back to top

How to Shoot in Manual Mode (Photography Basics & Best Tips)

Nick Dale
Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 11 min read
ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little money. Need more info? See how it all works here.
Subscribe Below to Download the Article Immediately

You can also select your interests for free access to our premium training:

Your privacy is safe! We will never share your information.

Here’s a metaphor for Manual mode. Using a camera is like driving a car. Yes, you can get comfort and convenience from an automatic, but you sacrifice performance. When you try to overtake another vehicle, an automatic might choose the top gear for fuel efficiency. But it’s best to have the extra power and acceleration in third gear when driving a manual.

It’s the same with photography. If your camera is in Auto mode, Program mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Aperture Priority mode, you let it choose the settings. But it doesn’t know what kind of picture you want. You end up with a compromise—a terrible decision reached on your behalf because the camera doesn’t have all the information.

In Auto mode, the camera may think 1/100 s at f/16 is the same as 1/800 s at f/5.6 because the exposure value is the same. But you get a very different picture—especially if you’re trying to take a shot of a cheetah sprinting at 70 mph! If you learn Manual mode, you can still get the correct exposure but keep control of the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

eBooks and Courses for Everyone

Why and How to Shoot in Manual Mode

Letting the camera pick the lens aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in Auto mode is tempting. But when you shoot in Program mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Aperture Priority mode, the camera chooses settings you don’t want. And that makes it harder to get the shots you want.

I suggest starting with Manual mode and automatic ISO. That lets you keep control of the basic settings of shutter speed and aperture while allowing the camera to work out the proper exposure.

First, let’s look at the “exposure triangle.” It consists of the Manual mode settings of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Or you can jump ahead to these sections if you want to skip the theory:

  1. How to Set Aperture
  2. How to Set Shutter Speed
  3. How to Set ISO
  4. Problems and Solutions Using Auto ISO

Manual Mode Settings

  1. Aperture: This controls the depth of field, which is the amount of the scene that’s “acceptably sharp.” The wider the aperture, the narrower the depth of field.
  2. Shutter speed: This determines the amount of blur caused by camera shake or subject movement. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the image.
  3. ISO: This controls the amount of “noise” (or grain in film terms), which is a lack of smoothness. The lower the ISO, the smoother the image.

Infographic cheat sheet explaining how to shoot in manual mode using the exposure triangle


These directly influence how bright the image is. But they also control sharpness and noise.

Aperture and shutter speed are the most essential “artistic” tools. And noise is not usually a big deal. You can fix it using noise reduction software such as Topaz Labs DeNoise.

But depth of field and motion blur are crucial to any image. You have to get them right in the camera. And that’s why you can use automatic ISO. But you don’t want the camera messing with your aperture or shutter speed!

1. What Is Aperture?

The aperture is a hole inside your lens created by several rotating blades. It acts like the iris in your eyes by opening and closing to allow more or less light, depending on light levels.

The unit used to measure the aperture is called the f-stop. It’s also known as focal ratio, f-ratio, or f-number.

It’s the focal length divided by the “entrance pupil.” It’s not the aperture itself but where the aperture appears to be if you look through the front of the lens.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward sequence of aperture values. The most common ones are f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22. The gap between each f-stop setting consists of one “exposure value” (EV).

That means the light reaching the sensor doubles if the f-number falls. Or it halves if the f-number rises. Most cameras let you change the aperture by a third of a stop. So you can imagine how complicated the numbers get!

Hare taken in manual mode with a narrow aperture of f/4
Aperture f/4, separating the subject from the background. © Nick Dale

Wide-angle lenses tend to have larger maximum apertures because if you halve the focal length, the f-stop also halves. Lenses with a wide maximum aperture, like f/2.8 or lower, are called “fast.”

That’s a good thing if you’re shooting in low light or want to separate the subject from the background by minimizing the depth of field. But the sharpest f-stop for a given lens might be f/5.6 or f/8.

On the other hand, longer lenses and zooms tend to have smaller maximum apertures, such as f/5.6 or higher. That’s not great if you’re a wildlife or sports photographer. The”fastest” telephoto lenses are so hard to make that they’re often costly.

How to Set Aperture

A narrow aperture, such as f/16, will keep almost everything in focus as it has a large depth of field.

It’s most useful for landscape photographers, who might use a narrow aperture to show as much detail as possible in the foreground and background. But there’s always a limit to sharpness.

With f-numbers higher than f/22, you start to get diffraction effects. When that happens, the finer details won’t be sharp anymore.

Infographic cheatsheet showing difference between narro and wide depth of field


2. What Is Shutter Speed?

The shutter speed (or time value) is the amount of time your camera’s shutter stays open during an exposure. The longer it is, the more light enters the camera and the brighter your image is.

Shutter speed is shown in seconds (s). And most modern DSLR cameras have settings of 30 seconds to around 1/8000 s. The good thing about this system? It’s easy to work out the exposure impact of changing the shutter speed.

Each doubling of the time doubles the amount of light reaching the sensor. That means a doubling of the image brightness.

A typical sequence of one exposure value (EV) intervals might be 1/100, 1/200, and 1/400 s. Just be aware that some available values have been rounded, so 1/125 s comes after 1/60 s!

How to Set Shutter Speed

A faster shutter speed means you need a higher ISO. But you get a sharper image because a moving subject is “frozen.”

