Here’s everything you need to know to ditch Auto mode forever

Modern cameras are pretty damn amazing. Charge the battery, pop in a memory card, attach a lens, switch to auto and you are good to go. Not much more work is needed to start getting decent images. But to get consistently better images you need to turn that dial away from Auto and on to Manual.

Before we begin, I believe there is absolutely a time and a place for automatic or semi-automatic modes on the camera. I have shoot over 100 weddings and most of those were on Aperture Priority for the majority of the day. The same goes for corporate events or location portrait shoots. Yes, I will ensure that my minimum shutter speed is set to 1/125 or 1/250 and I have a capped ISO (dependent on camera) but once I have done those things I only need to worry about my aperture, which for weddings and portraits, is the creative element of the exposure triangle.

Now, no article about getting off auto and on to manual would be complete without the exposure triangle. And there is a reason for that. To use manual mode, we MUST understand the exposure triangle.

Every photographer’s favourite triangle

You need to understand that each side of the triangle is dependent upon the other 2 sides.

This example may not work for you but I often tell me students the following to help them understand the triangle a bit better.

Think of a shop. It needs to earn a certain amount of money every day. For arguments sake, let us say £1000.

Now the shop can open for any number of hours per day. The opening time is the shutter speed.

A certain number of customers will come in per hour. This is the aperture.

Customers will spend X number of pounds. This is the ISO.

If the shop opens for 10 hours and 10 customers come in per hour and spend £10 each the shop will make £1000. Job done.

But, if the shop finds that only 5 customers are coming in per hour they need one of 3 things to happen. They either need to open for 20 hours or have each customer spend £20 or a combination of the two.

If the shop finds that 20 customers come in per hour, then they can open for 5 hours or customers can spend £5 each or a combination of the two.

Now, don’t get too hung up on the figures. These examples are just to show that if one of the variables are changed, the other 2 also need to be changed to compensate.

So, hopefully that now all makes sense. Once we have figured that out we need to understand why we are going to change our settings.

2 sides of the triangle are what I call “creative elements”. They are shutter speed and aperture. And I call them the creative elements because as photographers, it is our choice of aperture and shutter speed that will change the way that a photo looks and feels. Lastly, your ISO is the necessary part of the triangle. Keep it as low as possible at all times but don’t be afraid of the noise that comes with a higher ISO – we can always minimise that in post production.

A large (high f number) depth of field will see more in focus than a shallow (low f number) depth of field. We often think of using a larger depth of field for landscape photography and a shallow depth of field for portrait and wedding photography. And that is often the case. But we can get creative and reverse that. I have taken many landscape images that take advantage of a shallow depth of field to draw focus on the subject of my image and portrait images taken with deeper depths of field.

Image taken at f4 to keep the focus on the deer

Portrait taken at F14 as I wanted the texture of the wall and graffiti to stay in focus

When I run my landscape photography workshops here in Scotland, the first thing that I insist all my students do is put their camera on to Manual. Landscape photography is the perfect vehicle for learning your camera and the exposure triangle. Very rarely is speed of the essence. The landscape doesn’t change much as we look at it and light is fleeting anyway.

When it comes to landscape photography your shutter speed is often your creative element, not your aperture. Now obviously this is not a hard and fast rule but let me explain my thinking. For a lot of landscape images we are looking to include elements that are moving – rivers, seas, skies etc. And how we choose to capture this will govern the overall feel of our image. A very long exposure will create cloud trails which can produce dramatic results. A fast shutter speed can freeze a wave and show off its force. The most common example is using your shutter speed to soften water (I’ve seen this referred to as milky water or candy floss water)

A 240 second exposure adds real drama to the sky

A 1/500th of a second shutter speed shows off the force of a waterfall

My advice, when it comes to landscape photography, is to work backwards off the shutter speed. Do you want a fast or slow shutter speed? Once you have figured that out, you can think about your aperture. If your shutter speed won’t make much difference to your image (in your opinion) then think about your aperture first. Once you have decided on your shutter speed, it is time to start working on the other 2 sides of the triangle. This is where you are on your own! Every lighting situation is different so there is no one size fits all guide to setting your Aperture/Shutter Speed/ISO. But as above, just try and keep your ISO as low as possible.

