The Unabridged, Slightly Edited, Ugly Story Of How I Moved To Manual Mode

The Unabridged, Slightly Edited, Ugly Story Of How I Moved To Manual Mode

I held my fancy, big-girl camera, set to Auto.

I knew it had more potential. I saw other people’s photos. I knew those undefined letters – P, M, AV, TV – held some sort of mystical magic behind them. If I could just figure them out. I’d owned it for 4 years. It was time.

I did an internet search or two.

Keep in mind, the story I’m sharing started about nine years ago when the internet’s camera resources didn’t go much beyond a few forums with people  men discussing circle of confusion, hyper focal distance,  and Nikons versus Canons. They weren’t a crowd I could relate to much. I just wanted better photos of my son.

I opened my manual. It was in a foreign language, not the same language of the internet men, but close.

I tried to follow it. I even pressed a button or two.


I was overwhelmed.

I put it all away, returned to the green box and continued to shoot. If I got really daring I’d move the dial to the running man. I even called myself a “photographer” because I carried the camera almost everywhere I went. I looked for bright light and shot there. I got lucky sometimes. And sometimes I didn’t. I took many photos that I liked that embarrass me today.

Then one night while my infant son was sleeping and my husband had tucked himself in, I decided it was time to make that M work for me.

In the dim light of my living room, I sat on the floor next to the coffee table with my son’s Easter Duck perched on the corner. With my camera on M, I put my eye to the viewfinder.

I pressed the shutter.

One shot.

I did it! I shot on Manual Mode! The heavens didn’t part in exaltation nor did my camera break into pieces.


With much anticipation I looked at the camera’s screen. Nothing.

There was complete blackness. Not even a shadow of a duck appeared. There was nothing there. NOTHING.


But I gave it another try.

This time I was even more brave and turned the top wheel and watched the lines move in the viewfinder. I somehow knew enough from internet men and my manual that the little line thingy should be in the middle. Somehow that had slipped my mind in the previous step.

So I moved that little line thingy.

I picked the camera up once more. I looked through the viewfinder. There was the duck. I could see it, but could I make it appear in my camera?

I pushed the shutter button.

With less anticipation than before I looked at the LCD.

There it was. I had done it!


I shot a blurry duck!

But there was a duck. I could see its shape.

I gave it a few more tries.

And over and over again I shot a blurry duck!

I had come so far!

The next day I decided there must be something I was doing wrong (it of course, never occurred to me that shooting in a little more light might help).

I sheepishly returned to the internet men.  I read a few posts knowing THERE WAS NO WAY I WOULD EVER ask them a single question. I had already witnessed how they ate the weak alive.

A book title appeared in several posts. It caught my attention so I decided it was worth a look.

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson arrived in my mailbox a few days later. Inside I knew were the answers to all that had escaped me.

I began diligently reading from the first page. I was going to conquer this.

By page 7 I was overwhelmed and befuddled by his analogy of  ISO being like bees collecting honey. I knew enough from film days to understand what ISO was. That was easy for me.

I put it down, but returned later to trudge through it again.

Then I opened the page describing aperture. Now the heavens parted. I set my camera according to his settings. I placed my camera on a tripod. Strangely enough I’d owned one for a long time, but wasn’t really sure why.

I followed the steps he shared. And there it was! A beautiful blurry background appeared. Just like that. Not blurry like the duck I shot, but an artistic blur. I had done it.

Watch out world. I had arrived.

I dug in deeper to Understanding Exposure. I realized now I couldn’t read every word. I had to skip a lot because a lot just confused me. I sorted and sifted to find the juicy nuggets that created the results I wanted. I rejoiced when I found them.

Skip a page. Read a page. Skip a page. Read a page.

But could I do this when I left the security of my living room? Would I remember the numbers and directions and wider or narrower, bigger or smaller?

I had to give it a try.

With camera in hand, I stepped outside. Just a few steps into my backyard.

I remembered my own version of his words. A lot of sunlight is BAD. Shaded areas GOOD.

Ok. That’s easy enough. I stepped under the dopey awning connected to our garage. It looked like something someone had purchased from a demolished trailer park and straightened and secured precariously to the old garage. I didn’t realize that the white surface was acting as a fabulous reflector sending light bouncing from the concrete pad to my subject to the ceiling and back all over again. By complete chance, I discovered gorgeous abundant light. Now I could blur my background.

And blur I did.

In the beginning I didn’t even care that my subject had a fraction of their nose in focus. I had blur.  And I wasn’t shooting in Auto Mode. I didn’t realize that I could move my subject away from the background to get more blur. I didn’t realize that my choice of a longer lens could help get more blur. I had no idea that stepping a bit closer to my subject would create more blur too.

I didn’t care! I was a photographer! With blur.

I dug back into the book and discovered shutter speed and what I later would realize was the zone system and the magic it holds for “correct” exposure.

In the beginning I just went for the line in the middle. It would take me several months to graduate to using skin tone for an exposure and then colors and then a year or two before THE HISTOGRAM.

Did I return to the Auto Modes?

