Take Control and Shoot in Manual Mode (A beginners guide)

I've recently begun a photography Meetup group here in London, teaching people how to take better images. We had our first get together a fortnight back and one of the biggest questions I was asked is how to move from shooting auto, to shooting manual, and this is the right question to ask. 

Don't get me wrong, it does take a little bit to get your head around, but so did learning how to change gears while driving. Now you never think about it. It's second nature.

So why would you want to learn to shoot in manual mode?

Well shooting manual allows you to make the decisions, not your camera. Ever wondered why when you are shooting in a dark room your images are blurry? Because you are letting your camera choose your settings. Are you getting very grainy images in some shots? That's your camera making decisions for you. Do you want to learn how to shoot stars at night, or light trails from cars streaking down a freeway? Then you have to take back creative control.

So let me see if I can break this down simply for you.

The first thing you need to understand is how a basic camera records light.

There are 3 elements which go in to determining how much light is recorded in any exposure you make:

APERTURE: This relates to the size of the hole which opens up in your lens to let light in. Normally Aperture is denoted as an F-number and describes how wide the lens is opening up to let light in. F22 is a fairly small aperture in your lens and won't let a lot of light in, where as a good quality lens may open up to F1.2 which will be a very wide aperture and lets a lot of light in.

SHUTTER SPEED: This relates to the length of time which the shutter opens within the body of the camera to expose the film or the sensor to the light coming in through the lens aperture. When you hear that click after pressing the shutter button, that is the sound of your shutter opening and closing to allow light to hit your sensor so it can capture an image. Shutter speed is given in increments of time from 1/8000 of a second being a very fast shutter which doesn't let a lot of light through, to 30 seconds which would expose the sensor to light for a long period of time.

ISO: This relates to you camera sensor, or your film stock. In the old days of shooting film people understood this well. If you knew you would be shooting on a bright sunny day you would buy less sensitive film, namely 100 speed. If you were going to be shooting in a low light situation you would buy 1600 speed film because it was very sensitive and captured more light coming in. The digital age has kept these numbers and we now talk about setting the sensitivity of our sensor for different lighting situations as our ISO number. The common ISO range is from 100 to 6400 in most modern cameras and the important thing to remember is that the higher your ISO number, the more sensitive your sensor is to light coming in.

Here is a diagram explaining these 3 elements within the camera:

Still with me?


This brings us to the Exposure Triangle: 

To take complete control of your camera by shooting in manual mode, you are going to be balancing the amount of light captured using the 3 elements we've been talking about: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.

To do this well you need to know what effect each one has on the image you take:

APERTURE EFFECTS DEPTH OF FIELD: When you open up your aperture you are obviously letting in more light, but as a trade off you also create a more shallow depth of field. Depth of field describes how much of your shot is in focus.

A deep depth of field means that both the foreground and the far distance will all be in focus. This is used by landscape photographers who want the whole scene they are shooting to be sharp, so they may choose to capture a vista at f16 for example.

Conversely a shallow depth of field means that there is only a thin slice of focus. Ever wondered how photographers achieve nice blurry backgrounds in their portraits whilst keeping their subject sharp? They are opening their aperture up and shooting at f1.4 or similar. Obviously shooting like this you need to be very sure of your focus point as it's easy to have your subject out of focus.

Here is a fun shot I took of my wife recently on a 50mm lens, opening the aperture right up to f1.4 so I could just focus in on the eyes and let everything else fall out of focus. This is using a shallow depth of field:

SHUTTER SPEED EFFECTS THE APPEARANCE OF MOTION: When you speed up your shutter to block out light it also has the effect of freezing motion within the frame. 

A fast shutter of 1/4000 of a second for example would be ideal for a sports photographer who wants to capture an athlete running at high speed and freeze the action in the frame while maintaining sharp detail.

On the other hand maybe you want to slow your shutter right down and create blur. For example, photographers who want to shoot light trails, or be creative with motion blur when shooting dancers will shoot at slower shutter speeds. It's important to make sure that you are shooting from a tripod when doing this or you will also capture your hands shaking holding the camera. 

