Manual mode: How to take control of your photos.

Hey photo fans! How are we all? Enjoying the marginally less freezing weather?

When I asked you guys what you’d like me to write about a while back, one of the things that was requested by multiple people was a quick guide to using “manual mode” on their camera. For those of you in Automode Anonymous who are getting fed up with their camera perhaps behaving somewhat sporadically, or for those of you who know a few basics but just want to gain that extra level of camera control, this blog’s for you. I’m going to attempt to explain each of the key features you’ll be learning to control using manual mode, how they interact with each other and why they’re absolutely freakin’ awesome. I personally found that learning how to use manual mode presented me with a toolkit to start using my knowledge much more creatively, so I hope it works for you too!

The way I’m going to explain this is by using my own personal process, which essentially boils down to choosing what aperture I want to shoot at first (usually a key creative decision in my work) and then adjusting the other settings to get the best exposure possible. This isn’t a completely comprehensive description of absolutely everything, but hopefully it’ll give you a reasonable head-start. If that all sounds like gobbledegook right now, don’t panic, it’ll hopefully all magically make sense a bit later…

Ready? Here we go!

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Pick up your camera, switch it on and whack it into Manual mode, usually denoted by the letter “M” on the mode dial. First step away from Auto, HERE WE GO. Now, I want you to have a look and work out which button / dial / twizzly thing is going to let you change the f/ number. If an f/ isn’t displayed on your camera screen, then look for the number which you can wind down until it starts to display a decimal point – e.g. you might have an aperture range of f/2.8 to f/16. Your shutter speed range is much larger, so if you’re turning a wheel and the number’s cranking up into the hundreds and thousands, you’ve probably discovered how to change your shutter speed instead. Bank that info for later, though!

So, what’s so genius about aperture control?

  • We can use our aperture setting to creatively change an image.
  • A wide aperture has a shallow depth of field. Using a wide aperture will let you focus on one part of the image and the rest will appear blurry and dream-like. This is perfect for isolating details.
  • A small aperture has a much deeper depth of field, which means more of the image will be in focus.

I adore using a wide aperture for portraits where I can afford to let the backdrop fall out of focus, which immediately draws attention to our subject. For example, here’s the rather gorgeous Hannah James from our last promo adventure:

Hannah James.jpg

This was shot with the aperture wide open at f/2 with a shutter speed of 1/1250 sec and ISO-125 (more on those settings later!)

Conversely, if I’m shooting a more complex or chaotic portrait where I need far more in focus – this snap of big band, Bellowhead, for example – where our subjects are placed at varying levels with all sorts of props and details, then I’ll shoot with a much narrower aperture to ensure that as much of it is in sharp focus as possible.

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This was shot with the aperture at f/10 with a shutter speed of 1/500 sec and ISO-250.

So, a small f/ number means a small depth of field (isolated focus) and a large f/ number means a large depth of field (much more in focus). There are additional factors which can affect depth of field, brilliantly explained in this blog post, but let’s stick with this for now! Should it help you to visualise everything, here’s a super handy diagram:



As you can see above, when we set a wide aperture (e.g. f/2.8) the aperture, like the iris of our eye, is wide open. As a consequence, this lets in a lot of light. To get the right exposure on a bright day, do you think we’ll need a faster or slower shutter speed…? (Hint: A slower shutter speed lets in more light than a fast one.)



On the other hand, a small aperture (e.g. f/11) will only let a tiny bit of light onto the sensor. What kind of shutter speed do think this will need? Faster or slower?


If you said “faster” for the first question and “slower” for the second, woooo go you! If you didn’t, don’t fret, it all made far more sense to me once I actually started putting it into practise. Boy did I do a lot of practise.