So what happens if you want a long shutter speed, you’ve set your ISO to the lowest setting and your aperture is at the smallest (largest number) it can be? Well in that case you need to make use of an ND filter. ND filters are little bits of glass/resin that attach to your lens (usually) that reduce the amount of light that is being taken in. These range in price from about a tenner right up to several hundred pounds, however in saying that you do get what you pay for and the cheaper ones can often add an unwanted colour cast or make the image slightly less sharp.

Lastly, let’s talk about how the camera works. Light is measured in stops. Every time you double your ISO you increase the exposure by a stop. Every time you double your shutter speed you increase the exposure by a stop. Every time you multiply your aperture by the square root of 2 (approx 1.41 – long story. Read here for more about that) you increase your exposure by a stop. Luckily you don’t need a calculator to work all this out as your camera will do it for you.

Let us make an example.

You have figured out through your camera’s metering system that a perfect exposure is F8, 1/30 shutter speed and ISO 400. But you know that you want to slow that shutter speed down to 1 second to give the water a smoother feel.

So what we need to do is figure out how many stops we are adding to the exposure. To do that, we double the shutter speed until we get to 1.

Going from 1/30 of a second to 1 second adds 5 stops to the exposure

So we have added 5 stops to the overall exposure. To stop the image from being too bright, we need to take 5 stops of exposure from somewhere else – the ISO and the aperture. We can immediately take the ISO down to 100 which is 2 stops (halve 400 to 200 = for the 1st stop, halve 200 to 100 = for the 2nd stop) but that leaves 3 more stops. So we have to drop the aperture by 3 stops. So we would (in theory) multiply 8 by 1.41 (and repeat twice more). This will give an approximate answer of 22. So we set our aperture to F22.

But like I said, our camera can work these numbers out for us if we want. Most cameras are, by default set to work in 1/3 of stop increments. That is why you will notice your aperture reads and f8, f9, f10, f11, f13, f14, f16 and not f/8, f/11, f/16 (note these numbers are rounded) and your ISO goes 100, 125, 160, 200, 250 etc. So all we have to do is be able to count. We know that if we move our aperture by 3 steps or clicks it is equivalent to 1 stop. Make sense? No? OK, in the example above we needed to adjust the aperture by 3 stops. So I know that means that I have to move my aperture wheel 9 “clicks” to the right. If this doesn’t make sense, pick up your camera and have a play.

I am going to muddy the water slightly here. So much so I would say if you haven’t understood the part above, keep reading it until you do before proceeding any further… In the scenario above, you could have used a 5 stop ND filter, or a 3 stop ND filter and made up the other 2 stops with reducing the ISO or decreasing the aperture.

So, now you know the basics what next?

My challenge to you is to spend 7 days purely in manual mode taking images of your surrounding landscape or cityscape.

Make sure for every image you take you have a base exposure sorted first. Then adjust your shutter speed or aperture for the creative element of your photo. Work out the number of stops you have changed it and then use the other sides of the exposure triangle to compensate for this. Heck you don’t even need to work out the number of stops you have changed it, you could literally count! You could say to your head you have added 9 clicks of exposure (which we know is 3 stops) so you need to take 9 clicks away. You could do that all on ISO or Aperture/Shutter Speed or a mixture of the two. Whichever you think will work best for your image

If the light is consistent, see how many exposures you can get in a row that look basically the same. Can you do 10? Once you get the hang of it it will become second nature and I can guarantee you will never feel the need to go back to auto mode again. Although you may want to anyway 🙂

Enjoy, any questions let me know!


About the Author

Matt Ward is a landscape, wedding and portrait photographer based in Scotland. You can find out more about Matt on his website and follow his work on Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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