(This answers a very common question people have about getting blurry photos. What is happening is that in auto your camera is choosing to slow down your shutter speed in low light and so it's picking up the shake of your hands and creating a blurry image. The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed fraction should never be slower than the focal length of your lens. In other words if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, then you can't shoot slower than 1/50 of a second or you risk motion blur. If you are on a 200mm telephoto lens, which as you know is harder to hold steady, then you can't shoot slower than 1/200 of a second.) 

Here is a shot I took with a shutter speed of 30 seconds from a tripod with my friend Lennit swinging a single LED light around on a string:

ISO EFFECTS THE AMOUNT OF NOISE IN YOUR IMAGE: When you increase your ISO number to make your sensor more sensitive, you introduce noise or grain into your image. Different cameras are effected in different ways, and better cameras can be pushed further, but for this one you just need to remember that if you are pushing your camera to ISO 3200 to be able to shoot in a darker setting it will introduce noise, so be aware.

And that's it.

Those are the pieces to the 'manual mode' puzzle.

Now it's just learning to balance them to get the results you want in your images and the exposure you choose to create the look. 

If you are going to open up your Aperture to get a shallow depth of field you will probably need to drop your ISO right down and speed up your shutter to compensate for the light coming in.

If you are going to speed up your shutter to freeze some action you will probably have to up your ISO and perhaps open your Aperture to get enough light in.

If you are getting too much grain in your image you will probably need to lower your ISO and try opening your Aperture right up, and slowing down your shutter speed a bit.

It's all a balancing act. Make your creative choices and then balance the elements to get the exposure you want.

Let me leave you with some scenarios and settings to solidify all this in your mind:

A portrait photographer wanting shallow depth of field:

  • Aperture: f1.8
  • Shutter Speed: 1/100
  • ISO: 100

A landscape photographer wanting a deep depth of field shooting on a tripod in the evening:

  • Aperture: f16
  • Shutter Speed: 1/4
  • ISO: 400

A sports photographer wanting to freeze the action in a well lit stadium:

  • Aperture: f2.8
  • Shutter Speed: 1/8000
  • ISO: 200

An events photographer shooting a live band in a dimly lit venue:

  • Aperture: f.2
  • Shutter Speed: 1/100
  • ISO: 1600

I hope that all makes sense, and that this info gives you enough courage to get out there and take control of your camera, and of your creativity.

Best of luck.

8 Tips for any Photographer, with any Camera

For the start of 2016 I'm giving you 8 tips on how to take and make better images. To prove that this has nothing to do with how much fancy gear you have, all these tips can be applied to any camera, and all the example images were shot and edited using only my phone.

Tip 1: Teach yourself to recognise good light.

I’m putting this up front because I can’t emphasise it enough, and it’s something you can practice every minute of the day, with or without a camera. Photography means, ‘writing (graph) with light (photo)’. Any camera you own is only a light proof box which captures light coming in. Some are fancy, some are simple, but this is always the essence. The single biggest tip I can give you is ‘learn to recognise and appreciate good light', then capturing it becomes the easy part. Is the light coming in through the trees in a beautiful way? What is the colour of the light? Is it bouncing off a reflective surface and doing something interesting? Is it creating unique shadows? If you can learn to see good light you are halfway to becoming a good photographer.

Tip 2: Compose your shot.

There are many schools of thought on how to compose a photograph, but a solid basic principle to start with is the good old ‘rule of thirds’. You want to imagine breaking your frame up into 9 blocks of equal size, and the easy way to do this is to mentally draw two vertical and two horizontal lines across the thirds of the frame. Now to use this pattern in your framing you either want to compose any interesting vertical or horizontal lines on these imaginary thirds, or you want to place any points of interest on one of the four intersections of these lines. It sounds complicated but the idea will click quite quickly if you give it a go, and it will serve to get you thinking about how shapes intersect and arrange within the frame. On top of this it will give you a more pleasing composition than just pointing your camera straight at a subject. The trick then is to learn this, and other techniques which get you thinking about arranging elements within the frame, and then learn when to break the rules. Here are a couple of examples of using the rule of thirds:

Tip 3: Content is king.

