Photography for Beginners Part 6: Manual Mode

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 5: Depth of Field


In this post I am going to discuss using Manual Mode. Manual Mode is usually designated by an M on your camera mode dial, if it has one.

For most beginners Manual Mode sounds intimidating. But modern digital cameras have your back. As long as you pay attention to what your camera is telling you, there’s no reason to treat Manual Mode as something scary that only experts know how to use.

Anyone who understands the exposure info displayed on the camera screen or viewfinder can successfully use Manual Mode.

What is Manual Mode?

In Manual Mode you take the most control over your camera settings. At a minimum you choose both the aperture and shutter speed you want to use.

If you want to make it easy, those are really the only two things you need to bother with. The camera will still auto focus, you can still use auto ISO, etc.

But if you want, you can change anything you like that your camera has settings for. It’s up to you how simple or exacting you want to be.

When should you use Manual Mode?

Use Manual Mode when the camera is unable to properly expose an image on its own, or when both aperture and shutter speed are critically important to making the image you want.

There are some situations in which you can’t just leave exposure up to your camera and get good results. One of the most common ones is astrophotography.

If you’re photographing the moon the camera gets too confused. You have a small area of bright daylight (the sun reflecting off the moon) surrounded by dark night. The camera exposes mostly for the dark. If you’ve ever taken a picture of the moon and only ended up with a brilliantly glowing blob, that’s why. (Who hasn’t done this?) You have to tell the camera to expose for the daylit moon.

If you’re photographing the Milky Way you have to account for extremely little light while at the same time dealing with the movement of stars across the sky.

In this type of situation you can’t even rely on the camera to warn you that settings are wrong for a good exposure. You need to display the image on your camera’s screen after you take it in order to determine if it’s too bright or too dark.

Another situation in which Manual Mode is used a lot of the time is birds in flight (BIF). You need to make sure your camera is set to correctly expose the bird you’re shooting. Bright skies or dark foliage can throw off your camera’s exposure calculations. You also need to make sure you have enough DOF with your telephoto lens and a very fast shutter speed.

A third example of not being able to rely on your camera’s exposure meter is when using very dark neutral density filters for long exposures. (We’ll discuss filters in a future post.)

The above are all niche types of photography and you may think to yourself, great, I’m not interested in those, so I never have to use Manual Mode. But there are more mundane situations in which you might be concerned about both aperture and shutter speed.

Street photography is one. Much of the time you can use Aperture or Shutter Priority and it’s fine. But in some situations you need to choose both aperture and shutter speed to be certain of DOF and inclusion or exclusion of motion blur.

Another example is from my own photography. I like to capture the unique patterns and shapes of moving water. The camera often doesn’t make a good choice if I use Shutter or Aperture Priority because it doesn’t know my intent, or even that I’m shooting a moving subject.

I need some DOF (depth of field) to work with using a telephoto lens and a fast enough shutter speed to freeze as much of the motion of the water as possible. So using Manual Mode to select both aperture and shutter speed is the best approach.

How do you know where to start?

In order to make good use of Manual Mode you first need a solid understanding of the exposure triangle. (See Part 1 of this series.) You need to know how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO interact so that it’s relatively easy for you to make decisions for a balanced exposure.

Secondly, you need a basic understanding of motion blur and DOF. You need to know how shutter speed affects motion blur and how aperture, distance, and focal length affect DOF.

With that base of knowledge you can make a decent guess as to where to start with choosing shutter speed and aperture. If you don’t get it right on the first try you’ll know what you need to adjust.

A starting point guideline is to use the slowest shutter speed that will avoid unwanted motion blur and the widest aperture that will make everything in focus that you need to be in focus. Using this middle ground as a starting point gives you a higher chance of initial success while keeping ISO as low as possible.

Take a test shot and see how it turns out. If you need a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture make the change and try again. Make small changes until you get what you want. (Unless your test shot indicates you were way off, then you want to try a larger change.)

