Taking Manual Control Over Your Digital Camera

Taking Manual Control Over Your Digital Camera



I was typing away the other day, putting the finishing touches on a short article, and not being the most careful typist, I accidentally wrote “dital” instead of “digital.” Of course, I was immediately notified of my mistake via a little red underline. A simple right-click of my error provided me with a number of spelling alternatives: detail, dial, tidal, vital, and so forth.

Essentially, my computer software was using the information available to it to make an educated guess as to what the right word should be. In some odd way, I was a bit disappointed that even with all the state-of-the-art technology and software innovations available, computers can still do little more than make an educated guess when performing tasks that have a variety of possible outcomes.

So I got thinking, how do these same limitations affect photography. Now that photography has become completely digital, every camera is installed with a small computer and processor. The computer is in charge of a number of key operations, but for today, we’ll just talk about one; how it controls your camera when in automatic mode.

When a camera is fully automated the computer is asked to control a number of extremely important tasks. It uses a combination of pre-installed data and real-time tests to generate an educated guess as how your photograph ought to be shot. For people who don’t care about learning how to use their camera, they accept these educated guesses as the best the camera can do, and if they want a better quality picture, they have to buy a better quality camera. This belief is, for the most part, untrue. While I do believe that a higher quality camera can produce higher quality results, I believe that any camera is capable of shooting a good picture as long as you can take control over how the photo is taken.

So, I’m going to make a statement that sounds simple, but really is something you need to believe if you want to improve your photographic skills:

You are smarter than your camera.

That’s it. That’s all you need to believe. Unfortunately, you’re going to need to prove it.

So what decisions should you make that your camera’s computer never should? The answer is actually quite simple. You need to control the most fundamental features that are the same now as they were fifty years ago: ISO, white balance (WB), aperture (Av), shutter speed (Tv), and focus. So I’m going to talk a bit about my thought process when setting these features manually. I don’t intend to teach you how to make the adjustments or what they are as there exists countless guides that do that already.

ISO & White Balance

These features derive from the properties of film emulsion. Every roll available has both a inherent white balance and ISO. Just be aware of how lucky you are that you can change these settings on the fly with a digital camera, and not have to buy a variety of film to accommodate every shooting scenario that may arise.

ISO.jpgISO : I love pure, bold color so I always aim for the lowest ISO possible. ISO is the first thing I set when entering into a shoot. I base my ISO on the shadows and dark areas of the scene, rather then the the ones that are heavily lit. All ISOs can expose well-lit subjects, but only high ISOs can expose dark areas. The second thing I look at is the speed of my lens. If I have a fast lens (i.e. f2.8) then I know I can push my ISO down a touch. I will also consider my subject. If my subject is static and I can shoot long exposures without risking motion blur then I’ll push my ISO lower, whereas fast-moving subjects require fast shutter speeds and often high ISOs.

WB.jpgWB : I ask myself: how many types of light are present? Which color of light is best to balance to? For instance, if I’m shooting outside then I’ll set my white balance to daylight (6000 degrees kelvin). If I’m shooting a home interior lit with daylight through open windows, and tungsten light from the interior fixtures, then I opt daylight and often use my flash to counteract the tungsten light. Sometimes I try to adjust all lighting so it’s the same color by using gels, swapping bulbs, etc. Other times it works nicely just to let all the different colors of light bee seen – like at crazy rock shows.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

Like a fine balance, each must compliment the other. You cannot change one without affecting the other. These are the yin and the yang of photography. The symbols Av and Tv are often used which stand for Aperture Value and Time Value.

AV.jpgAv : I start by looking at my available light and get an idea of what aperture range I’m looking at. Lots of light means a broader range of choice. Second, I’ll think about the shot itself and what depth of field I want. If I want lots of detail at all depths, then I’ll drop it down as low as f22. If I want a soft background, with a refined range of focus, then I’ll open it up to f2.8 or larger. Sometimes you don’t have a lot of choice, so the wider (lower number) the better. That’s why lenses with apertures like a fixed f2.8 are so expensive – because they’ll benefit you in low light. It’s also important to consider your subject – fast moving subjects will require lower apertures, so you can achieve faster shutter speeds.

