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How to Start Shooting in Manual Mode: Beginner’s Guide

Did you get a new camera, but are not satisfied with the results you get? Does the camera auto mode not capture photos the way you want it? While cameras that read your thoughts have not yet been invented, you will have to learn to tell the camera the settings to use. This means going manual. But how to start shooting in manual mode? Photography is an art, and it needs to be learned with practicing. In this guide I will help you understand what are the main settings in your camera and what each of them does.

When I started using manual mode on my Nikon D5200 – it was challenging to learn, understand and remember what each setting does and changes. I even drew myself a cheat-sheet, but with time I learned it all and can do this with my eyes closed (well, almost, I still have to see what I have in the frame 🙂 ). 95% of the photos in my Instagram are captured using the manual mode. I like to control the result for my macro photos.

Why use manual mode?

My camera has an auto mode, why should I change the settings manually?

You may ask

The main reason to go manual is, because the camera’s settings alter depth, how frozen your subject is, and how bright the photo is. The camera won’t be able to guess your preference of depth or sharpness of the photo, because it can vary from a photo to photo. You might want the background to be blurred behind a flower, or want everything sharp, because you’re capturing an insect. But maybe you want the scenery to be smooth and the movements – blurred, because you use a tripod.

Since the camera changes the settings so that the photo is bright enough – you might be disappointed with the other aspects of the result. Sometimes even the brightness is not right as well, because there are both dark and bright places in the photo, and it confuses the camera. That’s why you need to take this in your hands and use manual mode.

The settings in manual mode

When a camera takes a photo, it uses three main settings to expose and capture it. Exposure (Shutter speed), Aperture and ISO. I will describe what each of these settings mean, and how changing them – changes the photo, so that you can start shooting in manual as well.

Exposure (Shutter speed)

The exposure setting changes how long it will take to capture your photo. The longer the photo gets captured (larger number) – the more light gets in the camera’s sensor – the brighter the image is. The shorter the exposure (smaller number) – the less light gets in the camera’s sensor – the darker the photo is.

What manually set exposure impacts (examples)

1/4000 means that the photo will be captured only for a such short moment as 1/4000th of a second. It’s a really short time, and such short time is suggested when located in well-lit environment.

1/40 will capture the photo for much longer time (1/40th of a second) compared to the previous. White it still may seem to be quite short, it’s long enough to have a blurred photo in the result if you move your hands while shooting.

4 means that the photo will get captured for 4 full seconds. That means the camera needs to be on a tripod or any other stable surface. And it is required to use this long number only if it’s dark, or night, and your subject is not moving (or you want motion blur in your photo).

So the exposure changes two things:
How bright or dark is the photo;
How blurry or sharp the subject is.

If the subject is moving (a person mid-jump, or a bee mid-air) – it is suggested to use shorter exposure time (larger number after the “1/” part). If you plan on capturing artistic photos with motion blur, or long-exposure photos with stars or water – feel free to use longer exposure time (smaller number after the “1/” part, or even more than a full second).

Examples

For exposure examples see the photo attached in the “Capturing insects mid-air” section.

Aperture

The aperture setting, also called f-stop, changes how wide-open the hole in the lens is, and that alters how much of the whole scenery is in focus (or the depth of field). It also changes the image’s brightness as well.

What manually set aperture impacts (examples)

f/1.8 means a wide-open aperture. It lets the most light in, so the photo will be light, and the depth of field will be the most shallow. This means soft focus and bokeh.

f/10.0 means much less-open aperture, darker photo and there will be more of the content in-focus (less bokeh).

f/25.0 means quite dark photo with barely any depth of field (depends on how close you are to your subject).

So the aperture changes two things:
How much depth and bokeh is in your photo (how much of the stuff you frame is in-focus);
How bright or dark the photo is.

With aperture and depth you need to take in mind the following rules

The closer you are to your subject (therefore closer focusing distance), the more shallow the depth of field will be. This means that when you get close to a flower or insect – you will have to set the aperture to a larger number to get the whole flower in focus.

To get pretty bokeh (blurred background) behind your subject, the aperture number needs to be set to the smallest possible number (while still obtaining sharpness on your subject). You also need to be as close as possible to your subject, and have the background behind your subject be as far away as possible.

Examples

Here is an example of how changing the aperture changes the depth in the photo.

