How to: stop fearing your DSLR

So, you have a DSLR. Awesome. Mostly everybody does nowadays, but don’t feel down just yet: you will rise above the masses if you can actually stop using your DSLR as a point-and-shoot, and venture into the manual modes. I mean, nothing wrong with letting a computer make the decisions for you, but wouldn’t it feel good to be able to put that investment to work, and take your photos one step further? The automatic modes will still be there for a challenging environment or a day when you would rather just click, without thinking too much.

There is no way I can teach you all your camera can do for you: I would have to summarize your manual’s 100+ pages in one post. So I will make this super easy, yet useful: even if you have no idea how a camera works, once you read this post you will be able to try at least one of the manual modes that most intermediate cameras have to offer.

I will tell you about the 4 most common manual modes; think of these as baby steps toward full manual control:

Program Mode (P)

Shutter Priority Mode (S in Nikon/Olympus/Sony or Tv in Canon)

Aperture Priority Mode (A in Nikon/Olympus/Sony or Av in Canon)

Full Manual Mode (M)

Start with P and move in this order as you become familiar with the different settings and what they do. This way, you don't have to become a master photographer as soon as you turn the dial.

There are three main pillars that will affect your final image: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. What are these things, you wonder? These are settings that will control different characteristics of your images. Let’s start with:

ISO: how sensitive your camera is to the light available. If there is a lot of light, you don’t need a lot of sensitivity. When you don’t need a lot of sensitivity, the ISO number you’ll read is low. If the number is low, the sensor in your camera doesn’t need to struggle and you’ll get a sharp image. As you go up in ISO, the image will get grainier and grainier as the camera struggles to sense with the little light available. Always choose the lowest ISO you can get away with.

 At a higher ISO, the nail looks grainy when zoomed in, which makes it look less defined and out of focus. (ISO 1600,  f /3.5, 1/250 seconds)

At a higher ISO, the nail looks grainy when zoomed in, which makes it look less defined and out of focus. (ISO 1600, f/3.5, 1/250 seconds)

 At a lower ISO the nail looks crisp, although darker because the camera is less sensitive. (ISO 200,  f /3.5, 1/50 seconds)

At a lower ISO the nail looks crisp, although darker because the camera is less sensitive. (ISO 200, f/3.5, 1/50 seconds)

If you got that, you are ready to try the first manual mode, Program. This is almost like using the AUTO mode, but you will be able to control the ISO, which is helpful when you don’t want to use flash. In a low-light situation, the AUTO mode will simply pop-up the flash, but what if you don’t want to take a photo with flash and your subject is moving? Try Program, and choose a higher ISO.

Go give it a try and come back.

Ready to keep going? For the next mode you’ll need to understand:

Shutter speed: how quickly the “camera” opens and closes again. If it opens and closes slowly, a lot of light goes in. If it opens and closes slowly, the number you will read will be large, as it is measured in seconds: it takes longer for the “camera” to open and close again. If the shutter speed is large, your camera will record any motion (of the subject or the camera) as motion blur, since it will be recording during all that time that it takes the “camera” to open and close. So, a shutter speed of 5 is good to photograph a waterfall, keeping the camera on a tripod (the water will look as it is moving and the rest will be still), while you may want to choose a shutter speed of 1/250 to “freeze” a child running in the sun.

 This pendulum was swinging in front of the camera. It looks blurry when attempting to capture it at a shutter speed that was not fast enough. (ISO 400,  f /32, 1/40 seconds)

This pendulum was swinging in front of the camera. It looks blurry when attempting to capture it at a shutter speed that was not fast enough. (ISO 400, f/32, 1/40 seconds)

 Choosing a faster shutter speed takes care of the problem. Notice that a faster shutter speed allows less light in, so the image is darker. (ISO 400,  f /32, 1/125 seconds)

Choosing a faster shutter speed takes care of the problem. Notice that a faster shutter speed allows less light in, so the image is darker. (ISO 400, f/32, 1/125 seconds)

Do you think you can try Shutter Priority Mode now? Of course you can. In this mode, you decide how long the shutter is open for, all else is automatic. Now is where you want to start to pay attention, since your camera will adjust the ISO automatically: if you choose a very fast shutter speed but you are in low light conditions (and if a very small aperture (which you’ll learn about next) is not an option because of your lens), the camera will have to choose a high ISO, and you risk having grainy images.

So, go practice. I suggest you choose a couple of different situations (motion vs still) at different light levels, and see what changing the shutter speed does to your images. I’ll be here when you come back.

Not too bad, huh? Now, remember I mentioned aperture up there? And how some lenses cannot go to very low apertures? Read along to find out why this is important.

Aperture: how much your “camera” opens, which depends on the lens. If it opens a lot, a lot of light goes in. If it opens a lot, the number that you’ll read (called f-stop) will be small and written under an “f”. If the f-stop is small, you will have a sharp image at the point where you are focusing, and the rest will be blurry (called narrow "depth of field” or "DoF"). So, an f-stop of f/3 is good for portraits where the subject jumps out of a blurry background, while if you are taking a landscape you may want to choose an f/32 to have it all be in focus.

 Although the background is busy, you can blur it and have your subject pop by choosing a low f-stop (ISO 400,  f /2.8, 1/125 seconds)

Although the background is busy, you can blur it and have your subject pop by choosing a low f-stop (ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/125 seconds)

 When the f-stop value is increased (the aperture is closed), the background becomes more defined. Notice that there is less light going in if the aperture is smaller, so the image is darker. (ISO 400,  f /7.1, 1/30 seconds)

When the f-stop value is increased (the aperture is closed), the background becomes more defined. Notice that there is less light going in if the aperture is smaller, so the image is darker. (ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/30 seconds)

Aperture Priority Mode is not that different from Shutter Priority Mode. You just control a different setting (the size of the lens opening, instead of the speed at which it opens), and let the camera adjust the rest. Modify your f-stop to get different depth of fields, keeping an eye on what ISO and shutter speeds the camera is choosing, so you avoid images that are blurry or grainy.

One more practice session; you are almost done.

Back? Great. So now you are ready for Full Manual Mode. You guessed it: this mode allows you to control it all. It shows a scale of exposure on your viewfinder, and you will want to be in the middle for “correct” exposure: if you are to the right of your scale, your photo will be overexposed (bright) and if you are to the left, it will be underexposed (dark). Sometimes these results are desired, depending on how bright or dark the “correctly exposed” photo looks. Play with the settings and see what happens. Overwhelmed? Try what I do; I set my setting in the following order:

1) Choose the lowest ISO

2) Select the f-stop I want for my desired depth of field

3) Adjust the shutter speed for correct exposure

If my shutter speed goes below 1/30 (the lowest number at which I can hold the camera steady):

4) Increase the ISO (or in counted occasions, decrease the f-stop)

I tend to shoot at low f-stops, since I love narrow depth of fields, so I can rarely increase the aperture if what I am looking for is more light.

And you are done! Up your game a little or a lot, and get your camera to give you back what you payed for it. Now go shoot some killer images!