Photography & Filming

How to Master Manual Mode for New Photographers | Click it Up a Notch®

Don’t we all want to know how to take good pictures? The best way to improve your photography is learning how to shoot in manual mode. Your camera can do way more than just auto mode and learning how to use manual mode will allow you to fully experience it. Check out 5 Reasons to Shoot in Manual Mode if you need more convincing. In this post I will break it down maual mode for you, no worries!

Photo of a cow in a green field with castle in the background.

Why would you use manual mode?

Learning manual mode will give you the ability to take full control of your camera and photos. You will be able to capture exactly what you were trying to capture. Whereas if you use the Auto setting on your camera the camera will choose what it thinks is important to capture.

Photo of a cemetery with white crosses and a blue sky. Photo taken in manual mode.

Manual mode settings

When learning how to shoot in manual mode you need to know and understand the “exposure triangle.”

Understanding the Exposure Triangle

This is made up of your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  You use these three components to get your light meter to be at zero.

Read more: Complete Guide to Understanding the Exposure Triangle

Photo of castle and fog on a hilltop shot in manual mode to be able to adjust lighting.

How to use Your Light meter

To find your light meter look through your view finder.  It should be that little line graph at the bottom that looks a little like this: – 2 . . . 1 . . . 0 . . .1 . . .2 + (there should be a little flashing vertical line or “ticker” underneath the graph, this is what you are adjusting) **Please make sure you check on your light meter which side the + and – signs are on. My example is for Canons. Nikons look like this + 2 . . . 1 . . . 0 . . . 1 . . . 2 – **

What is aperture?

The aperture or sometimes called the “f stop” is what allows you to have those blurry backgrounds people often ask me about.

The type of lens you use is a big factor as to what aperture you can set it on.  When I had a kit lens (the one that came with my camera body) on my old canon, the lowest it went was f3.5.  This made it very difficult for me to use in low lighting situations such as indoor shots.  Also, with an aperture that high you are less likely to get a blurry background.  From the encouragement of a friend, I bought a 50mm 1.8 prime lens.  This is an EXCELLENT lens if you are serious about learning how to shoot in manual mode, it is an inexpensive lens with a low aperture.  Some cameras are not compatible with this lens, such as the Nikon d3000 and Nikon d5000.  For those cameras maybe a 35mm 1.8 would be a better fit. Read more: 6 reasons your photos are blurry

Toys on a sidewalk with one animal in focus.

Lower number = More blur

The lower the number (f1.8) only has a small part of your photo in focus and then slowly gets blurrier as you go out from you focal point.

On my 50mm, the lowest aperture I can go is f1.8. If I shoot “wide open” (on the lowest number your lens will go) then I will probably only have one eye in focus but will have a nice blurry background.  

Higher Number = Less Blur

A wooden board with food on top with a very dark background shot in manual mode.

The higher the number of your aperture the more of your picture will be in focus.

For example, if you are shooting people and only want them to be in focus then you want to make sure that your aperture is at least at the same number as there are people in the photo.  

Read more: Changing Your Focal Point

How to determine your aperture for group photos

If I were taking pictures of both my girls I would want to make sure my aperture was at least at f2.0. I like it to be around f2.8 when I shoot my girls though.

Photo of 3 people on a beach with sun setting in the background.

If there are 5 people then you would want to be at least at f5.0 and so on.  When shooting landscape you would want your aperture number to be a lot higher so that the majority of your picture is in focus.

How Light Affects the Photo

Changing your aperture affects the amount of light in your shot.  The lower the number, the more light is brought in.  The higher the number, the less light.  Therefore, if you do a lot of indoor shooting, it is nice to have a lens with a lower aperture such as f1.8.

Remember: Lower number aperture = more light and a blurrier background / Higher number aperture = less light and a sharper background

Read more: How to use your f-stop to create amazing photos

3 children in front of christmas tree at night shot in manual mode.

What is ISO?

ISO was once explained to me as the worker bees.  If you have it set at 100, it is like you are sending out 100 worker bees to bring back the light for you.  If you set it higher, 1600 for example, you send out more worker bees, 1600 in this case, to bring back light for you.  The lower the number the less light.