Notice that to maintain the same brightness of the photo – by increasing the aperture number, I reduced the exposure time, and for the last photo – increased the ISO a lot.

ISO

The ISO setting changes your camera’s sensitivity to light. Changing the settings alters how bright or dark the outcome photo will be. But there is a drawback with changing the lightness – the larger you set your ISO setting, the more noise (grain) will be introduced in the photo.

What manually set ISO impacts (examples)

100 – usually the smallest setting on all cameras – the sensitivity to the light is the smallest and the photo will result darker. But the detail (when you zoom in) will be the best at this setting.

1000 – the photo will be brighter, but some noise can be introduced in your photos if you zoom in (it depends on your camera, how well it processes larger ISO).

6400 – the photo will be much brighter (great for night photography), but there will be a lot of grain and noise in your photo.

Examples

Here is an example of how changing the ISO setting affects the photo.

If you increase the ISO over 1000 – some grain in the background appears. The bigger the ISO setting – the more grain and noise you will have.

In case you have some photos that had to be taken with large ISO, there are programs that can remove the noise and save a photo that you would have thrown out otherwise. One such program is DeNoise AI from Topaz Labs that I have used and can say only good things about the results.

Manipulating the manual mode settings

Each of the three described settings affect the brightness of the final photo, and one more thing (different for each). When you use the manual mode and change one setting without the lighting around you changing as well – most probably you have to compensate the change by changing one more setting. This means that after changing a setting, the photo gets either darker or lighter.

Each setting’s affected aspects – cheatsheet

Here’s a cheat table for you to understand how each setting changes the light (if you reduce the setting (<–) or increase it (–>)), and the drawback if you alter the setting to get brighter photo.

SettingAffecting lightnessTo make the photo lighter, you will have to deal with
ExposureLighter <–> DarkerBlurred subject if the hand/subject moves
ApertureLighter <–> DarkerShallow DOF (you don’t want it when capturing insects)
ISODarker <–> LighterNoise and grain

Using light meter

Before taking the shot – you can already see if the photo will be too bright or too dark by looking at the light meter (if you are using a digital camera). It can be located on your display(s) and/or in the viewfinder.

The light meter looks something like this: [-2…1…0…1…2+] (could be inverted for some cameras) plus an indicator showing where the current exposure is.

If the indicator is not near 0 – you need to readjust the settings (except if you aim for a dark or bright photo). If the indicator is on the (+) side – the photo will turn out too bright, and respectively too dark if it’s on (-) side. When it is aligned at 0, the photo will be lit just right. I use this meter a lot to understand if my changed exposure or aperture will make the photo too dark/bright or not.

Manual mode settings checklist

Here’s an easy-to-understand checklist on what to do if your photo is too bright, too dark, or blurred.

See the title with your problem and follow the steps to solve it. If the photo looks good after completing a step – stop and don’t do the next steps.

This, in my opinion, is a great cheat-sheet to start working with, if you want to start using manual mode

If the photo is too bright

  1. Lower the ISO (<–) to 100
  2. Increase the exposure (–>) until the photo is lit the way you want it (will result in the photo being captured a shorter time)
  3. Increase the aperture number (–>) until the photo is lit the way you want it (will result in less depth in the photo)

If the photo is too dark

  1. Lower the aperture number (<–) (will result in shallow depth of field)
  2. Lower the exposure (<–), but do not go over ~1/150-1/200 if you shoot your photos hand-held (otherwise your photo might be blurred). You can leave this setting on ~1/300-1/500 if you capture something that’s moving
  3. Increase the ISO (–>) until the photo is bright enough. Be careful with going over ISO ~1500-2000, since noise will be introduced in the photo.

After you change the ISO, remember to change the setting back to near 100 so that the next time you pick up your camera, the photo does not end grainy (in case you forget to look at the settings before shooting).

If the photo is blurred (due to the shaking hands or the subject moving)

  1. Increase the exposure (–>) until your subject is sharp enough. For insects mid-air this setting could be starting from 1/300s and up until 1/1000s and more (depends on how much the insect is moving)
  2. In case the resulted photo is too dark – follow the previous list. If you capture insects – do not lower the aperture number too much, since it will result in the whole insect not being in focus.

