How to Shoot in Manual Mode

A couple of weeks ago a close family friend of mine reached out to me asking advice on what type of camera she should get her daughter for her birthday. I gave her my recommendation, and I also offered to set up a zoom call for her to learn how to use it, because she was transitioning from a compact camera to her first DSLR. This got me thinking that this would be the perfect opportunity to make a beginners cheat sheet on how to shoot in manual. I have been using DSLRs for five years now so I thought in this blog post it would be fun to explain how photographers actually use their camera settings! So let’s dive right in!

So there are actually many different types of cameras out there. We have point & shoots, compact, Digital SLRs, and now making a splash in the market is mirrorless cameras. The two types of cameras that professional photographers use are DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras which are becoming very popular in the photo world now. In a very simple manner what makes DSLRs & mirrorless cameras different from compact and point & shoot cameras are the lenses. In compact cameras the lens is stationary and cannot be replaced; while DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are actually just the bodies with a variety of lenses that you can interchange.

This brings me right into my first topic which is lenses. Mirrorless and DSLR cameras offer endless possibilities for lenses. Lenses have different focal lengths and apertures as well so that is something that is important to look at when you are looking at lenses to purchase. For example, one of my favorite lenses is an 85mm with an aperture of f/1.8. This lens is perfect for portraiture because it is closer up on the subject and has a nice depth of field. If you’re not a seasoned photographer you make have no idea what I am talking about so let me break it down for you.

In simple terms a cameras focal length is how far + the angle that camera will be able to capture the view. Basically the bigger the focal length the farther away the camera will be able to see but the smaller the angle the lens will capture. The most common types of focal length you will see is 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135+mm. The smaller the focal length results in a greater angle but a smaller distance the camera can capture. For example, a 35mm is great for capturing landscape scenes such as mountains so the whole scene is captured. As the focal length number gets larger the distance the lens can capture grows as well. Therefore, a lens like a 135mm or greater (which is a telephoto lens) is great for wildlife photography because you can be incredibly far away from your subject. When talking about focal lengths of cameras we also can get into the difference between a full frame camera and a crop sensor. Basically a full frame is the standard 35mm sensor on the camera. However, there are cameras that are cropped sensor which means that the sensor is smaller than standard and will produce a tighter more cropped version of the photo.

Another important factor when understanding the basics of photography and manual mode is the aperture. You may have heard this be referred to as the depth of field because these terms can be used interchangeably, but what it is referring to is the bokeh (blur) in the background of your photo. While aperture does have an impact on the aesthetics of your photos it also heavily influences the light being let into the camera. The aperture can be compared to the eye of your camera and how much you open it controls the amount of light that is let in. With a very wide aperture of f/1.8 for example a lot of light is entering your camera as well as forming a blurry background. And then when you have a aperture of something like f/16 your camera is barely opened allowing for little light to come through. With a higher aperture there will be less blur in your photo and everything will appear much more sharp and in focus. You will want to adjust your aperture setting depending on the lighting conditions you are shooting in. However, aperture in not the first thing that I change when needing to adjust my exposure because in my personal opinion it can sacrifice the aesthetic of the photo.


This leads me into my next topic which is shutter speed. This is what I go to first when needing more or less light. The shutter speed is how fast or how slow your shutter is releasing. Using a very long exposure like 1/2 or even up to minutes achieves photos like this star trail and long exposure of a highway because it lets more light in. I took both of these photos in Colorado and used my bulb setting on my camera which allows the shutter to stay opened until I manually release it. On the contrary, using shutter speed like 1/1000 lets little light in but has the ability to freeze motion completely. This side of the spectrum is good for action photography like sports and other settings where there is a lot of movement. As a rule of thumb I like to shoot portraits around 1/250. This shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the subjects and also let’s in enough light to properly expose. Back to what I was saying earlier, this is the setting I go to first when adjusting my lighting for photos because in general it has the most flexibility. I won’t completely compromise my photo by lowering the shutter speed a bit to let more light in if it is underexposed or vice versa. You just have to be careful when you get towards either end of the spectrum because a shutter speed that is too quick will be too dark and a shutter speed that is too long with be incredibly blurry.



Therefore, if you can’t lower you shutter speed anymore without compromising the photo you have two options. One option you have is to change your aperture a bit. This is totally fine, but it is your personal preference. Another option you have is to increase you ISO. ISO is the camera sensors sensitivity to light. ISO ranges from 100 all the way to 12800. I try to shoot the closest to 100 as possible during daytime portrait session because the higher the ISO the more noise you get in your photos. For example, in this portrait below I had a very high ISO because there was no light source besides the effect I was creating on portrait. You can see that there is a lot of grain and noise within the image. You want to avoid this as much as possible. Don't be too afraid of the ISO though it is really handy if you need extra light in your images as you know how to use it and don’t go super crazy with it!


Being a photographer is by no means is easy! There are a lot of different things that we have to think about and control while taking photographs simply within the camera itself. This was a pretty basic introduction to using manual mode however, I hope this quick overview was helpful for you and you enjoyed it! If you are wanting to learn more always feel free to reach out with any questions you may have I would love to help a fellow photographer!





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