Before we move onto the joys of ISO, here’s a little visual tea-break. Isn’t Shelley Richmond a total babe?! One free PS curve to the first three people who correctly guess what aperture I shot this at…

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  • Your ISO setting controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Most cameras have a dedicated ISO button / key, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with where this is.
  • A low ISO number (e.g. 100) makes the sensor less sensitive. You’d use a low ISO on a bright day, or if you’re shooting at a very wide aperture during daylight, to make sure you don’t over-expose your image.
  • A high ISO number (e.g. 800 or more) increases the sensitivity much more. You’d use a high ISO if you were shooting somewhere dark, or with a smaller aperture setting, to get the correct exposure.
  • WARNING: Higher ISO settings may cause “colour noise” in your image, so if you can shoot with a lower ISO and still get the right exposure / a fast enough shutter speed for your subject matter, I would generally recommend that you do so.
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Using a high ISO (approx 2000) to freeze some late-night firedancing action at SNAP Festival!



  • When you’re shooting at a narrow aperture, if you find that you have to set your shutter speed any slower than 1/100 to get the correct exposure, push your ISO higher. This makes your sensor more sensitive to light, so you can set a faster shutter speed and avoid motion blur.
  • When you’re shooting at a wide aperture, pay attention to your focus! It takes a bit of practice to shoot with such a shallow depth of field, but stick with it. I always set the centre focus point, then focus (by half pressing the shutter) and re-compose (always side to side movement, never forward or back) as needed.


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Super detailed shoot times with Lucy Ward. Ten points if you thought “NARROW APERTURE TIME!”

…alrighty, how are we doing? Writing this stuff down rather than explaining it real life avec camera has slightly wrinkled my brain, so I hope it makes some kind of sense to you guys?! Like I said at the start, if there’s anything I could explain a bit better, shout up and I’ll see what I can do. Now, before we finish up, I’ve got a little bit of homework for you:



Ok, you know I said the best way to get this stuff to sink in is to practice like a demon? You’re now going to pootle off and take two photos for me:

1) Set the widest aperture (the lowest f/ number) you can and see what shutter speed and ISO setting you need to get a good exposure (i.e. as close to how your eyes see it as possible).

2) Take the exact same photo again, but this time set a narrower aperture (e.g. f/8 to f/16) and change your settings until you get an image with the same exposure – or as close as possible – to your wide aperture photo.

The results may take you by surprise, but hopefully this little exercise will just help set everything you’ve learned into your head. Try it in a few different lighting situations and see how your results differ each time. Practice practice practice! After a while you might find you start to change all of your settings completely instinctively; I can now look at the light in a situation and quite accurately work out approximately what settings I’ll need simply by understanding the relationship between my aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Taking creative control of my camera = one of the best things I ever learned. Auto mode may sometimes nail the shot, but your camera can’t see what you can – all it wants to do is neatly even everything out to a nice percentage of grey. Go help it see something beautiful.





Go have fun! I’ll leave you with these pointers:

  • Manual mode will take a little while to sink in. Stick with it! Just remember to keep checking your images as you go along, and don’t be disheartened if things don’t work instantly.
  • So much of photography is just tinkering. Every professional I know will take a few moments to play with settings. We try lots of different things so we have options!
  • Experiment. It’s amazing what you can discover by accident.


Until next time,

E x



Photoshop Curves: the lowdown.

I’ve had a few people ask me to do a little demo on how to use the “curves” adjustment in Photoshop recently and, seeing as it’s pretty much one of my favourite colour editing tools EVER, I couldn’t quite resist. The only real downside here is that you’re gonna have to look at a close-up of my mug multiple times while I’m explaining this stuff. I do apologise.

Colour curves are the bee’s goshdarn knees. By using a curves adjustment layer in Photoshop, you can non-destructively tinker with your image tones to your heart’s content and create colours and contrast which are as subtle / batshit crazy as you like. To best show you the power of the curve, I’ve done a little self-portrait edit avec many, many screenshots. I’m well aware that this may not be technically perfect when it comes to the language and terminology I’m using – it just feels like the best way I can possibly describe it to you all. Alrighty. Ready to learn this business?! Here we go:

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This here is a super basic JPG, sans any kind of colour edit. If you look at the little grey box to the right of this screenshot, you’ll see what appears to be a histogram on a grid with a line throught it. The grid is divided into four boxes across, each box representing a tonal range. From left to right, these boxes / sections represent the following tones:

Shadows -> Mid-darks -> Midtones -> Mid-highs – Highlights

Now, looking at the verticals on the grid, we can establish how much of each type of tone we have already in the image. The higher the level on the histogram, the more of that tone there is. Looking at the histogram for this example image, I can see that there is a spike in the quarter representing shadows to mid-darks but next to nothing in the mid-highs to highlights, so none of the tones in my image are blown out to white or pure-black. Make sense? Understanding the tonal range of your image is part of the key to perfecting your use of the curves tool, because the next step is manipulating it. Oooer.