Absolutely.  I’d pick up the camera, spin the wheel to discover a blinking 5″. Five inches? What the heck does that mean? There was no easy way to find it in my friend Bryan’s book and there certainly was NOTHING in my camera manual’s table of contents.

So I’d move the dial to the green square so AT LEAST I could take a picture.


Geez. Stupid broken camera.

The blinking numbers were always frightening. Why do you have to torment me like that? I’ve done everything right, but there you blink, mocking my limited knowledge and unhelpful resources.




Over time something happened.

The more I experimented the more I got it right between all of the blinking.

I picked up THE BOOK and started it from the beginning again. It made a little more sense. Even those silly bees.

I picked up my manual more often and had greater success finding what I needed. I discovered that blinking inch symbol really meant seconds and the blinking was just yelling at me, you don’t have enough light to get a correct exposure. How nice of my camera to warn me like that. It was my memory making friend.

That led the way to the EXPOSURE TRIANGLE. What a gem! Knowing that shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all brought light into the camera in their own special way to create a beautiful photo was life (and photo) changing. I discovered a too slow shutter speed was the suspect behind my blurry duck shots.

I realized that the numbers on my camera’s dials were a bit like my car’s speedometer. Just because the number IS THERE, it doesn’t mean I have to use it. I finally stepped away from blur for blurs sake to see that getting eyes in focus was much easier at an aperture of f/4 than at f/1.4. And I liked the photos more.

All of this through frustrating trial and error, piecing together little bits of information I could glean from the resources I could dredge from the depths of the internet and the library bookshelves.


I knew there had to be a better way.

A better way to understand this process. Better explanations. Having spent all of my career training adults to accomplish things on the job, I knew how to train people. I was good at that.

When Debbie Hodge asked me to teach a class to help moms learn to use their cameras. I knew the answer immediately. I had to do it. The need for NO ONE to shoot a blurry duck at 10PM in their living room overwhelmed me.

And so it began.

I thought through the process from MY EXPERIENCE.

I wrote the class that would become Your Life Captured Through The Lens following the steps that made sense to me.

I started the first lesson with my obvious first step. Discovering that the camera DID NOT know where I WANTED my focus to fall, I knew FOCUS was most important. If other moms (and dads and people who wanted to create photos they love) could understand that the center focus point is THE SPOT to use. If they could understand that recomposing an image by holding the shutter half way down was just ONE WAY to get good focus, then I would make a difference in their world. (Okay, so I knew I wasn’t saving lives here, but I was saving memories. Heck that’s pretty close to life saving for some of us!)

And yes, I decided they would need to learn Back Button Focus in the first lesson. Why save such a good thing for the last lesson? It’s not nearly as scary as those internet men made it sound. Plus, now there are videos and tutorials ALL OVER THE PLACE for ANY CAMERA YOU HAVE. This is NOT 2005 my friends!

Oh, and I realized YOU probably want to understand the language. So I wrote it in English. Plain, everyday, so you get it English. I’m on a mission to see you be successful here. This is about YOU, not me!


Where would we go after focus?

After focus I introduce aperture and the exposure triangle. Why now? Because the exposure triangle holds the key for moving YOU off auto. Understand it and you are ready to go. You could skip the rest of the lessons and need nothing more. Okay, you’d want more but you wouldn’t NEED it.

I’ve seen too many people get great exposure but HORRIBLE composition, so I’d share a bit about composition in this lesson. Kind of a two-fer if you will. Good exposure and good composition. Sweet.

And when you are ready for more in the third lesson, you’ll dive into shutter speed and more about exposure with a little taste of composition. Because composition matters.

Then I kept it going (crazy, huh) with three more lessons for a total of SIX. Six lessons outlining how I think about shooting so YOU can get results you want. White balance, depth of field, histograms, metering modes. It’s all in there. In a language you’ll understand. A language that boil it down to what matters most so you can do the most important thing. TAKE PICTURES YOU LOVE.

And of course, I wrote each lesson with a readee-readee, blah blah blah part for the information lovers and then just got right to the details in the assignments. Because you and I both know, you aren’t going to learn to use your camera by reading. You’ve GOT TO PICK THE THING UP and shoot some ducks!

Sure, I packed it with photos that I’ve taken, but the focus is YOU. Making it easy and understandable FOR YOU.

And then I got all crazy and decided that people need A PERSON to help them out. Not some guy in a book or faceless being in a “we eat the learner” forum. So I created a safe, private forum just for class members. And a live webinar. Which is just a fancy way of saying I get on my computer at a certain time, you get on yours, and I talk you through steps while you ask questions. And I answer those questions. Crazy, huh?

And then if you get really brave (you will) I schedule ANOTHER webinar were YOU share a photo from class and I give you pointers on how to improve it. Yep. Live. Real. Honest. Supportive. I’m vegan, so I won’t be eating anyone for dinner.

And then I realized, some people just can’t be awake when I am. So I record stuff and share it after. Sometimes it’s easier to hear your photo discussion that way.


That’s a lot of work. But YOU are worth it. YOUR MEMORIES ARE WORTH IT.

I wrote  Your Life Captured Through The Lens in 2009. Wow! Five years ago! It’s had three major spiff ups along the way.  It still works. The steps are still the steps that get people off auto and shooting in Manual Mode or Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority or whatever heck they want to shoot in that will get them the results they need.