TV.jpgTv : The length of the exposure has huge bearing on the outcome of a shot. I start by looking at my subject and whether or not I want them sharp or blurred. Some subjects like city traffic benefit from long exposures, while others suffer. I try to stay at 1/60 of a second or faster when I’m shooting handheld, and use a tripod for slower exposures. Stillness varies from person to person, and image stabilizers will help. Fast subjects require fast shutter speeds.

Manual Focus

Auto focus is very fast and often quite reliable. That being said, sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands. Be prepared to make adjustments at a moment notice.

MF.jpgMF : If my lens is struggling to find contrast in a shot, or focuses on the wrong thing, then it goes straight to manual. Most digital SLRs will even give you a audible or visual cue when you’re manually focused correctly. I try to avoid focusing on my subject center frame, and often try to manually keep my focus while reframing in accordance with the rule of thirds. Trusting my auto focus has ruined more shots than I can count. If you eyesight is a tad out, then make sure to set your diopter accordingly. Learn to trust your eyes.

Photography is a subjective medium. Your personal tastes should influence your shots, and there’s no better way to achieve this than by taking control of your camera. Learn how to use your camera quickly and effectively, but also learn how to study the world around you using a photographer’s eye. Soon, you’ll be able to walk into a room and say “if I were shooting in here, I’d be shooting at 400 ISO, tungsten white balance, f4, at 1/60 of a second.” When that day comes, you might also notice that people start finding you strange. Don’t worry, there will always be another photography-loving soul nearby who will understand.

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Bryan Larson is a blogger at The Binary Crumbs blog - a blog by actual industry workers who make a living in the fields of media production.

  • Jamalayka Jamalaya

    There are certain situations where full manual is useful. In my experiments, AV, TV, ISO and WB give me whatever I need. I use a Canon T90, and a light meter, in 99% of the case the camera metering was very accurate, and so I keep it in AV or TV mode and I still use the lightmeter and as I said earlier in certain situations full manual to force the camera to use your own settings can be useful and creative and that is it. By the time you have assessed the light and dialled your settings (and unless you have studied the property of light and an experienced photographer) I would have taken ~10 properly exposed photos. I got that moment which yo missed because you were fiddling with your dials. Which ever mode you use (apart from full Auto) you still need to understand all aspect of an exposure. If yo are using TV then why did you use that value? same for AV and same for manual. You have understand what you are doing and you cannot understand one without the other. If I have plenty of time or in a studio probably I will keep it on manual.

Some Older Comments

  • Peter May 29, 2013 11:52 am

    I came across this post while checking Google searces for my e-book on the subject of getting off auto and on to manual. I couldn't agree more with the author and the posts. Auto mode can only really guess. You are smarter than your camera and it really is not hard to learn how to set aperture, shutter speed, white balance and ISO. Most importantly though, learn what effects they have. Your images will improve dramatically. Also much cheaper than buying that new camera that you think will improve your images. Firstly you need to improve the operator.

    If anyone is interested in my books, just Google Take Control, Go Manual. There are 2 parts to my book which is published on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and ITunes. The third part that deals with Color Management, Editing and Printing is a work in progress.

  • lekko April 14, 2012 03:13 am

    Really nice article,I noticed that in manual mode, turning both dials, aperture and shutter speed, in the direction of the viewfinder’s exposure indicator I can compensate sub and over exposure.

  • jotasolano November 11, 2011 01:22 pm

    @graham pentelew: I think there is... a couple of weeks ago I stumbled with a Canon "super zoom compact" (kinda like a bridge)... It allows manual settings (I don't know if FULL manual, but I remember you could control shutter speed, ISO and aperture settings)... check Canon's website out...

    good luck !

  • satyadev November 10, 2011 04:09 pm

    sir thank u, sir i purchase Fujifilm s3300, sir plz know me that how can i adjust focus of objects and background blur.

  • Graham Pentelow August 16, 2011 04:42 am

    Is there such a thing as a digital camera (bridge) without all those unnecessary gimics, or even video, that allows the user to make their own settings? just like the old days!

  • Elizabeth Newlin October 14, 2010 01:36 pm

    LOVE this article. I'm trying to learn my camera and that was exactly the analogy and the pep-talk I needed!

