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For many photographers, making the transition from shooting in auto mode to shooting manual mode is intimidating.
When you first purchase a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you may not fully understand the basic concepts of aperture and shutter speed, let alone feel comfortable setting them manually.
Learning the elements of how to shoot in manual mode and practicing them one by one helps you make the transition from auto to manual mode successfully.
Why Should I Shoot in Manual Mode?
When you’re new to mirrorless or DSLR photography, it’s easy to assume that your camera chooses the best settings automatically.
Initially, the camera may make better choices than you will.
However, it doesn’t take much experience with photography to learn that your camera doesn’t always make great choices.
For example, in a low-light situation, a camera almost always slows down the shutter speed instead of raising the ISO.
How to Shoot in Manual Mode: What you Should Know
ISO, aperture, shutter speed.
A shutter speed of 1/20 raises the light level but at the risk of significant motion blur. Dialing in settings manually produces excellent results with no blurring.
Ultimately, shooting in manual mode gives you full control of your camera. You’ll be able to dial in the best settings for any given shooting situation.
You’ll also be able to choose settings that enable full artistic license, such as introducing intentional motion blur or creating a creamy blurred background.
While it’s scary making the transition from auto mode to manual mode, it’s worth it for the increased abilities you’ll have with your camera.
The Exposure Triangle
The exposure triangle refers to the three variables that determine the exposure of a photograph – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed – and how they work together.
Every time you adjust one of these three variables, the other two variables are affected.
For example, if you want a narrow depth of focus with creamy bokeh background, most likely, you’ll start by opening up your aperture to f/1.8.
Then you’ll have to adjust your ISO and shutter speed accordingly to create a crisp, well-lit image. If you don’t adjust the other two settings, you may end up with a dark, blurry image.
The best way to start understanding how the exposure triangle works is to adjust one variable at a time and observe how the image changes.
Leaving aperture and shutter speed on auto mode, set your camera on ISO 100.
Take a picture.
Move up to ISO 200 and take a picture.
Repeat this process at each ISO setting until you’ve reached your camera’s upper ISO limit. Consider how the images changed as you worked your way through the ISO settings.
Most likely, at some point, you reached a sweet spot with a well-composed, well-lit image. Then as you kept increasing the ISO, your photos become overexposed with harsh, blown-out areas.
Repeat the exercise with aperture and shutter speed accordingly, each time leaving the other two settings on auto mode. Observe how your photos change as you work your way through each variable.
It may take several repetitions of the entire exercise before you begin to grasp the full relationship between the three variables.
In digital photography, ISO refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor. The general rule of thumb for ISO is to keep it as low as possible.
You can learn more about ISO here.
Depending on the available light, the lowest ISO setting possible varies significantly. On a bright sunny day, you’ll have no trouble keeping your ISO level at 100 (or 200 depending on your camera).
You’ll end up choosing a higher shutter speed and narrower aperture to prevent your images from being overexposed, even at the lowest ISO level.
In comparison, in a dimly lit reception hall, it’s all but impossible to get your ISO any lower than 1600 or even 3200, even with a prime lens or high-end zoom lens.
Even though you want to keep your ISO as low as possible, there are times that it makes sense to boost your ISO for the overall effect you want to achieve.
Most notably, for specific shooting scenarios, such as a soccer game or the dance floor at a wedding reception, you’ll want to choose a faster shutter speed to freeze the action.
When you choose a faster shutter speed, you’ll also have to boost your ISO to keep the image adequately lit. Depending on the available light, you may be introducing a bit of noise in your photos with the higher ISO levels.
It’s worth this sacrifice to eliminate motion blur.
Be conscious of ISO level as you adjust your aperture as well.
In low-light settings, don’t open up your aperture all the way just so you can keep your ISO as low as possible unless you want a narrow depth of field.
Again, it may be worth the sacrifice of bumping up your ISO slightly, so you keep the majority of your image in focus.
Aperture is the opening in a lens through which light passes to enter the camera. A narrow depth of field (i.e., f/2.8) lets a lot of light into the camera.
For an in-depth guide to Aperture read this article.
A small portion of the image is in focus with a large blurred background.
A wide depth of field (i.e., f/16) lets a small amount of light into the camera.
The majority of the image is in focus, with minimal blurring.
There is no “right” aperture for any given photography situation, although there are common practices among different types of photography.
For example, for portrait photography, it’s preferable to keep focus on the subject by blurring the background. You want to set the aperture just wide enough to get the subject in clear focus and achieve a beautiful blurred background.
On the flip side, for landscape photography, generally, it’s preferable to achieve total crispness across an image. You don’t want a gorgeous mountain scene where only one or two of the mountain peaks are in clear focus.
One reason numerous photographers shoot with prime lenses is the ability to shoot with a narrow depth of field with a lightweight, reasonably inexpensive lens.
Zoom lenses on the other end are more versatile since you are not limited to a single focal length.
You might be interested in this article: Prime Lens or Zoom Lens for Beginner Photographers?
However, in general, you’ll pay significantly less for a high-quality prime lens than a high-end zoom lens with similar aperture capacity.
