the last thing I'll adjust. I'll start with an ISO of 100 or 200, and then adjust all my other settings before going any higher. Then, I'll change the ISO if I have the shutter speed and aperture to a point that I'm not comfortable going past to get the shot I want.

How Will I Know If I Have the Right Exposure?

I personally use the meter in my camera, which displays in my viewfinder and on the back screen. There are a few different metering modes on DSLR cameras, and I prefer using Spot Metering. Why? I like knowing that my meter is showing me what it's reading at for that exact point, which is the center focal point. For example, if I'm shooting photos of a person where the background is darker than their face, then I put my center focus dot on their face and use the meter to fine-tune my exposure to ensure their face isn't too dark or too bright. I might not use a center focus for the shot, but I use it to meter. Once I have the exposure I'm happy with, I will change my focus point for the composition of the shot. Keep in mind, the meter might not be "perfect" exposure, but it is a great starting point. So, make sure you're taking a couple practice shots when you change up your lighting or location.

Now you have the basics, put them to use and get out here and take some photos!