Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Definitive Guide To Shooting In 'Manual' Mode

It's NEW!! Nikon D50Image by mayme via Flickr

Part 1

I love shooting with my dSLR camera. While I don't think having a dSLR camera is essential for successful food photographs, I do think it helps!

The quality of the images is SO much stronger yet the biggest advantage is being able to shoot in 'Manual' mode. You see, 'manual' mode allows you to fully take advantage of ALL of your camera's features and THIS is what separates professional food photographs from amateur ones.

In this two part series I'll show you how to fully master your snazzy new camera so you can start shooting like a pro! This first part will cover the essentials of 'manual' mode and the second part will cover practical applications of this information.

Manual camera mode part 1 in second part of post...

Why Shoot In Manual Mode?

Shooting in manual mode gives you ultimate control over your camera's mechanical functions which in turn gives you greater creative flexibility. The first step in understanding manual functions is to understand the three most important elements of your camera.

Three Factors To Proper Exposure

There are three camera factors that determine proper exposure; ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. If shooting on 'auto' mode, your camera determines these three settings automatically (hence,the auto!) so when shooting in manual mode these settings must be set manually. These three settings are linked and there is a reciprocal relationship between the three of them.

All three settings must be properly set in order for a correct exposure to occur. Below is an explanation of each camera function and how to utilize it in 'manual' mode.


The camera's ISO setting determines how sensitive to light the sensor will be. ISO settings are represented by numbers, typically 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600.

The lower the number, the LESS sensitive the sensor will be. Higher number, the MORE sensitive to light the sensor will be.

This means that if you set your camera to ISO 100, you will need MORE light because the sensor is LESS sensitive. Vice Versa. If you set it to ISO 1600, you will need LESS light because the sensor is MORE sensitive.

I think I know what you're thinking: Why not just leave the ISO setting at 1600? More sensitivity means less light is needed which means more flexibility in lighting situations...sounds good right? Wrong.

The higher the ISO number, the more noise the image will have.

Camera noise is caused by high ISO numbers and creates images with distracting 'confetti' looking grain. Definitely not good. I shoot on an ISO of 100, only ever going up as high as ISO 400.

In low light situations, I increase ISO up to 400. In high light situations, I drop back down to 100

The ISO number has a direct effect on the quality of the image, so keep the ISO number low whenever possible!


Once the ISO is set you can start taking pictures by adjusting the aperture and shutter speed.

The aperture controls the brightness of the light entering the camera.

The aperture works like the pupil of an eye, enlarging or contracting to let in more or less light into the camera. The aperture has another series of numbers called F-Stops that correlate with the size of the opening.....and here's where it can get confusing:

The larger the f-stop NUMBER, the SMALLER the SIZE of the f-stop OPENING. And vice versa. The smaller the f-stop NUMBER, the LARGER the SIZE of the f-stop OPENING.

F-stop numbers will vary according to the type of lens you have, but will usually include these: f/22, f/16, f/11, f/8, f/5.6, f/4. f/2.

Smaller f-stop numbers will give you MORE light, while larger f-stop numbers will give you LESS light.

The image below might help to illustrate:

So in a given lighting situation if the exposure needs more light all you do is 'open up', meaning change the f-stop to a bigger opening to let in more light. If the exposure has too much light, 'stop down'. Change the f-stop to a smaller opening.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed controls the amount of time the shutter stays open therefore controlling the length of exposure.

The longer the shutter stays open, the MORE light will reach the sensor. And vice versa. The shorter the shutter stays open, the LESS amount of light will reach the sensor.

Like f-stops, shutter speed effects exposure by controlling the amount of light that reaches the sensor, only with shutter speeds the amount is controlled by TIME as opposed to the aperture which is controlled by SIZE.

Shutter speeds are represented by numbers (again) varying by camera but most sharing these basic speeds: 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500.

Lower numbers are considered SLOW shutters which produce MORE light, and higher numbers are considered FAST shutters producing LESS light.

The benefit of slow shutters is that they let in more light but the drawback is that slow shutters tend to produce blurry pictures. The standard shutter to start with is a 60th. If you need more exposure you can drop down to a 30th.

When shooting with shutter speed slower than a 60th, always use a tripod.

Anything slower than a 60th cannot be hand-held or else you will have blurry images caused by camera shake.

These three camera functions are the foundation for understanding how to shoot in manual mode. Wrap your head around these three functions, and you'll be shooting like a pro in no time!

The second part will cover more practical applications of these three functions and will also cover depth of field, the light meter, and white balance. Stay tuned!
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  1. This is seriously the best explanation I've seen of this in quite some time. Well done!


  2. Wow. I just got a camera so I'm new to all this and this article made so much sense! Best advice I've heard so far.

  3. this was an excellent explanation of this!! Seriously.. I have been reading these sorts of explanations all day and this is the first one that made any kind of sense at all! Thank you!!

  4. Very GOOD stuff!!!!!

  5. I've just changed from 'lurking' to 'commenting' cuz this post rocks! A succinct explanation about a critical subject that is so confusing -- thanks for this and for an all-round helpful blog for beginners that provides sound advice without overwhelming. Nice niche!

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone! I'm glad people are finding this post helpful.

  7. I agree with the 1st post. Nicely done. You should write a book!