  • JotaSolano January 10, 2010 01:47 pm

    I'm basically learning photography on a "vintage" Canon F-1 (SLR) mechanical camera, and I've got to tell you, there's no better way to learn.

    I mean, I have to make decisions for everything: focus, zoom, exposure value (as in f stops), exposure time, ISO, etc based on what I know (and what the cameras TTL light metering tells me).

    I think that there's no better way to take pictures. The problem is that, in mechanical cameras, all these settings are easy to find and you can change them really fast, whereas in DSLRs, you have to go tru a sea of settings on the screen, and you waste lots of time.

  • Frank May 22, 2009 04:15 pm

    An acronym comes to my mind:


    - White Balance
    - Aperture
    - Time (shutter speed)
    - ISO
    - Focus

  • Lucian March 2, 2009 12:57 am

    Thanks for the article!
    I believe it complements the article published recently on using Auto, and the decisions taken by the camera, same as your in most cases. But you are right, going Manual will eventually give you the reflex to chose the best settings immediately, and take the decisions in the cases when the camera is confused but doesn't tell you.


  • Gavin O'Brien February 21, 2009 06:32 pm

    Thanks so much for posting such a great article! Just when I thought I would never understand the fundementals of photography, you have come long a produced a great lesson in Aperture, Shutter speed, White balance etc. Im enjoying every bit of information I gather from this fantastic website and look forward to more and more educational articles.

  • Diana Khalil February 21, 2009 12:04 pm

    I'm a third generation photographer, using manual settings give professional results that can differentiate you from other photographer. This article is by far the simplest approach of using and understanding manual control in digital cameras. thanks

  • Gaz February 20, 2009 10:04 pm

    I am relatively new to the Dslr scene (week one december) and have been attemptiongto copmeto grips with what the beats (olypmus e-520) can do. I think I find the manual control really effective when I can concentrate and have the time to see what the affect of the setting will be (over / under exposed etc...) Still Iwill rely very heavily on the auto focus function and they work extremely well. presently I use A as my preferred moddethe article was absolutely great, for any one wanting to understand what we can do with opur equipment.. As usual the best is save till last. brought back to reality ( I have already been called a nerd) but that was by a cyclops so who cares.

  • dotcompals February 20, 2009 04:20 pm

    Fantastic article to read for a person like me who is a learner when it comes to professional photography.
    what about the time factor, if we use manual focus and settings, will it take more time to finish a capture?

  • Arturo February 20, 2009 07:05 am

    In my Canon 40D, I noticed that in manual mode, turning both dials, aperture and shutter speed, in the direction of the viewfinder's exposure indicator I can compensate sub and over exposure.

    Adding to that some training to quickly change the ISO setting, becoming manual has been easier to me.

  • hugh s February 18, 2009 12:32 pm

    This is all so wonderfully said, and the whole thing about going manual is true. Looking back at all my photos, I still think my collection of B&W film contact sheets were much more consistently better than my digital photos, and I think it's due to my having to adjust everything manually (and also having only 36 photos each roll, and wanting to get the most out of my film haha).

    Great article, thanks!

  • Lorenzo February 18, 2009 01:29 am

    Thank you for sharing, Bryan. I do not know many photographers here and it's great to notice that you out there had the same problems when you started! I use to shoot with manual settings, I can't always take a pic as I want or imagine it to be, but I'm facing some problems I haven't considered before. I hope this will allow me to improve my ability and maybe one day I will enter a room or looking at a face exactly knowing how to get a pic of that!

  • Aristarkhos February 17, 2009 03:43 am

    Will do that! Appreciate it, K.

  • Aino February 17, 2009 03:09 am

    Really nice article. Manual is fun!

  • K. Praslowicz February 17, 2009 02:57 am

    aristarkhos, in regards to your last paragraph, go to youtube and search the term winogrand. You'll see the amazing speed that can be had by going full manual.

  • aristarkhos February 16, 2009 10:10 pm

    Very informative and to the point. :)
    I have the same 'predicament' as Kevin (3rd comment)...shooting my toddler (and my pets) indoors is a bit of a challenge. I have to wait for him to play around in the balcony in the day, so that I have enough light to play around safely with the settings. It doesn't help when the camera focus (no manual focus in Nikon's P5100) and the continuous mode is a bit sluggish.

