But, when I said the above to the aforementioned friends - it was not enough. Hmpf! So, here is a step-by-step guide to starting out with your manual mode. And strictly my opinion! I welcome any other tips, tricks and advice from all you other photo fiends out there!
So, set your camera to manual mode and let's go!
Oh. Here's a P.S. before I even start: This post assumes you have a DSLR. But many of these principals apply to a point and shoot with manual settings! This post also assumes you are not using a flash. Because flashes are evil!
1. Decide your f-stop.
To be honest, steps 1 and 2 will kind of ebb and flow in importance depending on the light and your style as a photographer. But personally, I am a big fan of Depth of Field (DOF) and Bokeh, so usually f-stop guides my decisions. The lower the number of your f-stop, the larger the opening of your lens as it snaps the photo, the more light it lets in and the SMALLER the depth of field. Meaning, the smaller the f-stop, the MORE blurry background, foreground or whatever you are NOT focusing on. I almost always shoot in 2.8. Almost always. Unless I have a large group of people where I want everyone to be in focus, or I am shooting a grandiose landscape scene, or *maybe* if I am shooting a sporting event. That last one is a matter of preference. I may miss some of the action my using a low f-stop at Declan's soccer game, but I am happier with the shots I do get, so again, personal preference. The ability for f-stop settings is entirely dependent on your lens. Some do not go as low as even 2.8. And I have a 1.8 lens that gets amazing DOF but is really hard to focus at times, so I only use it when I have time to play.
2. Decide your ISO.
ISO is film speed, which is clearly pretty much faked on digital cameras. Like how we used to have to buy 200 or 400 speed film? The higher the ISO, the lower light you can shoot in, but the more noise (graininess) you risk in the shot. You will really start to visibly see noise at about 800 ISO. Which is not necessarily bad, and can add to the mood of the shot. Also, the lower the ISO, the more robust color you will get. Personally, I prefer vibrant colors, so I will gauge the light and try to keep my ISO as low as possible, and only keep bumping up the ISO as the light fades. But sometimes, the light just determines everything for you, and you need to bump that ISO way up to capture a moment you would otherwise miss.
3. Set your shutter speed.
This is how fast the camera will take the shot. After you have set the two settings above, look through your viewfinder and you will see your lightmeter. It should looks something like this> If you depress your shot button halfway, the bottom bar should wiggle around, reading the ambient light in your shot. Your goal is to adjust your shutter speed so that the bottom bar lines up with the zero in the middle. Well, mostly. Some cameras shoot dark. Or maybe you like your shots dark, or light. This is where you continue to play, and bracket your shots (meaning take one at zero and one above and one below). The good news is, these are YOUR photos, YOU make the decision as to how they should look.
Still not right?
4. Adjust your White Balance.
White Balance is where the camera looks out at a scene and takes a guess at what "true white" is, and adjusts all the other colors accordingly in the shot. And in general, the "AWB mode" - or Auto White Balance - is quite good. But maybe you are in a room with fluorescent lights that throw a green cast on everything. Or the cloud cover is making a weird tone on people's faces. Go into your White Balance settings and fire off a few shots in different settings to find one that works better.
5. Have fun. And share your results!