If the depth of field is too shallow

  1. Step back a little bit. The closer you are to your subject – the more shallow the depth will be. If you have enough megapixels on your camera (20MP or more), you can freely step back and crop the photo afterwards
  2. Increase the aperture number (–>) until the subject is in focus just the way you want it to be
  3. In case the photo is too dark – follow the previously described list, but skip the aperture setting (1).

Some scenarios and settings that I suggest

While I cannot tell you the perfect formula of manual mode settings for each situation, I can draw some idea in your head with the following examples.

Capturing insects mid-air

I suggest using aperture setting’s number large enough for the whole insect to be in focus. It depends on how close you are to the insect, and your focal length, but it could be something around f/8.0 to f/16.0 or more. If you are lucky, you surely can get a great result also if you use f/4.0.

Use the exposure setting short enough for the insect to be sharp. I suggest using the setting starting from around 1/300 or even up until 1/1500 or more to get the wings frozen in the air as well. If you are lucky, you can also get a sharp result with 1/250 as well.

Change the ISO how you please to get a bright-enough, but not noisy photo.

Capturing waterfalls or rivers that look smooth

For this result I suggest using a tripod or somewhere to rest the camera on.

Use longer exposure, starting from around 1/15 up to even 2 or more seconds. While the picture above is rather old, it’s a great example for this result. It is captured using following settings: 1/8s, f/7.3, ISO 100.

Change other settings how you please to get the correct brightness.

Photographing subject with bokeh bubbles behind

Use as small aperture number as possible. As I mentioned – the smaller the number, the more bokeh. And the more bokeh – the bigger the bokeh bubbles will be. Get close to your subject and place the subject so that it is further away from the background to increase the depth. If you have a zoom lens – zoom in all the way. The bigger the focal length – the more depth is introduced in your photo.

Change the other settings how you please.

For the photo above I placed some Christmas lights in the background and got quite close to the tulips so that the bokeh bubbles would be large enough.

Photographing night scene with lights that look like stars

Have you ever seen night photography photos where the streetlights have turned to little stars? It is not done with editing rather than by choosing the right settings.

To get the effect, you need to use as large aperture number as possible. You can get the lights looking like stars already with the aperture number set to 8.0, but to increase the effect, you need to increase the number. You can also use the largest number that your camera allows.

After you have changed the aperture number, the photo will turn out completely dark if you do not change other settings. You need to use longer exposure time and/or use larger ISO number. For the longer exposure you will have to use a tripod or a place to rest the camera on.

Shooting RAW

From all my heart I suggest using RAW. When using manual mode, it might be difficult to correctly readjust all the settings quickly to be able to take a good photo when the Sun appears or hides behind the clouds. Having the photo in raw format really helps to get back the lost detail, for example, if the photo is over exposed (or under exposed). I have had photos that would be throwable in the trash if I wasn’t shooting in RAW.

Here is an example of a photo that got saved only because I shot in RAW. I did not color the sky, or anything like that. The information was there, I just lowered the exposure to get it back.

Here is one more example where having the photo captured in RAW format allowed me to brighten up the dark parts to get back all the detail.

You can also see a great example of getting back the colors from a photo in my 10 before and after photo edits – favorites from my Instagram #4 blog post’s first photo.

Other modes on your camera

You might notice that your camera has more modes. M standing for manual and A – for auto, there are two more – S and A. Those are shutter-priority and aperture-priority modes. They’re half-manual, half-auto.

S – shutter priority mode (sometimes: Tv)

This – not completely manual mode – allows you to choose a specific shutter speed while the camera adjusts the aperture setting to ensure a well-lit photo result. That’s it. You also control the ISO setting, but, if you wish, you can set it to auto.

A – aperture priority mode (sometimes: Av)

The aperture priority mode works exactly the same as the shutter priority mode. Only you control the aperture setting, and camera controls the shutter speed setting. Just as in the shutter priority mode, you can also choose to set the ISO, or leave it on auto.

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to try out manual mode if you are still unsure. If you are unsure about going full manual, you can start with shutter priority or aperture priority modes.

In addition to setting your own camera settings, there are more to the whole idea of taking a great photo. Framing, angle, distractions and light affects the photo a lot. You can take a look at my other blog post 10 top macro photography tips to learn more about getting that perfect macro photo, and how to make your life easier if you want to capture low-to-the-ground objects.

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