Gizmodo Camera Buying Guide 2014: 5 Tips For Understanding Manual Photography Features

If you can already take a great photo using your new digital camera in its automatic or semi-manual shooting modes, why not go the whole hog and try out entirely manual photography? It'll add a completely different dimension to your photographs through trial and error, and you'll add an entirely new set of skills to your portfolio. Here are five quick tips for using your camera manually.

Learn About Shutter Speeds, ISO And Aperture

If you're shooting your camera in manual mode, there are three big things to adjust that affect your photos -- here's an extremely quick explanation. Your camera's selected shutter speed is the measurement in a fraction of a second that the mechanical curtain (or electronic 'curtain', in some cameras) slides out of the way to expose the digital sensor and allow light to hit it, capturing the electronic information that forms a digital image. Faster shutter speeds let in less light, but by that same token, a shorter exposure time means that there's less chance of your subject moving or your hands shaking and blur being introduced into your captured photo.

Aperture is the physical opening in your camera's lens that can adjust to let more or less light through. There's a maximum amount of light that can be let through any lens that you buy -- this is the 'f-stop' number usually noted after your lens's focal length. If you use a larger aperture to let more light in, you're getting a theoretically brighter image, but that image will also have a shallower depth of field -- the range in which objects in your image are in sharp focus. Smaller apertures mean a deeper depth of field, but at the cost of less overall light travelling through the lens.

ISO is the only non-physical attribute of the three, but it still has a noticeable effect on the quality of your photographs. It's easiest to compare ISO to a volume control on a stereo (it's actually gain, but whatever) -- the higher you set your ISO, the higher the sensitivity to light of your digital camera's sensor. ISO 200 means your camera captures twice the light of ISO 100. There's a caveat, though, in as much as the higher your ISO the more digital noise is introduced -- think of this as distortion on your stereo's speakers getting worse at higher volume.

Use Your Exposure Meter And Histograms

It might sound obvious, but checking your exposure meter when you're shooting manually -- especially if you're shooting in quickly changing light conditions -- can be the difference between getting a clear and clean and crisply detailed image, and having to rescue a shot in Lightroom or another post-processing app.

When you're shooting manually, you control your exposure with three key elements -- shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Balancing all three is a difficult process -- you want to keep a high shutter speed to eliminate blur, you want to keep ISO low to reduce digital noise, and you're limited by your lens's maximum aperture as to how much light it can let in.

As a general rule, you want to get a correctly exposed photograph, but it's always better to capture more light than less. Exposing to the right is the best way to get both good highlight detail and good shadow detail after post-processing, and you can only do this by keeping an eye on your camera's exposure meter. Even easier is using a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder and displaying a life histogram, making sure you're getting spot-on photos each and every time.

Focus Manually To Snap Some Creative Photos

Manual focusing is, in some areas of digital photography, a bit of a lost art. Even though autofocus sensors in modern digital cameras are great, and even though lens adapters let you autofocus on older digital camera lenses, learning how to manually focus your camera and its lenses can be extremely helpful especially when you're in low light and your camera can't lock focus automatically.

Manually focusing your lens involves switching off autofocus with a toggle either on your camera's body, on the lens, or somewhere in its settings menu. From that point, you're left to your own devices to look through the viewfinder or at the rear screen as you rotate the focus ring on the front of your lens. You'll see the plane of focus move back and forth as you rotate that ring. If your camera has a manual focus peaking option, giving you a visual highlight of what areas of your photograph are in sharp relief, use it to make doubly sure of what you're seeing.

Learn To Capture Long Exposures

Long exposures always involve long shutter speeds -- we're talking several minutes here, not fractions of a second. They usually involve small apertures to maximise detail and reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, so as not to overexpose your photos. ISOs are generally as low as possible, too, to reduce the amount of light and to reduce any incidence of digital image noise.

To capture a long exposure, you'll probably need to have a remote shutter release that can be locked open, unless your camera has an electronically customisable bulb shutter mode. With a wireless shutter release, you can start and stop the exposure process without touching the camera and shaking it on its tripod, introducing blur.

Experiment With Flash Intensity

If you have an external flash, learning how to use it manually and balance the amount of ambient and artificial light is just as much of a challenge as shooting your camera manually in the first place. Sure, you can use automatic modes on both your camera and your flash and make capturing expertly composed and exposed photographs seamless, but if you can master using a powerful external flash it'll give you an extra bump to your photographic skills.

Practice aiming your external flash at different angles, modulating the output power to different levels, and changing the shutter speed of your camera. A powerful flash can freeze action even while you keep a relatively long shutter speed, and if you move your camera around as you take a photo you can get some brilliantly attractive visual effects.