The Pluckan easy guide to moving off shooting automatic

Zig Ziglar is quoted as saying you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.  So when a budding photographer recently asked me how they move from shooting pictures using the full automatic mode to shooting using the manual mode on their recently purchased DSLR my immediate response was almost to say turn the dial until it is pointing to the big M and then take it from there.  Of course there is more to it than that and for many photographers it can actually be quite a daunting prospect moving to the Manual mode on their camera.  Why would you want to move off the automatic mode if the camera manufacturer was kind enough to add in a mode to allow photos to be taken almost as soon as you get the camera?  Photos which are perfectly fine 80 or maybe even 90% of the time. All at the risk of completely spoiling photos that you may not get the opportunity to shoot again.  Because, of course, if you never start, if you don’t move that dial, then you will find it very hard to learn.

I used my bridge Panasonic FZ18 camera for more than 3 years and I almost never moved off the automatic mode. When I did move off automatic it was to one of the presets, portraits/macro for shooting people and sometimes the night shooting mode.  At the time I did not have the faintest clue as to what the camera was doing in each of these modes and therefore was happy to use trial and error to maybe get a good shot, maybe not.  In the right conditions the camera would perform admirably.  So much so that I actually began to think I could perhaps even start calling myself a photographer.  And I started to look at what other photographers were doing and I realised that maybe I was not quite deserving of that moniker.  I simply did not understand my camera well enough to actually get most of the shots I was looking at because most, if not all were not shot in auto.

I clearly recall the tipping point for when I decided to shift off the auto mode.  I was at the local eco-park in Sasolburg, looking at a windmill with some dried weeds growing in front of it.  In my head I wanted to get a shot with the windmill blurred and the weeds in the front in focus, which I now know to be shooting with a shallow depth of field.  I had been doing some reading and so I knew that I needed to be shooting on aperture priority so I decided to give it a try.  After about 10 shots of trial and error I eventually got the shot I was trying to get in my head.  Looking back now I realise it was actually quite a terrible shot but I remember it so vividly because I was shifting from point and click to actually thinking through what I would need to do and how to do it.

Shot with my Panasonic FZ18 late in 2009

I began practising more after that afternoon in the eco-park until I eventually decided to buy my first DSLR and with that, the question of what I was trying to achieve with each photograph became more important.

Shifting off Automatic

Before going into the modes your camera can shoot in, it is actually important to take a step back and take a first principles approach to making a good photograph.  Photography, in the most fundamental form, is capturing light to create an image.  Not just any light though, just enough light to strike the correct balance.  Too much light and the image becomes washed out and you cannot see what is there.  Too little light and the resulting image is too dark and again you cannot see what the image is meant to be.  In the days of film this balance equated to how much light you let flow to the film or exposed the film to.  Which lead of course to the phrases for incorrectly exposed photographs.  Too much and it was overexposed, too little and it was underexposed.  To control the quantity of light, there were and still are 3 variables you can control as a photographer.  The holy trinity of photography; shutter speed, lens aperture and ISO

Shutter speed (The Father)

Shutter speed is how quickly the shutter mechanism of the camera body you are shooting with opens and closes.  It is measured as how long you expose an image for, in seconds or fractions of a second.  Depending on your camera body the length of time usually allowed runs from 1/4000s to 30s, with 1/4000 being a very short exposure letting very little light in and 30s a long exposure letting more light in.  Some more recent camera bodies now allow 1/8000s as the minimum shutter speed and using a remote will allow exposures greater than 30s.

Primarily, varying the shutter speed (and balancing ISO and aperture accordingly), is used to show or reduce the effects of motion in a photograph.  If you want to freeze a very fast moving object like a bird in flight or a sportsman running very fast, you will need to use a very fast shutter speed.  Conversely, if you want to show the motion of an object, such as when you want to show the light trails left by cars, you will need to use a slower shutter speed.  The slower the object moves (relative to the camera) the longer the exposure required.  For instances creating star trail images need exposures of two hours and greater to show the tails of the stars across the sky.

