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Going Manual for Better Photography

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It doesn't take a professional to snap a good photo using the Auto or Program settings on just about any camera. But if you really want to dig deep into your camera and learn to take photographs that go well beyond the typical snapshot, you'll need to learn how to use your Manual settings.

It's typically confusing to most beginners, but the only way to really learn your way around your camera is to get serious with Manual mode, and of course, take lots of photos.

Here are the three basic features you'll need to understand in order to go all Manual with your DSLR camera. One thing to keep in mind, while your camera will likely have the ability to go all Manual, you can also 'cheat' with shutter-priority mode, aperature-priority mode, and auto-ISO. This gives you the ability to continue to let the camera decide on the shutter speed or aperature, or even the ISO setting while you work on getting to know the other settings.

For more on these three basic camera functions, there is a mind-numbing amount of youtube videos and tutorials with more explaination. But we will tackle the topics in short form here.

1. Understanding ISO

The ISO setting on my camera is typically set at 100, the lowest available on my Canon. The ISO setting allows more or less light to hit the sensor (in combination with your shutter speed and aperature), but also determines how much grain or noise appears in your image. The higher the ISO setting the more noise is captured on the image, and while you can mask some of that in Lightroom, it is a permanent part of the image and best to keep the setting as low as possible.

In general, for daylight or any artificial lighting images you'll leave your ISO set to 100. If you need to bump to 200, or even 400 in some cases, it's not going to be noticeable. If you are shooting without flash in low-light situations, like indoor sporting events or live music performances, you will likely need to use a higher ISO. Start at 400, and go wide open on your aperature (f/2 - f/3.5 depending on your max aperature setting on your lens - see Aperature explaination below).

If your images are too dark or blurry in the viewfinder, push the ISO to 800. Take another shot and check your viewfinder to see if the exposure has improved. If you have to go higher, most cameras will allow you to go up to an ISO of 3200 or 6400. These will be grainy and need attention in Lightroom or Photoshop, but this can also add character to live music photos, or shots that you intend to convert to a gritty black and white. For general photography you typically will not want to use an ISO above 1600 for quality purposes.

Most amateurs or hobbyist will use 'Auto Mode' where the camera selects the appropriate ISO setting depending upon the conditions you're shooting in (it will try to keep it as low as possible), but most cameras also give you the opportunity to select your own ISO. Lock it in at 100 as a beginning and general working ISO.

2. Understanding Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time of the shutter is open, allowing in the light and scene you're attempting to photograph. Shutter speed is measured on your camera in seconds - or fractions of seconds.

For hand-holding your camera, you won't want to go less than 1/60th of a second. Any number lower than that will likely cause a bit of a blurring due to shaky hands (unless you use a flash for complete stop action, or a tripod for long-exposure images.)

Slow shutter speeds, those below 1/30th of a second down to 30-seconds, are used in very low light situations. DSLR cameras also give you the option to shoot in 'B' (or 'Bulb') mode. Bulb mode lets you keep the shutter open for as long as you hold it down for long-exposures, typically at night. This mode would be used with a tripod and a wireless or shutter-release cable (or using the 2-second delayed exposure setting found on most DSLR cameras) to prevent unwanted camera movement.

To freeze movement in an image (like in the waterfall above) you'll want to choose a faster shutter speed. If you want to let the movement blur, (like the waterfall below) you'll want to choose a slower shutter speed. The actual speeds you should choose will vary depending upon the speed of the subject in your shot and how much you want it to be blurred.

3. Understanding Aperature

When you hit the shutter release button of your camera a hole opens up that allows your camera's image sensor to catch a glimpse of the scene you're wanting to capture. The aperture that you set impacts the size of that hole. The larger the hole the more light that gets in - the smaller the hole the less light. Aperture is measured in f-stops - f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/22.

It can be a bit confusing at first, because the large apertures (where lots of light gets through) are given f/stop smaller numbers and smaller apertures (where less light gets through) have larger f-stop numbers. So f/2.8 (referred to as wide-open) is a much larger aperture than f/22.

Depth of Field

Your aperature setting doesn't just let more or less light in, but it's a huge factor in the Depth of Field too - that's the amount of your shot that will be in focus.

For portrait or close up photos, you want to use a small (or shallow) depth of field - that means that only part of the image will be in focus and the rest will be out of focus or blurry. Focusing on the subject's eyes will keep the face in focus, while blurring the background if you use a large aperature like f/2 or f/2.8. Even her hair which is only a little behind her eyes is blurred.

For an average outdoor photo or general event image, the f/5.6 rule would apply. This means if you set the aperature at f/5.6 and only adjust your shutter speed as needed you'll get a well-focused photo. Pushing the aperature higher into f/18 and f/22 will give you completely crisp clear focus throughout most of the shot, depending on the lens you are using.

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