And this is it. The last time. For reals. Last year I said it was the last time I’d be offering Your Life Captured Through The Lens and a BUNCH OF YOU said NO! Don’t do it I haven’t taken it, my sister wants to take it, my neighbor said she was ready. So I listened and extended it through 2014.

But this is it. The last hurrah. It’s time to let it move on. Of course, all the good stuff in the classroom (the pdfs and the videos) will remain available for those of you who have taken class (and those of you who sign up this time), but no new offerings after this one. There will be something else. Something new and shiny and more 2015ish with fewer photos of my son at 4 years old and more of him at nine. And maybe even fewer photos of my son (gasp).

But Your Life Captured Through The Lens is still good stuff. If you’ve taken it already, thank you. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s going away! You know you don’t want blurry ducks!

What are you waiting for?



    Oh MY, this was so funny & true. You have an amazing gift of storytelling because this is ME. Only thing I have not had the courage yet to turn the dial to M. I am happy, for the moment, in P/AV/TV although I SO get the focal distance wrong. I am now taking the class again for the 2nd time, last one was in 2011.
    Cannot wait to enforce my skills. Thanks a million for letting us know we were all beginners at some point. May share this, snippet with my fellow Camera Club members, who are struggling. Can you send me a link to include in an email them. From sunny South Africa

  2. I loved the story behind the class Katrina. Oh I can so relate! Especially the judge-y camera forums. I still see that on Amazon reviews about lenses. I think they were trying to keep everything too technical to avoid more competition. 🙂 Thank you for this class. It was an eye-opener, and I just love hearing how you started out. I swear I thought you were born knowing how to do this! Thanks for always having patience with questions, and letting me post my photos (that always had the same problem, low light) and you would just keep saying, “a bit more light”, “almost there” “try next to a window”, etc. LOL. I do not know how you do not go crazy when you keep seeing the same issues over and over again. Thanks for hanging in there with me and my dark photos. I finally see the light!!

  3. Tracey Gehring

    I absolutely loved reading this! You made me smile and nod my head in agreement sooo many times! I can’t tell you how many books I’ve wasted money on thru the years (all except for my last year’s purchase of a couple of Bryan’s books one being Understanding Exposure 😉 ), which were probably GREAT books, but not written in a way I could understand it or grasp it and keep it grasped, lol. I ended up more frustrated than anything, and it really put a damper on how excited I was when I got my first slr in the 90’s some time – I’d had such high hopes. After all that trying to understand what they were telling me, I’d kind of written myself off as to ever being able to get it. It was for smarter people than I, so I stuck with AV mode most of the time, and not even understanding that very well. Then after joining CY365 in the spring last year, I moved on to manual last fall, and even started using the RAW capabilities (even though wasn’t quite sure the benefits of that, I did it anyway because I had a little bit of knowledge on it, lol). Then I took your class Exposure, and holy cow did it make a huge difference in my photos and my life – I no longer thought I was just incapable of understanding all that mumbo jumbo, I could do this, I could understand it and I could remember it! 😀 So, it wasn’t just that your class that improved my photos, but you made a difference in my self-esteem – I could finally do something that for at least 15 years+ I thought I was incapable of. 🙂 Thank you for taking the approach you do to your classes and thank you for sharing your experiences!

  4. Love this!!! I have taken Your Life Captured Through the Lens twice and fully plan to take it again – life changing!!! Thank you for sharing your experiences Katrina!!

    • You are welcome Danielle! THANK YOU for having the courage to make the move! LOVE having you in class, glad you’ll be back again!

  5. Deirdre Harger

    I remember “About a Boy” way back when and how “Get Me Off Auto” changed my photography forever. Your words, pictures and teaching style helped open the door to a whole new world for me. Thank You!

    • You are so welcome Deirdre! I’ve loved watching your photography skills grow. You are a talented photographer my friend. I’m so glad we’ve been able to share the journey!

  6. I never knew the story about you and the blurry duck, or that you were pretty much self-taught. Love it! I’m so sorry to hear that you won’t be offering the class anymore. Might I suggest that you make the PDFs into a downloadable book (for a fee, of course), and direct people to the CY365 forums for related support? You do such a fantastic job of explaining everything, it’d be a shame to deprive future momtographers of these nuggets of wisdom!

    • Thanks for stopping by Deb! This one is going away – no swaying me this time 😉 There will be something else replacing it that will meet the needs of all of those future momtographers!

  7. I love your description of the earlier forums, so intimidating! Luckily for me, I was invited to go with my photographer friend to England for a week when she dropped her daughter off at college. We then spent a few days in London, “no kids, no spouses” (our often repeated saying) and she taught me enough to begin to use Manual without fear. The only time the mode dial is on A is when I hand off the camera to a family member.
    Your class sounds perfect for anyone ready to learn manual photography. Thank you for jumping in and getting this site up and running. I have learned so much from my everyday photography.

    • That sounds like A PERFECT way to move to manual! Thanks for being part of the CY365 Community! There are so many awesome people here!

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