When shooting on automatic, you will notice that the less light there is, the slower your camera will try to make the shutter speed.  This can start becoming a problem for two main reasons.  If your subject is moving and the light is low your pictures will tend to have motion blur and not be as sharp as they can be.  I see this often with cellphone pictures taken at night, where peoples hands or even faces mutate due to motion blur.  The second problem that slow shutter speeds cause is even if you are shooting a stationery subject, such as a building, your hand shake will be captured as motion blur.  This means that you will not be able to hand hold the camera at slower shutter speeds.  The general rule I follow, as I have mentioned before is to avoid dropping the shutter speed below the focal length (of the lens) you are shooting at when using your camera hand held.  So for a 50mm lens for instance, dropping below 1/50s will require extremely steady hands.  How then does one capture longer exposure shots and still get crisp sharp images? Simple, a tripod.

I went out and tried to show how increasing shutter speed serves to show the motion of a moving object.  With my camera on a tripod, I shot with the camera in Shutter Priority mode.  The camera then adjusted aperture. As you can see, a 1 second exposure is too short and just looks like a blurry picture.  The 30 second exposure, with the oncoming traffic makes the image a little too bright.  The ideal exposure would therefore be somewhere between 15 seconds and 30 seconds.  Or I could have picked the right timing when no oncoming traffic was going passed, but 30 seconds can sometimes be longer than you think…

Aperture (The Son)

While shutter speed is a function of the camera body, the aperture is a component of the lens coupled to the body.  The optics definition is the size of the hole light traveling through must pass through to make an image on the film/sensor it is impacting.  To be honest, I studied optics in first year physics and would be hard pressed to give an exact definition.  The size of the hole the light traveling through determines how much of the image is sharp and in focus.  Narrower apertures result in more of the image (measured as a distance or plane in focus) being sharp, while wider apertures result in less distance being in focus.  Or conversely, aperture determines how much of the image is out of focus or blurred.  This is commonly referred to as the depth of field.  Aperture of the lens is measured as a ratio of the focal length to diameter of the aperture opening, known as f-stop.  A wider aperture opening results in a smaller ratio (large denominator) and hence a smaller f-stop while a narrower aperture results is a larger ratio (small denominator) and hence larger f-stops.  F-stops can range from below f1, to f32 and beyond. The aperture element of a lens (usually a diaphragm) can be controlled to be made smaller from a maximum opening allowing a lens to be shot with variable aperture.  The maximum opening of the lens is used to describe how fast or slow the lens is, because wider aperture openings allow larger amounts of light in, meaning the shutter speed has to be made slower (as per the explanation above) to balance out the image to the right amount of light.  Lenses that have a larger aperture opening, or a smaller f-stop, are therefore referred to as fast lenses.  Usually any lens with an f-stop less than F2.8 maximum aperture is considered fast.

Still following after all that?  So why is aperture important you may ask? I think the most important thing to remember about aperture out of all of that is that aperture primarily controls the depth of field you wish to have.  When taking portraits you would aim to have a very shallow depth of field, making the background blurry to ensure the viewer is not distracted.  This would require a very large aperture lens, or a lens with a small maximum f-stop.  Typical portrait lenses will have maximum f-stops of 1.4 to 1.8.  When shooting landscapes, a greater depth of field is required (generally) and one could therefore shoot at smaller aperture openings or higher f-stop number such as 8 to 11 and sometimes even beyond.  Varying the aperture (while balancing out the light with the shutter speed and ISO) can therefore be used to control your depth of field.

A simple experiment you can do yourself to see the effects of Aperture Priority is to start with the maximum aperture (smallest F-stop) and work your way smaller.  If you look at the images above where I did just that with my 50mm F1.8 lens, using the popcorn delight bottle as the reference point, you will see that at the largest aperture setting, the spice bottles towards the back are blur (out of focus) and even the bottles towards the front are not sharp.  As the aperture size is decreased (increasing F-stop), more of the bottles become sharp, with the image shot at F-11 sharp almost all the way from front to back.