    I remember reading about street photography somewhere. The photographer would do a mental calculation, as a force of habit, when he would step out onto the street with his analog camera. Yep, he used an analog, monochrome, and finish of rolls by the time he walked down a couple of blocks.

  • Fletch February 16, 2009 08:17 pm

    Fully agree with the sentiment "You are smarter than your camera" but for me you don't need to shoot in M to porve this. P, S and A will give you all the control you need as long as you are aware of the settings the camera has picked and know how to change them if they are wrong.

    Some slightly dodgy wording on the ISO comment. Any ISO can expose any brightness, not just well lit areas. Its all about the expsoure triangle and ISO 100 can expose the darkest shadow if you have a long enough shutter and wide enough aperture. What the post seems to imply is that high ISO have a larger dymanic range which is not ture, in fact its the oposite.

    Also the MF confirm beep does not help you focus if auto focus is not up to it. How do you think the camera knows when to beep? Thats right, in exactly them same way it auto focuses. All the beep is doing is confirming you have manually focused to the same point the auto focus would have picked. So why bother. MF is usefull when the AF would not be up to the job such as macro or night time and here the beep would not be present.

  • Bryan Larson February 16, 2009 10:50 am

    Thanks for all the comments everyone. As this is a "school," I feel I should try to address some of the questions that have arisen. So, here goes:

    @ Jeffery Jose - You said "I am not sure what you are talking about. The Camera gives a confirmation of the focus even if you’re doing manual focus ? Can you tell me if its there in Canon Cameras?"

    - Yes, when in manual focus, you will receive two confirmations if you have your camera setup for it. One, you will see a small red square flash in your viewfinder that will show you what object your camera is focused on, and two, if you have "beep" activated, your camera will produce a beeping sound when it has successfully focused on an object. You need to press your shutter button only half way down, so that the shutter does not activate in order for this to work.

    @ andy - You said "in particular what all the numbers mean when buying a lens. e.b 18mm - 70mm , f3.5 4.5 etc."

    - The numbers like 18mm-70mm is your zoom range - the smaller the number, the wider the angle. Whereas, the f3.5-5.6 for example is your widest aperture. All lenses can close down the aperture to f22, but each lens varies as to how large it can open (i.e. f2.8 or f3.5). Lenses that state "18-70mm, f3.5-5.6" or something similar, are telling you that at 18mm the widest aperture is f3.5, but at 70mm the widest aperture is f5.6. This is because when a lens is zoomed out there is less light that is able to get through the lens so it automatically changes as you zoom (from f3.5-5.6). A whole article could be written here...

    @ Spencer Thomas - You're right, shooting in RAW changes things. In fact a whole other article could be written on shooting in RAW mode, but it would have to be in conjunction with information on image compression, post processing, archiving, and the inherent differences between RAW, TIFF, and JPG. I might have to piece a little something together in the future.

  • andy February 16, 2009 06:40 am

    Thanks for the assurances that I am smartter than my camera. I am an absolute beginner at this photography thing, but am thoroughly (frustratingly) enjoying it.
    I recently started a college course on the rudaments of photography, and whilst it is a help, there is no better way of learning than trying things out.
    I have a Nikon D300 which is a bit of a beast to get used too, but a friend of mine has given me some help and he always uses Manual. So I am with him, but I think it will be sometime before I can walk in a room and state how I would take a particular photograph. If any one else has any tips they are most welcome. in particular what all the numbers mean when buying a lens. e.b 18mm - 70mm , f3.5 4.5 etc.

    Thanks ;-) andy

  • The Bogtrotter February 16, 2009 06:39 am

    Good article. One of the big benefits of digital photography is that you can experiment and try various settings, without the old costs of developing a film and printing out the pictures just to find you've made a mistake.

    My biggest photography mistake was leaving the settings on automatic during a wildlife trip to Tanzania last year. The pictures were nowhere near as good as they should have been, and it was all because I was too lazy to take control. I have since been learning how to use the manual settings, and am now getting to the point where I can say that - as the article states - I am smarter than my camera. :-)

  • Murray Edwards February 16, 2009 03:20 am

    Great post. Helping people who depend solely on the Auto-features, to use the manual features of their camera will get help them off the snapshot mentality that so many use these days.

