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For Photographers | A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting In Manual

I’ve been meaning to start blogging with photographer’s in mind for a while now- but have been putting it off- mainly due to some fear. As much as I say that I don’t pay much mind to what other’s think about me- truth is, I kinda do– especially when it comes to the photography industry. I don’t want to ever come across as prideful…it really is one of my greatest fears. I want to always be seen as approachable, as loving, and as someone who knows they always have a lot to learn. But— I’m swallowing my pride of thinking that other’s actually THINK about my pridefulness;)and realize that everyone starts SOMEWHERE, and I’d so love to be someone willing to help with that somewhere. So I’m starting from the beginning, with a little guide about how to start shooting in MANUAL mode on your camera…

When I first started shooting….I quite literally had NO idea what I was doing…but, I think I thought I did. I kept my camera in Automatic, shot portraits at ALL times of the day in harsh sunlight with crazy amounts of shadows, always used my pop up flash on my Canon Rebel….and I edited on Yeah…like the old school way of using instagram filters.

I realized there was a HUGE difference between my photos and people who were actually professionals…and I was sick of pretending like I knew what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO meant. I started reading a LOT, following other photographer’s blogs, and I decided it was high time to take a class for beginners (swallowing pride moment). So I took a class for 3 hours a week for a month through the Washington School of Photography in Bethesda- and it changed everything. I never shot in Auto again.

My honest to goodness opinion? If you’re using a DSLR and shooting in Auto…you need to stop. You are FAR smarter than the camera, even though it did cost you a good chunk of change…You have two eyes and an amazing brain- FARRRR more than any DSLR can claim. These cameras were meant for YOU to control them- they can do amazing things, with YOUR brain and eyes and fingers to press the shutter.

This little beginner’s guide will be VERY brief, and I definitely recommend you doing MORE research- and either taking a class or working with an established photographer for mentoring.

Ok enough rambling. Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start…when you read you begin with A, B, C…) And when you shoot in Manual you begin with ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed (I hope you appreciate some Sound of Music):

Photography is ALL about light. And shooting in manual is all about how to best capture that light. When you switch your camera to “M” mode- you can control a TON of things- but today we are going to focus on THREE of them.

ISO: This is definitely the most abstract of the three elements, because it is totally based off technology, and your particular camera sensor. ISO measures the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. The higher your set ISO, the more light that is available to your sensor. It is best – when possible – to stay within the lower ISOs- as it achieves greater image quality. But this is definitely not always possible- especially when shooting indoors, or on a darker day…however, many of the higher end cameras have fabulous ISO ranges- and allow you to shoot in all kinds of light with very slight grain to your image.

I typically use an ISO of 100-400 when shooting outdoors during daylight hours. The Canon 5D Mark iii has FANTASTIC ISO ranges- and I have shot at some CRAZY high ISOs using only moonlight to light my image- and the result wasn’t half bad with a little bit of noise clean-up in Lightroom.

Some examples of ISO ranges:

Example 1: Jill and Jason’s first look was on a VERY sunny day around noon. Shot backlit and with a very low ISO:

ISO: 100  Focal Length: 50 mm  Aperture: f/2.2  Shutter Speed: 1/1000 sec


Example 2: Sara and Matt’s wedding day portrait time just before sunset on a slightly overcast day:

ISO: 500  Focal Length: 50 mm  Aperture: f/2.5  Shutter Speed: 1/320 sec


Example 3: Groomsmen Cigars at Sara and Matt’s Wedding. Way after sunset- and mostly only moonlight as the source of light.

ISO: 12800  Focal Length: 400  Aperture: 1.8  Shutter Speed: 1/125


Aperture: Oh I love aperture, call me a camera nerd (and I’d take it as a compliment)- but, aperture is my favorite of the 3 elements- because this here element is what creates that glorious bokeh that can images so dream-like.

