Using a new camera in manual mode

Many aspiring photographers may have received a new camera for the holidays.  Right around this time, however, they may be experiencing some disappointment that their expensive new DSLR is not taking the kinds of photos they had hoped for.

The reason is usually simple – keeping the camera in auto and not learning how to use at least a few of its features won’t get you much closer to great images than any other camera.

Photographers Lacey Meyers, Rachel Nielsen  and Marissa Gifford teach Mastering Manual Exposure at Click Photo School.

Below they each share their top tips for getting started with your camera and mastering manual mode quickly and easily.

Lacey Meyers:


  • Practice Metering: While practicing shooting in Manual Mode, it is very helpful to do so in soft, even lighting such as that coming in from a window without direct light shining through.  This will avoid harsh highlights and deeper shadows, which can make consistent metering and exposure a bit more challenging to achieve.  Along these same lines, avoid practicing metering on children and instead practice on cooperative adults or on subjects that are cooperative and still, such as toys, pottery, or solid colored pillows.  Using a cooperative subject will really give you the time and chance to think through your metering and settings and then thoughtfully analyze your results and then try again if necessary, without your subject trying to run away!

  • Simplify White Balance and Exposure: Simplify setting white balance and exposure by using a grey card: I love utilizing tools to simplify and improve my shooting process!  Using a grey card is definitely one of those tools because it takes the guess work out of picking your white balance and your exposure for the scene.  Once the grey card is placed intended shot, spot meter off of it to 0, take a test shot of the card and use that for your White Balance.  This takes care of exposure and white balance in one step!  Just be sure that your card is in the same light that your subject will be in and that you do not cast a shadow on it when taking your reading or reference shot.


Marissa Gifford:

  • Tips on Choosing Shutter Speed: Shutter speed can be very confusing to some people, so let’s break it down. The shutter speed decision will be based first and foremost, on what your goal is for the image. Do you want to freeze the motion in your subject or do you want to show movement through motion blur? You want your image to be either tack sharp, or have the blur be so obvious that it’s clear that it was a deliberate creative choice on your part. Anything in between can look like an accident. If your goal is to freeze the motion (which is what it will be probably 99% of the time) you want to keep your shutter speed high. I try not to shoot below 1/250th of a second with normal, slow-paced motion. When toddlers are involved you may want to keep that even a little higher because they’re quick and unpredictable. If you’re shooting faster action, you’ll want to start it higher – say around 1/1600th depending on how close you are to the action. The closer the action the faster you’ll need to go with your shutter speed to freeze the motion. For motion blur, distance plays the same role – it’s more exaggerated up close, so you might not need *as* slow a shutter speed to get intentional blur. I like to start around 1/40th of a second and adjust accordingly. The trick is to balance the motion blur with clarity within the rest of the frame to keep it looking deliberate. When shooting at these slow shutter speeds, the use of a tripod will be very helpful to keep camera shake out of the frame.

  • Using Proper Depth of Field (DOF): Shooting wide open is a popular way to shoot, because the background blur is so gorgeous at wide apertures. But wide open isn’t always the best choice. Just as with shutter speed, DOF is also affected by distance. The closer you are to your subject, the more shallow the DOF will be. So if you’re shooting a wiggly toddler up close (or with a long focal length) at f/1.4 they are likely to wiggle themselves right out of the focal plane. When you’re getting close to your subject, closing down your aperture a bit will ensure that you’ve got everything of them in focus that you want in focus. This doesn’t mean that you will lose that desirable background blur though. If you want to exaggerate that aspect of your image, put some distance between your subject and their background. Conversely, when you back up (or use a wide angle lens) the DOF automatically becomes deeper, which means you can shoot that same wiggly toddler much more easily at f/1.4 when farther away (or with a wider angle lens) than up close because the DOF is more forgiving.

Rachel Nielsen:

  • Expose Properly: A common mistake is to try and meter everything to 0 on your in-camera meter. Different colors have a different representative value on your meter and it is important to remember that the metering value for each color will stay the same no matter the light you are in. Light also plays an important role while metering. Make sure when you are metering, that you meter from the same light that your subject is in. When you have lighting where it is lighter on one side of your subject and darker on the other side, is important to make sure you are choosing a spot to meter from where the light is hitting them directly. That will keep you from having any blown highlights. The best tool in camera besides your meter is your histogram. Always check your histogram while you are shooting because it gives you immediate feedback about your exposure. It is such a great tool to see where your exposure is at and adjust it if you need to. I like to set my camera so that I can see the histogram on the image playback. It also helps you become more familiar with histograms and what they should look like. Typically you will want the histogram to extend all the way across to the right side without touching that right wall. When you don’t have any white or very light colors in your image, the histogram won’t go over all the way but the peaks should go to the right side of your histogram as much as possible.

  • Consistency and Artistic Freedom: Shooting in manual mode gives consistency to your images as well as complete control over your artistic vision. When you use the camera’s auto mode, you are letting the camera make decisions for you. Using manual mode is the best way to control the outcome of your images. Your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture will not change unless you change it. Practice keeping your white balance, color and light consistent from image to image no matter the lighting situation you are in. Instead of hoping for the best or getting lucky with your images, slow down and take the time to think through why you are using specific settings and you will be able to get great images every time. Understanding what your camera is capable of, how to meter, properly expose, and get correct color in camera will take your images to a whole new level. One of the best things about understanding each of those things is that it gives you total creative freedom. If you can imagine certain images in your mind you can then use the knowledge you have learned and practiced to create it, by purposefully deciding which setting to use or manipulate in the exposure triangle to bring your vision to life.

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