A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. –James Keller
I bought my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D60, six years ago. My D60 and I spent a few months on complete automatic before it dawned on me that maybe I wasn’t giving myself or my camera as much credit as we both deserved. Maybe we weren’t living up to our potential. What would happen if I actually learned my camera? What if, gulp, I turned the dial and switched over to that M?
M A N U A L M O D E. Intimidating. Scary. Overwhelming. Maybe a little, yes. Challenging, exciting and….fun? Oh, absolutely those as well.
Over the past six years I have logged thousands upon thousands of pictures. Some of the images I’ve captured are very dear to me. A good majority aren’t worth a hoot. All of them though, were practice. Much needed practice.
It wasn’t until just two years ago when I realized some folks were willing to pay me for my time, creativity, and skill that I started using the word “professional.” Say what? You mean you want to hire me? I take your portrait and we’ll exchange some sort of payment? Um, yeah. Sure. And then slowly, slowly came a more confident, OKAY HELL YES. Because see, while I initially wanted to learn photography to better document my own beautiful children (I get to say that, right? Every mother has beautiful children.), I had no classical photography training. I was self-taught. And was that good enough? Was I good enough?
You know what I think? I think earnest interest and passion trump technicalities almost always. I ended up falling in love with my camera baby too. I fell hard. It went with me everywhere at all times. I was endeared to it. Like an extension of my own hand. Perhaps you’re in a similar way now. Head over heels for that DSLR you squint and peer into several times a day? Don’t worry, I understand that feeling completely.
These days I use a Nikon D7000, which isn’t the newest or the best of the best DSLR on the market. Would I love to have additional camera bodies, full-frame bodies in my collection? You bet. And one day I will. Also, at present I only own three lenses: a Nikkor 18-105mm 3.5-5.6G, a Nikkor 28mm 1.8G, and a Nikkor 50 mm 1.4G. Again, are there other lenses I’m dreaming of owning ? Certainly. I will post about my wish list another day. And lastly what program do I use for editing? I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.
By some photographers’ collections and standards, mine are so meager and humble. But hey, we’re all at different places on our photography journeys, no? If anything hopefully you are encouraged by seeing what I have to work with, so you know you can do the best with what you currently have too.
First things first. To move forward you must be brave and adventurous and put your camera into manual mode. I see no reason to delay. Do it now!
Once you’ve turned your dial to M, jump in and begin playing with these three things:
1. ISO. ISO is a rating of your camera’s light sensitivity. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. So, you’d want to use a low ISO on a bright sunny day–like 100 to 200. But at your child’s first school performance in a darkened theater? You’d want an ISO starting at 1600 on up. Generally speaking, you want to choose the lowest ISO possible for the light in your space. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” or grain will appear in your image. But then again, sometimes grain is added purposefully as a creative effect. Personally, this is the first thing I set when I’m going to make an image. I evaluate my light situation indoors or outdoors and set the ISO.
2. Aperture. Think of your own anatomy. Your own eye pupil. When there’s a lot of light or it’s very bright–your pupil is smaller. When it’s dimmer or darker our pupils get bigger to let more light in. The aperture of your camera works the same way and is measured in f-stops. Big f-stop numbers, like f/22 are actually much smaller openings. Because so much light is being let in, more of your image will be in focus. Conversely, when you open up (that’s the term photogs use) to say, f/2.8 or 1.4, the focal point will be clear while whatever isn’t bracketed in your viewfinder will be very blurred. Personally, this is the second thing I choose when I’m going to make an image. Do I want the overall image to be in focus or just my subject? How much detail do I want in my image? How blurred do I want the foreground or background?
3. Shutter Speed. Shutter speed is time. Specifically, shutter speed is the amount of time your shutter is open to record light as an image on your camera’s sensor. Controlling shutter speed allows you to decide whether you’re focal point will be pin-point, tack sharp or softer on purpose. Shutter speed is expressed as a fraction of a second. For example 1/1000 is a very fast shutter speed vs. 1/15 which is considered slow. Faster shutter speeds produce sharper images while slower shudder speeds show more blurred movement. Personally, this is the third thing I choose when I’m going to make an image. Once ISO is set and I’ve determined what aperture works best for a particular shot, I adjust shutter speed accordingly. The easiest way to become familiar with shutter speed is to look through your viewfinder and as you move the shutter speed dial up and down, watch the meter at the bottom of your screen. Towards the negative end and your image is underexposed. Move toward the positive end and your picture will be over-exposed. The closer you get your shutter speed to read in the middle of the meter–the better lit and more balanced your image will appear.
*Sometimes shutter speed is the second thing I choose, and aperture the third. It really depends on the priority of what I want from the photo. How important is movement vs. focus vs. detail in this particular picture? Here’s where your creativity comes in. What kind of image do you want to make?
The most challenging task of course is putting all three together simultaneously. Adjusting them until they’re functioning harmoniously. Until you really absorb the job of each and how one influences the other, it can be frustrating. Will you believe me when I say eventually WITH PRACTICE ISO, aperture, and shutter speed become second nature, intuitive to you? They do.
In the meantime, looky at this. I have a little gift to give! For you, I made this handy dandy cheat sheet:
Here are some examples to demonstrate ISO, aperture, and shutter speed working together:
I had to bump up the ISO up high because this bed was actually farther from the light coming in from the window than I would have liked and because of the close up I needed to get those “catch-lights” in her eyes. f/2.8 to blur the background. ISO 1250, f/2.8, 1/80 sec
Taken outdoors on an overcast day. I wanted the background nice and blurred out with my three subjects in focus. ISO 200, f/1.8, 1/320 sec
Needed a fast shutter speed because wild child running. ISO 125, f/1.4, 1/500 sec
Normally for window light I use an ISO 400 to 640, but the space was pretty dim. The camera was on a stool on the other side of the room and it just wasn’t reading us well. So I raised the ISO a bit more to keep my aperture more open. I’m okay with a little grain sometimes. ISO 1000, f/2.2, 1/80 sec
You are going to rock this manual thing. You’re going to have fun. I know it! Make the switch now and gradually you’ll find yourself with less desire to revert to AUTO because you’ll experience firsthand how you and your camera really are capable of making better images. Please come back and let me know how it goes! Or if you have a question, leave it in the comments and you might see it answered on the next Photo Tip Friday. Go out this weekend and do some happy shooting.