A Phoenix Burning

“Using the ‘M’ Setting”—(for Dummies)

Okay, so I’m no brilliant photographer (hence the “dummies” title.) However, for the past two months I have used nothing but the “M” setting on my camera thanks to Bryan Peterson, Chris Hurtt, and that little thing called the D40 Manual.  If I can learn to use that scary letter, so can you!  I will pass on the little bit I know, and our gurus *ahem—you know who you are* can pass along any corrective/constructive tidbits as we go along in the comments. 

First things first—you must read your manual!!!  Find out the mechanics of changing your aperture and your shutter speeds.  This alone had me stumped for hours.  In his books and courses, Bryan Peterson says,  “Choose your aperture and adjust your shutter speed until a correct exposure is indicated.”  He might as well have been saying, “Blah blah blah, blah blah blah  blahblaaaaahhhh.”  So, I figured, he says change my aperture (whatever the heck THAT is) so I had better figure out how to do that.  Out came my manual.  So before you do or learn anything else, put your camera on manual mode (the M) and spend a little time playing with dials and buttons.  On the D40, shutter speed is changed by spinning a little dial on the back of the camera…left slows the shutter down, (keeping it open for longer to let in more light) and right speeds it up.  Aperture (the size of the shutter opening…or hole that lets the light into the camera) is changed by pushing down a button on top of the camera, and spinning that dial at the same time.  Quite simple, but I wouldn’t have figured that out on my own.  You should be able to see the numbers changing in your display window.  (We’ll talk about what the numbers mean in a minute.) 

Each turn of the dial is called a “stop.” So when you hear smart photographers talk about things like, “I changed my aperture by two stops”  or “stop up/stop down” this is what they are referring to…basically clicks on the dial.

Okay, now let’s spend a little time on the mere basics of aperture.  (I will do more posts on this topic at another time, but right now I’ll just do a quick overview to get you started.)  Now that you know how to change your aperture, take a minute to familiarize yourself with each of your “stops” from largest openings (the smallest number) to the smallest openings (the largest number.)  {Yes, they do that just to confuse you.}  Depending on the lens that is attached to your camera, your smallest aperture may be f/1.8 (if you are lucky enough to have a lens that opens that wide) but is more likely in the f/4.5 or f/5.6 range…something like that.  And your largest aperture will be somewhere in the neighborhood of f/25 or f/32…Different cameras offer different f/stops, so familiarize yourself with the many different ones.  Briefly, the bigger the opening, the more isolated your subject will be, blurring the background of your composition.  The smaller your opening, the sharper your image will be front to back.  The bigger openings will let in more light, so you will be able to use faster shutter speeds, the smaller openings less, so you will need slower speeds to allow enough light into the camera.  (This is when I find a tripod necessary, especially in lower light.) 

A correct exposure is the combination of an aperture setting paired with a well matched shutter speed that allows the right amount of light into the camera.  Too little light and your shot will be underexposed (too dark) and too much light, it will be overexposed (too bright or washed out.)  The trick is to choose the right shutter speed in order to have a correct exposure.  That’s where your little light meter thingamajiggy comes in to save the day! 

Now, I had no idea what the heck that was either…where do I find it and what does it look like?  In fact, I actually thought for awhile that I needed to buy a new camera because, “I don’t think my D40 comes with one of those.”  Well, in fact, it did!  (Don’t laugh at me please!)  So, look in your viewfinder, and push your little photo taking button down a bit (I think the smart photographers call that the shutter release button.)  On the bottom of your view, do you see that little line at the bottom??  It looks something like this:


And there is a bar that travels up and down that little line?   This is your exposure level indicator.    As you dial your little aperture or shutter speed dial left and right, you will see the bar travel left and right of the zero.  A correct exposure is indicated when there is no bar, or when your bar is at zero.  Right of the zero, you will be underexposed (dark), left of the zero, you will be overexposed (bright.)  Pretty cool, eh?

So go try it!  In manual mode, pick an aperture (any one will do for now) and looking through your viewfinder, frame your subject, and use your shutter speed dial…turn it left or right until your little bar is at zero, and snap a photo!  Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!  Take a look.  Not too bright, not too dark…..jussssst right, yes?  Congratulations.  You’ve taken your first photo on manual.  Easy, right?  Now you can adjust your photos to your liking.  I tend to prefer my photos a tad underexposed…but as you go, you will find what look fits you best.  Have fun experimenting, and watch for more in depth discussions at a later date.


