How I Take Light Airy Photos Using My Camera’s Manual Mode | Photography

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If you struggle to capture light and airy images on your camera, my best advice is to take the leap over to shooting in manual mode. Today I’m sharing the basics of what you need to know to get started.


At the moment I use the Olympus Pen which is a great beginner’s camera with which to learn all the basics. However when funds permit I intend to upgrade to a much more powerful camera with advanced video capture features too. I prefer mirrorless cameras to the heavier DSLRs so my dream would be something like the (Professional) Full Frame Mirrorless Cameras from Panasonic.

As I mainly take close up photography of products and food my favourite lens is the 45mm. It takes beautifully sharp and light photos with a dreamy blur in the background. However, as you can see from this shot, (taken on my smart phone) you have to stand quite far back to take quite a tightly composed image so you need lots of space.

Distance from 45mm lens to subject
Image captured on 45mm at that distance

A good compromise is the 17mm. I can take similar shots to those captured on my 45mm but with my camera set up a lot closer. It’s also good choice for wider angle shots too.

Distance from 17mm lens to subject
Image captured on 17mm at that distance

I also often use a tripod to avoid blurring in my photos (I explain this in more detail below).

Why Can’t I Just Use ‘Auto’?

The point and shoot ‘Auto’ setting on modern digital cameras tends to do a fairly decent job these days. However the end result doesn’t usually maximise the potential image that your camera could create. I do still take some pictures on Auto, but I always find that post editing is needed to take it to the next level.

Here’s my set up for today on the 45mm lens. There are grey shadows on the walls but outside it’s sunny, which can be a bit of a struggle for the camera on auto mode.

Next, here’s my camera’s attempt on ‘Auto’ mode.

Auto mode: ISO-200 F/2.2 Exp 1/160
A little bit ‘flat’. The whites don’t pop and look quite grey.

Compare this to an unedited photo taken 30 seconds later after I’d tweaked the settings in ‘Manual’ mode:

Manual mode: ISO/200 F/2.2 Exp: 1/60

Whilst still not perfect, it has already enhanced the whites and the colour definition.

Sometimes no amount of editing can save a shot as Auto mode just gets it completely wrong. I’ve experienced times where auto mode refused to focus on the right subject. Other times, I find that Auto Mode takes a very dark and shadowy photo and lightening it afterwards in an editing app degrades the quality too much for the images to be useable on my blog.

On the other hand the camera might take a lovely bright shot in auto mode but closer inspection on a PC screen shows that it’s actually really poor quality and grainy.

Due to all of this I much prefer to nail the shot taken on the camera and then make a few smaller edits later if needed.

The Manual Settings You Need To Know

In order to take a light, airy shot, you need to understand the 3 settings that you can use to introduce light into your camera.


ISO measures the sensitivity of the light sensor. But if, like me, that sentence doesn’t really mean anything to you, let me put it in simpler terms:

A low ISO means less light, but often a higher quality image. A high ISO means more light, but as a result more ‘noise’ in the image, so the quality just isn’t as good.

Quite often I find that in Auto mode my camera just whacks up the ISO to the highest amount. You get what looks like quite a nice bright shot, but if you decide to edit it in an app it often degrades the quality far too much and becomes unuseable.

So, I like to keep my ISO low where possible, so that if I choose to do some edits later on, I know it isn’t already super grainy.

Low ISO example: ISO-200

High ISO example: ISO-1000

Shutter Speed

If your shutter speed is low, it means that the image sensor is exposed to light for longer. The higher the shutter speed, the less light gets in.

The problem is that if you use a low shutter speed, you have to be very careful not to move the camera, or your image will come out blurry. If you want to focus on something in motion, you need to use a higher shutter speed or it will just be a trail of blurs.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t get an in focus shot using a low shutter speed, you can use a tripod to keep the camera still.

Low Shutter Speed Example: 1/5 sec

High Shutter Speed Example: 1/200 sec


This is the size of the opening of the lens. I won’t go into too much detail about focal lengths, depth of field, etc; here’s what you need to know when you’re getting started:

An aperture of F1.8 is going to let in a lot more light than F22. Aperture F1.8 will focus on a much smaller area of your image too, so if you have items in the distance these will get blurred out to a much higher degree than if you were using F22.

I like to take images with blurred backgrounds and/or foregrounds with a sharp and in focus object in between that the eye is then drawn to. Therefore I take a lot of my images on an F-stop between F1.8 and F8 usually.

Example aperture for lighter images/less of the image in focus: F/1.8

Example aperture for darker images/more of the image in focus: F/14

Putting It All Together To Shoot In Manual

The best way to get used to using the manual settings on your camera is to just start experimenting.

Set up a scene of something that you want to capture, then play around first with ISO, then shutter speed, then the aperture so that you can start to understand how the light changes.

Here are a few examples of the same image taken on different settings. None of these are edited so that you can see the full effect of each and how playing around with the settings can have quite a large effect:

Manual mode: ISO/320 F.5.6 Exp: 1/60
Manual mode: ISO/500 F/5.6 Expo: 1/40
This is over exposed, the white is bright but there’s no definition between the objects
Manual mode: ISO/320 F/5.6 Exp: 1/40
By dropping the ISO, the image gets sharper and more defined.
Manual mode: ISO/800 F/8 Exp: 1/40
The higher F-stop has let less light in which helps to balance out the higher ISO, but as a consequence the background is slightly more in focus. This combinations gives a softer, more pastel coloured look

Overall, it’s important to play around and using manual mode gives you the power to create a signature look that works for you and your images with just a few minor adjustments.

I hope that you enjoyed this little guide to manual camera settings. If you found it helpful or would like to see more photography based posts from me please do let me know in the comment or tweet me here with your requests:

For a step by step guide on how I edit my photos in Adobe Photoshop RAW, click here: How I edit my photos in RAW


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