How to Take Manual Control of Your Camera

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
January 3, 2019
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Automatic cameras settings have made capturing photography easy today but that was also where everything started to go wrong. While point and shoot cameras and cellphones can capture amazing photography without any technical skills whatsoever there is also a lost art in the photos produced. For those who want to recapture, or learn for the first time, that lost art, you have come to the right place.

How to Take Manual Control of Your Camera is a four-part series that will teach you how to dial in camera settings for different purposes and how to compose better photography. Bookmark this page and come back every Thursday in January for a new segment.

Part 1: How to Actually Take Manual Control
Part 2: Three Reasons Why You Need to Manually Set Your ISO
Part 3: How to Set the Shutter Speed (coming January 17)
Part 4: How to Set the Lens Aperture (coming January 24)

A cold glass of craft beer from the locally owned Liquid Shoes Brewing in Corning, New York.

Before you think to yourself, “I can’t do any of this with a cellphone,” take a look at this photo. I captured this with my iPhone 8 Plus.

How to Actually Take Manual Control of Your Camera

Before you can take manual control of your camera you have to learn how to take manual control. That may seem circular but stick with me here. Do you know how to access the settings in your camera and make changes in manual mode? It’s time to learn.

The first thing you need to learn is how to set your camera to manual mode. Most DSLR and bridge cameras have a dial for switching between scene modes. You’ll also notice an “A” for automatic and “M” for manual. In point and shoot cameras and some bridge cameras it’s buried deep in the menu system, but usually in the same place as the scene modes.

Next you need to learn how to change the shutter speed and aperture on your camera. For DSLR, bridge, and some point and shoot cameras there are one or two wheels to turn for these settings. Most commonly the shutter speed wheel is on the back of the camera while the aperture is on the front. However, some point and shoot cameras again rely on a menu setting rather than a wheel or dial. It may be more difficult to change quickly, but it will still be possible.

Finally, you will need to learn how to change the file format and white balance in your camera settings. Those two areas I address in this tutorial in more detail.

If you’re already shaking your head thinking, “My cellphone doesn’t have any of these settings,” don’t fret. Your cellphone can have these settings if you download the right app. I will discuss the best photography apps for cellphones at a later date, but for now give Manual for iPhone and Manual Camera for Android a try.

Gravely Point at George Washington Memorial Parkway in Arlington, VA on Thursday, September 6, 2018. Copyright 2018 Jason Barnette

I use the RAW file format so I can edit details of exposure and white balance in photos later.

File Format

The first setting you need to check on your camera is the file format. There are usually only two options: JPG and RAW. Some cameras offer a TIFF format but I find that less useful than RAW.

A JPG is a file format that is ready to use the moment you capture the photo. It’s great if you’re shooting on a camera with Bluetooth capability so you can upload it to social media right away. But JPG is also a very limited format and should really be considered the end result of a photo processing path.

The beginning of that path is the RAW format. When you click the shutter button on your camera and capture a photo the processor in the camera goes to work on all the information that was just captured. If you are shooting in a JPG format the camera compares your current settings to all the information in the RAW format, chucks all the unnecessary information out the window, and renders the final JPG. The problem with this is that if your camera settings are wrong your JPG is now ruined with no ability to fix it later.

Shooting in the RAW format your camera saves all that information for later use. Using programs like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop will allow you to access that raw information and make changes to white balance and exposure (shutter speed). This is great for beginners who are bound to make some mistakes along the way, but as a professional photographer I have been capturing photos in the RAW format for the past ten years.

You can get Lightroom and Photoshop through Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan for $9.99/month (as of January 2019). However if you don’t want to commit to this monthly plan most camera manufacturers offer free RAW format processing software. At the very least begin capturing photos using the RAW + JPG file format option; this will give you a JPG to use immediately and a RAW file for later use.

TO DO: Find the setting for file format in your camera. It may be listed as “File Format” or “Quality”. Change it to either RAW or RAW + JPG. Also make sure you have the quality set to the highest level.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina on Monday, December 31, 2018. Copyright 2018 Jason Barnette

Choosing a white balance in the field can be difficult, such as the partially overcast but otherwise sunny day in this photo. Which white balance would you use?

White Balance

Light has temperature. Not the kind of temperature you measure with a thermostat, but rather a temperature scale that determines how red or violet light appears. It’s called the Kelvin temperature scale and it runs from about 2000K to 6500K. Your camera has the ability to change the white balance using presets or manually.

Most DSLR and bridge cameras have a dial for setting white balance quickly. It’s one of the most-frequently changed settings when using a manual mode. Point and shoot cameras and cellphones will also have a way to change the white balance but it’s usually found buried inside a menu.

There are 8 White Balance presets built into most cameras:

  • Automatic
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent
  • Daylight
  • Flash
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Kelvin

Automatic is exactly that: the camera scans the light sources of your current composition and decides for you what is the best white balance option. This can work in situations with a single type of light source but can also lead to problems with mixed light sources.

Incandescent will probably become an obsolete setting in the next few years as incandescent light bulbs are gradually phased out. This is the setting to use around the “old fashioned” yellow lightbulbs found in lamps and street lights.

Fluorescent is becoming more popular and typically what you would find in modern street lights, interior of retail stores, and some museums.

Daylight is exactly that: the color temperature of the sun. Fortunately a lot of modern bulbs are “daylight balanced” which makes shooting interior at night and exterior during the day much easier for white balance settings.

Flash is very similar to the color temperature of daylight and reserved for using your on-camera or off-camera flash.

Cloudy works on heavily overcast days, but be careful not to use this setting on partly cloudy days. This setting works best if the entire sky is overcast without any direct sunlight.

Shade is a white balance feature I don’t use all that often because it only works for the portion of an image that is in the shade during a fully sunny day. This is tricky because while the portion of the image in the shade will have a good white balance anything outside of that shade will appear off.

Kelvin gives you full manual control of your white balance. This is usually reserved for professional portrait photographers who have a handheld light meter to tell them precisely what color temperature to use.

An easy way to tell if you have the wrong white balance setting is to check the photo to see if it is too blue or too red. If a photo appears with a shade of blue you need to move your white balance setting to the right (down this list) and if it appears with a shade of red you need to move the setting to the left (up this list).

If you choose to shoot in the RAW or RAW + JPG format you will be able to correct mistakes with white balance later. This is one of the features with the RAW format that is invaluable when first learning photography.

TO DO: Learn how to quickly and easily change the white balance setting in your camera or cellphone. There is no “default” setting because it entirely depends on your light source.

Next Week

Come back next week as the series continues with Three Reasons Why You Need to Manually Set Your ISO. You can follow the discussion on Twitter with #PhotoTutorialThursday, get daily photo tips on Instagram with #PhotoTipoftheDay, or follow my Facebook Page to get an update.

Feel free to ask questions below or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter. I will try my best to answer all your questions. Happy shooting and I’ll see you next week!

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