A slower shutter speed means a lower ISO but more motion blur. Neither approach is “right” or “wrong.” It’s just a matter of personal taste.

an infographic cheat sheet explaining shutter speed


3. What Is ISO?

Some people think ISO stands for International Standards Organization. But there’s no such thing! It’s just a made-up name adopted by the International Organization for Standardization to be the same in different languages.

ISO is based on the Greek word isos, meaning “equal.”  It’s often said that the ISO of a digital camera is the “sensitivity” of the sensor. But that’s not quite right.

Strictly speaking, ISO is the Exposure Index (EI) setting. It’s manipulated by changing the sensor’s signal gain before conversion to digital. The idea is to match the old film speeds as closely as possible.

The base value in most cameras is typically 100 ISO. But the upper limit is getting higher and higher. The Nikon D850 now supports 25,600 ISO (expandable to over 102,400). But that’s a pretty expensive full-frame DSLR.

How to Set ISO

The lower the ISO number, the better the image quality is in smoothness, contrast, and color rendition. So it’s a good idea to keep it as low as possible.

But there’s a trade-off. If you’re working in low light, you need the extra brightness from a higher ISO. You have to balance brightness with image quality.

You start to see significant noise beyond 6400 ISO as a general rule. So that’s when you might want to use a wider aperture or longer shutter speed.

But it depends on your camera. Modern, full-frame cameras perform much better at high ISOs than older models.

Infographic cheatsheet showing ISO settings for too much light and not enough light


Problems Using Auto ISO and Solutions

People are often scared to shoot in Manual mode. So using automatic ISO is an excellent way of letting the camera worry about getting the proper exposure. But be careful. You shouldn’t rely on it too much. Here are a few problems you may encounter with auto ISO and the best solutions.

Problem #1: Shot Limitation

One problem with automatic ISO is that it only works within a “relevant range.”

If it’s getting brighter and brighter and you’re already shooting at 100 ISO, the camera has nowhere to go. And if you choose a narrower aperture or higher shutter speed, your pictures will be overexposed.

The same might happen if it’s getting dark and you’re worried about noise. If you’re already shooting wide open, all you can do is choose a longer shutter speed. But that may not be what you want if your subject moves, as it may cause motion blur.

Solution: Change the Shot Type

Some cameras let you set a maximum ISO, but I don’t recommend it. Even a noisy shot is better than no shot at all!

The best solution is to change the shot type—by trying a slow pan, for instance. Or you can take more and more pictures as your shutter speed gets slower and slower.

For example, start with a fast shutter speed if you want a sharp portrait at the lowest possible ISO. Then work your way down, taking more and more shots at each slower shutter speed setting.

For example, if your estimated “hit rate” at a slow shutter speed like 1/60 s is only one in ten, you probably need to take a short burst.

As your shutter speed gets slower and your hit rate goes down, you must take longer bursts at slower and slower shutter speeds. You only need one keeper. So make certain probability is on your side!

Tiger in water shot in manual mode
-2 EV (exposure value). © Nick Dale

Problem #2: Incorrect Exposure

Another problem with automatic ISO is that the camera doesn’t “know” what’s in front of it. Manufacturers cope by programming the firmware to expect the scene to reflect 18% of the light. It’s a good rule of thumb. But it won’t work all the time.

What if you’re shooting a polar bear on an iceberg? In that case, the camera is fooled into darkening the ice to a murky grey because that’s the only way it can achieve its 18% target.

Or what if you’re shooting a black panther in a forest? The camera will brighten the scene until the animal appears washed out.

So what’s the solution? There are two ways of coping with this. The first is to use exposure compensation. And the second is to go “full manual.”

Solution #1: Use Exposure Compensation

The exposure compensation dial is a way of artificially brightening or darkening your images depending on the scene:

  1. If it’s a bright scene, add one or two stops of positive exposure compensation.
  2. If it’s a dark scene, add one or two stops of negative exposure compensation.

That should solve the problem. You can also use the dial to underexpose or overexpose deliberately to create a low-key or high-key portrait.

Illustration showing exposurre compensation for darker and brighter images


Solution #2: Shoot in Full Manual Mode

The alternative to using automatic ISO is to shoot in full Manual mode. That means setting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO yourself. Then you use the camera’s built-in light meter to check the exposure.

The meter display shows a line of numbers in the viewfinder. It generally runs from -2 through zero to +2. When the arrow is on zero, your photo should be properly exposed.

If it’s a negative number, you will underexpose by that number of stops. If it’s a positive number, it will be overexposed.

The effect is the same as using automatic ISO with exposure compensation. But now, you change all your exposure settings manually. It gives you even greater flexibility in taking the shots you want.

Elephant with a blurry background shot in full manual mode
Shot in Manual mode (f/45 1/4 s, ISO 31). © Nick Dale

Conclusion: Shooting in Manual Mode

I hope that covers everything about how to shoot in manual mode. I know it can feel a little scary. But using automatic ISO guarantees proper exposure.

That frees you up to concentrate on composition and the critical camera settings—your aperture and shutter speed. And if your images do get too dark or bright, you can always use exposure compensation or experiment with full manual mode.

It might seem like a leap into the unknown. But you’ll be shooting confidently in manual mode in no time! If you want to learn more about proper manual camera settings, try our Photography for Beginners course!

eBooks and Courses for Everyone