Learning to shoot in manual mode can be very overwhelming and frustrating to new photographers. There is so much to think about when you are taking the picture. When I was first beginning, I felt like I was always forgetting something or doing something wrong. But now that I have been shooting with my DSLR in manual mode for several years, it has gotten to be second nature.
Today we are going to discuss the exposure triangle and how it can help you get great photos in manual mode.
What is the exposure triangle?
The exposure triangle is the intersection of the three parts of exposure: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The balance of these three things gets you perfect exposure in manual mode on your DSLR.
Aperture is the F-stop number on your lens. This number controls the depth of field (the part of the photo that is in focus) in your photo.
A smaller number means the lens lets in more light, which makes for a brighter picture with less in focus. This is called shooting wide open (usually between a 1.6 to a 5.6 f-stop number) or with a shallow focus. Your focal point will be in focus, but everything in front or behind it will be blurry.
Many people use a shallow depth of field for portraits or macro shots, where they want to have a blurry background or lots of bokeh, as in the photo above.
A larger number means the lens lets in less light, which makes for a darker picture with more of the photo in focus. This is called stopping down (usually between f 11 to f22 (or 32 depending on your camera) or with deep focus. The bigger the number, the more of your picture will be in focus.
People usually choose a large depth of field for landscape photography where they want every detail, from the front to the back of the photo, in focus. In this railroad picture, I wanted the tracks in focus and the mountains in the background.
Shutter speed is how fast the shutter moves when taking the photo. The slower the shutter moves, the more light that is able to get in. This makes for a brighter photo.
Fast shutter speed ( 1/200 and up) is used on sports photography to stop the motion. It can also be used to stop any motion in a picture, but it will make the photo darker if you don’t adjust the other elements of exposure. In the photo above, I had to use a faster shutter speed because the deer were fighting and constantly moving. I wanted to make sure they weren’t blurry.
Slow shutter speed (1/160 or less) is used to blur motion or low light situations. It can be used to make creamy water in a waterfall or river and can bring more light into your photo. You will usually need to use a tripod if you go with a slow shutter speed. This photo of Rainbow Bridge National Monument is taken with a slow shutter speed because the light wasn’t very good and there was nothing moving in the picture.
ISO refers to how sensitive the sensor of your camera is to the light.
Most people want to shoot with as low ISO as possible. This allows for the best quality of photo with the least amount of noise. If it is bright outside, like the fall photo above, then it is easy to use a low ISO.
But in order to make a photo brighter, you may need to increase your ISO. Most modern DSLR cameras start at 50 or 100 ISO and shoot without noise up to 1600 to 2000 or even higher.
If you need to use a higher ISO in low light conditions, you may need to use post processing noise reduction to eliminate graininess in your photo. In this photo at Mesa Verde National Park, I had to use a high ISO to get enough light to take the photo.
How to adjust to get the right balance:
Anytime you adjust one of these three parts of exposure, if affects the others. Therefore, you have to balance all three to make a proper exposure.
- Start with ISO. Choose the lowest number that you think you can get away with: 50 or 100 is ideal but if you have less light you might need to go higher.
- Choose your aperture. Do you want everything in focus or just your subject with a blurry background?
- Pick your shutter speed. Do you need to stop motion or make it blurry?
- Adjust to balance all three. If you want a high f-stop or a fast shutter speed, you will have to increase your ISO to make the numbers work.
Ease into manual:
If all of this seems too overwhelming, you might want to start with one at a time. How do you do that? Pick a priority mode to practice with first.
- Aperture priority-In this setting, you pick the ISO (or put it on auto) and aperture for your photo and the camera will pick the shutter speed. This can help you focus just on depth of field and not worry about the other things. Just know that if you choose a larger number, the shutter speed will decrease which means you may need a tripod to make the shot or your subject will need to be very still.
- Shutter priority-In this setting, you pick the ISO (or put it on auto) and the shutter speed for your photo and the camera will pick the aperture. Now you can just choose the shutter speed appropriate for your subject and not worry about the other things. Again, if you choose a slow shutter speed, the ISO may increase or your aperture may get smaller to make up the difference in light. This may make your photos noisy or less in focus.
- Analyze your photo and decide what look you are going for: freeze motion, blurry background, etc.
- Choose your settings according to the 4 steps above.
- Keep adjusting your settings anytime the light or your subject changes to get proper exposure.
As I said above, fully understanding these settings and how to use them to make a great photograph will take some time. There are references below to help you get more information on this topic. But if you want to be a great photographer, you need to know how to shoot in manual mode. If you don’t understand some of the photography terminology above, check out this post for 30 Basic Photography Terms You Should Know.See how to nail the exposure triangle basics of photography to take your pictures to the next level. Click To Tweet
As with any skill, just keep practicing and manual mode will become second nature over time. It will be so worth it when you can have full control over your photographs. The better you can get it in camera, the less time you will have to spend editing later.
Cheatsheet: 3 Elements of Exposure @ Digital Photography School
The Exposure Triangle Explained @ Clickin Moms Blog
The Exposure Triangle Explained in 3 Animated Videos @ Peta Pixel
Do you have any tips on learning the exposure triangle? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks!
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