Photography Basics: Shooting in Manual Mode

Taking beautiful, well composed, and thoughtfully executed photos has become a critical skill. We all want to create stunning photographs, right?

Photographing in manual mode can be really intimidating, especially when you don’t fully understand what aperture, ISO, and shutter speed are and how they work together. After all, shooting in auto is easy option because the camera does all the work for you. So why shoot manual mode?

This article aims to teach beginner and amateur photographers a fundamental understanding of shooting in manual mode and its importance.

Why Photograph in Manual Mode

Photographing in manual mode gives you full control over your camera settings, the light coming in, and thus, the outcome of your image. When you shoot in automatic mode, the camera assumes the ‘correct’ settings. Sure, it may seem like an easier and more efficient way to take photos, but in the long run, it can lead to difficulties in post production. Yikes!

The truth is, our cameras aren’t smart enough to take perfectly exposed photos every single time. Plus, if editing is an important part of your photo production, it’s crucial to properly expose your photos in-camera instead of trying to fix it in post.

Being able to quickly adjust your camera in various situations will strengthen your skill set, enhance your photo making, and provide you with a more efficient work flow.

Aperture, ISO, and shutter speed are the settings I’m talking about having control over in manual mode. Together, these are referred to as the exposure triangle which ensure proper exposure.

Having control over these three settings can also enable to you take photos with various techniques such as bokeh, a blurry background, motion blur, or freeze motion which can add artistic enhancements to your photos.

the exposure triangle

These three settings work together, so each change will affect one another. The best way to understand how the exposure triangle works is by simply trying it out. You will soon begin to understand how to intuitively adjust each setting in various situations. Grab your camera, and read on.


Aperture, which is measured in F-stops, refers to the size of the opening of your lens in which light comes in and hits the sensor. You can think about this like the iris of your eye, how it gets bigger and smaller in different light situations.

Aperture controls your focal length.

For example, F1.4 is a small focal length (shallow depth of field) whereas F22 is a large focal length (large depth of field).

A small focal length means only a small part of your image, like your subject, is in focus while the foreground and background are out of focus.

  • A small focal length, or a low F-stop, means that the lens opening is wide open, therefore allowing a lot of light to come in making your image really bright.

  • Try this! Use a small focal length to create bokeh. Bokeh is how your lens renders out-of-focus light in a background, for example: out-of-focus city lights.

A large focal length means that a large portion or the entire image (foreground, middle ground, and background) is completely in-focus.

  • A large focal length, or high F-stop, means that the lens opening is very small, which doesn’t allow much light to get it therefore making your image darker.

A consistent element in my work is a low focal length which I’m able to achieve with the kind of gear that I own for my camera.


ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light.

Less light is hitting your sensor at a low ISO, like ISO 100. This means that there is also the least amount of grain on your photographs.

  • Use a low ISO in bright situations, like in direct light during the afternoon.

More light is hitting your sensor at a high ISO, like ISO 3200. Unfortunately, you will start to notice more grain in your photos at a high ISO.

  • Use a high ISO in low-light situations or during the night time.

My tip: Start at ISO 100 and increase it as needed.

shutter speeD

Shutter speed refers to the speed at which your camera takes a photo. More specifically, how long your camera’s shutter remains open.

A faster shutter speed lets in less light and freezes your subject in the photograph.

  • A typical shutter speed is 1/125 of a second.

  • Faster shutter speeds are ideal for moving subjects, such as animals, children, sports, hair flips.

A slower shutter speed lets in more light and creates blurred motion.

  • Slower shutter speeds are ideal for capturing an entire movement, from start to finish.

  • They can be also be useful for taking photos of smoke, moving crowds in a city, shaking your head back and forth, running water, and more.

how to photograph in manual mode

1) Move your camera dial to ‘M’.

2) Look through your camera’s viewfinder, press half way down on your capture button, and look at the light meter at the bottom. Aim for the little tick to be at 0 in the center.

  • What I do: Because it’s important to retain information in the highlights of my photos, I tend to underexpose my photos in order to do so. If you overexpose your photos, it’s hard to get those details back in post-production.

3) Set your ISO. What I like to do is start with my ISO at 100 to ensure that my photos will be getting the least amount of grain, and then go up as needed.

  • ISO 100 is ideal for sunny, direct light.

  • ISO 640-800 is a great start for indoor photography.

  • Higher ISOs are crucial for low-light situations.

4) Choose your shutter speed. Start at 1/125 of a second as a starting point.

5) Set your aperture. Because I know that I generally want a shallow depth of field in my images, I will set my Aperture to a low F-stop.

  • Low F-stops are great for focusing on something very specific, such as a product in a photo.

  • F5.6 - F8 is an ideal range for portraits.

  • Higher F-stops are helpful for getting a ton of detail in focus, like in landscapes.

6) Check your light meter again. Double check to see that your light meter is properly exposed at 0, or underexposed a tick if you prefer to do what I do. You can use your main dial at the top of the camera to quickly adjust your light meter for proper exposure, too.

7) Take your photo. Woop woop!

Manual Mode Cheat Sheet

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Photographing in Manual Mode: Photography Basics for Beginners