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Move to Manual: Wrapping it Up

April 3, 2012

If you’ve missed any of the Move to Manual series so far, be sure to check it out!

We’ve spent the last several weeks covering all of the basic aspects of photography and how to use your camera. We’ve gone over the basics of composition and lighting; what aperture is; how shutter speed, iso and white balance can change your photos, and we’ve talked about metering. Now…it’s time to put it all together and start shooting in manual.

I set all of my shots up the same. Every single image that I take is set up the exact same, whether I’m indoors or out.

This tutorial isn’t that advanced or even all that detailed. But, as someone who learns by doing, sometimes, it helps just to know how someone else gets from point A to point B, so I didn’t want to leave it out. Keep in mind that no matter which way you decide to setup your shot, your photography won’t improve unless you practice. One of the biggest advantages that I’ve discovered with my 52 Faces project this year has been that I’ve had to shoot weekly. And in that time, I’ve seen my photography improve drastically. Because I’m practicing consistently.

Shooting in manual isn’t learned over night. It’s not something that you can perfect in just a few sessions. You have to practice. And practice. And then practice some more. Don’t get frustrated or discouraged. Just do it.

Here’s my method…keep in mind that my camera is always on Al Servo Auto Focus and Partial or Spot Metering Mode. These things are constant and don’t change, so they won’t need adjusting.

Set my Aperture

My depth of field and the bokeh that my lens creates is typically my top priority when I’m shooting. I want that creamy, dreamy effect in my images, so I always start out by setting my Aperture first. If I’m just shooting a single portrait, I start out at an f/stop of 2.0.

Set my Shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is the next thing I consider when I’m shooting. I know that if I’m shooting pictures of a moving toddler, that I’ll want something of at least 1/250 or 1/300. Noah’s quite the wiggle worm and is generally full of abounding energy. So, having a fast shutter speed that can freeze his movement is imperative.

Set my ISO

Since I’ve upgraded my camera, I don’t pay as much attention to my ISO as I used to. The capabilities of my lenses and the wider aperture paired with the quality ISO settings make shooting indoors or out fairly simple. I generally start my ISO at 200 and then I’ll work my way up a bit if I need to.

Set my White Balance

I use a Custom White Balance (the Kelvin setting) and change the light temperature according to where I’m at. Indoors, my Kelvin temperature usually ranges from about 4300-4600 depending on which room we’re in. Outdoors, I’m more likely to switch to one of the preset White Balance modes.

Test it Out

Once I get all of my settings adjusted, I take three or four test shots. When I’m doing test shots, I’m typically looking at four things:

  • How the f/stop is impacting my picture: Is my aperture too wide? Are there any aspects of my subjects face that are blurry and not in focus because I’ve got my aperture set wrong?
  • Whether or not the shutter speed is fast enough:Is there any camera shake or motion blur?
  • How much noise in the image: Is there obvious and noticeable noise or grain?
  • Is the color right: Are there strong tints of blue or red that need to be adjusted?

Once I check off all of these things and make my adjustments, I do another test shot. I repeat this several times (especially if I’m using a Custom White Balance and I’m having to adjust it accordingly) until I get the image that I want and see that my settings are good.

Meter & Shoot

Finally, I do my metering. Placing the metering spot on my subjects cheek, pressing halfway down, and then refocusing on the eye and click!

I do this same series of steps with every set of images. No matter where I’m shooting or who I’m shooting, the same setup occurs. The more you shoot (especially if you shoot in the same locations) you’ll learn to read the light and be able to guess your settings pretty spot on. I know almost exactly which settings I’ll use when I’m shooting indoors at our house. The light is usually the same, so most of my settings remain unchanged.

Again, keep in mind that shooting in manual comes more naturally the more that you practice!

I hope you guys learned at least a few things from this series! I’ve enjoyed all of your feedback and your comments here and on Facebook. I’m working on putting together and printable version of this series for those of you who have asked and emailed about it. It’s a few weeks in the making, so look for that to be released around the end of April.

