From Auto to Manual – Who Else Wants Full Camera Control?

From Auto to Manual – Who Else Wants Full Camera Control?

Are you currently shooting on Automatic – not taking advantage of the manual settings available in your camera?

No worries – we’ve all been there! 

(yes, me too!!)

I shot on automatic for over a year into my business – can you believe it! It´s true and I can tell you exactly WHY this was the case…..

Learning to shoot manual was overwhelming, it seemed difficult – I had no one to help me and it reminded me of a time in my childhood I really did not want to think about: doing math in school!

I did create pretty decent pictures in auto and no one was complaining about me not shooting manual. And to be honest I was thinking; “why on earth should I go through the hassle of learning that” I just did not get it – I did not understand WHY this could be a benefit for me.

So let me share with you what I know today, that I did not know back then:

  • When you control the manual settings – you get FULL control over your style and images. This is when you can get really creative and this can not be done in auto.
  • When you have the control, you save time in photoshop, because your photo will be close to perfect right out of the camera – you just need to fine-adjust a few things – that´s all.
  • By knowing the camera settings you can “dance a beautiful tango” with the available light, instead of being frustrated with it. You can create magic!

It was not until I started to comprehend these benefits, that I became eager to learn to shoot in manual. Once you understand just HOW important light is to making or breaking a photo, you will want to start shooting in manual mode.

How to get started

It might seem difficult and very technical, but it´s actually easier than you think – you just need to put some time aside to practice, take a lot of shots, learn from them and delete them – then do it all over again.

Use the guidelines in this lesson and before you know it you´ll shoot in full manual mode!

Let’s look at some of the manual settings:

Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed are your new friends.

To get a good photo you have to know how to let just the right amount of light into the camera. When you shoot in manual mode, you can adjust these functions. Does it sound difficult? I will introduce you to these settings, but remember, the only way to really understand to practise in real life.

(Please note: every camera style is different and setting adjustments can vary. I strongly advise that you read your manual to know exactly how to use the settings I discuss in this lesson. Also, if you are a beginner, you should feel no pressure to shoot in manual mode- but do try to play with these settings as much as you can.)

Let´s take a look at the control settings on your DSLR camera:


* The higher the ISO setting, the less light you need to make a picture
* The lower the ISO setting, the more light you need to make a picture.

Just like your own eyes, the camera sensor can see with different amounts of light. Unlike your eyes, someone has to tell it how sensitive it needs to be in the varying conditions. Like the volume knob on your television, this sensor has a “volume” control that adjusts how much light it records. The higher the sensitivity, the less light you need to make a picture. Typically, ISO 100 is the least sensitive setting and is used when the lighting conditions are optimal.

Note that higher ISO settings can make the final image look worse by adding “noise” that appears as ugly dots in the final image. More expensive cameras typically can operate at higher sensitivity levels without nearly as much noise. This is one reason that some digital cameras cost plenty of $$$ while others only cost less. The more expensive ones can shoot good pictures with much less light (like Canon 7D, Canon 5D and Nikon 700, which are excellent at this, but cameras like 550D and 600D do great too with high ISO).

So how do you use this info? 

Firstly, remember to aim for the lowest ISO setting possible. Low ISO gives you sharp crisp images with less noise. However, sometimes you really need to push ISO up to get a good exposed image. When your lighting conditions are good go for ISO 100-200. For the most part this works fine when shooting outside in broad daylight. When shooting inside, where there is less light, you might have to go for a higher ISO – sometimes higher than 400 or above.

This is a great tool to use when you shoot in low light situations ( a wedding inside a dark church) and you don´t want to use flash.

Here are a few loose guidelines for ISO settings:

Bright sun – ISO 100
Overcast – ISO 200
Deep Shade – ISO 400
Indoors on a sunny day – ISO 200 – 640
Indoors on a cloudy day – ISO 400 – 1250
Indoors at night ISO- 1600+

*** If you live in a place where the weather often are gray and rainy without much sunshine – like I do, don´t be afraid to shoot with a higher ISO. Unless the sun is out, my ISO are often set between 300 and 600. This does not affect the quality of my images very much. And a little noise in your picture, can be reduced in photoshop.

