I normally don’t like anything automatic, least of all automatic payments, those suck the worst when you’re living on a budget. But I also don’t really like automatic settings on something I’m trying to be creative with, for instance, my camera.

Some may call me a control freak, but as a filmmaker, there is no such thing as automatic exposure. My shots are usually thought-out, storyboarded, or listed before I even hit the record button. It’s a practice I’ve pulled over from my photography days when cameras were using film and I didn’t have the luxury or the money to waste it, unlike this digital era of filmmaking and photography where now all I need is a bigger flash card or external hard drive with an ungodly amount of storage to record to.

As a photographer, I still usually shoot ALL MANUAL as well, though I will sometimes use semi-automatic modes. I.e. Aperture priority. I enjoy tinkering with settings to get just the right shot. But that’s just me.

In automatic mode, your camera is only interested in getting enough light to its sensor in order to produce an image. Anything artsy coming out of it will depend on you, but when you’re limited to pushing a button, then that leaves you with what you put in front of your camera and how they’re framed. The term mise-en scene comes to mind about now. Mise-en scene refers to everything that appears in front of the camera and the arrangements of certain things like composition, lighting, sets, props, wardrobe, actors, etc.

I see a lot of people buying expensive cameras and using only the automatic setting, that feels like a waste. There’s so much more potential in that beautiful contraption of yours. Of course, nobody ever reads the manual anymore, which leads me to my first tip…

TIP #1: Read the bloody manual!

I have a saying:

Master the technology to master your art.

When you’re privy to the intricacies of your camera you can seemingly pull stuff out of your ass that would be more interesting than just hitting that shutter button.

“Point and shoot” is fine. Set the mode on your camera to AUTO and never worry about making decisions about anything. Viola! Facebook pics galore! But if you want to take more interesting photos, now’s a good time to learn to manually expose your shots.


Shooting manual allows you to get a little more creative with your shots. You can:

Keep your subject in focus while letting the world around it blur in motion.

//PHOTO: Train is coming by sinkdd

Decide where you want your audience to look through depth of field (DOF).

//PHOTO: Otakon by Anna fischer

Play with light using long shutter speeds like my friend Michael Koonce does

Capture the nuances of city lights with longer exposures

//PHOTO: Renee’s View III, Central Park at Night, New York City
by Andrew C Mace

Freeze motion, AND keep the sharpness

//PHOTO: City Drops by ViaMoi


I’ve noticed in a ton of photos taken on high-end Nikons and Canons that indoor shots almost ALWAYS have the flash used. As much as I love the tapetum lucidum on your cat and wish I had eye-shine like Riddick myself, there’s no need to use that ugly-ass flash indoors when you can adjust for better lighting situations, and put out more decent-looking, non red-eyed, photos.

In filmmaking, it’s ALL MANUAL, ALL THE TIME for me. I actually don’t know anyone who uses any automatic settings on their DSLRs for video work or even the old timey-wimey 16mm cameras where you would have to look through a reference book for specific numbers to set the damn thing.

Effects that can be had manually with video, relate, more or less, to motion blurring and depth of field (DOF).

FILMMAKER’S NOTE: If your camera is set to auto exposure in movie mode, turn that off. The reason being is because when you’re shooting is dynamic, which is normal in run-and-gun type situations, the sensor is bombarded with information and your camera corrects the lighting adjustments which makes for a video that tends to over and under-expose shots when pointing from darker to lighter areas. Quite annoying indeed, and really quite ugly. You’ve seen it before in videos shot with handheld camcorders.


//SOURCE: exposureguide.com


There are 3 controls on your camera used in establishing proper EXPOSURE (adjusting to get the proper amount of light to output a picture). These are: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Also understand that these 3 controls aren’t usually used in isolation, changing one control WILL have an affect on the other 2 controls as you tinker for proper exposure.


ISO refers to the sensitivity of the sensor to light. Measured in numbers, it’s rated normally from 100 to 6400 and higher depending on manufacturer and when you’ve read this post. Lower numbers are less sensitive and are used for areas with plenty of light while the higher numbers are used for darker areas.

100 is considered normal, used mostly on sunny days outside, giving the cleanest signal to noise ratio. Moving upwards in rating will start to introduce artifacts and graininess to your shots as you compensate for low light situations.

NOTE: ISO’s abbreviation stands for the International Organization of Standardization. Knowing that isn’t useful for operation, I’m just letting you know. And knowing is half the battle.


Aperture is simply the size of the opening of your camera’s lens. It’s job is to let light into the camera. The bigger the hole, the more light is let through.

