Photo Classes – Manual Mode Lesson Four

How to make the jump from automatic shooting to manual shooting. Putting together all you have learned about ISO, aperture, and shutter mode “Manual” mode.

There are three ways to control the amount of light recorded by your camera. By adjusting each of these three variables, your camera can make sure that every picture you take produces an image with the proper amount of light. You will need to adjust the “sensitivity” to light that reaches the camera’s sensor By keeping the “shutter” open a longer or shorter amount of time. By opening or closing down the “aperture” wider or narrower

Cameras can automatically control these three variables. In automatic mode, your camera will decide in a split second exactly how wide to open it’s aperture, how long to keep it open, and how sensitive the sensor needs to be to properly record the image.

The problem is that changing each of these variables will drastically alter the final look of your picture! Opening the aperture more causes the background of the picture to go out of focus. Keeping the shutter open longer makes everything in the image blurry. Adjusting the sensitivity of the sensor affects the overall quality of the image by adding ugly “noise”.

In automatic mode, you don’t have any control over which choices are made! That’s why you just end up with a bunch of generic-looking snapshots. With a little bit of practice in manual mode, you can create something much more interesting. Nice blurry backgrounds are made by using a wide aperture opening on the camera. In automatic mode, your camera would try to close the aperture to a smaller size because of the bright light in the scene. You would get a totally different look – just a “snapshot” look.

As a photographer, you have two jobs:

  1. You have to make sure your final image “comes out” by capturing just enough light. This is the technical part of your job.
  2. You have to make sure your final image is interesting by using all capabilities of your camera to make your picture tell a story. This is the artistic aspect of your job.

With automatic mode, your camera handles the first task for you. The problem is handling the first task means it makes all the decisions for you which prevents you from handling the second task.

Taking creative pictures is almost impossible in automatic. Let’s go through each way you can control the amount of light coming into your camera. Each method has side effects which change the final look of your image.

Manual Controls

  • Control #1: Light Sensitivity (ISO) – Your digital camera has an image sensor inside. The image sensor is what records the picture – like your eyes, the sensor can see well in different amounts of light. Unlike your eyes, someone has to tell it how sensitive it needs to be. The higher you turn up the sensitivity, the less light you need to make a picture. However, higher sensitivity levels push your camera to the limit and add ugly grain aka as “noise” to your image. Camera sensitivity is measured according to a confusing scale called the ISO. Lower numbers mean the sensor is less sensitive and higher numbers mean the sensor is more sensitive. Typically, ISO 100 is the least sensitive setting. The most sensitive setting varies according to the capabilities of your camera.
  • Control #2: How long the camera shutter is open (Shutter Speed) The next variable you can control is how long the camera’s opening stays open. When you click the button on your camera to take a picture, the shutter opens for a brief moment. The longer it stays open, the more light comes into the camera. Shutter speed is measured in a very simple scale – fractions of a second. 1/60th shutter speed sounds like barely any time, but it’s actually a long time in photographic terms. Anything that moves while the shutter is open will appear blurry in the final image. By using a faster shutter speed, 1/400th and higher you “freeze” the action. When using a faster shutter speed, you need more light because the shutter isn’t open as long and not as much light reached the image sensor. In most cases, you want the shutter speed to be fast enough to capture your image without “blurr”. However, there are a lot of neat effects you can create by keeping the shutter open for a long time. (I normally don’t attempt to handhold my camera if my shutter gets below 1/60th. ) One beautiful image with a slow shutter speed is a waterfall or ocean. They will take on a very “dreamy” effect with the shutter left open for a long time.
  • Control #3: Aperture Size – The third way to control the light coming into your camera is to change the size of the opening. This is the aperture. The bigger hole the more light than a smaller hole. This is where things get complicated. A larger opening causes the background of the image to become blurry (example 2.8) A small opening causes more of the background to be in focus (example f11). The f-number scale is what a math major would call a geometric sequence. If you aren’t a math major and don’t know what “a power sequence of the square root of 2” means, just memorize it: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.