16 responses

  1. Finally!!! I got it!! I got it!!

    I played with various settings and it’s finally starting to make sense. Thank you SO much, KD. You conveyed it where even I could understand.

    WOOO HOOO!!!


    March 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    • Whooo!!! I’m so excited for you MM!!! Isn’t it a great feeling?!!! I’m very glad that it all made sense to you, and that I was able to help. 🙂 Awesome!

      March 15, 2009 at 7:05 am

  2. I also like to underexpose just a bit. Thanks for the great blog. I love using manual exposure (it makes me feel in control). I’ll admit there are times when aperture priority serves me well, though.

    March 14, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    • Thanks for continuing to come back Morningjoy! 🙂 I can see where aperture priority will serve well in the future, for sure. I haven’t allowed myself to use it while in the learning stage. I think I fiddled with it once or twice, and I see how handy it will be, especially in situations where timing is a factor.

      March 15, 2009 at 7:09 am

  3. Hey, you forgot to mention ISO. 😉 I’m sure you’ll get to it in the future. Now that you understand the M mode. Try the P mode and use the dial to alter the aperture & f-stop combinations for you. You might want to consult your manual again. I find it a big time saver when I am out shooting.

    March 16, 2009 at 8:52 am

    • Oooh…very good point Scott. In fact, I did forget! *getting out the post its* Will have to address that. See, I knew my “gurus” would come through for me! 😉

      March 16, 2009 at 1:10 pm

  4. I am curious (late to the game here) why you prefer under exposed? I used to…but then I went to a Scott Kelby seminar and he said it is better to err on the over exposed side to minimize noise and through any soft ware you can bring the punch back to the detail.

    March 16, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    • I like the contrast and depth of the colors when I underexpose by a stop or two. Before, I was always bumping up the contrast in postprocessing. I’ve been working hard at getting it right “in the camera” as much as possible in order to avoid having to play with contrast and saturation later. I haven’t noticed too much noise unless I bump the ISO up too high.

      March 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm

  5. KD, there’s a reason why Scott Kelby says that. Here’s another explaination:

    Expose to the right. This means get as much information in your histogram window as you can without going past the point of no return. Remember that the histogram is broken up into sections. Each section to the right contains twice as much information as the section before it.

    Got this from a post in This Week in Photography. An excellent photography blog. (http://twipphoto.com/archives/3293)

    March 18, 2009 at 7:40 am

    • Scott, the link didn’t work???

      I would love to read the article to understand better. But, if I purposely overexpose, aren’t I then compelled to fiddle with levels in postprocessing to achieve the look I want? Isn’t it better to achieve that look in camera, than afterwards? Even if isn’t “technically” correct, it may be “creatively” correct.

      March 18, 2009 at 8:01 am

    • Okay, now I’ve read the article. It seems it is contradicting the “overexpose” practice. Am I correct in my understanding that this author is saying to correctly expose a photo by attending to correct exposure of the highlights over the darks, especially in those challenging circumstances where the meter could get confused? So, if I look at the histograms of the photos I have taken, I mistakenly said that I prefer to “underexpose.” According to the histograms, they are correctly exposed, yet the “hill” is to the left, rather than to the right. The author is saying my “hill” should be to the right, yes? But not off the chart in either direction…
      (I’m not very well practiced in using the histogram…I do spot check myself with it now and then, and find that when I look at a photo, I can predict what the histogram will look like.)
      Am I at least on the right track in my understanding?

      March 18, 2009 at 11:40 am

  6. Here are examples Scott….They may not be good ones because I switched exposure modes in between the two—(attempting to learn aperture priority.) The histogram shows that both are correctly exposed, but….
    The first photo shows my “hill” to the right…

    The second one shows my hill to the left…

    So, technically speaking, the first one is more “correct” even though I prefer the coloring of the second one? (I think that illustrates what the article is saying, right?) Sorry if I’m a pain…I’m really working to understand! LOL (Growing pains, right Shrew?)

    March 18, 2009 at 11:49 am

    • You are correct in your understanding. Ultimately, it comes down to what you like. If you had showed me these two photos without knowing anything about them, I would perfer the one with the hill on the right.

      March 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm

      • The photo with the hill on the right? Hmm…I think the link took you somewhere unintentional…The photos are the same subject, the trees and sky through the deck balusters? They are the first two on my Flickr homepage.
        And Yay!! I’m so excited that I’m “getting” it!! Thank you Scott!!!! 🙂

        March 18, 2009 at 2:19 pm

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