Now let´s take this setting into practice, shall we!

Put it into action!

Grab that camera of yours and put it on P for ISO mode.

This setting is not full manual mode and it´s not full auto mode either. This is a mix between the two, we call it half manual or partly manual. Now YOU control the ISO setting in your camera, but the camera controls the rest. Your camera will adjust shutter speed and aperture for you and make sure it works together with your chosen ISO setting.

Now try and take a few shots with ISO 100, ISO 400, ISO 800 and the highest ISO your camera will go to. Play with it and see the difference. Notice that the higher you go the more light your camera will let in. Also notice if your image starts to get grainy and you see noise when you push it high up.

NB: Don´t aim to shoot in P mode – this is just to get to know the function, so you can use it in full manual later.

Shutter speed

* The slower the shutter speed, the more light will enter the camera.
* The faster the shutter speed, the less light will enter the camera.

You can control how long the camera’s opening stays open. The opening in your camera lens is covered by a “shutter”. When you click the button on your camera to take a picture, the shutter opens for a brief moment. The longer it stays open, the more light comes into the camera.

Capture Movement

Shutter speed is mostly used for capturing movement. You want the shutter speed to be fast enough to capture your image without any blurriness. This can be a playful tool, a way to make creative portraits where you “freeze” a moving moment (see dancing girl above). This is great when you photograph kids, dance, sport and anything else with movement.

If you look at your camera’s dial button, shutter priority mode is called Tv or S depending on your camera model. When you set your camera to shoot in this mode, you control the shutter speed manually, but ask the camera to take care of the rest of the settings (ISO and Aperture). Only when you shoot in full manual, will you have to decide how to adjust all of these controls, but we´ll get to that later.

I personally don’t shoot anything slower than 1/80 handheld. In portrait sessions where my subject is NOT moving my shutter speed is set between 1/80 and 1/160 depending on the situation. If I want to shoot lower than that I´ll use a tripod to get tack sharp images.

If my subject moves/dance/jump, I raise the shutter speed 1/200 and above.

(Note: One great rule of thumb: Always shoot at a shutter speed higher that the length of your lens. If you are shooting with a 50 mm lens, go with 1/50 and above. If you’re shooting with a 100 mm lens, go 1/100 and above.)

When your shutter speed is not right, camera shake can occur, especially when you are holding your camera in your hand (not on a tripod or other stable surface). Your hands are naturally shaky and cause your photo to be blurry.

Block out the light with Shutter Speed

If you are shooting out on a sunny day, using high shutter speed can be just what you need to capture those wonderful summer moments. When you raise the shutter speed less light will enter your camera, this way you can still keep your f-stop low and create a soft looking image. (See example below).

Put it into action!

sNow, check your camera for “Tv” or “S” on the dial button.

Try to play with this to test different shutter speeds. Try taking your camera to your kitchen and let the water run for a while, point your camera at the running water and photograph it at different shutter speeds – see the effect. Or you can ask your kids/friends to jump like crazy and practice the settings.

NB: Notice that when you shoot in Tv mode, the camera will control f/stops for you (aperture) but you can and should control the ISO here too. Remember the higher shutter speed you choose the less light the camera will let in = dark pictures, so push up the ISO if you need to.

Play, and practice – have fun!

Aperture and the F-Stop

* The wider the aperture opening, the more light will enter the camera.
* The smaller the aperture opening, the less light will enter the camera.

The third way to control light coming into your camera is to change the opening size of the camera’s lens. This hole, called the aperture, is the place where light enters the camera. Obviously a bigger hole lets in more light than a smaller hole.

The scale used to measure the aperture size is the “f-number” scale. This sounds much more complicated than it is. There is one trick to understanding it: A smaller f-stop number indicates a bigger aperture opening.

F-stops are indicated by these numbers on your camera: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16 ect.