It’s almost a cliche at this point but it’s as true as ever. You have to ask yourself what you’re shooting. What is your subject? Is it interesting? Is it too obvious to say that shooting something engaging will make for an engaging photo? It may be redundant but if you think your shots are too boring, the problem may be this simple. Shoot something which tells a story, or freezes a moment in time. That day the kids were playing with that pile of leaves. That light setting over those hills. That guy on the street in that crazy hat. Remember that what you put in front of the lens will make the photograph, not the camera. You can’t blame the gear. Better cameras only make incremental differences to the quality of the capture, but it cannot make up for a boring subject. A boring scene shot on the best camera in the world is still only a boring photo, but a compelling scene shot on a mobile phone can win awards.

Tip 4: Don’t neglect your background.

You may be out shooting a particular person or thing, but your subject will only make up a portion of your frame. Ask yourself what you are filling the rest of the frame with. By rotating around your subject a bit you will totally change the background they are set against in the composition. How bright or dark is the background? What is the dominant colour of the background? Does it serve to separate them and highlight what’s going on, or does your subject get lost against the scene behind them? If your background isn’t working, notice it, and shift position. You have a subject, now move and frame them to place them in the scene.

Tip 5: Look at something from a different angle.

We are used to viewing things from 5-6 feet off the ground but you may discover a unique shot if you can find a way to get above your subject, or shoot it from below somehow. Perhaps you can get right up close, or shoot it from an interesting angle. Remember to think outside the box and experiment with where you place the camera to give us a fresh vantage point on a familiar subject.

Tip 6: Catch the detail.

On top of shooting people and places, notice the little things. Keep your eye out for the small details we all walk past everyday. By getting in close with your camera, you could be giving us a glimpse into a world we never stop to notice. Think about textures in the concrete, patterns on the leaves, insects, shapes in bark. Most mobile phones today will allow you to get very close and maintain focus, with the added bonus that you will force the background out of focus, giving you that sexy blur for your shot which people associate with higher end cameras. Give it a go.

Tip 7: Look for lines.

Everywhere we go we are faced with lines. Telegraphs poles. The horizon. Chem trails in the sky. Tree trunks. Roads. Think about how you can use these lines to point out your subject or create an interesting shape in the frame. Sometimes you can use these lines to literally point at your subject by placing them at the convergence of these lines within the frame. Sometimes you can use the lines to create a frame around the subject. Start to notice the lines around you, and use them to your advantage.

Tip 8: Wait for the decisive moment.

This is where all the tips above come together in a moment. Many times people will put the camera to their eye to take one picture. For example, Mom wants to snap a picture of her kids playing in a stream. She lifts the camera, clicks, and thinks ‘job done’. But what if you watch a little longer, adjust your position, look at what the light is doing, observe how your subjects are moving, and wait for the moment something magical happens? This is the difference between simply taking a picture or actually making a picture. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is considered the father of street photography, coined the phrase ‘the decisive moment’ to express that confluence of events which make a good shot. He would camp out in a spot where he knew the light was good and the composition worked, and then wait for the magic to happen. Obviously we don’t all have the time to shoot like this, but maybe his attitude helps us take a small step away from a 'quick snap' mentality, towards actually creating a memorable image by staying with the moment and remaining aware of all the elements we’ve spoken about, to create a unforgettable photograph.

Best of luck.

Share what you come up with.

Happy light-writing in 2016!

(and if you enjoyed these shots, follow me on Instagram: @seantuck)

A Post on Post

I often have people say, when taking a look at my pricing for headshots and portraits, 'I wish I could charge £150 for an hour's work'.

One hour?

Sure the session itself will last in the region of an hour, but in some ways that's only where the work begins. If it was as simple as pointing a camera at someone and clicking the shutter to create a professional portrait, a lot more people would be professional photographers. There are a load of decisions and skills which go into producing a high end shot; from camera setup, to lighting decisions, background and setting considerations, coaching poses and expressions, and finally post production.

That's what I want to focus on here because it's always the most time consuming element, and often goes unseen. 

