How to Expose in Manual Mode
This session is all about exposing in manual mode. This is where it all starts to come together – you are going to love this one! It is better on the podcast but, look, I have doubled up so you can read it below if you prefer!
So you have completed the exposure triangle! You know how you allow light to enter your camera using your aperture and shutter speed and you know that if it is still not enough then you can maximize the light using your ISO setting. It is awesome to get this far so quickly. I meet so many photographers who don’t properly understand these basics and because of this they really struggle to progress. You are off to a great start already!
Your three exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are all crucial in capturing a well exposed image. Well exposed simply meaning not too bright and not too dark. Just right for you – the way you want it to look!
Let’s say you have taken a shot in manual mode and you are absolutely delighted with the exposure. It is just right! But now let’s say you are going to take another shot of the same thing in the same light but you want more depth of field in this next one. You want more of your scene from front to back to be in sharp focus. So to get more depth of field you now know that you need to narrow down your aperture.
But remember you were delighted with your exposure last time weren’t you?
So what have you gone and done when you have narrowed down your aperture? You have decreased the light you are exposing your sensor to. You have changed your exposure. If you take this shot now your image will be darker than last time. It will be underexposed.
But that’s ok!
Because you now know that you can make up for the light you lost via your aperture by adjusting your shutter speed or your ISO. You can either slow down your shutter speed or raise your ISO to balance that light again.
Don’t worry at all if that is pickling your brain. This stuff only becomes crystal clear with time and practice. Honestly!
But how do you know what your settings should be in the first place? How do you get to that perfect exposure? I know that is what you will be thinking now. Maybe you understand how to choose your aperture but how on earth will you know which shutter speed and ISO to choose to match it? Surely it is easier to let your camera help you out with this in auto or semi auto shooting modes right?
We have already very briefly touched on this previously but now we are going to fall head first into it. We are going to start tackling ‘metering’. Because that is how you know what your settings should be.
You need to meter the light.
I think even the term ‘metering the light’ is off-putting isn’t it? It sounds incredibly technical and alien but actually it is just measuring. And measuring the light with a light meter is as easy as measuring how long something is with a ruler or how much something weighs with a kitchen scale. We all do both of these things practically without thinking because we are well practiced and it is the same with measuring the light. It just takes practice and then it becomes second nature.
So how do you do it? How do you measure the light?
Well your camera has an in-built light meter. When you are in manual mode and you look through your viewfinder (that is where your eye looks into your camera) you will see along the bottom of your scene something called your ‘exposure line’. Now this will look different depending on the camera you have. If you have a DSLR it is likely that it will be green numbers on a black background. However some other cameras will show the exposure settings on the scene itself either along the bottom or up and down the side. It doesn’t matter where it is as long as you can see it.
Your exposure line will typically display (in this order) your shutter speed, your aperture and then your light meter. Your light meter will look like a measurement gauge. It will have a negative sign at one side and a positive sign at the other side. In the middle will be a zero. You might have some other numbers like negative 1 and negative 2 and positive 1 and positive 2.
So let’s say you, like me, prefer to select your aperture first because you like to be in control of your depth of field. So let’s say you have selected a nice wide aperture of f/2.
Let’s also say that you are taking a photograph on a bright afternoon outdoors. So you know that you won’t need your sensor to be at all sensitive to the light so you have selected a low ISO of 100.
How do you know which shutter speed to select? This is when your light meter comes into play. You use your light meter to measure the light and it will help you find the correct shutter speed to expose this image.
When your light meter gives you a positive reading – you are overexposed. So you will have to let less light in using your shutter speed. You will have to speed it up.
When your light meter gives you a negative reading – you are underexposed. So you will have to let more light in using your shutter speed. You will have to slow it down.
When your light meter gives you a zero reading – you are exposed. Bingo. Your shutter speed is correct for this image.
It is that simple to read a light meter. Get the light meter to zero and voila – take the photograph.
But what do you use to meter the light?
Well, annoyingly, it depends on your camera. Most cameras meter the light using the centre of your frame. So wherever you place the centre of your frame is where your camera will measure the light from. However, and this is important, Some cameras (including Nikon) will measure the light using your focus point (you know the circle or the square that lights up when you focus on your subject?) You aim it at your subject and your camera will measure the light from there.
You might be thinking, what is the difference? My focus point is in the centre of my frame anyway! But actually you have a choice of focus points you can use and you can select one that is not in the middle. Don’t worry we will be covering this when we learn about focusing! For now, just know that your focus point doesn’t always have to be in the middle and if you have a camera that meters using your focus point then you must be aware of where you focus point actually is. That sounds confusing but it won’t be for long, honest!
So your light meter reading will tell you whether you are over, under or just right. All you need to do is adjust that third setting until your light meter gives you a zero reading.
But here is the thing!
You NEED to make sure you know what you want to expose for!
That might not make much sense right now but let me give you an example.
I want you to imagine that you are taking a photograph of me in a fairly bright room and I am being lit by lots of light from a nearby window. Let’s say that I am wearing a red tshirt and I am standing in front of a white wall. Now I have very dark hair and very pale skin. Curse of being Scottish!