Canon’s kit lens is the 18-55mm F3.5-5.6.  Which means with the aperture wide open, at 18mm the f-stop ratio is 3.5 and at 55mm the f-stop ratio is 5.6.  The maths behind this is hopefully apparent, the denominator is staying the same but the focal length is changing. This could be a problem once you shooting on manual mode or even aperture mode because the f-stop ratio will change as you zoom in or out if you are shooting at your lens’ maximum aperture. Fixed focal length lenses, referred to as prime lenses, will not have this issue as the focal length does not change.  Some more advance zoom lenses, such as the 70-200mm F4 lens are also made to have a constant maximum f-stop (F4 in this case) irrespective of the focal length.

When shooting automatic in low light conditions, the camera will try to force the aperture to as wide open as possible to allow as much light in as possible.  This can be advantageous in that the shutter speed required then becomes faster, potentially avoiding motion blur.  However, if you were indeed following, this comes at the cost of shallower depth of field which can be an issue if you are trying to get a landscape shot or a picture of more than one row of people for instance.  Conversely, in bright light the camera would tend to force the aperture more open and if you were aiming for a blurred background, you might end up with much more than you were aiming for in focus.  As an aside, depth of field can also be affected by the distance from the object to the camera and the distance of the object to the background as well as lens characteristics that make longer lenses (300mm, 400mm etc.) have shallower depth of fields.

ISO (The Holy Ghost)

In the days of film, the film’s sensitivity to light was used as a measure .  Highly sensitive films required shorter exposures and were referred to as fast films and less sensitive films were slow films.  There were various procedures used to conduct the sensitivity testing until the International Standards Organisation (ISO) rating method was adopted towards the late 1970s.  Measured on a scale that generally starts at a minimum of 100 for low sensitivity and increasing for higher sensitivity. The advent of the digital sensor era lead to a carry over of the term to measure the sensitivity of the digital sensors – hence the term ISO.

In the days of film, a photographer would have to carry around rolls of film with different ISO ratings to account for variable light conditions.  Highly sensitive film would be required in low light situations and would require the photographer to physically change the film roll out to make sure he was shooting with the correct sensitivity.  The question is then why not shoot with high sensitivity film all the time? And the answer to that would be that increasing the film sensitivity made pictures noisier, or more grainy.  Increasing the ISO rating came at the cost of decreasing image quality.  Digital sensors can be adjusted to different light sensitivity without having to change more than a dial and is therefore easier to do than in the film era.  However the issue of decreasing image quality still affects all modern digital cameras, albeit to varying degrees.

In the above set of images I kept the Aperture and Shutter speed settings constant and increased the ISO setting.  At ISO 100 the image is very underexposed.  Correct exposure is around ISO 1600 but I see noise creeping in from ISO 800 already.

Varying the ISO while balancing out the image with shutter speed and aperture is not often done.  However there are specific situations that do require higher ISO settings, such as dimly lit concert halls where flashes would not be allowed, will mean that the ISO is increased once, at the beginning, to allow easier shutter speed and aperture settings to work with.

The pitfall of shooting automatic is that in some instances the camera will push the ISO too higher and the resulting images will be of very low quality.  This is again something that one generally sees when looking at phone camera pictures taken in dark places when the flash is off, and sometimes when the flash is used as well.

Walk before you run

So most DSLR cameras come with a few modes on the mode dial. Each of these modes control how the light is balanced by the camera to produce an image.  There is the automatic mode that I have mentioned ad nauseum already where the camera fully controls how the light is balanced by choosing all 3 of the shutter, aperture and ISO settings.  There are then some scene modes, a few pre-programmed, semi-automatic modes,and the full manual mode.  My 7D has 9 modes and the 6D 10 modes. The scene modes such as sports, macro or night shooting modes are just guidance to the camera algorithm to say, for instance that there will be fast moving subject matter (sports) so adjust aperture and ISO as much as possible and keep shutter speeds faster while macro will allow shallower depth of field by increasing aperture (decreasing f-top) and balancing with the shutter speed and ISO.  Stepping off automatic to these scene modes will only work if you are shooting in those conditions.  It helps but not much.  Progress towards full automatic can however be made incrementally.