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You can use the RGB channel of the curves layer to accurately tinker with the contrast levels in your image. One of the most common ways of doing this is by creating an “S-shape” curve. Click right in the centre of the grid to begin with and you’ll see a little dot appear – this has now anchored your midtones. Next up, click and drag the line down on the mid-darks area to make them darker and then click and drag the line up over the mid-highs area to boost those and make them brighter. See how crazy contrasty that just made things?

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On the other hand, you might want to make your image somewhat less contrast-tastic. If this is the case, anchor those mid-tones again and then click and drag the line up from the bottom left corner to make the shadows (and everything up to that midtone anchor) lighter, then click and drag the line down from the top right corner to make the highlights (and everything from the midtone anchor) a bit darker.

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If you want to really start being brave and adding more points to warp your image tones, here’s a little peek at the RGB channel points I’ve used to create a slightly filmic overall tone. I’ve dragged some of the mid-darks down to create contrast, but also opted to bring the shadows up and the highlights down a bit to add some vintage-style fade to the effect. The best thing to do is just have a play and see what effects you can create by wiggling various points around on the graph. Sometimes it’ll look dreadful, sometimes it’ll look mega – don’t be afraid to experiment here.

Hopefully you’re starting to see how super freakin’ powerful this adjustment layer is / understand where the main tone points are now? Yep? Good, because the next step is:

Colour Toning

Ohhh yesss! As if the contrast tricks weren’t enough, you can also use curves to do beautiful things to the colours in your image. This adjustment just keeps on giving.

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First of all, you’re going to need to find the “red” channel on the adjustment layer. If you look just above the graph where it says “RGB” you should see a little arrow on the far right of that box? Click that and scroll down to the “red” option to select our new colour channel of choice. Fun colour times, here we come.

Now, in the same way that shadows are opposite to highlights on the grid, each of our colour channels has its opposite colour. Learning these will ultimately help you out with a huge number of other colour editing tools, not just curves, so they’re well worth memorising. Here’s what you need to know:

Red – Cyan

Green – Magenta

Blue – Yellow

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Let’s start with red. Any point now pulled upwards or left will increase the amount of red in that tonal area. Any point pulled downwards or right will therefore increase the amount of red’s opposite colour, cyan, in that tonal area. In the above image, I’ve set the midpoint once again and pulled the shadows end of the red right up – can you see how the shadows and mid-darks have now taken on a much redder hue?

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To then do the opposite, keeping that midpoint anchored, I’ve dragged the highlights point right down. All of the mid-highs to highlights are now somewhat cyan-tinted.

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If I wanted to be a bit more subtle and just give a slightly warmer red tint to the shadows only, I could add another anchor point over the mid-darks intersection and then drag the shadows point slightly upwards. Using those same / similar anchor points I could also choose to give the shadows a cyan tint by dragging the shadow point to the right across the bottom of the graph.

This colour opposites theme continues through the “Green” and “Blue” channels. I’ll not show you the extremes of each because the theory remains the same as above, but here a couple of my personal favourite tricks:

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For slightly pinker highlights, select the green channel and set an anchor point or two over the midtones and mid-highs, then drag the highlight end down. This increases the magenta in the highlights and can do lovely things to skin tones if done subtly enough.

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If you wanna get super vintage about things, get yourself over to the blue channel right now! For that dreamy vintage / slightly fairytale vibe, push the shadow point right up and pull the highlight point down, midtone anchoring optional. I usually tend to go for the slightly more subtle option here, which is just to slightly tint with this technique:

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And there you have it! Photoshop Colour Curves in a few easy steps. Hopefully it made some modicum of sense and I haven’t just confused you further. If there’s anything you’d like clarification on or if you think I’ve made any glaring omissions in this guide, hit the comment button! Tutorials are a totally new thing for me, so if there are any ways in which I could improve here, I’d genuinely appreciate your feedback.

