Learn How To Shoot In Manual Mode.

How to shoot in Manual Mode

I asked several people what subject they most wanted me to write about and, by far, the most popular answer was how to shoot in manual mode.

It’s that all powerful yet all confusing “M” setting on your camera dial, which many beginners find to be too difficult to figure out, so they live in auto mode and never experience the creative power of what their camera is really capable of.

I heard it said once that people would rather acquire a tool than a skill. I believe that’s true, however, unfortunate. I spend a lot of time around tools, whether it be my camera or wood working tools in my dads shop where I practice my growing hobby of carpentry. Just having a tool isn’t enough. You have to know how to use it. The more skill you acquire with a tool, the more you’ll be able to do with it. So, whether you’re an aspiring professional photographer, a hobbyist, or a mom or dad who wants to take better pictures of your kids, it will serve you well to learn some basic skills of shooting in manual mode.

First off, let me say that this article is not intended to be an exhaustive study, but rather a starting point. To gain a full understanding of how to get the most out of your camera, the best thing to do is to take what you’ve learned and then get out and shoot. If you’re wanting to go deeper now, I encourage you to check out the video courses available on www.lynda.com. I learned tons from there when I was getting started and I can’t recommend it enough.

Now moving on to How to Shoot in Manual Mode:

There are three basic functions that you need to understand in order to grasp shooting in manual mode – Shutter, Aperture and ISO/Film Speed. Now let’s start out by being clear about one thing that all of these functions have in common. They all affect the brightness of an image. Changing any one of these settings apart from the others will either darken or brighten your image. The thing to understand is that they do it in different ways that have a huge impact on your final image. Also, keep in mind, that one of the great things about learning these functions is that they’re exactly the same from one camera to another, regardless of brand name, and also the same for digital or film. If you learn these functions on one camera, you’ll be able to use them on any other camera. To start out, here is a very basic definition of each Manual function:

Shutter – How fast the image is captured.

Aperture – How much light is allowed through the lens AND Depth of Field. 

ISO/Film Speed – How sensitive the sensor or film is to light. (The term ISO can be used interchangeably with film or digital.)

Now let’s explore each function in more depth.


The shutter is the mechanism which opens and closes to start and stop an exposure. It’s located inside the camera body directly in front of the image sensor. Most modern digital cameras have a standard speed range of 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second. That means you can set your shutter to stay open for as long as 30 seconds or as briefly as 1/8000th of a second. (Most film SLR cameras range from 30 seconds to 1/4000th. Some maybe even slower.)

Any time you change the shutter speed by a factor of 2x it’s equivalent to 1 full stop in Exposure Value (EV). Going from 1/125th to 1/500th is equal to 1 stop in EV. In other words, increasing the shutter speed by a factor of 2x is equal to reducing the amount of light coming into the camera by half. Reducing the shutter speed by half is equal to doubling the amount of light allowed in.

Choosing a shutter speed depends on your subject and what you’re trying to capture. If you’re trying to freeze a moving object or person, then you would need a relatively fast shutter. As a general rule of thumb, if you want to stop action, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second or faster. Anything slower than that will very likely produce a blurry image due to either camera shake or the object or person moving too quickly. If you’re trying to photograph the night sky and want a bright, stunning image of the stars and Milky Way, you would need a slow shutter to allow as much light as possible into the camera, but you would also need to have the camera mounted on a tripod to prevent shaking.



The Aperture is maybe the most confusing function to most people. It’s easy to grasp the concept of shutter speed, but the aperture does some pretty interesting things simultaneously. It affects BOTH the amount of light coming through the lens, AND the Depth of Field (DOF). First we’ll learn how it affects the amount of light.

The aperture is the multi-bladed diaphragm inside the lens which controls how much light is allowed to come through. It’s also known as the “F-stop.” Every lens is different in it’s range of aperture size.

In plain, non-techy English, the smaller the f/number, the more light comes through the lens making your image brighter. The bigger the f/number, the less light comes through the lens making the image darker.