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority or the T (for time) mode on Canon or S mode on Nikon will allow you to set the shutter speed of the camera and allow it to then choose the correct aperture setting and ISO.  As I mentioned above, long exposures where you would require sufficient time to express motion would be one application of this.  And sports where lighting may be variable may be quicker to capture with a fast shutter speed and allowing the camera to chose the other two settings than having to fiddle with the settings with each shot trying to compensate. Animal and bird photography where one would require fast shutter speeds could also be applications for shutter priority.

Aperture Priority

Aperture Priority or the A mode on Canon and sometimes Av mode for Nikon will allow you to set the aperture setting on the lens and then allow the camera to choose the correct shutter speed and ISO.  Many DSLR photographers use the Aperture priority to shoot as their primary mode, not bothering with manual.  When shooting aperture priority you have to then remember what aperture setting each different type of photography will require.  Macro and portraiture will require smaller f-stops and landscapes larger f-stops. You will also see that when shooting lights with a large aperture, they tend to have the starburst effect (from the light passing through the smaller aperture) which can be a desirable effect in some photos.

A rule of thumb I try to also stick to is that I change apertures to ‘whole’ stops. Lenses allow for the aperture to be closed or opened in thirds, or allow for 3 steps between full f-stops.  So starting at 1.8 the full stops are 1.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16,22.  I would not venture much past F22.  Between each set of these full stops are two third stops; moving from F5.6 to F8 for instance will take you through F6.3 and F7.1.  I would generally stay away from these.  Also important to note is that some lenses will have an aperture ‘sweet spot’ or the aperture setting where the lens is sharpest.  Photographers will talk of having to step down to get better sharpness on their lenses.  It is therefore important to read up and find out where the sweet spot of your lens is.

Full Manual

Full manual, as the name suggests, is the mode that allows you to choose all the settings.  It is then your job to then find the balance between the Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO.


Now balancing 3 variables can be a bit complex, especially in deciding what to change and what to keep as is.  But like I said earlier, ISO generally is not varied – hence no ISO priority mode on the camera.  Therefore what I tend to do is set the ISO to minimum almost eliminating it as a variable.  When I cannot attain the required balance with the combination of just aperture and shutter speed is when I start adjusting the ISO.

With two variables to manipulate it becomes much easier.  Depending on the image you wish to shoot, you will need to first chose one of the aperture or shutter priority and then use the second to balance.  When you use which mode is as described above.

The camera will tell you how well you doing as well.   At the bottom of the viewfinder there is a scale.  Shooting in shutter or aperture priority, you can almost ignore the scale because the camera will (for most situations) find the balance.


But as soon as you switch to manual, its up to you to find that balance.  The arrow at the bottom moves left and right, depending on exposure.  If it is to the left of 0, on the negative part of the scale, the resulting image will tend to be underexposed.  To the right, on the positive part of the scale and the resulting image will be over exposed.  And that’s as simple as it is.  Moving an arrow left and right.  Of course difficult situations can push that bottom arrow off the scale but if you practice enough you will soon know how to handle those as well.

So if you have a DSLR or camera that has a manual mode the question I have for you is what are you waiting for.  The next time you pick up the camera is the perfect excuse to start getting off the automatic mode.  And if you need an excuse for the next time to pick up your camera, why not try out some of the shots I have used in this blog to illustrate the different effects you can get using the different modes on your camera. Start by shifting that dial, and soon you will also be moving the dial on your photography as well.


One thought on “The Pluckan easy guide to moving off shooting automatic

  1. Pingback: Which Lens to choose for beginner wildlife and nature? – Passion Fruit

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