Love to the lot of you,

E x


P.S. If you edit something awesome using what you’ve learned from this tutorial, I’d LOVE to see it! Send me your Flickr / FB links or just post your work in a comment.

P.P.S. Fancy getting your paws on one of my own colour curve presets? “Waiting For Spring” has been created especially to go along with this blog. All you’ve got to do is (publically) share your favourite image from my Facebook page and then send me a message on there to say you’ve done so. Simples! Here’s what I’ll send you in return:

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Cat Lane = total babe.

Bargain. Enjoy!


Musicians: Tips for the best possible design experience.

I’ve had the genuine delight of being involved with quite a few gorgeous albums now. I’ve loved the challenge of coming up with lots of new concepts and stretching my creativity, experimenting with new techniques and working with a range of clients. However, there are a few things which regularly crop up which can a) turn the simplest job into an entirely different beast and b) be so easily avoided with the right prior knowledge. With that in mind, with the aid of my lovely design compadres KT Coope, Louise Bichan and Simply Marvellous, I thought it might be an idea to make a check list of a few things to consider when collaborating with a designer for your album / EP / single / general promotional artwork. Hopefully we’ll clarify a few of the terms that get thrown around and provide you guys with a kit for the most awesome design experience possible. Beauteous design times, here we come!

(…before we start, this blog is not written with the intention of being at all patronising, neither is it taking a prod at any previous clients. It’s just a few things we’ve picked up along the way that your designer will most likely thank you for, and that will hopefully result in your end product being the absolute best version it can be.)

Ready? Here we go!


  • Have you supplied us with the correct templates from your printer of choice? It may seem obvious, but think about what kind of packaging you want in advance: Do you have lots of text you’d like including? If so, should you go for a booklet? Do you want a four panel, six panel or eight panel digipak or digifile? It’s worth doing a bit of research and looking at a few different albums to decide what kind of physical packaging you’d like. If you’re not sure what the specific package type is, take a photo of it and ask your printer or designer. (Alternatively, ask your designer to deal with the printers directly once you’ve been in touch about a quote and packaging type.) It’s also worth considering what type of finish you want on your packaging: gloss (shiny) / satin (mostly matte with a slight shine) / reverse board (super matte and lightly textured)? All of these will, to some extent, affect the design and overall mood of the album art.
  • Have you sent us the hi-res versions of your photos / artwork? Ensuring that your designer has the high resolution versions of the images will give them much more freedom to be creative with your design, allowing them to crop into images without pixelating problems. For a quick explanation of hi-res vs low-res, keep scrolling!
  • If you want a piece of original artwork incorporated into your design, make sure you acquire either a hi-res scan of the piece, or a hi-res photo taken on a decent quality camera (preferably a digital SLR set to a high f/ number, low ISO and positioned on a tripod somewhere with even lighting). I’d recommend you ask a professional to take the photo if you’re unsure.


  • The sooner the designer has your audio, the better they can use it to drive the feel of the design and make sure it really fits it. We don’t need the super final master versions, just something to make sure we’re going to get the right vibe. (Plus, y’know, it’s pretty exciting getting sneaky previews. But mostly the first thing.)
  • If you have a particular theme to the album, tell your designer all about it! We’re far more likely to hit the proverbial nail on the head if you give us some kind of headstart with your concept ideals. If you’ve not got anything recorded yet, send us a few choice lyrics and a few descriptive words, so we can at least get the cogs whirring while you’re in the studio. If you’re not a fan of the ideas your designer is suggesting, try and articulate why and what sort of thing you might prefer; if you can’t quite explain but have some kind of visual reference, send that over! Pinterest is a great place to create a collaborative mood-board (i.e. a collection of images / colours etc which you feel fit to your album theme) and can be endlessly helpful to help us get an idea of what sort of thing you might be after.


