The Beginner’s Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

10/09/2019 7:08 am

For those of you just starting out in the wonderful world of photography, switching to manual mode and the world of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, can - understandably - seem a little daunting at first. But rest assured: it’s well worth mastering the basics. 


If you really want to improve your photography, becoming comfortable with key photographic settings is crucial. Not only will shooting in manual mode enable you to produce sharp, well-composed imagery – it will also help you gain a stronger understanding of the inner workings of your camera, opening up a whole world of opportunities for you to learn, experiment and extend your skills for years to come.


To help you get started, check out our beginner’s guide to masterfully shooting in manual mode:

What is manual photography?

So, you’ve bought (or rented) a lovely new or secondhand DSLR or mirrorless camera - that’s brilliant! If you’re like most new photographers, you’ve probably been shooting in auto or standard modes - which is more than fine to begin with. But soon enough, you’re going to start wanting to push your skills further. You might even be comparing your work to those of professionals, and wondering why your photographs don’t look quite the same. That’s where manual mode comes in.


Manual photography allows you to tell the camera exactly what you want - giving you greater control over your final product, with zero of the surprises caused by automated settings.

The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

The exposure triangle explained

The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

To begin mastering the magic of manual, there are three key settings that you should know:


  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO


Together, these make up the “exposure triangle”. In today’s modern world where each new camera release sees various new advancements, these settings remain and their function stays the same. Once you understand what they mean, and how to use them at a basic level, you will be well on your way to becoming an infinitely better photographer. 


Each of the three settings of the exposure triangle will affect the “look” of an image in a unique way - so if you want to have more control over the appearance of your photographs, manual mode is your new best friend.


The goal of manual photography is to have these three key settings arranged in a manner that results in a well-exposed image, meaning the image is of an acceptable level of brightness without highlights being blow-out and shadows lacking any detail.



Setting your camera on auto will mean the camera takes care of all of these settings for you, which in perfect conditions will can result in some acceptable images - but when lighting conditions get tricky, taking control over these settings will produce a far greater level of success.




Aperture refers to the size of the hole in your lens which is responsible for letting in light. A smaller number, such as f1.4, is actually a larger hole, which serves the purpose of letting in more light in darker conditions, as well as producing shallower depths of field - which means less of your image is in focus.


A larger number, such as f16, will create a smaller aperture, subsequently letting less light through your lens, which in turn creates a greater depth of field. At this setting more of your image will be sharp and in focus, which is ideal for landscape photography.

The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

Shutter Speed

The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

Shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter is open when taking a photograph. The longer that the shutter is open, the more light is let in. Slower shutter speeds also mean that if you shoot something that’s moving, it will come out blurry, which is often the desired effect - such as creating blurred waterfalls or highway traffic shots - but will usually require you to mount your camera on a tripod to avoid camera shake.

Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/500-sec or faster, are often used to freeze sports and wildlife subjects in motion.


In the days of film photography, changing the ISO of your camera would require loading it with a different type of film. In digital cameras, this setting is changed in-camera.


ISO refers to how sensitive your camera is to light, with a lower ISO, such as 100 or 200, being suitable for shooting in the bright outdoors, and a higher ISO, such as 1600+, being a good choice for shooting indoors and at night.


The way this works is as follows; setting a high ISO on your camera will allow you to use a more manageable shutter speed even when conditions are dark. On the negative side, the higher the ISO setting, the more noise or grain will be present in your image.

The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

How they work together

The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

Now it’s time to combine all three settings to get the high-quality, professional looking photos you’re after! 


Changing any one of the three settings will usually require you to tweak the other two as well, in order to achieve correct exposure. For example - imagine you are shooting portrait photography, and you want your model to be sharp in the foreground, with the background completely blurry. You can set your lens to a larger aperture and adjust the shutter speed and ISO accordingly to get the best result.


But don’t panic - to help with this, your camera will likely have a built-in light meter, which measures the overall look of your image, checks the settings that your camera is currently on, and gives you a readout of what that image is likely to look like.



If your light meter is in the “+” range, your image is overexposed, which means you are letting in too much light. If your light meter is in the “-” range, your image is underexposed, so your image is going to be too dark. Your goal is to get the light meter right in the middle, lined up with 0.


Your manual mode cheat sheet

Here’s a hypothetical situation of a basic approach to manual photography:


  • Set your ISO to an approximate value that you think should suit your current condition. Such as ISO 400 for outdoor/overcast conditions.
  • If you are shooting handheld and don’t want your subjects to be blurred, set your shutter speed to a mid-range speed such as 1/60 or 1/125.
  • Adjust your aperture accordingly until your light meter tells you your image is well exposed.
  • If at these settings, you are unable to get a pleasing exposure and you are in the - zone, this is a sign that you need to raise your ISO, so try 800. If the above settings resulted in your light meter reading an over-exposure, you can try a faster shutter speed of 1/250 or higher, or lower your ISO.
The Beginner's Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

Never stop learning

And that’s it! Once you are able to adjust these settings to capture a well-exposed photograph, you can then get more creative with your choices in order to produce a higher-quality of images. Just keep experimenting, testing and learning - you’ll be a pro photographer in no time! 

For more advice, tips and photography workshops, head to your local Ted’s Cameras store, where our expert team will be happy to help.


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