Sunday, September 04, 2011

Capturing a Better Picture: Tip #2- Auto vs. Manual Settings

When I learned how to drive... it was on an automatic vehicle. I mean seriously, who would actually take their driving test on a manual vehicle? If you did (like my mom-even if it took her 3x until she passed!) ... you get a high five from me... But I earned my driver's license on an automatic, and that was "A" okay with me. All I wanted to do was drive from point A to point B and that I accomplished the EASIEST way possible. Let the record show that when I turned 26, I learned how to drive manual... folks, if I can do it, anyone can do it... you are NEVER to old to learn a new trick. And that is why today, I want to talk to you about learning a new trick- that when you turned on your camera- you don't just "shoot" on auto mode. Although it's probably easiest... there's SO much more you can do with your camera, than just point and shoot away.

Ever look back at your photos and think, "Hmm, well that's not quite the way my eyes saw it..." or, "Hmm, those colors were a lot brighter to my eyes than they are in the picture... " or, "Hmm, I really wanted my focus to be on ______ and it ended up on ______", or "Hmm, this picture looks really, blah-flat..." ? I certainly have thought those things on more than one occasion when I first purchased my dSLR. I figured since I paid major bucks for the camera, it really should produce a quality image for me. And it did- it just wasn't exactly how I imagined the image would turn out. So that's when I became fed up with the way my "camera" wanted to take the picture and forced it (gently of course) to take the picture the way I saw it- via Manual Mode. Now, I'm not talking about those other fancy auto settings on your camera- like Portrait, Landscape, Action, etc... of even the semi-automatic modes- like Program (P), Shutter Priority (S) or Aperture Priority (A)... I'm talking about Manual (M). Setting your camera to M allows you to select both the shutter speed and aperture using your main (outside) and sub (inside) command dials.

This post is only going to be a quick little introductory post-defining 3 important terms and will also show you some differences between shooting in Auto vs. Manual. I will touch on each of the 3 terms in separate posts soon (hopefully every Monday for the next 3 Mondays!) Today is only a general overview.

Before I get started, I did want you to know a few things... I shoot primarily with my 50mm lens. It's a prime lens- meaning, it has a fixed focal length... no zooming can go on with it. Prime lenses are great, because typically they have a larger maximum aperture (smaller f number)... which is great for letting in light, and therefore resulting in sharper/brighter images. For the purpose of this post, all images are SOOC (Straight out of the camera)... no editing has been done to any of these photos. That way you can see the differences more clearly.

When shooting in M you're constantly balancing 3 things:
1. ISO
2. Aperture (this is one of my favorites to manipulate!)
3. Shutter Speed

When these 3 things are balanced correctly, you produce a great looking image- one that isn't over exposed (too much light-unless that's the look you're going for) or under exposed (too dark-I don't think many people go for this look).

ISO- Is the rating of the camera's sensitivity to light... It's one of the easiest fixes for your photos. Not many people know that you can change your ISO settings even on a point and shoot, but you can. When shooting in a darker setting, set your ISO to a higher number such as 600-1600. Some cameras even have it so they get as high as 3200 and above. But, the rule is: the higher the ISO, the more "noise" you'll see on the photo-it'll be grainy/dull. Therefore your goal should always be to shoot in the lowest ISO possible. Shooting outdoors in natural light- you typically want to stay in the 100-250 range.

When taking the photos below, I automatically set my ISO to 250... for both automatic and manual settings. The photos were taken between 5-7 pm. Next Monday, I'll touch on this more.

Aperture- This is my very favorite thing to change up. To me, it's what makes your photos go from "blah" to "ta-da!" To put it simply, aperture is the size of the lens opening. Lets say you were buying house... if you wanted your rooms to have more natural light, you'd look for bigger (floor to ceiling) windows, right? Well the same goes for the lens. A larger opening (f /2.8) is going to let in a lot more light, than a smaller opening ( f /18)... yes, in camera terms, the smaller number is better than a larger number! Aperture is definitely a balancing act... and although I love how photos look at f/1.8 (lots of light and a small area of focus), it doesn't work for every picture. For instance, if I set my aperture to f/1.8 while taking a portrait of a child/adult... it would only focus on one eye, instead of both eyes... the depth of field can be completely affected.