Taking a picture in manual mode:

  1. Set the camera to manual mode
  2. Set the ISO sensitivity at an appropriate value – ISO 100 for a sunny day, ISO 400 to ISO 3200 for inside a building (depending how much much light you have in the room)
  3. Point the camera at something
  4. Dial in either the shutter speed or aperture speed that you want to create for the desired look for your image. I normally dial in my apeture when shooting flowers or people. This is usually based on what visual interest I want. If you remember, bokeh ­ which I love and use routinely in my images, is achieved with a very large aperture. Based on my aperture setting I then adjust my shutter speed.
  5. Press the shutter button half way down. This triggers the camera’s light meter. It will tell you if your picture will be too dark or too light.
  6. When you look at your LCD display or your view finder you should notice a scale that runs along the bottom of the screen. This is like an internal light meter and helps you find the right balance between aperture and shutter speed to produce a proper exposure. The scale measures exposure value in “stops (indicated by + and -) Based on what the light meter says, dial in the aperture of shutter speed (whichever one you didn’t set in step 5) until the light meter tells you that your exposure is right in the middle.
  7. When you press your shutter button down halfway and focus on the image you want to capture, while looking at this scale, you can see how over or under exposed your image is based on my current settings. There will either be a moving vertical cursor up and down the scale or little boxes that light up as you move up and down the scale, depending on the brand of camera you have. Raising or lowering your shutter speed will bring your exposure value to center, where you typically want it. If you was to set your shutter first, then raising or lowering your aperture would have the same effect ­ moving the scale above (overexposed) or below (underexposed) proper exposure (which is 0, or right in the middle). There is a rotating dial, different from the command dial which you use to select the mode you are shooting in, that is used to adjust this. You should have already found this if you’ve played around with aperture (Av) on shutter speed (TV) priority mode. If not, consult your manual.

    7. Now –Take a picture! Does this sound complicated? It really isn’t. You just need to practice! When you are done practicing, practice some more! Pick up your camera right now and try shooting in manual! Remember, the light meter on your camera is your friend. It will help you get the exposure correct. Once you are used to setting the shutter speed and aperture size quickly and can create pictures that look good, move on to the last section of this guide. As you practice shooting in manual mode, you will start to see a pattern. You are setting either the aperture and then adjusting the shutter speed to match e setting the shutter speed and then adjusting the aperture size to match.

I’m going to tell you a secrect? A lot of pro photographers don’t shoot in manual mode! Instead they shoot in “Aperture Priority mode” or “Shutter Priority mode.” Both modes will save you a lot of time when you are shooting. Now that you have mastered manual, give them both a try. Most photographers use aperture priority mode. Shutter priority mode is more common for wildlife or sports photography where freezing the action is vital.

REMEMBER–Camera’s don’t take pictures!!!! You do!

See Connie’s photo book projects here.


  1. Earl J says

    Connie, I just took a fast look at your four blogs — wonderful and complete information. Many thanks to you for submitting this and to Shruti for getting it published.

    I’m on my way to Poland tomorrow so will take the time needed to get the most out of your blogs after I return, in a few weeks.


  2. BarbaraJ says

    I love all the information I have gained from your wonderful lessons, Keep up sharing with us all! Great Shruti for placing this on the blog.

  3. mypetia says

    Great blog, Connie! Lots to learn from. LOVE your photos!
    I do a lot of shooting in ‘Aperture-priority’, but definitely could use more practice in ‘Shutter’ or ‘Manual’. I will take your tips with me next time I’m out & about… Thanks for the wonderful lesson!

  4. Joey says

    I was thinking the same thing as Ann. Lots of information. I need to come back and read these all again. Glad i didn’t pay for a class, Seems you gave us all the info we need.
    I’m a bit overwhelmed now…..eeeek! I need a class from you! Some of this just goes way over my head! LOL

  5. Joey says

    Oh and that bug on top is super cute. Who would think a bug is cute….well that one is!
    Isn’t that a finch? Pretty yellow.

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