It is measured in f-stops or f-numbers (F standing for focal). The term “stops” represents a “stop” of light. F-stops usually start at f/1.4 (though I’ve seen lenses start as low as 1.2) and continue to f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 and so on.

The lower the number, the bigger the opening. Moving along the sequence as the numbers get bigger the opening gets smaller. It may confuse you at first thinking of a smaller number being a bigger opening. But just keep that in mind. If you want to know why, I’d suggest you Google that, I just want to get you guys out there and using it. You don’t have to KNOW everything in order to use everything.

Aperture plays a pretty big role when considering depth of field (DOF). The more light that you can get into your camera the shallower your depth of field will be. Shallow DOF produces those images where you have the subject in focus while the background is completely blurry.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there is DEEP focus. The f-number is usually high, say about f/16 or higher and this creates pictures where everything is usually, more or less, in focus. Perfect for landscape photography or establishing shots.

Take note that the smaller the aperture, the more light you’ll need.


Think of a shutter as like a door for your camera, (actually, probably more like a fan, but I digress) the duration the door is opened is referring to the speed of the shutter. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, i.e. 1/30 which is one-thirtieth of a second. Obviously, the higher the denominator, the quicker the door/shutter is opened and closed.

Quicker shutter speeds allow you to capture action with minimal blurring in motion. The longer the shutter is open the more blurring is prevalent. Either way is fine depending on what you’re going for. Remember, context will determine style.

FILMMAKER’S NOTE: I usually don’t play around with shutter speed too often mainly because the framerate at which I shoot determines my settings. Since I like to shoot at 24 frames-per-second, my shutter speed is almost always at 1/50 (Rule of thumb being shutter speed denominator should be at least twice the number of the framerate – via Philip Bloom). What this does is allows the motion blurring in my videos to look more natural like how the human eye would perceive motion.

Also note that the faster the shutter speed, the more light you will need. (Heh, did not mean to rhyme.)


[This method is assuming you have a “D” SLR or similar camera that allows for monitoring through an LCD (for HDSLR filmmakers)]

Alright, so let’s break it down to how I normally go about my business when taking photos or filming.

  1. Determine the context. What’s the shot? Since context determines the style, having an idea in my head of what I want the picture to look like is always the first thing on my mind. I like to keep a “Look Book” of the different shots I think are interesting.
  2. Choose my white balance. With presets this becomes nothing more than choosing daylight, incandescent, or fluorescent. (I don’t even bother with cloudy, shady, or whatever the hell) In photography, shooting RAW allows me room for correction in post production. In filmmaking, limiting myself to these presets allows me to keep my shots consistent in color temperature.
  3. Aim my camera at something.
  4. Set my ISO to 100 and work up from there until the light meter (see image below) shows a line directly in the middle. This is your camera telling you, “I’M READY!”
  5. Frame my shot.
  6. Decide on an appropriate shutter speed based on context and what type of motion I’m trying to capture. For action shots I’ll use faster shutter speeds at about 1/200. Portraits, I’ll usually stay within double digits like 1/30. For video, shutter speed for video usually stays at twice the denominator of my framerate.
  7. Pick an aperture size based on deep or shallow focus. Do I want to blur the background out or have EVERYTHING in focus?
  8. Half-press the shutter release button to trigger the light meter and/or histogram and determine if it reads if I have a properly exposed shot. The light meter will have a line directly in the middle. The histogram will show a clear waveform without clipping on the left or right side.
  9. If the camera is telling me I’m not ready for a properly exposed shot, then I’ll start playing with the shutter speed controls again since it seems to be the only one I make more of my minor adjustments with. *You may need to play with the other two controls if necessary. This becomes like a balancing act.
  10. Hit the shutter release button all the way then check out the photo you just took. For video, there’s usually a separate record button to push. Remember to press that button again to stop recording.
  11. Repeat until satisfied.


That seems like a lot of steps. But just keep taking pictures, or shooting video. You’ll get the hang of it and eventually it’ll become second nature. Though you probably won’t work the three controls in the same sequence I’m using.

I hope this helps you guys take your photography and HDSLR video out of auto-pilot and into the realm of more creative shots. If this seems too daunting for you, go back to FULL-AUTO, you can never have too many Facebook pics, right?

If you found this post helpful, help me out by sharing it with others. Also, join me on Facebook to  discuss more creative endeavors or to stay up to date with projects I’m currently working on, and you can possibly watch me wrestle aliens with chocolate blood. Cheers.

Have something to add, leave a comment below. Let’s see if we can get all exposure questions answered here.

//FEATURED PHOTO: mr phillip