We’ve all been there, shooting in an automatic or priority mode of some kind — letting the camera do most of the work for us. While there is a time for that (especially if you are a true beginner) — there is no time like the present to begin shooting all manual. From focus to exposure, the way to ensure your shots turn out exactly how you want them is to shoot full manual.
Shooting with the camera deciding any exposure settings will only end in disaster at some point for your imagery. Either the camera will pick the wrong shutter speed for the situation, or it may jack the ISO up to unacceptable levels — some how, some way the camera will make the wrong decision.
From experience, cameras tend to try to open up the aperture first and foremost before tweaking with the shutter speed and ISO. In many situations this is ok, for storms and landscapes this is an absolute bad call.
For wide (or big) scenes, you want the entire scene in focus — or as much as possible.
If your camera is constantly opening up to f/2.8 it’s going to be really hard to achieve that in automatic mode. Simply put, you need to take control.
To help you with this, here is a quick guide of the three essential settings, with links for a deeper look at each.
- Aperture – This allows light through your lens and onto the sensor. We say an aperture is closed down when the number gets bigger, because the hole allowing light in is smaller. It ‘opens up’ when the number is smaller and more light is allowed to enter. Ideally for storm situations, you want to be somewhere in between f/5.6 and f/11 — depending on your lens quality. Learn More About Aperture
- Shutter Speed – You want a shutter speed that’s double your current shooting focal length. So for instance, if you are shooting with a 24mm prime lens, you don’t want your shutter speed to dip below 1/48. For video, you also have to apply another important rule: you want your shutter speed to ideally be double your framerate. So again, if you are shooting at 24p, you want your shutter speed to be 1/48 again for the best looking motion. Learn More About Shutter Speed
- ISO – This is better known as digital gain or image lightening. Using ISO artificially brightens your image at the expense of noise. Depending your camera, ISO 1000 to 3200 will be the limit before you get too much noise to make an image truly useable. Thus, be very wary of using ISO and only use it when the above rules are being breached for a properly exposed image.
Alternatively, we’ve covered a lot of this also in a post entitled, “What are the ideal storm photo settings?”
Also we’ve covered some great exposure tips in two guides on Histograms: “Real HDR Photography” and “How to Use Your Histogram to Properly Expose Images“.
A Few Protips For the Road
Shooting in manual is a bit daunting to be sure, but there are a few shortcuts you can use to make the entire process easier and quicker so you don’t miss the shot.
- Manually focus on the horizon first. That way you know your storm is in focus — the horizon should be at or just below the infinity focus point on your lens/camera.
- While Driving into position, roll your window down and get a rough exposure. Seriously, this works every time to get within a couple of clicks of what I need. Do this plus the manual focus/horizon trick and by the time your camera is on the tripod you are 90% of the way towards good exposure and focus.
- Set the ideal aperture for your lens for landscapes and work around it with shutter speed. My depth chart for storm photography is simple: Aperture first, then shutter, then adjust aperture a stop or two if I have to break the magical shutter 2x focal length rule, then ISO.
- Don’t forget about framing and composition. All of this work on exposure and the more important job is still composition. Before I even start working on exposure, I compose a shot. That way you know the image will ‘look’ good when it is shot well.
Don’t let your camera’s manual mode intimidate you any longer. Your best images are yet to come! Practice using it, and I guarantee you’ll have the hang of shooting in manual before you know it!