35mm-85mm range prime lenses offer the most versatility for shooting in a wide range of settings.
From there, you may decide that it’s worth investing in a wide-angle or macro prime lens as well, depending on your photography style.
Here’s some prime and zoom lenses on Amazon that are very good value for the money. (Affiliate links)
Shutter speed is the amount of time that film or a digital sensor is exposed to light or the amount of time that the camera’s shutter is open to take a photograph.
The longer the shutter is open, the more the film or digital sensor is exposed to light.
The most common reason photographers experience unintentional blur in their photos is keeping their shutter speed too low.
Choosing a faster shutter speed freezes action while choosing a slower shutter speed blurs the scene.
Again, there is no “right” shutter speed for any given photography situation. But there are a few standard conventions that can help you achieve a given aesthetic with minimal frustration.
When you want to freeze action, such as during a basketball game or a dance recital, select a faster shutter speed. The particular scenario dictates the appropriate speed of the shutter.
For example, the speed you need to capture a high school soccer game may not be the same as the speed required for a preschool dance recital.
As you grow comfortable with manual mode, you’ll be able to dial in the speed you need quickly and accurately.
Setting your shutter speed manually also enables you to slow down your shutter speed and create intentional blur.
In settings where there is motion, sometimes you don’t want to freeze the scene fully, instead allowing the dancers’ or athletes’ limbs to have a bit of blurring. The blurring adds to the narrative of the photos.
In other scenarios, you may want to blur the scene significantly, creating certain effects only possible with a tripod and full manual shutter speed.
One of the most popular long exposure photography techniques is to blur moving water, such as a lake or waterfall. Another popular long exposure photography technique is to create light trails, such as car headlights, or light swirls, such as a Ferris wheel.
You can also slow down the camera’s shutter speed and “paint” with light, such as with a flashlight or glow sticks. More advanced long exposure photography techniques include astrophotography techniques, including star trails and the Milky Way galaxy.
Generally, a long exposure is recommended for photographing the Aurora Borealis as well.
For exposures longer than 1/60, a tripod is highly recommended to reduce motion blur. It simply isn’t humanly possible to hold your camera steady and create a crisp image at a longer shutter speed than 1/60.
While you may be able to get an occasional passable shot at slightly longer shutter speeds, it’s worth investing in a tripod for long exposure photography.
Pick up a budget tripod and get used to shooting with it. From there, you can research tripods and decide if you want to spend more on a high-end travel or all-terrain tripod.
Good budget tripods on Amazon you might want to checkout. (Affiliate links)
How to Get Started
As you grow comfortable with aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, start experimenting with a single setting at a time.
For example, put your camera in aperture priority mode, leaving shutter speed and ISO on auto.
This setting allows you to focus solely on aperture. Take your lens through its full range of aperture settings. Start at wide open (i.e., f/2.8) and work your way to a narrow opening (i.e., f/16).
After mastering the individual components of manual mode, at some point, you’ll have to dive in and switch to full manual mode. The process is similar to learning how to ride a bike. You’ll never feel completely ready to ditch your training wheels.
But you have to make the leap.
The first few times you use full manual mode, do so in a low-pressure situation. Take an outing to a local park or wander through a favorite neighborhood for a little street photography.
Wait to switch to manual mode at a big family function or vacation, much less a paid professional event, until you’re comfortable with it.
How Do I Know That I’m Choosing Settings That Expose My Images Properly?
When you start dialing in your camera settings yourself, it’s easy to be unsure about the final results, even with a good viewfinder and instant feedback.
Your camera has a built-in light meter. In the viewfinder, it gives you a range of numbers from -2 to 2. When you press the shutter button halfway to focus the image, you’ll get a light meter reading.
A 0 indicates a properly exposed image.
Depending on the given situation, you may want to underexpose or overexpose the image slightly.
It’s fine if the light meter isn’t hitting 0 exactly.
However, it gives a clear indication if your settings are way off, so you can adjust them accordingly.
There is a time and a place for everything, and manual mode is no exception.
Even the top professional photographers don’t shoot in manual mode 100% of the time.
There are specific shooting scenarios where it may be beneficial to use aperture priority or shutter speed priority mode. One common scenario for aperture priority mode is when a bride is entering or exiting a church.
During the entrance and exit, the light level changes significantly. There simply isn’t time to adjust all of your settings manually and keep the bride in clear focus with balanced light. Using aperture priority mode works beautifully.
Manual mode takes trial and error over weeks or even months.
When you understand the individual components of manual mode, it still takes practice to be able to dial in your settings quickly and accurately.
Be kind to yourself, and celebrate the little victories.
It may not seem like you’re making a lot of progress with manual mode from day today. But you’ll be surprised when you look back a few months later and see how far you’ve come.
Are there any tips that you’d offer for making the transition from auto mode to manual mode?
Share your best insight on this process!
Rose Clearfield is a freelance writer and hobbyist photographer. She lives in southeast WI with her husband, son, and three cats. She bought her first DSLR in 2012 and hasn’t looked back since. With an education background and a passion for writing, she loves helping people learn how to take better pictures.