So let’s imagine this scene and let’s think about it in terms of light. Remember when you capture an image with your camera your camera is recording the reflected light bouncing from everything in your scene.
Let’s now think about the light that is bouncing from my very dark hair. There is not much light coming from that hair is there. In fact hardly any!
If you try to measure the light being reflected from my dark hair with your light meter your camera is going to be saying, ‘Whoa that is dark! I am going to need a LOT of that light to be able to expose this.’ (yes in my world, cameras talk). So it is going to give you a light reading based on that.
But if you let in the right amount of light to expose for my hair – what do you think my pale face is going to look like in that photograph?
It is much brighter and lighter than my hair. By exposing for my hair you have gone and let far too much light in for my face. It will be far too bright. It will probably be what we photographers call, ‘blown out’. That means it is so bright the details of it are gone or hardly visible.
Now let’s think about the light that is bouncing from that white wall. It’s going to be a lot isn’t it? If you try to measure the light being reflected from that white wall with your light meter, your camera is going to be saying, ‘whoa – happy days! That is so bright – I will hardly need any of that light to expose this.’ So it is going to give you a light reading based on that.
But if you let in the right amount of light to expose for the white wall – what do you think my face is going to look like?
My face is pale but it is nowhere near the colour of that white wall! By exposing for the wall you have not let in nearly enough light to expose my face. It will be far too dark.
There are different amounts of light being reflected from everything in this scene. My face, my hair, my t-shirt and the wall all have different exposures. But even my face will have lots of different exposures! There might be a shadow from my nose across my cheek and there might be a very bright patch on my forehead where the light is hitting it directly.
Look at these images of my son. I metered the light from a different place each time. Which looks most accurate to you?
So you see. Within one scene you can have loads and loads of different exposures. Meter from something dark in your scene and you will get one reading, meter from something lighter and you will get another, completely different, reading!
THIS is where people fall down. They don’t understand the importance of metering from the correct part of your scene. They understand how to measure the light but they don’t understand where to measure it from.
You see, it is not possible to expose for everything in your scene. Unless everything in your scene is exactly the same colour and texture and has exactly the same amount of light falling on it! And that would be a pretty boring picture wouldn’t it?
When you are working with natural light you pretty much have to choose which part of your scene to expose correctly and you have to accept that the rest will be either over or underexposed. Usually it will just be by a little bit and barely noticeable. Sometimes, especially with bright sky in your image, it will be very noticeable. Have you ever taken a picture and even though the sky is beautiful and blue in real life, it just looks bright white in your photograph – yeah that!
So there you have it. You can’t expose for everything in your scene perfectly. You have to choose!
But there are lots of things you can do to expose the other parts of your image better. You can illuminate darker parts of your image with your own lights (flash). You can use a filter on your lens to darken down the lighter parts of your image or you can use editing software to make changes to your image after it has been taken. But none of that changes the fact that you still have to choose what to expose for.
What you decide to expose for in your scene will depend on what you are taking a photograph of.
If, like me, you are taking photographs of people using only natural light then you are almost always going to be taking meter readings from the face. That is what I am doing 99% of the time. It is very important that the exposure is good on your subject’s face.
However, if, for example, you are a landscape photographer then where and how you meter the light will be different. We will go into that a little more in the next session.
Now before I leave you with a Tea Break Task I want to tell you that there is MORE than enough information in this session and the next one for you to go off and start your journey into metering the light. More than enough! I just wish I had access to it all 8 years ago! There is a lot to learn and with practice you will become very proficient.
There is more to metering the light than I can give you here though. There are aspects to manual exposure that just require practical experience for you to truly get to grips with them. Now if you are listening to this and you are impatient to become skilled in manual photography and you want to accelerate your journey then you might be interested in my Manual Exposure Masterclass. It is not free like this course. It costs $47US (around £30). Before you think ‘oh here we go – she wants to sell me something!’ Let me say again that the masterclass is only for you if you want a ‘fast track’ to mastering manual exposure. It won’t be right for everyone. It consists of nine practical sessions in manual exposure. They are short 20-30 minute lessons which start basic and build up to teaching you how to manually expose even tricky scenes with great skill.
The masterclass is practical so you do need to set aside time for each session and you do need your camera with you for them. The sessions are still audio though so you can actually be doing the tasks along with me. You can play, pause and rewind and do everything at your own pace but I coach you through each step – right into your ear. I am not going to go all sleazy salesy on you I promise. If you would like more information about the masterclass you can click right here.
TEA BREAK TASK
I want you to, whenever you have a moment with your camera, switch it into manual mode. I want you to look through your viewfinder if you have one. If you don’t just use your screen as usual. I want you to find your exposure line and, in particular, your light meter.
This is where you can see almost all the information you need to expose your image. If you get into the habit of using your exposure line instead of your menu screen then you will stop missing all those shots. It is much quicker to keep looking at your scene whilst changing your settings instead of dropping your camera down in order to change them using your menu. It takes practice, yes, but doesn’t everything?
So once you find your light meter I want you to simply adjust your exposure settings one at a time and watch your light meter reading change. Watch it move from positive to negative and back again as you adjust the light hitting your sensor.
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