An edit will typically take me around an hour per image, sometimes more. I can often take an image through up to 4 separate programs to finish it, depending on what I'm trying to accomplish, and the work I do here is as important to creating the look which defines my style as any other stage.   

Let's take this most recent headshot shoot with RADA student, Finn as an example:

After importing the 200-300 images into Lightroom I will go to work selecting the best, and shortlisting the final 5. I will then work on white balance, exposure, shadow and highlight detail, clarity, vibrance and lens corrections so that I can export hi res images with good dynamic range. These will make clean canvases for the detailed work to follow in Photoshop. Here is a time-lapse of a typical edit in Photoshop to give you an idea of the behind-the-scenes work which goes into creating a professional portrait:

Coming out of Photoshop I should have 2 final versions to hand over; a Colour and a Black and White:

That means of course, taking in to account that I provide 5 retouches, each in Colour and BW versions, that you are actually paying for 6 hours minimum (1 for the shoot and 5 for the editing). This doesn't factor in the fact that shoots often run over time, edits can take longer, equipment set up and pack down takes a mo on it's own, and organising the shoot takes it's own time; but let's ignore that and say that actually I am now charging you £150 / 6 hours = £25 per hour.

This assumes of course that you were only paying me for time, but as many photographers have pointed out on many blogs over the last few years we have to cover costs like insurance, gear purchases and repairs, website hosting, taxes, internet, software, and the list goes on.

I don't tell you this to complain, but I hope this gives you a better idea of the hard work and skill which goes into creating the portraits or headshots you're parting with your hard earned cash to obtain. The session you are involved in is only really the tip of the iceberg.

I usually end up telling people who ask the question which started this post, that I'm very proud of the work I do to produce these images, and I stand by my pricing as I believe they are worth every penny.

Having peeked behind the curtain, I hope you now do too.  

My run-and-gun video bag

So this is the bag I take with me everyday:

It's from a company called f-stop and this is one of their new Millar range. My philosophy with the gear I carry around daily is that I should be able to cover anything which comes up in whatever moment I come across, without having to carry a back-breaking amount of gear. I don't carry a DSRL with me because, to be brutally honest, my iPhone 6 Plus does a good enough job in capturing stills while I walk around, and I love the immediacy of being able to edit on the phone and post online on the go. Will this mean I will come across situations where I wish I had some decent glass on me to shoot stills? Sure. But my iPhone will cover most daily situations.

What it won't cover is video. The biggest reason for this, is that I only have the 16GB iPhone and I'm always running out of space, so video is not an option.

So back to the bag.

This is what's inside:

  1. The Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera (with 64GB Sandisk Extreme Pro)
  2. Lumix 12-35mm f2.8
  3. Variable ND Filter (to control light and keep the aperture down)
  4. Extra batteries (EN-EL20's)
  5. Zacuto Z-Finder for BMPCC
  6. Manfrotto PIXI Tripod (which also doubles as a grip handle)
  7. Zoom H1 Audio Recorder (with pop filter)
  8. Rode Smart Lav (with Rode SC3 adapter)
  9. 1TB External Hard Drive
  10. Cold shoe adapter for mounting the Zoom off camera
  11. Kindle
  12. iPad
  13. Headphones
  14. Soft cloth
  15. Business cards

With this little kit I can be very mobile whilst producing super high quality video if the need, or want, arises. I use the Zoom H1 to jack audio straight into the side of the Black Magic Pocket, because the onboard mic is only really good for reference audio. The table top tripod means that I can rest the camera on a surface for stable shots, or fold the legs together and use it like a grip. When you have the viewfinder against your face and you're holding the grip as shown here, you can actually achieve pretty stable run-and-gun shooting due to the two body contact points. 

Of course it would be nice to have a series of fast primes but that defeats the object of keeping the kit small. I find that 12-35mm (36-105mm taking the crop factor into account) gives me all the range I want, and I can achieve f2.8 in any situation, even direct sunlight, thanks to the variable ND filter, and that is plenty. Speaking of direct sunlight; I have found the Zacuto to be essential with this camera for keeping with screen visible.