When shooting at a lower f/stop (ie: larger aperture: f/1.2 – f/2.8), the ‘in focus’ part of your image will be smaller and the background will be blurry – this is great for portraits, flowers and still life. Small apertures (ie: f/8 and above) cause more of the background to be in focus this is great for shooting families, interior, buildings or street life.

Each of your lenses will be marked with an f-stop number. This number is the biggest opening the lens can accommodate. Lenses with low apertures of f/1.4 or f/1.2 are more expensive as they require more optics to achieve this aperture size. These optics can also make the lenses heavier. My 85 mm f1,2 is extremely heavy for me to work with but I love the quality of it! It is definitely not a lens suited for fieldtrips with the kids. However, it is great for shooting professional portraits. When I go out for walks or fieldtrips, I usually bring my 50 mm f/1.4. This lens is small and not that heavy.

The lower the f-stop on your lens, the easier you can achieving an out-of-focus background. That’s why lenses with low f-numbers (and thus large openings) are preferred for portraits. Portraits look good with blurry backgrounds. This blurry background effect is called “bokeh“. I have a tendency to create bokeh/blur in many of my pictures – again this is a matter of taste and style.

Please note that if you have a standard lens like the 18-55mm, which come with many camera kits, your lens will only be able to go as low as f/3,5.

Put it into action!

aLook for “Av” or “A” mode for aperture control.

Aperture mode and it just wonderful for portraits, still life and weddings. I often want to go as low as possible f/1.2 – f/2.8 is where mine is set most of the time.

When shooting in A mode the camera controls your shutter speed – you can still control the ISO or choose to put this on automatic as well.

Now try to focus on a subject near you, perhaps your Coffee cup or a vase with flowers. Focus on the subject while constantly changing the f-stop settings – se what happens. Notice the difference in each picture.

NB: If your not ready for shooting in full manual mode yet – this should be your prefered mode to shoot in.

Do all these steps sound complicated? It really isn’t bad at all. You just need to practice!

When you feel you understand these settings it´s time to move into FULL manual mode!

Let´s go all the way: Full manual mode

Okay, are you ready to try full manual mode? Don´t panic now, it will properly be a challenge for you. I can tell you that it took me several months to really understand how to shoot in manual mode – really….so don´t feel stupid if you don´t nail it today, okay 🙂

Set you camera settings on M for manual mode. Now you control everything; ISO, Shutter speed and F-stop.

Let me give you an example:

I shoot a portrait outside in the sunshine, we are surrounded by so much light, that I need to let a minimum of light into my camera. To do that I can lower my ISO to 100, raise my f-stop and raise my shutter speed.

But on a grey cloudy day, when I shoot inside with not much available light I need to raise my ISO, lower my f-stop and my shutter speed. This way I can let more light into the camera and still get a decent photo without using flash.

Of course every situation is different – especially when you shoot with natural light, so above examples are just rough guidelines.

Practice a ton and have fun!!

NOTE: Most times I have to take 5 to 20 pictures before I get my settings right – so don´t give up if it does not work the first time, alright! Try 100 times if you need too 🙂
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Much Love,

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About Christina Greve

Christina Greve is a Lifestyle Photographer, Stylist, Empowerment Coach and Holistic therapist. She provides tools, education and inspiration designed to help multi-passionate women, artists and creative souls find direction, push through self-doubt + make a living doing what they LOVE.She is known for her elegant storytelling photography and draws much of her inspiration from the Nordic countryside, travels, food and still life.Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, blogs and books worldwide. After a decade of working with psychology, Christina's passion for photography evolved into a full-time photography and coaching business.Today she runs a thriving + fast-growing international empire specializing in professional online training, motivating and engaging female photographers, designers, bloggers, makers and creatives. She has coached thousands of fabulous women from more than 40+ countries.With her Podcast "The Empowered Creative," her popular Instagram posts, and quickly sold-out workshops, Christina has become the go-to person for many creatives seeking like-minded sisterhood, real support and heartfelt encouragement.

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