Nerd Note – If you want to get geeky with the science stuff and know what the “F” numbers mean: it’s the size of the aperture opening measured as a fraction of the lens focal length. For example, if you’re using a 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4, this means 50/1.4=35.71mm. In other words, at f/1.4, the physical aperture opening is 35.71mm in diameter.  To determine the physical size of any given aperture setting, use the same mathematical formula.

(Focal length)/(Aperture setting) = aperture size.

You will probably never need to know all that, but there it is so you can impress your friends with your knowledge.

Each time you change the aperture setting by a factor of 2x, it’s equivalent to 1 stop in exposure value. Going from  f/1.4 to f/2.8 is 1 full stop.

For example:



The size of the aperture at 2.8 is exactly half the size of the aperture at 1.4 and therefore, half the amount of light. This is 1 full stop in Exposure Value (EV).

Going from f/2.8 to f/5.6 is 1 full stop. etc etc… Most modern cameras offer aperture settings in smaller intervals for more exposure control, but the principle is still the same.

Depth of Field (DOF)

The second thing that the aperture affects is the DOF. This is the amount of blur in front of and behind your subject. An image with lots of blur is said to have shallow DOF, while an image with very little or no blur is said to have deep DOF. But how does it work?

First, in plain, non-techy English, the smaller the f/number, the more blur in front of and behind your subject. The bigger the f/number, the less blur and more of the scene is in sharp focus.

Now for you science nerds…

Remember that unless interrupted, light always travels in a straight line. Imagine that there are straight lines of light proceeding from every given point of the scene within your viewfinder. Those lines are all traveling straight, but NOT parallel. They will eventually intersect at some point between your lens and image sensor. The aperture alters the ANGLE of that intersection and by doing so, it determines the DOF.

The wider the aperture, the wider the angle of intersection which results in shallow DOF.

Visa versa; the smaller the aperture, the narrower the angle of intersection and results in deeper DOF. 

Below is a graphic aid to help you visualize.

Depth of Field

ISO/Film Speed

Now that you’re an expert on shutter and aperture, we can move on to the last part of the exposure triangle; ISO.

Modern digital cameras range in ISO capability from as low as 50 to as high as 204,800, but the “normal” range is from 200-1600. Just like the shutter and aperture, changing the setting by a factor of 2x is equivalent to 1 full stop in EV.

In plain, non-techy English – Low numbers are for bright light like daylight. High numbers are for low light, like indoors or night time. It’s how sensitive the film or camera sensor is to light. Otherwise stated, how fast it reacts to being exposed to light. Hence the term, ISO speed. (When referring to film it’s also called ASA.)

Now, again for you science nerds:

ISO = “the numerical exposure index of a photographic film under the system adopted by the International Standardization Organization, used to indicate the light sensitivity of the film’s emulsion.”

(Pasted from www.dictionary.com)

The slower the ISO setting, the more light will be required for proper exposure. The faster the setting, the less light will be required for proper exposure. This is where the balancing act of choosing settings begins because there are some gives and takes to be aware of in understanding ISO. Low settings produce low grain, or “clean” images, while higher ISO settings result in more grain or “noise”.

Here’s a mental picture for you that helped me understand ISO. Imagine that the camera sensor is a garage and the pixels are semi trucks that haul the light in for you. You have to ask yourself, how many trucks do you want in your picture? The answer is, as few as possible to bring in the amount of light you need. You don’t want unnecessary trucks cluttering your photograph.

So, here’s the balance act; if you’re shooting an action scene, you need a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action, an aperture setting that gives enough depth of field to get your moving subject in focus but without losing too much light, and an ISO setting fast enough to gather the light without adding too much unwanted noise.


Here’s another scenario: if you’re shooting a night sky, you need a shutter speed slow enough to allow enough light to come in, an aperture setting as wide as possible to allow enough light and an ISO setting high enough to gather the light without adding too much noise.

Night Photography Tips


So, there’s the basic foundational principles of how to shoot in manual mode. There’s a lot more that could be discussed, but for the sake of keeping this article on point, without becoming too long, I’ll stop there for now. I’ll break it down further in future articles. Or if you want to dig deeper right now, I highly encourage you to go check out www.lynda.com for more online learning resources.

Feel free to drop a comment or question below.