How to Shoot in Manual Mode

When I got my camera 4 years ago I didn’t know anything about photography. I knew I wanted to take pretty pictures but I had no idea how and where to get started.  I tried to read my camera’s manual and articles online but everything I read was really hard for me to understand. I wish I had a friend who could sit down with me over coffee and talk me through this “manual mode” thing. I finally was able to work through it completely self taught, but at times it was hard, stressful and frustrating. I want to be that friend for you. I want to sit down with you and help you learn all of the confusing words like “aperture”, “bokeh”, “depth of field” and “rule of thirds”. I want you to learn how to shoot in manual mode and I want to make it as simple as I can for you. You spent a lot of money on your fancy camera so do me a favor and take it off auto mode and start learning to use it! Now imagine we are sitting in a coffee shop drinking iced coffee. Take out your camera, a piece of paper and take notes. We are starting off with the basics. Let’s begin!

The number one way to get your images to look the way you want them to is by shooting in manual mode. This is the best way to control everything. This might seem confusing now but trust me, it will make sense soon! It’s time to learn the basics of shooting in manual, there are three things you need to know aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These are the three main building blocks you need to learn before shooting in manual mode. 



 Aperture (the setting on your camera known as “f-stop”), is responsible for those blurry backgrounds that everyone loves. This is also known as “bokeh” (what a fun word!). I use aperture  to control how much of my image is in focus. The lower the f-stop the smaller the focal plane, which results in more of your image being out of focus. This is why its harder to get your subject in focus when you are shooting at a low f-stop. It also controls how light your image is, the smaller the f-stop the brighter your image will be.

 Compare the pictures below: the image on the left is set to f/1.4, while the image on the right is set at f/4.0. Notice how on the left the empty vase is in focus and the vase with flowers is out of focus.  When you are shooting with a low f-stop your depth of field is really shallow, meaning all of your subjects have to be on the same plane in order to be in focus. Play around with your f-stop and see what works well for you and what you typically shoot. I like to shoot with an f-stop of 1.4 whenever possible because it keeps my images bright. If I’m photographing more than two people I usually will bring it up to 2.0 or higher so I can get everyone in focus and adjust my other settings accordingly. I always set my aperture first and set the other two settings around it because I love the look of a shallow depth of field and pretty bokeh. 

  Left ISO 100 | 50mm | f/1.4 | 1/250 sec                                               Right ISO 800 | 50mm | f/4.0 | 1/2500 sec 

In the photo below I focused on the empty vase. Both vases are on the same plane so they are both perfectly in focus. You can see how the wall behind the vase and even the back of the table is blurred out because it is on a different focal plane.

ISO 100 | 50mm | f/1.4 | 1/250 sec 



Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is exactly what it sounds like. It is the amount of time your shutter is open when taking a picture. The shutter is that “camera noise” you hear when you take a picture, it is located inside your camera and sits in front of your camera’s sensor. The longer your shutter is open the brighter your image will be because you are allowing more light to be let in.  Shutter speed is measured in seconds. A fast shutter speed would be 1/1000 of a second and a slow shutter speed would be 1/60 of a second, the higher the number the faster the shutter speed. When your shutter is open for longer than 1/125 things start to get a little fuzzy. Unless you are able to keep your hand incredibly still (which I am not!) or you are using a tripod you will start to see some camera shake or blurriness. If you’re taking pictures of kids or sports it’s best to keep your shutter speed at at least 1/200 and adjust your other settings around it. This will allow you to freeze a moving subject much easier and keep everything in focus!

Left ISO 100 | 50mm | f/18 | 1/15 sec   Middle ISO 100 | 50mm | f11 | 1/80 sec 

Right ISO 100 | 50mm | f/4.0 | 1/500sec 



Raising your ISO will brighten your image and lowering it will darken your image. I recommend raising your ISO slowly and only when you need to. I always set my ISO last and usually have to raise it when I’m indoors, on a cloudy day or at night. The downside of raising your ISO too high is it can cause noise in your images. Noise in digital photography is similar to grain in film photography. In my opinion a little bit of noise is okay especially if you can’t avoid it. Its better to have a “noisy” image than an underexposed one. I always try to shoot during the day when its bright outside but that isn’t always possible. Some really sweet moments happen in our home during the evening that I would hate to miss. Like my husband helping my daughter brush her teeth or when they snuggle up to read a book before bed. These are important moments I want captured so I just crank up my ISO and embrace the noise because those memories are important to me!

Below is a good low light example. I took these pictures during the day so it’s not quite as dark as it would be at night but there was no natural light near me. For the image below I adjusted my ISO pretty high and then I adjusted my aperture and shutter speed. Its super noisy and not very clear. This goes to show the importance of always setting your ISO last and alway shoot in natural light if you can.

ISO 12800 | 50mm | f/6.3 | f/6.3 | 1/200 sec 

The Image below is just a zoomed in version of the one above. See those tiny little dots, thats noise.

 “How do I know if my image is correctly exposed and my settings are correct?” This is where the light meter comes in! This little tool is so helpful and the best part is it’s already built into your camera. When your looking at your camera screen or in your viewfinder you will see a little ruler looking line with a bunch of little dots and number . There is also a little dot that moves up and down the light meter based on your settings and how light or dark your space is. When the little dot and the zero in the center line up your image will be correctly exposed. If its to the left of the zero it is under exposed and if it is to the right of the zero it is over exposed. This changes every time you point your camera at something different with a different exposure. So if you are ever unsure if you got your settings right just check your light meter and adjust accordingly.

I always set my aperture first then my shutter speed and ISO last. When you get your settings to work together correctly that is when you will successfully be able to shoot in manual mode. You might be wondering “Why can’t I just shoot in auto mode?” Well in auto mode your camera is guessing the correct settings for you and it isn’t always right. Each photographer has preferences on light and depth of field, etc. These preferences will define your own photography style ( I will also talk about this in a later post because its so good!) so it is important that you are able to tell your camera how you want your picture to be taken.

If you want an easy way to practice your new manual mode skills join my Project 52! And if you have any questions please leave them in the comments.


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