I’m looking for suggestions for more series to come in the future! I’d love to know what you guys would like for me to share. Blogging? Blog Design? Editing? More photography tutorials? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

  1. Leslie Wassmuth says:

    Hi! Courtney,
    I’ve been learning how to shoot in manual the problem I’m having is when I set my shutter speed to 1/250 in a natural lit room with my iso at 200 apeture at 7 my pictures are almost black. I would like to be able to shoot at 1/250 when photographing babies & small children. I have a Cannon Rebel t3i.

    • Courtney says:

      You need to open up your aperture a bit. When I shoot just one person, I generally shoot with an Aperture of 2.5 or 2.8. I would only shoot at 7 if I was shooting a landscape or a very, very large group of people. Try that and see if it helps!

  2. iona says:

    Hi Courtney, nice series on using manual camera mode. Thanks for sharing. You say you always shoot in manual mode, by setting the aperture, shutter speed, iso. Then you meter, recompose, and finally click the shutter. Can you explain why you need to perform the metering step after you’ve already set the aperture, shutter, and iso? If I understand correctly, in full manual mode, you’re not relying on the camera meter anymore to determine the exposure, as you’ve already decided on what settings you want. The metering step should only be required if you are using aperture priority, or shutter priority, or program mode,

    • Courtney says:

      When I meter, I want to meter so that my subjects face and skin is properly exposed. That’s why I use Spot Metering. By Spot Metering or Partial Metering and setting my metering point on the subjects skin, it tells the camera that that is what I want to be properly exposed. You can not meter and you’d still be relying on your camera to guess what area of the photo you are trying to illuminate and properly expose. I shared two different images on the metering post ( that can help you see what I’m referring to. The first photo, I didn’t meter off of my sons face and you can see the poor lighting on his face whereas in the second photo I did meter off of his cheek and got a more properly exposed area on just his skin.

  3. I love how simply you explain everything. 🙂 And would LOVE to read about some blog design. I want to start designing my header, signature, buttons, etc. in Photoshop and have no idea where to start.

  4. Amy Willa says:

    I had good luck shooting in manual indoors yesterday, and then today, I tried using the same settings, and all my pictures were too dark. I’m wondering, when you get dark images indoors, if there is a usual culprit? Like, is my aperture off, or is it the ISO? I’m pretty sure it’s not the shutter speed. As soon as I start to think I’ve got the hang of taking pictures indoors in our house, then I go back to feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing.

  5. Ophelia says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do this series! I’ve seen my photos improve so much especially once I learned about metering and changing focal points. I practice as often as I can and always have my camera with me. Thanks! 🙂

    • Courtney says:

      You’re so welcome! I’m so happy that you’ve learned from this series and taken something away from it. Practice is key and I love carrying my camera with me because I never know what kind of shot I might stumble onto. 🙂

  6. Amy Willa says:

    This series has been phenomenal, Courtney! Thank you SO MUCH for doing it! I’ve always wanted t shoot in manual, but had no idea where to start. Now, I’m getting better and better each day and getting some great shots, thanks to you! Thank you so much!

    • Courtney says:

      I’m so happy to hear that! 🙂 That’s exactly what I was hoping for when I started this series and I’m SO happy that you’ve seen a difference in your photos!

      • Amy Willa says:

        I saw even more of a difference shooting inside today and thinking of this post. I had your starting numbers for the different settings in my head, and I went from there. I *think* I may be starting to get the hang of the basics. It’s a fun new hobby, to shoot in manual!

        • Courtney says:

          So happy to hear that! 🙂 It definitely gets easier. And I think having those starting numbers in your head makes the jumping off point a little less intimidating. 🙂

  7. Amy G. says:

    I loved this series! Sad to see it end, for sure. But I definitely learned from it! And I liked how you wrote it in common English, as if you were just talked to us. It’s so much easier for me to learn and retain information that way. Thank you for doing this series!

    • Courtney says:

      Thank you, Amy! I’m so happy that it was easy to understand. I tried to make sure that I used a language that anyone could “get.” When I first started learning the big words totally threw me. 🙂

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Courtney Kirkland is a Sacramento, California photography and design business. Since 2008, Courtney has passionately provided beautiful, meaningful documentary-style photography and intentional, high-quality design.  Value and celebrate the beautiful, messy, and uniquely-special moments of everyday living.