If I am recoding audio from someone speaking and really want to make sure I capture that well, then I pull out the Rode Smartlav.

By attaching the Smartlav to the Zoom H1 (you will need the SC3 adapter) and placing the Zoom in the pocket of whoever I happen to be interviewing, I can ensure that I won't miss a word. I have recorded audio like this in a loud club setting with people shouting and music blaring, and still been able to hear every word. I will need to sync audio in post, but this usually only takes a moment. 

So for me this is a perfect little set up. The bag is small and light weight, even with all this kit; but if I found myself in a situation where I needed to film I am confident that I would be able to produce something of a very high quality. This would actually make the perfect roving reporter's bag in my opinion.

I'll leave you with a quick little video I shot with my wife in New York a couple of weeks ago, just on the spur of the moment because I had this set up with me: 

A Blackmagical Weekend

I received a slightly vague phone call recently. 

To be fair I was in a bus full of noisy crew on the way to a location scout, so I was struggling to hear, but from what I could make out, a company with whom I was fairly familiar, called Blackmagic Design, had identified a number of photographers, who also practiced the dark arts of videography. The friendly guy on the other end of the line told me that they liked our respective work, and that they wanted to take us away for a weekend to the Lake District.

No arm twisting required there.

So mid last week I received a nice parcel with first class train tickets and, joy of joys, some free gear.

So, come Sunday lunchtime, I boarded Virgin's high speed Train bound for the Lake District. As we sped up the spine of the country, with all four seasons raging outside the windows, I have to admit to wondering what this was all really about, and was still wondering as we pulled into a snow covered Oxenholme Station.

Why were they spending money on us like this? Why the free stuff? Why the fancy weekend away? Why take so much time out of their schedules?

I unpacked in a very comfortable room and made my way down for drinks in the bar to discover that they had selected 9 of us in total, and brought along 11 of their staff to give us maximum individual attention, and be able to answer any questions we may have over the coming days, whether it be about their cameras, their software, or even just if we wanted to nerd out about photography and filming in general. 

I find this sort of interaction so invigorating. Being a photographer is often quite a solitary job and it's great to feel part of a broader community, even just for a few days.

The basic outline of our time spent together was as follows:

1st Session: Introductions, with each of the nine of us invitees being given the opportunity to talk a bit about what we do. This included sharing one of our images which had some sort of story behind it, presumably to give a feel for our work and our specific passions.

2nd Session: Film Theory, with tips on how to use camera movement and story telling devices to add a more professional cinematic feel to your shots. We spent some time analysing footage from some of the best films of our generation as well as talking about how to make the transition from photographer to cinematographer.

3rd Session: Technical, with a complete overview of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which we received in the post. I'll will get to my thoughts on it specifically in a mo.

4th Session: Shooting, where we were split into two groups, with each group being given two actors. We then took it in turns within the group to shoot and direct scenes, which we had to devise on the spot. Here are a few shots taken by the Blackmagic guys of us 'hard at work':

5th Session: Editing, with an overview of basic editing techniques, and how they can be used to create drama and mood, as well as moving your story along.

6th Session: Grading, which was a run down of Da Vinci Resolve; Blackmagic Design's impressive colour grading software. This program is used on numerous blockbuster movies and gives you incredible control when colouring and finishing your footage.

This weekend was a gift in so many ways. There is obviously no space here to share all the things I learnt, but let me quickly tell you about the camera, the software, and the company:

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is an odd one for me.

Let me give you the positives up front.

It's incredibly simple to use, and for such a diminutive device, at a reasonable price, it gives you some similarly incredible footage. They boast 13 stops of dynamic range (which I've explained on this blog before is the amount of information the sensor can hold between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows before blowing to pure white or black respectively). 13 stops is very impressive and having used the camera I can report that it's all there. This also means however that this is a professional camera and not for consumers. If you simply picked one of these cameras up off the shelf and shot footage, you would likely be disappointed by the flat, washed out, grey look of your shots. You HAVE to colour grade this footage. It's not an optional extra as with other cameras, but this has to be the process in order to give you all that latitude. 

