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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20 Responses

  1. ed says:

    Hi there,

    Just wanted to say that the above will be a great help to beginners like myself.

    Thanks heaps.


  2. Nimrod says:

    Clearly written article. However…

    1. I still can’t see the difference between using manual mode and simply dialing exposure compensation. Unless of course you want to do without the light meter altogether.

    I do find ‘spot metering’ useful in some situations — you don’t have to guess what the light meter measured.

    2. Using the histogram for exposure is nice but be careful of cameras that do not provide separate RGB histograms. Many times only one channel is saturated and you can’t see that on the combined histogram.

    What do you think?

  3. Nicoline says:

    Thank you immensely. Many talk about shooting in manual mode, but none actually tell us newbies how to do that. This is just the information I’ve been looking for!

  4. Nicoline says:

    Thank you immensely. Many talk about shooting in manual mode, but none actually tell us newbies how to do that. This is just the information I’ve been looking for!

  5. Emily says:

    Thank you so much. This article tought me so much! Thanks again!

  6. Jim says:

    Thank you for such good info for a amateur and hungry to learn as much as possible with the “goal” of becoming a professional photographer.


  7. learning to shoot in manual is so much easier than most people think.

    the key is learning where to point the camera to take the meter reading to base your exposure on.

    good article.

  8. Butterflykisses says:

    This article helped me alot…thank u… i agree with nicoline, many talk about shooting in manual but it's hard to find someone who can explain it as clear as you have…again, thanks so much… 🙂

  9. usman says:

    i this is usman ….i read this article ..i m a beginner of slr.i have d5100 nikon…but i have a problem to use it for night weeding indoor photography..plz guide me how i use this camera in (P) as u said i set this ofr indoor iso 800 ,,,result is nothig….

  10. kiminobu017 says:

    Hi man, using coolpix p500, shutter speed of 1/200 and f/4.0 ISO set to 800..
    shooting flash seems not an issue, but shooting without a flash (indoor) seems an issue. image is very dark.. what do i need to do to make the image viewable?? thanks!

  11. Graystar says:

    I find it sad that so many articles out there are telling people that they have to shoot in manual mode "in order to make the most of your camera" when the fact of the matter is that you have just as much control over your camera in auto modes as you do in manual mode. Proper auto technique provides superior control over the camera. And in changing-light conditions, auto techniques are the only way to get consistent exposures shot after shot.

    On a modern camera manual mode is for times when the meter doesn't work, such as long exposures (night and astrophotography) and for certain types of flash photography. Otherwise, if the meter works then manual mode is the wrong mode.

    • kgarrison says:

      Absolutely disagree with you on this. No automatic mode is going to know how I want something to look. Anytime the camera is trying to determine what IT thinks is the right exposure there is a risk that it will not do what I am intending it to do.

      That being said, for the VAST majority of shots, the automatic modes are absolutely appropriate and learning manual mode is only for when you are not getting what you want from the camera.

      • Graystar says:

        This is what you don't understand about the auto modes. Neither shutter priority nor aperture priority, not even program mode is trying to determine anything. The "auto" of the auto modes refers to one single act of automation…aligning the camera's exposure with the meter. When you center the exposure indicator in manual mode…that's all the auto modes are doing. If you want to over or underexpose then you simply apply Exposure Compensation. The result is the same. You don't have any more or less control in manual mode than the auto modes. In fact, most camera controls are set so that the manual operation and auto/EC operation are practically identical.

        The one camera function that's really making decisions for you is multi-segmented metering (Matrix for Nikon and Evaluative for Canon.) If you're shooting in one of those modes then the camera is making exposure compensation decisions for you. With those modes, if you're shooting in manual mode then you're just fooling yourself into thinking you have total control of your camera. You don't. You're really just one step away from a Point and Shoot.

        • kgarrison says:

          I completely understand what you are saying and you are mostly correct. I shoot in manual because I am used to it and I want to make the decision between shutter speed and aperture. Is that overkill? Perhaps, but I do believe you should be able to shoot in manual mode and be comfortable doing so. When you are shooting, use whatever mode you are comfortable with and you may never, or only rarely need to shoot in manual. It is purely a choice but a good photographer should know how.

  12. william says:

    The camera is great for the casual photographer as it’s packed full of useful features that can make it a lot easier to take simple shot.The Nikon p500 camera is a coolpix camera.It is easy to use.

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