  • Proof read your sleeve notes! And then get someone else to proof read them. And then get someone else to proof read them again before you send them over. Every time sleeve notes are changed, the chances are your designer is going to have to re-typeset them, so please be as sure of them as is possible before sending anything over.
  • CD covers have less space than you think. While it’s lovely to want to thank lots of people, if you’re not concise about it the chances are it’s going to need to be cut down if you don’t want tiny illegible text. If you do want to write lots of content, whether it’s thanks or anecdotes or additional background to the songs, make sure you choose an appropriate booklet length to compliment it. If we have to make the text tiny to fit it all in, it can get hard for people to read and will also need a very simple background, which unfortunately also cuts down what we can do with the artwork. If you want to give people access to the lyrics but would rather have more images than text in your artwork, perhaps consider adding a lyrics page to your website and directing fans there?


  • Remember, your album is likely not the only project that your designer is working on. So if you send a change that you think will only take an hour or two, that hour or two might need to be later in the week because of other work. Please also bear in mind that if your project runs over deadline through no fault of your designer, any changes will need to be done around their new projects / eating and sleeping. If you want a rush order, the pricing will almost definitely need to reflect that accordingly.
  • If there are multiple people in your group who would like to give feedback on an artwork draft, the most efficient way of ensuring all your voices are heard is to discuss it amongst yourselves and then send over a list of your collected thoughts. There’s little more confusing than being in the middle of an email exchange between multiple parties with differing opinions.


  • To ensure the prompt delivery of beautiful, cohesive artwork, the most helpful thing you can do is to send your designer everything they need, proofed and ready to go, at the same time. Try to think of the design as one entity. If you send the elements through in dribs and drabs, the process can become frustratingly patchwork and it’s almost impossible to lay out ahead of knowing, for example, exactly how much text we have to fit in around what images. If we can see, straight off the bat, what we need to fit into the template, the design experience at this end is more like this:

IRON MAN STYLE. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the picture. Man I’d love a computer like that.)

  • Finally: Set yourself a realistic deadline for the project, and make sure you get everything over to your designer in plenty of time. Albums take time to do properly! I say this as someone who has been involved with a number of them musically, photographically and in a design capacity. If it’s possible for you to do so, I’d suggest that your best option scheduling-wise would be to set a recording deadline and then set an additional two to three weeks for the artwork after your recording deadline. This gives you a bit of flexibility for the almost inevitable extra tweaks to the tracks, and your designer a decent amount of time to put things together for you without having a sleep-deprived meltdown. This length of time also allows the luxury of discussing the artwork at various stages if needed, so you can feedback on the design as it progresses and get the best possible end product. Your design can actually help sell your albums, particularly to aesthetic magpies like myself, so try not to leave it to the last minute.


And absolutely finally, just in case it’s of some use, here’s that quick explanation of hi-res vs low-res without all the tech speak:

Check out the two versions of the tree root photo below. The one on the left has been cropped from a hi-res photograph (5760 x 3840 pixels, 240dpi). Notice the sharp details and crisp lines?

Hi res vs low res

Conversely, the one on the right is from a low-res version of the same photograph (1400 x 933 pixels, 72dpi) stretched to fit approximately the same dimensions as the above image. See how the details have become much more fuzzy?

Hi-res photos will usually have pixel dimensions in the several-thousands and a dpi of 240+ (ideally 300dpi for print). These high quality images give us the chance to crop into them to re-compose or pull details for elsewhere in the artwork, without running the risk of the image pixelating and consequently cheapening the design. If you have beautiful photos or artwork and want it to print in a way that does proper justice, always go hi-res!

Whew. I think we all deserve this photo of Hudson the wonder dog at this point:

1 Winter (1)

And that’s it! Hopefully these points are of some use to someone. As I said, these are just a few bits and bobs that we’ve particularly picked up on whilst working on albums and obviously we know and understand that sometimes things happen that are out of your hands, but if there’s anything you’d like to add / would like more clarification on, hit the comment button. Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

E x

P.S. The “behind the scenes” photos slotted into this post were taken during the documentation of the incredible Elizabethan Project, run by those nice folk over at EFDSS and Folk By The Oak. If you fancy seeing more photos from the project, it has its own blog right here.