taking photos in manual mode
If you really want to master photography, you need to know how to use your camera. Setting your camera to auto and pushing the shutter button will only get you so far. Your camera is essentially a tool, and to use it to the fullest, you need to be the boss and tell it what you want....what you really, really want. :)

In this post I'm going to share the basics of metering and exposure using a digital camera. I always recommend putting the camera in manual mode (M) so that you can have complete control over your settings. When you can do that and get the type of image you want exposed properly straight out of camera, you know you've mastered your tool. So first thing is first -- set your camera to M mode.

The other setting you will want to set once-and-for-all is your metering mode. All of them can work, but I prefer evaluative metering. Evaluative metering will have the camera look at everything within your composition frame (what you see when you look through the viewfinder) and give you meter results based on the average. Your camera wants everything to be 18% gray, so it will advise you based on that goal. As you'll learn if you keep reading, while this is helpful, oftentimes we will want to take this advice with a grain of salt and do what we want. Because when we master photography, we end up being smarter than the camera.
evaluative metering
There are three settings that work together to determine your exposure:

1 -- ISO
2 -- Aperture
3 -- Shutter Speed

I'm going to talk about these each individually and then talk about how they work together. The order in which they are listed above is the order in which I set them initially, so let's work through them in this order as well. I would suggest that you have your camera in hand as you read through this post and that you take time to find where each of these settings are located and play with them a little. Take your time to really understand each setting and you will be set up for success once you reach the end of this post.

1 -- ISO
ISO is a basic setting that impacts your camera's overall sensitivity to light. For those of you who have ever shot film, it's kind of like film speed. You will want to adjust your ISO whenever you enter a new environment. You won't need to change it often -- just whenever the lighting situation you are in changes drastically. Every camera is a little different with the range of ISO options it offers, but here are some of the usual suspects: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600. The value you choose for your ISO when you enter a new lighting environment is basically an educated guess. So if I'm in bright sun, I will start with an ISO of 100, cloudy outdoor light 200, indoor bright window light 400, typical indoor light 800, low-light 1600, and so forth. The more light you have available to you, the lower you should set your ISO. The reason for this is that all cameras will produce a cleaner, clearer image at a lower ISO. The higher the ISO, the more grainy your images will become. This is especially true for lower-end, less expensive cameras. But don't under-estimate on your ISO just to avoid grain. That will cause you to end up with an underexposed image -- which is much worse quality than a grainy but properly exposed image would be. The goal is to pick the best setting for the situation. That's how you'll end up with the best results.

2 -- Aperture
Your aperture is the opening in your lens that allows light in when you hit the shutter button. Aperture limits are determined by the lens you are using. The most expensive and best quality lenses allow you to set your aperture very low (2.0 or lower). This is why I always recommend that you don't get the kit lenses that come with digital camera bodies. It's better to purchase lenses separately and invest a little more in them. Good lenses will last you a lifetime whereas you will likely want to upgrade your camera body somewhat regularly. For Canon shooters, this 50mm 1.4 lens is a great quality, reasonably priced option that I always recommend for newer photographers. The 1.4 in the name of the lens tells you that the lowest aperture it goes to is 1.4. This gives you greater latitude in a number of ways, which I'll get to here in a second.

The somewhat confusing thing is that the lower the aperture number, the wider the opening is in your lens. So f1.4 means the aperture is "wide open" and f16 means it is more of a pin point opening, letting very little light in. So the lower the aperture number, the larger the aperture. SO confusing. That's why I'm trying to stick with the terms "lower" and "higher" in regards to the f-stop number rather than "larger" and "smaller" in regards to the size of the aperture itself.
camera aperture
Your aperture setting impacts two things: how much light is coming into your camera when you push the shutter button AND your depth of field (what is in focus). Let's talk about both of these individually.

One of the reasons I like shooting wide open with lower apertures is that it lets more light into my camera, allowing me to shoot in lower-light situations. You will find that some of the kit lenses are only good for outdoor shooting because they don't have low aperture options. When you set your aperture lower to allow more light in, you can set your ISO lower and get less grainy images. Or you can shoot at higher shutter speeds to freeze motion. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to aperture. Low aperture = more light. High aperture = less light.

The other reason I love shooting with a lower aperture is that it creates images with a smaller depth of field. So less of the image is in focus. I explain the three factors that determine your depth of field in this post, and while aperture is just one of the three, it allows you to have quite a bit of control over what is in focus and what isn't. I love to focus in on my subject and allow the background to fall into a soft blur like this:
shallow depth of field
shallow depth of field
That is only possible when you set your aperture on a low f-stop. We're not going to get more detailed on depth-of-field in this post, but feel free to click through above to read more!

3 -- Shutter Speed
Your shutter is a little door in your camera that opens and closes when you push the shutter button to let light in. So light travels through the aperture in your lens and then through the shutter and both settings work together to determine how much light gets through. Shutter speed is how fast that little door opens and closes. And it is typically expressed as a fraction of a second: 1/80, 1/200, 1/500, etc. But when you look at the screen on the top of your camera, it typically just shows the bottom part of the fraction: 80, 200, 500. So you can assume when you see those numbers that they represent fractions of a second.

This is a bit obvious, but the faster your shutter speed, the less light comes into the camera, and the slower the shutter speed, the more light comes into the camera. But shutter speed also impacts the freezing of motion when photographing moving subjects. The faster your shutter speed, the more frozen action shots will appear, and the slower your shutter speed, the more you might see motion blur in your images. Typically 1/200 of a second is fast enough to freeze human movement. But another thing to keep in mind when you are setting your shutter speed is that your images might appear blurry because YOU are moving. My rule-of-thumb when I am shooting hand-held (no tripod) is that I don't go below 1/80 of a second. Keep that in mind for now, and I'll come back to it in a minute when we bring all three variables together.
capturing motion
taking photos in manual mode
So now you know the basics of what ISO, aperture and shutter speed are and some of the ways they will impact your final image. Hopefully you've taken some time while reading this post to figure out how to set each of these settings on your camera. Now let's talk about how all three work together to properly determine your exposure.