ISO Can Add Noise

Something to keep in mind about ISO is it can sometimes affect the amount of “noise” in your picture.  Noise is when your picture looks grainy or pixelated.  

If your photo is properly exposed it shouldn’t matter what your ISO is set at because it shouldn’t be grainy.

Photographing Outdoors vs. Photographing Indoors

High shutter speed used to capture a dog catching a toy.

Try to remember that typically if you are outside shooting then you can have a lower ISO such as 100 or 200.  If you are indoors with low lighting you may want to increase your ISO to around 800.

Remember: Lower ISO = less light / Higher ISO = more light

More: 7 Tips to Take a Sharp Photo

This is the amount of time that your shutter is open.  When looking at your camera your shutter speed is written as 1/(a number).  This means that your shutter is open for 1/(whatever the #) of a second.  

What Shutter Speed Should You Use for People?

When shooting people and especially children try not to go any slower than 1/125.  This will help to prevent a blurry picture. Sometimes 1/125 is not fast enough and you still get some movement in your photo, but it is a good rule of thumb.

A fast shutter speed used in manual mode to capture a child playing soccer.

How to Avoid camera shake

If your shutter speed gets too slow such as 1/40 then “camera shake” may affect the sharpness of your photo. You shake your camera whether you mean to or not, which is why you want to keep your shutter speed as high as possible.

How Aperture affects light

The lower the bottom number the more light will come in because your shutter is open longer.  The higher the bottom number means less light will be coming in because it is open for less time.  

If you are in a low lighting situation and you are taking a picture of something stationary, you can lower your shutter speed to something crazy like 1/20 but just make sure you use a tripod!

You can use a slow shutter speed to creation motion blur as well.

Remember:  Lower shutter speed = more light but your subject may be blurry / higher shutter speed = less light but possibly a sharper subject

Read more: 5 Tips for Freezing Motion in Photographs

Child riding a pink tricycle.

How do you shoot in manual mode

After you understand the exposure triangle you will be well on your way to shooting solely in manual mode. I always set my settings the same order every single time. If doesn’t matter what order you use just whatever works best for you. Below is the order and reasoning I use when I shoot in manual mode.

Set aperture

First I set my aperture – that way if I’m trying to get a blurry background I have control over that. I also set this first because I will know exactly hou much I want in focus.

Set shutter speed

Next I set my shutter speed – remember to try not to go below 1/125. I will decide if I need a faster shutter speed based on my subject. If I am taking a picture of my kids, I will go faster. If I am taking a picture of a plant indoors I will go slower but not below 1/125.

Then add ISO

If my “ticker” is not where I want it after adjusting these two, then I change my ISO. I try to do this one last just because I like my ISO to stay at the lowest number possible. Typically, I can get the exposure I want by just changing my aperture and shutter speed. But don’t be afraid to raise your ISO!

Photo of barrells of soap

By adjusting these three things you will be moving the “ticker” back and forth in your light meter.  Ideally, you want to adjust them so that the ticker is on the zero.  It is considered a properly exposed picture if the ticker is on the zero.  Personally, I like the ticker to be one tick to the positive so my photo is a little overexposed.  Play around with it and see what you like.

How your Lens Affects Manual Mode

It is much easier to learn how to shoot in manual mode with a prime lens. Prime lens – does not zoom {you move your feet if you want to get closer}, has a fixed aperture {meaning you control your aperture}, and most people say gives you a sharper image than a zoom lens.

Zoom lens – allows you to zoom back and forth, not all zoom lenses have a fixed aperture {I highly recommend a fixed aperture lens}.

Most kit lenses have a variable aperture so be careful {the aperture changes depending on what focal length you use, not set by you}

I love using a 50mm lens to start off with. It is inexpensive yet a great lens to begin with! I challenge you to go out this week and take your camera off of the green auto square.  

Manual mode cheatsheets

Source credit: London School of Photography Read more: 3 steps for perfect exposure for every photo

Give Manual Mode a try!

Give it a try, shoot in manual mode.  You never know, you may love it and never go back!  I always say stick your camera in manual mode for 2 weeks and try your hardest to practice it daily. Then let me know how it goes!

Check out this post with over 100 photography tutorials if you have any questions or wish to learn more.

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