Aperture is a hole/opening in your camera that opens in varying amounts of wideness to let light in. A lens’ aperture is measured as an f-number. The lower the f-number, the more light gets let in. F-numbers of “F-stops” as most photographers call it, is most commonly based on your particular lens. Typically, the more expensive the lens- the wider the f-stop capability. It wasn’t always this way- but I saved up (And am still saving up to complete my arsenal) over the years to purchase all Canon L-series prime lenses (lenses with fixed focal lengths)- which all have awesome wide aperture capabilities.

Aperture affects a few different components in your resulting image- namely your depth of field. I went to google for this one to help me describe what exactly this is…” Depth of field refers to the range of distance that appears acceptably sharp”– I seek to achieve a SHALLOW depth of field through using lower apertures (f-stops) to create a more dream-like and romantic image. However, I sometimes will use a BROADER depth of field using high apertures (f-stops) for images where I seek to capture a larger landscape, but as a rule I normally shoot within f1.2-f.2.5 for single and couples portraits (often depending on the lens), and about 2.5-4.0/5.6 for larger groups of people. I always seek to achieve a shallow depth of field to maintain a consistent look in my photos.

Some examples of Aperture ranges:

Example 1: A Winter’s Fairytale Styled Shoot- an hour before sunset and a very romantic feel to the shoot- I shot WIDE open. Only the subject is in focus- with the whole background blown out- creating lots of bokeh, and a dream-like feel.

Aperture: 1.2  ISO: 200  Focal Length: 50 mm Shutter Speed: 1/100 sec


Example 2: Colombian Hills outside of Bogota- This is not a SUPER broad depth of field as landscape photographer’s would attest- but as I said, I hardly ever shoot at high apertures. You can see that more of the background is in focus- which is usually ideal for landscape shots.

Aperture: 5.6  ISO: 100  Focal Length: 50 mm  Shutter Speed: 1/200 sec



Shutter Speed: The last of the three elements- and for me, the easiest concept to grasp out of the three. Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the shutter is open. It is measured in records of a fractions of a second, and like the other three- affects how much light the camera lets in. The HIGHER the shutter speed the LESS light is let in…the LOWER the shutter the shutter speed the MORE light is let in. Shutter speed is your camera’s ability for demonstrating or stopping motion in a photograph…but to be honest, I mainly use it as a another way to control light, depending on the measures of the other two elements. For my particular style and taste, shutter speed is usually the element I choose last. If I were a sports photographer, this would most likely not be the case- but sense I’m very rarely dealing with FAST moving objects (except for small adorable children and receptions- in which case I’m using flash)…shutter speed is just another way for me to control light. Typically- on bright sunny days- my shutter speed will be high, and the darker it gets- the lower my shutter speed will be in order to let in light (always of course- depending on the movement of my subject).

It is definitely fun to play with lower shutter speeds to let in LOTS of light- especially when using a tripod for long exposures (opening your shutter for a longer period of time to capture more light more motion). When I was first learning, I spent some time using my tripod to capture car and city lights- absolutely a fun thing to play around with! If you want to FREEZE motion (without a flash)- higher shutter speeds are best.

Please again note- this is MY particular way of doing things- and not necessarily the right one…just what works for me:)

Some examples of Shutter Speed ranges:

Example 1: During Alexis’ and Brandon’s portraits on their wedding day- I had them run towards me. In order to freeze the motion, I needed a higher shutter speed.

Shutter Speed: 1/800 sec  Focal Length: 50 mm  ISO: 400  Aperture: f/2.2

2015-01-22_0009Example 2: I took this shot at the very beginning of Inna and Steve’ sunrise engagement session- I wanted to capture the misty and foggy feel of the day- so I lowered my shutter speed, plus they were still allowing me to do so.

Shutter Speed: 1/160 sec  Focal Length: 50 mm  ISO: 250  Aperture: f/2.2


OK! There ya have it- a very abridged but hopefully helpful beginners guide to shooting in manual. PLEASE if you have any questions at all- shoot me an email! I LOVE to talk about photography- and would be so happy to answer any questions you may have to the best of my ability. (

Again- I do not claim in the slightest to know everything there is to know about photography, nor do I claim that my ways are the best. This is just how I shoot, and have found to work best for me!

Happy Thursday, friends!





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