Take a look at this example:

The footage also feels 'soft'. Not really sure what other word to use here but it has a filmic feel to it. Digital works very hard to be pin sharp, but in doing so can often feel clinical, whereas the BMPCC takes the hard edge off your images, whilst somehow managing keep all the detail you need. I find this trait a hard one to describe, so maybe the best thing to do is to watch this little test video I made with my patient wife and see if you can pick up the same thing:

On the negative side, the sensor is a super 16mm, which means it is a whole lot smaller than the full frame I'm used to. This means that I have to work very hard to get the depth of field in the shots which I'm looking for. That said, this may be a welcome hamstring for me at the moment as I am trying to move away from shallow DOF shots, because they can become a fall back for a lack of content. By that I mean if I don't have anything that great to point the camera at, I just open the aperture up and show lots of creamy bokeh and people are automatically impressed. That said, I still want the option. 

The micro 4/3 mount also means in my case that I would have to invest in all new glass. Even if I got an adapter to use my Canon lenses, the small sensor size means a 3 times crop factor, which would turn my 50mm into a 150mm effectively, and render it almost useless. We were kindly provided with a Lumix 12-35mm f2.8 to use with the camera, but I would need a whole lot more lens options to get the shots I'm used to getting.

The other obvious niggle is the battery life. It's terrible. You will need an arsenal of spares as you won't get much more than an hour of filming time on a full charge, even if you're as fastidious as I am about powering your camera down between shots.

Overall though it's an amazing little camera. I would love to be able to invest in glass for this little one as I think it would make for an incredible travel camera with it's small size being both convenient, as well as stealthy in situations where you want to get great shots without drawing huge attention to yourself.

Let's move on to the software.

Da Vinci Resolve is just about the best and most accessible colour grading software out there. Full stop.

It is an incredibly powerful platform which lets you make the kind of fine tuned corrections to your footage you've always dreamed of. If you're a Final Cut Pro user like myself, you will be used to it's ham-fisted bludgeoning of your detail and dynamic range when attempting to create any kind of look for your footage. Now admittedly my fledgling experience with Resolve this week has been solely editing the 13 stops footage pushed out by the BMPCC, but I think I can already see it will be leaps and bounds ahead of FCPX in it's ability to grade flat DSLR footage as well.

And here's the best part: it's bloody free!!

Well the full version of Resolve isn't, but Resolve Lite is, and it packs all the punch of it's big brother with most of the features available to you. I almost dropped £50 on a colour grading plugin a couple of weeks ago and I'm so glad I didn't, because now I have the industry standard for colour grading sitting on my machine for free.

If you grade, and don't have this software, go grab it, and learn how to use it. 

Round tripping from Final Cut Pro has been a bit of a challenge in my testing, but I'm sure that will get better with experience. The software itself though, is stunningly good.

Lastly, the company.

Blackmagic Design are very clever.

From what I can see they have given up time, energy and resources to provide a weekend away for a few photographers whose work they appreciate. They are investing in us by giving us gear, and knowledge, and the offer of assistance as we shoot.


Because now we know their brand. We understand their gear and what makes it so good. We will unconsciously compare any kit we get in the future to their '13 stops of dynamic range' and ability to 'shoot in DNG RAW'. They haven't asked for a thing from us but they know we will go on to tell others about the weekend (I'm doing it now, unbidden) and we will likely end up using their gear in our workflow. They are not only creating future customers, but also partners.

I admire companies like this who understand that generosity is the way to build relationships. Coercing email addresses out of large crowds and spamming their inboxes is, in my mind, a sure fire way to sour your brand in the minds of many; but this kind of targeted giving is certain to yield firm followers, and even friends in the right places.

I was so impressed with the hours of time the staff put in to answer my slew of stupid questions, not to mention the being spoiled rotten for three days on the shores of Lake Windermere.

This is how you build partnerships with creatives.

A lot of generosity, and the little bit of flattery didn't hurt either. 

Tech companies take note, because from this photographers point of view Blackmagic Design have their boot squarely up your proverbial.