In this clip, we are looking at shooting portraits in manual or M mode.
If you’re a beginner and you’d like to know what the range of modes do, take a look my clip ‘What do camera modes mean?’
So what’s so special about manual mode?
Well, it’s the only mode that gives you full creative control over each of the holy trinity of ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Unlike in the other modes, you are not relying on the camera to decide anything – and that’s good.
A word of warning though. Shooting in manual mode isn’t for the beginner, so I would suggest you first get an understanding of:
- what most of the buttons and wheels on your camera do, and…
- the concepts of ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I have videos on each of these that should help.
So this is my approach to shooting portraits in manual mode:
Keep it RAW
Make sure you are shooting RAW files. RAW, compared with jpeg, have lots of depth. This means more latitude to make adjustments to exposure in post-production (making the image brighter or darker) without losing detail in the shadows and highlights. Remember, even the best photographers don’t get a perfect exposure every time.
Next, think about light and ISO. Always choose the lowest ISO you can get away with. If it’s a bright sunny day, it’ll be 100; in the shade on a bright sunny day, probably 400. We can adjust ISO later if necessary, but it’s crucial to set it before you think about anything else.
Next set aperture. If we were shooting an action shot – and were interested in freezing or blurring the movement – we’d set shutter speed.
But a portrait subject is usually fairly static, so our priority is depth of field – how sharp or blurry we want the background to be. And this is controlled by aperture. So we widen the aperture (set to a lower number) for more blurry; and narrow it (set to a higher number) for a sharper background.
Here I’ve gone for f5.6 – a mid-range aperture that should give a little blur to the background.
Here I’ve gone for f4 – that should give some nice soft blur to the background.
Here I’ve gone for f3.2 – that should give some a soft blur to the background.
So, we’ve set ISO and aperture. But how to get the correct shutter speed for the right exposure? Here, there are a number of methods but we’ll look at two: trial and error and using a light meter.
Trial and error
First, trial and error. It’s not perfect but in the digital age it’s probably the most popular option.
Shutter speed for portraits is actually quite straight forward. Generally, you don’t want a speed that is so slow that small movements by your subject will create blur – so I’d say try to stay above 1/100th of a second. You also don’t want a speed that is less than the focal length of your lens – that means camera shake. So for example, I never shoot with my 135 lens at less than 1/160th.
But for creative purposes there’s nothing to be gained from a high shutter speed, say of 1/500th of a second. That speed would also mean shooting in blinding sunlight, which is horribly squinty for your portrait subject.
So I’m shooting with my 24 – 70mm lens at 1/125th. Let’s take a test shot. Remember to view the screen in the shade or where the light’s not too glaring. Forget the background – concentrate on the subject – are they too bright or too dark?
In this case, the image is too bright. So I could increase the shutter speed. That will help with exposure but it’s not going to do anything for the quality of the image. So what would? Well, I could always reduce the ISO – that would adjust exposure and also reduce the amount of noise in the shot, so it’s a win-win.
Keep taking test shots and adjusting until it looks right. Remember this method is not perfect. Depending on the light in which you are viewing the LCD screen, the quality of the screen and how it’s set, it can be at best a rough guide.
Instead, you could opt for …
A handheld light meter. For portraits especially, it gives you really reliable exposures. In brief, the meter in a camera measures reflective light, the light reflecting off things, whereas a handheld light meter measures ‘ambient’ light, so the amount of light hitting your subject. This is a more reliable measure.
To use your handheld light meter, follow the same procedure as on your camera in M mode: set ISO, decide on aperture, carefully position the meter in front of your portrait subject’s noise, pointing towards the camera and press the button. It will give you the right reading for shutter speed. If the shutter speed is unnecessarily high (ie. it’s not going to improve the quality of the image), reduce ISO and try again.
Then simply set your camera to the same numbers and away you go.
So I hope that was useful. Thanks and happy shooting!