For practical purposes, I'm going to share how I set my settings when I start shooting in a new environment. This is what I do and what I would recommend:

1 -- Set your ISO using a best guess based on available light.
Again, ISO is an educated guess and only needs to be changed when you enter a new lighting situation. Using my descriptions listed above, choose an ISO and set it. You can always come back and adjust this later.

2 -- Set your aperture based on what you want your depth-of-field to be.
Like I mentioned above, I like to shoot wide open and blur the foreground and background of my images so that the subject becomes an even stronger focal point. So I typically shoot at the lowest aperture setting my lens offers. Typically, the only exception to this rule is when I'm shooting group portraits.

3 -- Set your shutter speed to zero out your in-camera meter.
So hang with me here. Look through your viewfinder. See the little meter that looks like this along the bottom or side of your screen?
camera meter
When you aim your camera at something and push your shutter button half-way down, it should have a little mark that shows you where you're at on this meter. The center of the meter is where you want to line it up. So if the mark is to the right, that means if you take the photo with your current settings the image will be overexposed (too much light); and if the mark is to the left of center, that means if you take the photo with your current settings the image will be underexposed (not enough light). So try it. Look through your viewfinder, and change your shutter speed and notice how the mark moves back and forth along that in-camera meter. Change your shutter speed until the mark lines up in the center (or on the zero).

4 -- Double-check your shutter speed to make sure it is no lower than 1/80.
After zeroing-out your camera meter, check your shutter speed. Is it 1/80 or faster? If not, you will want to go back to either ISO or aperture (or both) and adjust them in order to let more light into your camera. The reason for this was mentioned above. Remember? If you set your shutter speed lower than 1/80 of a second, you risk motion blur due to your own movement. So if your shutter speed is lower than 1/80, you have two options. Either increase your ISO, or lower your aperture (or both!). Once you do this, zero out your in-camera meter once more and see if that allowed your shutter speed to raise above 1/80. If it did, you're golden! If you are using the highest ISO your camera allows, and the lowest aperture your lens allows, and you still need a shutter speed lower than 1/80 to zero out your meter, that means you need different equipment (a better camera or lens that allows for higher ISOs or lower apertures) or you need to add flash to the equation to get some added light. The final option is you could use a tripod and shoot with a slower shutter speed.

Phew! Ok -- this post is getting long. Hope you're hanging in there with me. You may want to take a break and practice shooting in a few different scenarios using the above 4-step method. Take some photos and see how they look. There is one more thing I want to cover in this post, but it would be great for you to master everything up to this point before I share more so that I don't confuse you too much :).

Remember when I talked about evaluative metering above, and how your camera advises you on what settings to use based on it wanting your composition to be 18% gray? That's what it's doing with the in-camera meter mark. It's giving you a recommendation. But since we have brains and can ideally use them while shooting, there are a few situations in which we will not want to take that recommendation, but will rather want to over- or under-expose the image (according to our in-camera meter) in order to properly expose our subject. MOST of the time, shooting with settings that cause your in-camera meter to zero-out are fine, but these are the exceptions:

1 -- When there is a window in the background
If you're shooting indoors and your composition includes a subject with a window behind them, if you trust your in-camera meter and zero it out, you will get whatever is outside the window perfectly exposed, but your subject will be in silhouette. Remember, your camera is taking EVERYTHING in the frame into consideration when determining a recommended exposure. In this scenario, we don't care about properly exposing the outdoors in the shot, we want our subject exposed correctly. So instead of lining up the meter mark with the center zero, line it up to the +1 (the next large mark to the right of center. The smaller tick marks represent thirds of a stop.) So you're over-exposing by 1 stop whenever you shoot with a window in the background.
taking photos in manual mode
2 -- When your subject is back lit, or there is a brighter background
In this post I talk about my favorite kind of lighting in which to place subjects outdoors -- backlighting. When I use backlighting, I typically overexpose by 1/3 - 1 full stop. The subjects always have a hair light due to the sun lighting them from behind, and I want to overexpose this hair light in order to properly expose my subjects. Likewise, if you have your subjects in shade and the background is full sun (the worst possible lighting situation that I would never recommend shooting in) you will want to over-expose according to your in-camera meter in order to properly expose your subjects.
taking photos in manual mode
taking photos in manual mode
taking photos in manual mode
3 -- When your subject is predominately white
If you are shooting a close-up of a wedding dress detail or a subject against a white wall, you will want to overexpose by about 1 full stop. The reason for this is that again, your camera wants that white to be 18% gray, so it will give you a recommendation to make it appear gray rather than white.
taking photos in manual mode
taking photos in manual mode
4 -- When your subject is predominately black
If you are shooting a close-up of a black suit, or a group shot of groomsmen clad in black, you will want to underexpose by about 1 full stop. The reason for this is the same as above -- your camera will want to make the black gray. So you need to compensate for that and be smarter than it is :).
taking photos in manual mode
I hope you've found this post helpful! The only thing left to do is PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE. If you repeat the above 4-step method when setting the settings on your camera whenever you enter a new situation, and do this over and over again, you will get the hang of it. And it will quickly become second nature. I rarely consciously think about my camera settings anymore; these adjustments have become more of a subconscious activity for me. So get out there and practice! And feel free to leave any questions you have in the comments below!

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A simple tutorial to help you learn how to take photos in manual mode
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