Saturday, December 3, 2011

Learning to Shoot in Manual Mode- Lesson 1 (ISO)

Alright folks, there's a lot of technical information that goes into achieving correct exposure (getting an image that is neither too bright {overexposed} nor too dark {underexposed} but is just right).  It is actually much simpler to shoot in manual than many people think and we'll get to that in our final lesson of the series, but first it's important to have a basic understanding of the settings you will be changing.

There are three settings that go into achieving correct exposure and here they all in all their glory:

shutter speed

I am going to post one lesson for each and then we'll have a lesson that puts it all together and explains how to actually shoot in manual mode.  And I'm going to try and make these lessons as basic and easy to understand as I can. 


Simply put, your ISO setting will determine how much grain is in your photo.  You have to zoom in to see the grain, so here we go.

The first photo was taken at ISO 1200.  The second was taken at ISO 200.  In other words, the higher your ISO setting the more grain you will have in your image.  When images have a lot of grain photographers often convert them into a black and white image because black and white images pull off high amounts of grain better than color images do. 

So why would you ever shoot with high ISO?  With the exception of adding grain for artistic effect, the only reason you will ever crank up your ISO is because you are shooting in a low light setting and you need to increase your ISO so you can get a properly exposed image that isn't blurry.  That cause and effect will make more sense once we've gone over all of the lessons in the series, but it's important to know why and when ISO needs to be increased. 

KEY CONCEPT:  Low light (inside your home) = crank up your ISO
                              Plenty of light (outside in the daytime) = keep your ISO low

When I'm shooting inside my house my ISO is usually anywhere between 600-1600.  Of course if you can find a big window to shoot by you won't need to raise the ISO nearly as much.  When I am shooting in daylight I usually keep my ISO between 100-200. 

Now if you would like the option of printing a nice enlargement of your image you should try to keep your ISO down around 200, but how often do we really need that?  (Well unless you are a professional photographer).  My point?  Don't be afraid to raise your ISO, even up as high as 1600 if you need to.  It's better to have a grainy image than a blurry one!  And like I mentioned before, if it's too grainy, make it a black and white.  I love black and white candids of my kids, they're my favorite. 

Don't get me wrong there's no reason to raise your ISO higher than you need to, but sometimes it's necessary, especially inside most homes.  This is part of the reason it's so much easier to shoot outdoors. 

Start Thinking about How It Goes Together

The fourth and final lesson of this series will go into putting the three components together but I want you to start thinking about the relationship now.  Put simply, it's a balancing game.  Your camera needs a certain amount of light.  ISO, shutter speed, and aperture setting all help determine how your camera will get the light it needs. 

 Lets go over a scenario real quick.  You take a perfectly exposed picture.  That means you have balanced your settings correctly.  Then you decide that you want to change your aperture setting.  No problem, you can do that.  You will just need to then change either shutter speed or ISO to compensate for that change, because again, they have to stay balanced. 

This will all make sense and you will see in the final lesson that your camera helps you make these choices (yes, even in manual mode) so you don't have to just start shooting in the dark.  I just want you to start thinking about how they are all interrelated.

That triangle won't all make sense to you just yet, but it will once I'm done with you :)


Switch your camera into manual mode (scary, I know).  Go to youtube and search "how to change the ISO on a [insert the name of your camera here]."  Watch the video and experiment with changing your ISO.  You don't actually need to take any pictures since we're still missing two pieces to the puzzle, I just want you to know how to change your ISO setting. 

If you would rather you can also look up that information in your camera manual.


And that's it, ISO in a nutshell.  I hope this made some sense.  Please comment with any questions.


  1. Thank you! This made more sense than anything else I've read. I really struggle to translate info into my brain so it will stick there. Here's hoping your method works for me. I can't wait to read the rest of your posts!

  2. Ok Jill, so far so good. Perfect timing too, I just bought a new camera last week so this is fantastic! I'll go find my ISO setting when it gets light out...

  3. Thanks so much for this series I have been wanting to learn to use the manual mode on my camera.

  4. I saw that picture of the baby and the christmas lights on pinterest and want to recreate it with my little one SO badly! I have a nikon d5100. do you have any tips or can you tell me how I can do that with my camera? on what surface do you achieve the lights reflecting on the ground that way? Thanks! teegilvear{at}hotmail{dot}com

  5. Thank you all for the comments! This series is particularly intensive to write because it's so much technical information to process through. I am thrilled to hear that it made sense and helped!

  6. Love this!!! Your posts are going to help me so much! I needed this. (: A few months back I was trying only manual shooting, and got scared so I turned it back to auto. (I know, I know.) But now I think I'm ready to jump back in and try it again.

  7. Thanks Awna. I'm glad you're excited for the sesries, it should give you all the fundamentals you need and then it's just about practicing until it becomes second nature. Once you get the hang of it and it doesn't feel like such a hassle you'll never want to go back :)

  8. I just read the next few paragraphs. It is my opinion you add a considerable amount of energy to build this particular post. I really thank you for get the job done.

  9. Hi, I just wanted to let you know I gave this post a little shout out on the Blog Guidebook - have a great day!

  10. I have being reading your tutorials for two weeks and practicing everything you explain everything so simple..Now I am using My nikon d5000 om M all the time..I hope you keep Helping us...Thank you...


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