Learning to shoot in manual mode

While today’s cameras do a pretty good job when in fully automatic mode, in order to make the most of your camera you should learn how to use your camera on the manual setting. To go full manual you will need to have an understanding of shutter speed, aperture settings, and ISO speed. In this article we will get you going and get you shooting like a pro.

Why Manual Mode?
There is a big debate about manual version the automatic modes such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program mode. Many professionals use these modes with great success. The reason to learn manual isn’t for you to use it 100% of the time unless you want to, instead it is to give you the foundation to know HOW to use manual for those times when the automatic modes are not giving you the result you want. As good as our cameras are these days, they simply do not know what you want to accomplish. While “I” shoot almost exclusively in manual, this is a personal choice that I am extremely comfortable with. If you are happy with aperture priority or another mode, don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong, but you should understand how to use manual so that you have total control over your camera if and when you ever need it.

Getting Started
Most cameras, including newer point and shoot cameras will let you shoot in full manual mode. The problem with going manual is that if you don’t have your settings “just right” you can end up with an image that is too dark or too light. Without a basic understanding of the different settings, it can be difficult to get a good shot. However, with a basic understanding of the three variables even the most newbie photographer can learn to take better pictures by getting away from the automatic settings.

ISO Speed
The ISO speed is equivalent to the ISO speed we used to use on film cameras, this describes the light sensitivity of the film that is being used. The higher the ISO speed, the more light the sensor can pick up. For example, if your camera is set to ISO 800 you can take a well exposed image in a darker room than you could with ISO 100. By definition you would always want to run your camera in the highest ISO speed possible. While this may sound like a good idea, the downside is that the higher the ISO speed, the more “noise” will be introduced to the image, thus degrading the image quality. In most cases, you will get excellent results by using ISO 200-400 outdoors and 400-800 indoors. This does not take into account your camera model as some cameras do better than others at the higher ISO settings.

Shutter Speed

Medium Shutter Speed to Show Movement

The shutter speed is one of the easiest settings to understand as it simply means how fast the shutter opens and closes when you press the shutter button. The faster the shutter speed the better the camera will freeze the action of an event. This setting is represented in seconds, a fast shutter speed would be something like 1/2000th of a second. A long shutter speed such as 1/30th of a second or slower can result in blurry images if you don’t use a tripod. Like the other settings, the shutter speed also affects the amount of light that hits the sensor. The faster the shutter speed, the less light that comes into the camera. So while a fast shutter speed can freeze action, you need more and more light in order to prevent getting a dark picture the faster you set the shutter. When you cant get a bright enough image, you will need to slow down the shutter speed. In some cases you may want to get a motion blur such as a waterfall or freeway traffic, these shots require a very long shutter speed.

Shallow Depth of Field

Understanding aperture is probably the most difficult setting for most people to grasp, because of this we wrote an entire article about it. The aperture is an adjustable opening in the lens that controls the amount of light that can enter the camera. The aperture setting is expressed in f stops with the largest opening having a smaller number so a wide open aperture is going to have an f-stop of around f/1.4. The aperture setting can have a big effect on the depth of field which allows one part of the image to be in focus and the rest of it being blurry which helps to highlight the subject of the photograph.

Starting Points
Without having a light meter or lots of experience how do you know what settings to start with? The way I learned was to set my ISO to what I wanted, typically 200-400 ISO outdoors and 400-800 ISO indoors, and put the camera in P mode and press the shutter half way down. Inside the viewfinder the camera will show the settings it will use to take the picture. Then you can put the camera into Manual mode and adjust the settings to match. After some practice you should be able to set some basic settings fairly close to what they need to be, then, by pressing the shutter half way down the camera will autofocus and then take a meter reading which should show in the viewfinder or on a display depending on your camera. Then you can adjust shutter speed or aperture to change the exposure to get it where you need.

Using the Histogram
If your camera will display a histogram after shooting an image, then you need to take advantage of this feature. By looking at the histogram of an image you can quickly tell if the image was properly exposed or not. With a digital SLR camera you want the histogram to be a nice curve with the curve being just to the right of center like our example one here. This is actually saying that the image is just slightly overexposed. With film, if you overexposed the image, you would lose detail so it was better to slightly underexpose. With digital, shadows will lose detail so it is better to slightly overexpose.

Practice Practice Practice
There is nothing that will beat getting out and getting behind the camera and learning how to use it well. If you plan on making photography a serious hobby or more, you will need to learn how to use manual mode for those times when the automatic or program mode settings just won’t cut it or for when you want to create an effect that you just can’t get any other way.

Get out and practice and be sure to post some comments and post some pictures to our Flickr group.


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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