A Crash Course with Little Kin Photography: How To Shoot In Manual Mode

Hi, I’m Polly a mother and photographer at Little Kin Photography based in London, UK.

I’m running a mini crash course for Enfants Terribles Magazine covering the basic theory and principles of photography. This course is designed for keen beginners, anyone with a DSLR camera who wants to experiment. I’m hoping to equip you with the knowledge you'll need in order to push yourself behind the lens and take photographs you feel really proud of. Whilst I’ll mostly be covering DSLR photography I’m planning a post on i-phone photography for those of you who don’t have a camera or for the people out there who just want to take great everyday shots on your phone.

Last month, I talked about capturing everyday magic, being open to and observing the natural moments that occur all around us. In today’s post I’m going to focus on the technical stuff that will really take your picture taking to the next level - specifically, how to shoot in manual mode.

Manual mode is a big jump from shooting in automatic. It might feel daunting to begin with and there will be plenty of dud shots taken on your journey to better ones, but if you really want to step it up a gear then shooting in manual is the best way to go. In time and with practice you’ll become fluent in your camera settings so much so that constructing a shot will start to become instinctive.

When you shoot in Manual mode, you are in control of your camera’s three core settings: ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. Your job as the picture taker, is to balance these three settings, to find the sweet spot that will give you the desired depth, tones and light levels for each picture you take.

If I were to break down the essentials that make up a photograph it would look something like this:

 ISO + APERTURE + SHUTTER SPEED + COMPOSITION + FOCUS = A photograph

So today, let’s look at those first 3 elements: ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed.

ISO

ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. Most of you will have cameras with an ISO range of around ISO 100 to ISO 3,600. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera will be to light. The lower your ISO, the less reactive to light it will be.

Select your ISO levels based on the conditions you’re shooting in. The more light available, the lower your ISO should be. This is because you don’t want your camera to react too much to the natural light and blow out all the highlights. If your environment is dark or dull you’ll want to set your ISO high so that your camera is more sensitive to the natural light that is available and draws more of it into the shot.

As a guide, in summer or on bright days I shoot at ISO 100 or 200. In winter, or on gloomy or dull days I often start at around ISO 400 or higher. I’ve shot at much higher ISOs than this because my camera is capable of shooting in very low light conditions, but for the purpose of this course, we’ll stick to ISO 100 to ISO 3,600.

ISO Explained Diagram

The higher your ISO setting, the more noise there will be in your shot. Noise is essentially grain. A little grain is fine – the days of tack sharp digital photography have long gone out of fashion. But too much grain will dirty your image and make it softer and grittier. Ideally you want to use aperture and shutter speed settings to create the look and feel of your image, and fix your ISO based on the conditions you’re shooting in and how sensitive you need your camera to be to light.

Once you’ve fixed your ISO you can move onto aperture and shutter speed. I tend to set my aperture next based on the depth of field I want for my image.

APERTURE

Your aperture is the size of the opening in your lens that lets light through and into your camera. A big aperture lets lots of light through, a small one lets less light in. The mind boggling thing about aperture is that some crazy dude decided to put the measurements back to front. If you’re shooting with a big aperture, letting lots of light through your lens, your f stop measurement is a small number (e.g. f1.4). A smaller aperture setting which lets less light through your lens is measured with a higher f stop (e.g. f10).

As well as the amount of light that enters your lens, your aperture will also determine your depth of field. Large apertures, (smaller f stops), have a narrower depth of field. This means that you can isolate a focal point so that only your subject is in focus and everything else in front or behind it is soft or blurred. If you wanted most of your image to be in focus, (a greater depth of field), you should choose a smaller aperture, (higher f stop). Confused? I hope I you’re still with me, here are some images with the settings explained to try and demonstrate these principles...

ISO 160   f1.8   1/1600 sec This was taken on a bright day with even light. I wanted to isolate my son as the focal point and cause the buildings and people in the background to blur so I chose f1.8

ISO 160   f1.8   1/1600 sec

This was taken on a bright day with even light. I wanted to isolate my son as the focal point and cause the buildings and people in the background to blur so I chose f1.8

Settings ISO 500   f1.8   1/1250 sec It was a gloomy winter's day. I shot it wide open at f1.8 to focus soley on the child's face and make the mother and the grasses behind them very soft and blurred.

Settings ISO 500   f1.8   1/1250 sec

It was a gloomy winter's day. I shot it wide open at f1.8 to focus soley on the child's face and make the mother and the grasses behind them very soft and blurred.

