How to Take Beautiful Photographs in Manual Mode

June 12, 2019

How to Take Beautiful Photographs in Manual Mode

Getting your first DSLR camera is a very exciting moment in any photographer’s journey. You’re now on par with the pros!

But hold on – do you know how to use it? Sure, you can set your camera to auto and tap away, and that will work to an extent. If you want to walk the walk, however, you should learn how to use manual mode.

What is manual mode? It’s the ability to have complete control over your camera. By learning each step in the process on how to control every aspect of your camera, you’ll open a world of possibilities and creative freedom. Produce contrasting silhouette photos; add some bokeh and light effects that you otherwise couldn’t get in auto, and let your creative flag fly!

Here, we’ll break down the process of learning how to shoot in manual and show you that, while it can be intimidating at first, you will absolutely reap the benefits once you become more comfortable and confident in your photographing abilities.

We’ll be going over:

  1. Light meter

  2. Aperture

  3. Shutter Speed

  4. ISO

Be sure to save our blog to your favorites so you can refer to this any time you’re practising!

Light Meter

When you look through your viewfinder, have you noticed a line at the bottom with a bunch of dashes and numbers? This is your light meter; the tool in your camera to let you know if you are under- or over-exposed. When the triangle above the dashes is in the center – or above the 0 – that means if you shoot at that moment, you’ll have a well-exposed image.

Sounds simple, right? But – what if we were to take this concept and spin it on its head? By learning what settings will result in an under- or over-exposed photograph, you can start playing with your light meter to determine if the photo you’re about to take is going to be drowned in mysterious shadows, or bright and airy. Figuring out how to read the light meter as well as how to manipulate it can help in discovering your own style and mastering your camera.


Next, we’ll be looking at the aperture. This is, for a lack of a better term, the size of the hole in your lens. To determine the size, you will look at what is known as an “f-stop” – a fraction-looking number located in the viewfinder or in your settings (and will look like this: f/1.4, f/8, f/22, etc.). The lower the number, the wider the aperture is opened, and vice versa.

So, taking this into account with your light meter – if you had an aperture of f/2.8, would your camera show you an under-exposed or over-exposed image? Because this is a lower number on the f-stop scale, the aperture is going to be wider open, allowing for more light to enter the lens. If your other settings are incorrect, you would be capturing an over-exposed image.

The aperture size also determines the depth of field (or amount of background blurriness) your photo will have. The higher the number, the sharper the background will be, as is true of the reverse. Personally, I like shooting with a lower f-stop, just because I like the way my subject stands out sharply against a blurred background – but you can shoot however you like!

Shutter Speed

Now that we’ve talked about the lens and the width of the shutter, let’s talk about the speed at which the shutter closes when you press the trigger. This number is presented similarly to the aperture, except instead of f/, it’s 1/ (for example, 1/30, 1/250, 1/500, etc.). This fraction is in terms of seconds – so, if your shutter speed is set to 1/60, your shutter will release at 1/60th of a second. This will also let in half the amount of light as if you set your speed to 1/30. The higher the bottom number, the faster the camera will click, and the less time the lens will be exposed to light.

Another aspect to consider with shutter speed is the amount of blur. Unlike aperture blur, however, this relates to motion blur. Let’s say you were at a soccer game, and you wanted to capture a still image of your child running on the pitch. If you were to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/30, you would most likely capture the blur of their movement, rather than a clear image. You may also capture the natural shaking of your hand as you steady the camera. A setting of 1/500, however, will guarantee that your child is crisp and clear in the photo and will make for a great still action shot.

Tying this back into the previous points – what should your aperture be if your shutter speed is 1/500 in this scenario? Well, 1/500 will let in less light than the slower shutter speed, correct? Therefore, you’ll need your aperture at a wider f-stop to accommodate for this. f/4 or f/5.6 should do the trick.


Lastly, you’ll want to look at your ISO. Back when photography was just film, this was the number that corresponded to the film’s sensitivity to light. Now, it refers to a DSLR’s image sensor sensitivity. These numbers are presented as 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc. Some cameras can now go up as high as 3,280,000! This sensitivity, however, comes at a price – while a higher ISO is great for nighttime photography, you’ll be risking increasing the grain – or the fuzziness of a photo.

So, let’s go back to our soccer scenario. Let’s say your child’s soccer game is in the evening, and the sun is starting to set. Firstly, you’ll want to bump your ISO above 400 to accommodate for the sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher this number, the better it can shoot in the dark.

Next, let’s go back to the shutter speed. We agreed that 1/500 would be good for capturing a still image, right? In this case, you may want to crank your ISO even higher – to 800 or 1600.

Let’s not forget the aperture, though! If your aperture is too wide, you may risk over-exposing at these settings. Let’s try for an f/8.

Now, of course, every scenario will be different depending on the amount of light, the situation, and your personal preferences – but this is the general thought process you’ll want to go through when adjusting your camera settings in manual mode. I would suggest starting by trying to set for well-exposed photos. Once you’re comfortable with that, try playing around with the settings and see what cool images you can come up with (make sure to share them with us as well!).

Have you shot in manual mode before? What’s the hardest part about it? The easiest? Let us know in the comments!


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