You got a new DSLR camera for your birthday, maybe for Christmas. Still don't know how to take killer shots? Fear not, this guide will help you turn the dial to 'M' and to never want to turn it back again!
Note: Don't want to read?
Fear not - I've put all of this information into a handy infographic at the bottom of this page. Give it a click to see a larger version.
'M' stands for Manual, meaning you're in control of the camera, every setting, everything. Daunting at first, yes, but once you understand the workings of your camera you'll realise it's much more versatile to have your camera doing exactly what you want it to do. These concepts work exactly the same way on your iPhone too, so getting the hang of them is handy!
There are three main things to understand: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. Get your head around these simple concepts, and you'll be good to go. It might seem a bit geeky to know, and understand, these terms, but no one's going to complain when you can take amazing photographs. I'll pop in some practical examples, and some common problems to help too.
So straight to it...
The Three Settings.
The size of the opening in the lens which allows light in to the camera. Quite simply, there is a hole at the back of the lens which can be made smaller or larger to control the amount of light that enters the camera.
Aperture is measured in f-numbers. f stands for 'focal length'. On the scale above, you'll notice that the bigger the aperture, the smaller the f number. This is very confusing, but makes sense if you look at the maths (which I don't!).
Dark environment: Big aperture (small f-number) / Light environment: Smaller aperture (bigger f-number).
You're on a beach on a rare sunny day in England. You have your camera set to M, and have set your f-number to something small, like 2.8, meaning you have a big aperture. This is letting loads of great light into your camera, but your photo is all white! The camera is letting in too much light, so adjust your aperture to a bigger f-number to achieve a smaller aperture, which will let less light in!
You've lowered your f-number as low as it'll go to get that moody shot in the dark, but it won't go any lower. This is primarily due to the value of your lens. More expensive lenses have better components and so can have bigger apertures. Try adjusting shutter speed and ISO to help instead.
The duration that the camera shutter is open to allow light into the sensor or film. Without wanting to go too basic, the click you hear when you take a photograph is the shutter opening and closing. Increase your shutter speed and the time between the shutter opening and it closing again will be longer, and you'll hear the two distinct clicks.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or more likely, fractions of seconds. So 1/1000 is 1 1000th of a second, and is quite a fast shutter speed. 1/2 is a slower shutter speed, as there is 1/2 a second between the shutter opening and closing.
Fast shutter speeds - don't let as much light in - useful for very light situations. / Slower shutter speeds - let more light in - useful for darker situations.
You're photographing your pals at the beach, but the sun is setting, so there's less light available. You'll need to keep your shutter open for longer to let enough light in to get a great photo, so instead of 1/1000 you could try 1/250.
The photograph of your friends looks blurred, because someone moved... The problem with a longer shutter speed is that there is more chance of either you, or your subject, moving whilst the shutter is open, resulting in blurring. Try adjusting your aperture to a lower number to help you out with this blurring, or just tell that blurry person to stay still!
The sensitivity of your camera sensor to the light you've let into the camera.
This is measured in numbers, where low numbers (200, 400) are low ISO, and high numbers (6400) are high ISO.
Low ISO - light situations / High ISO - dark situations.
You're still at the beach, and the sun is still setting, leaving you with even less light. You've adjusted your aperture and shutter speed to account for this, but adjusting the ISO will help you further. Bump the ISO up to a higher ISO, maybe 1600, or even 3200, and your camera is now more sensitive to light and will cope better with the low level of light coming into the camera.
You're photographing in the evening - surely you could just push the ISO up to 64000, or even more, and it would be like photographing during daylight? Afraid not. The higher your ISO number, the more 'noisy' a photo becomes - meaning you'll have horrible grain all over your picture. This is due to the limitations of the camera, it can't work miracles! A good rule of thumb is: if you can't see anything, the camera probably can't either!
If you've got your head around those three concepts you'll notice that they each interact and overlap with each other. This can be extremely advantageous, and is the trick to achieving great photographs. Playing with these three settings can allow you to be creative, as well as achieving well exposed photographs.
The 'Out-of-Focus Background'
At this point, it's worth expanding on the workings of aperture a little more. How, you say, do I get the nice blurred backgrounds I'm supposed to get with this great camera? Adjusting the aperture will tick this box! This out-of-focus effect is called depth-of-field.
From a technical perspective, this has to do with the cone of light that hits the focal plane... Rest assured it is definitely sufficient to know that if you have a wide aperture (small f-number), you will likely achieve an out-of-focus background behind your subject. If you make the aperture smaller (bigger f-number), more of the image will be in focus. You want to take a great portrait of your granny, with a nice out-of-focus background? Increase the size of your aperture (lower your f-number).
An photo with an out-of-focus background is said to have a shallow depth-of-field, meaning that only a certain zone is in focus, normally your subject. If you have a deep depth-of-field, most of the image will be in focus. Different lenses affect depth-of-field too though - I'll get on to that in a future Journal. entry.
The trick - Exposure
You've learnt how to get a shallow depth-of-field by lowering the f-number, but guess what: now you're letting in loads of light to the camera with your wide aperture - overexposed photos. This is where you can start balancing the three settings to get your exposure right for this look. Likely it would be a good idea to lower your ISO, and to increase your shutter speed. Try some shots, see how the different settings look and work together.
Start looking like a pro photographer and put your eye up to the 'eyecup' (the hole you look through). When you look through here you'll see all the numbers of the settings you've been changing, as well as a dotted bar running along the bottom (see below), called an exposure meter.
If your photo is over-exposed, meaning it looks too bright, the bars and arrow will be towards the '+' symbol, telling you how overexposed your photo is. If the photo is under-exposed (too dark), the bars will be towards the '-' symbol. For a perfectly exposed photograph adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO until the arrow is in the centre of your exposure meter. This isn't to say that a slightly overexposed or underexposed photo is necessarily a bad thing, sometimes these can be great things. Experiment with different exposures, even if your exposure meter is telling you you're barmy!
Hopefully you've got to grips with these concepts. Here are a few photographs I've taken with an explanation of how I achieved each look by adjusting only aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
Wrapping It Up
Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are fairly simple concepts once you get your head around them, and their interaction with one another can provide you with infinite possibilities for creative photographs. If you've got through this guide and understand the three settings, you'll have a ball using 'M' mode.
If you haven't understood it all, or feel that it's still very confusing, it's likely my fault - perhaps you're more of a visual person (whatever that means), and so, here's all the information you just read in a dandy infographic! (Click for a larger version)
Enjoy, share, and keep your eyes peeled for the next part of this guide.