ISO 100   f2.8   1/1600 sec Shot on a bright day with even light, I wanted to focus mainly on the house and heath land around it making the foreground soft but not indistinct so I shot at f2.8

ISO 100   f2.8   1/1600 sec

Shot on a bright day with even light, I wanted to focus mainly on the house and heath land around it making the foreground soft but not indistinct so I shot at f2.8

ISO 200   f4   1/1600 Sec   I selected a smaller aperture to get most of the buildings in focus rather than isolating one specific point

ISO 200   f4   1/1600 Sec  

I selected a smaller aperture to get most of the buildings in focus rather than isolating one specific point

SHUTTER SPEED

Shutter speed is the speed at which your camera shutter is open to light. The faster your shutter speed, the less light that enters your camera, the slower the speed, the more light you’re letting in. As a general rule, when you’re photographing people who are moving, especially children, you want a higher shutter speed to avoid blur. I would aim for a shutter speed of 200 or higher for moving subjects, (going as high as you possibly can, (based on the levels of light available), to ensure your subjects stay in focus.

I always set my SS last because I like to determine the look and feel of my shots based on my desired depth of field. I mostly shoot with a big aperture, (small f stop – at around f1.8 to f2.8 because I love being able to isolate my subject and create blur around it. But if I’m shooting a family portrait or a group shot and I want everyone’s eyes to be in focus, I shoot with a smaller aperture (around f5.6+).

BALANCE

So that’s the crux of your camera’s three core settings. The trick is to practice, experiment and play around with these three settings to get a feel for how they interact and work together. Don’t worry if in practicing you don’t feel you’re actually taking anything that great - aiming for 1 great shot in every 30 to begin with is realistic, the idea is to get to grips with the way your settings impact on light and interact with each other. Once you’re comfortable with that you can start to get more creative. It really is a case of practice makes perfect, so get snap happy people.

LIGHT

I’ve talked a lot about light in this post because, to me, photography is light. Light will create the mood of your image (darker, more moodier, lighter more airier), it will breathe life into your pictures, give them some soul, it will illuminate your subjects, and be the source of all intrigue. Look for natural light wherever you are, and capture it whenever you can.

To strike the perfect amount of light in your photographs you need to balance your ISO + Aperture + Shutter Speed. The way to do that is to use your camera’s light meter to help you get your exposure right.

When you look through your eye piece or view your display screen on your camera you will see your light meter. It looks something like this

Once you’ve set your ISO and Aperture, adjust your shutter speed to give you the desired exposure level on your light meter. Depending on your personal preference, some people prefer darker, moodier images and others opt for light and bright ones, you can under or over expose your image or leave it at neutral (0). If you want to under expose your image you should make your shutter speed faster until the light meter reads below 0 (to – 0.5 or -1 stop). If you want to over expose to make your image feel much lighter, you should slow your shutter speed down so the light metre reads + 0.5 - +1.5 stops.

Here’s where you should really play around. Take a shot, review it – if you think it’s too dark adjust your exposure by slowing your shutter speed. If your feel there is too much light in the image and the details are blowing out, speed up your shutter speed to let less light in. Keep on doing this, shooting, reviewing and adjusting until you get the perfect exposure for the look you want to achieve.

In summary (putting this all into practice):

1. Fix your ISO based on natural light conditions:

  • A high ISO = more sensitivity to light (dull day)
  • A low ISO = less sensitivity to light (bright day)

2. Set your Aperture based on the depth of field you want:

  • A large aperture (a lower f stop) = more light = isolated subject in focus and blur in front and behind subject
  • A small aperture (a higher f stop) = less light = foreground and background in focus

3. Adjust your shutter speed using your light metre reading to balance out your ISO and Aperture settings and get the desired exposure for the look you want to create (under, neutral or over exposed):

  • A higher shutter speed = less light and less potential for blur with moving subjects
  • A lower shutter speed = more light and more potential for motion blur

Once you’ve nailed your settings, you can start to think about composition. As time goes on and fixing your settings becomes more instinctive to you, you will spend less time thinking about them and more time thinking about composition but for now, focus on the light, play around and experiment with your settings.

I'd love to hear any questions you might have so I can make sure I cover off anything specific in my next posts. Please play away with these principles and let me know how you get on in the comments below. Happy shooting ;-)

You can see more of Polly's photography work through her blog, portfolio or Instagram feed