If you use an extreme as your starting point, like an overly fast shutter speed, you might end up “wasting” light that could be better used by applying it to aperture or ISO.

If you don’t get the result you want, make adjustments based on which of the three exposure facets was most inappropriate, and try again.


In many situations you can simply use auto ISO in Manual Mode. This makes things easier.

If you have good light, or are using a wide aperture, you’ll automatically get a low enough ISO setting that noise probably won’t be an issue.

If you have a camera with a larger sensor, higher ISO settings still avoid the worst of noise degradation so you can use auto ISO without much concern.

If you have a camera with a small sensor noise is often a real issue. If it’s a choice between getting the shot with noise or not getting the shot, accepting a higher ISO and the accompanying noise is often the way to go. So go ahead and use auto ISO.

But sometimes you know auto ISO is too risky. You should know how your specific camera handles noise (see the post on Program Mode), and know where the cutoff is between somewhat acceptable and pointless to even take the photo.

If your camera is telling you you’re on the cusp you will want to set ISO manually to make sure it doesn’t go any higher than what is acceptable to you. You might need to make an adjustment to your chosen aperture or shutter speed to compensate.

When you set a specific ISO in Manual Mode you need to be very aware of changing light conditions because the camera won’t make any automatic exposure adjustments in response.

If you start out in bright sunlight and a cloud moves in you need to adjust for that. If you start an hour before sunset you need to keep adjusting exposure as the sun gets closer to the horizon and you have less and less light.

Most ILCs (interchangeable lens cameras) help you out by allowing you to customize auto ISO. My new camera has this feature and I love it. It’s the best of both worlds. I can set the maximum ISO that auto ISO will use. If light conditions make the camera hit that limit, it will automatically adjust shutter speed or aperture just enough, but no more than necessary, to properly expose the image.

Watch the Camera’s Metering

The key to successfully using Manual Mode is paying attention to the exposure metering feedback the camera gives you on the LCD screen or viewfinder.

Your camera will not let you make a big mistake without letting you know about it first. (Except in the few circumstances where the metering is inaccurate to start with.) But you have to actually look for any warnings it’s giving you.

To be clear, your camera is more than happy to let you go ahead and press the shutter button and take a poorly exposed photo. But it’s going to let you know it’s all on you if you go ahead and take the pic.

When you half-press the shutter button the camera should display the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO that will be used if you press all the way and take the photo.

You should get in the habit of checking those numbers anytime you are shooting, not just in Manual Mode. You may realize you forgot to change something when you switched to shooting a different subject. (I tend to forget to check and that’s where a lot of my mistakes come from.)

If the settings you chose will not produce a properly exposed image the camera will turn something red in the display to let you know there’s a problem. This is why Manual Mode doesn’t need to be scary or intimidating.

If you see a warning you need to decide which setting you want to change. After making the change do another half-press to check if you’re good to go.

There may be some situations when you simply can’t get what you want. The conditions will not allow for the necessary combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

In such a case you have to decide whether you want to give up the idea completely, try again at another time when light conditions are better, or make a compromise in your intent. For the latter, you might not get exactly what you originally wanted, but if you think it through you still might get a good photo.

Practice Makes Perfect

This is one of those pieces of advice that’s much easier to dispense than follow.

Practice using Manual Mode before you run into a situation where you actually need it.

You can use Manual Mode anytime, anywhere. By using Manual Mode in a situation that is already familiar to you, you get used to thinking about your settings and checking the display for warnings without being burdened by any new details.

That way you’re less likely to feel flustered by Manual Mode when setting up to take a type of photo you’ve never attempted before. Trying new things can already be a little stressful on its own.

When should you use Manual Mode?

When the situation absolutely requires it.

Or, anytime. You might eventually find that the flexibility and ultimate control of Manual Mode make it your preferred camera mode. The more you use it the more it becomes second nature.

As always, it’s up to you. Take pictures of what you want, how you want. The only person you need to please is yourself.


Shot in Manual Mode: f10, 1/500, auto ISO (ISO 800).


Part 7:  Focusing


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