Shutter Speed- Shutter speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes again- since the camera can only record information when the shutter is open. It is measured in seconds - a shutter speed of 1/125 is one one-hundred-twentyfifth of a second. The slower the shutter speed, the more light that is let into the camera. The faster the shutter speed, the less light you will see... Although slower shutter speeds let in more light, the slower speed cannot stop motion like a faster speed can... therefore in many instances, if the shutter speed isn't correct (along with your ISO and aperture) your subject will more than likely blur.

These 3 things affect exposure inside of the camera, and you'll constantly be juggling/balancing them as you shoot in Manual... but eventually it just becomes natural, and you don't even notice that you're becoming "automatic" at it!

Lets take a look at a few photos that I took in both Auto and Manual...

In this first photo, it's the same exact position, same exact outdoor natural lighting, and to reiterate, my ISO for both settings was set to 250. The main difference, was that in Manual, I was able to alter the Aperture to a f/2.8... allowing me to achieve a sharper image. You see, in the Auto picture, you can't read the TOMS tag on Charlie's right shoe, but on the Manual image, you are able to.

Sometimes when "shooting", you want to achieve a softer feel/look for your photos. Again, using a larger aperture setting in Manual, allowed me to let in more light, and was able to highlight Charlie's eyes. Often times in auto mode, you miss out on the true color of a person's eyes (they become black abysses) and you don't capture that "catch light" that helps put a "twinkle" in their eyes as easily.

Although the first picture in Auto doesn't look too shabby... I wanted there to be more of a focus on our hands- and less focus on her patterned dress. This time I narrowed the aperture down even further to f/1.8... allowing TONS of more light in, and more specific focus.

Sometimes accidents happen, and I let in "too much" light in manual mode... often times, the picture is underexposed and needs to be disposed of, but other times (like the picture below), I LOVE it... I just adore how it backlights Charlotte! There's this softening effect that the settings had on her, that would never have been achieved in Auto mode...

For this last photo, I held the camera completely still and in the same spot for both settings... and it truly amazes me how different the two photos look.... now take a look at the difference in the shutter speeds! HUGE difference...

Shooting in Manual is not something you just pick up and know how to do automatically... like any other thing, it takes LOTS and LOTS of practice... but in the end, it yields remarkable results. Are you ready to shoot in Manual? If so, stay tuned next Monday for a more detailed lesson on ISO.
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  1. i needed this! i have such a hard time trying to "balance" all of this. thanks for writing this up, karen!

  2. Thank you -- this is a very detailed and easy to understand lesson! I just started shooting in manual a couple weeks ago {and RAW} and have noticed the difference. Definitely greater control over the way the picture turns out. But sometimes I totally mess it's still not totally "automatic" for me. ;) I look forward to the next few Mondays!

  3. This is very helpful! I usually just shoot in aperture priority mode, but am eager to try manual!

  4. I love your tutorials! Thanks so much for putting these together! Looking forward to the next ones!

  5. this is very nice. I usually always shot manually. but that was after I had my photography class and we had to do everything in manual. Love the shots too!

  6. Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!! I LOVE this blog! Thanks for taking your time and helping us all out!

  7. Thank you! This is just what I needed

  8. I haven't thought about using manual in a long time because my manual means I better focus it, too, I have a old SLR. It's good to have a lesson on it, again, and why it's important. Thanks.

  9. very helpful. thanks friend. ready to go out an practice!

  10. Love this tutorial! I read the dummy book but it didn't help much. This is a huge help!

  11. Thank you so much for writing this up!

  12. actually the most of the people in Czech Republic learn to drive on manual ;) but anyway... thanks so much for this post! I am reading it over and over and I am trying to learn how to take pictures on manual with my dad´s camera. I hope when I buy mine it will be easier to get used to because I still find it quite difficult :)

    I came to one problem because my dad´s camera goes just to F2.8 not less. Is that a problem for taking pictures of flowers for example?