  • Arcangel February 16, 2009 03:05 am

    "Purist" style of Manual is the only way to get good shots. It doesn't matter in the way it is.. if you don't know how to make great pictures manual mode isn't going to help at all. I taken great shots at Auto Mode and Manual Mode. Will You notice the diference? I don't think so. because it all depends at the end on the composition and on the subject.

    and Manual doesn't apply for everything you know, in Photojournalism there's no time for manual purism, you need to get the lucky shot.

  • Paul R. Giunta February 16, 2009 02:04 am

    Great overview of the options that one has when shooting in Manual.

  • Paulo Campos February 15, 2009 06:51 am

    Nice article. I usualy shoot in manual or at least try to. Good point of view : "You are smarter than your camera."

  • K February 15, 2009 02:34 am

    Sorry, there is a typo in my previous comment. It is Canon PowerShot A430.

  • K February 15, 2009 02:33 am

    I loved this post. I happen to have a Canon PowerShot 1430. Simple camera but lets me some amount of control of what the outcome should be. Took me sometime to understand the features but it is preparing me for higher end cameras. My previous cameras (a Click III, my father's actually and Snapper 35) were both box cameras but gave me some very good photos in broad daylight.

  • zinaf February 15, 2009 01:25 am

    I totally agree with the manual control over the camera.
    I shoot most of the time in M mode and follow pretty much the same logical steps as described in the article.
    I switched to manual three years ago after reeding an excellent book on exposure (can't remember the author right now and I am not at home to check) and have been very happy about that decision. At first I was a bit slow and insecure but within a week I got comfortable with using the controls. The big benefit of using manual is that you get 'involved' in the image. The learning is greater and the results more satisfactory.
    As with everything, extreme decisions are not the solution, so depending on the situation I sometimes jump to Aperture or Shutter priority modes - mostly when I have to take a quick snap without having the time to think and manually change the settings, or when shooting in fast changing environment.

  • primelens February 14, 2009 11:19 pm

    I have been using aperture priority mode 90% of the time. I am coming to grips with the manual mode especially for night landscape that I like to take. Also I find the manual mode is great for indoors photo with constant lighting.

  • Sudipto February 14, 2009 11:18 pm

    I am basically a bit of a Rip Van Winkle when it comes to digital photography. I started off with an OM10 (auto/manual) sometime in the early 80s. Switched off from photography totally in the early 90s. Then the whole digital thing happened and kept myself aloof from all that.
    Ten days ago bought myself a Canon 450d (guess it's sold under some other name in the US) and am totally floored by all the developments that have happened to camera technology and automation. But I am glad to note that these are all in our old timers' lingo "auto/manual" cameras and have promptly started almost from where I left 20 years ago.
    I could very well identify with the article and appreciate the write up.
    I too set the ISO to 100 right away, WB to daylight, aperture priority and use the camera's metering system as a consultant. That is, just for the advice and then use the override mode. I can't let the consultant run my company.
    I guess once I understand the camera's computer and its limitations more clearly I will progressively let it take more control of a few situations.
    I have kept focusing automated so far but allowing only the center point to focus. Metering is still evaluative. I am pretty much back to an auto/manual mode after 30 years !!! Gosh I am ancient.
    I have kept the AF option on so far but allowing only the centre point

  • Devansh February 14, 2009 10:08 pm

    Funny, that this article got posted just a few hours after I returned from shooting landscapes after a fresh snowfall, and upon returning, realized some shots were OOF, besides disappointment this incident also reaffirms my belief in MF. While on the topic of MF, do you have any tips/suggestions on how to focus to infinity in complete darkness, besides keeping the aperture to its highest f-number. I tried to shoot some light trails of cars descending down on a mountain road, my exposures were of 30secs at f-11, although the shutter was triggered through the self timer, the shots did not turn out to be very sharp. Maybe this could be the topic of a future post.
    Thanks and regards

  • Gary Lee Photography February 14, 2009 07:17 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I've just starting really using Manual mode and have some times been confused with what settings match which situations. I'm going to start taking your advice on trusting my eyes as well!

  • jay February 14, 2009 02:09 pm

    I would say that I shoot mostly in Aperture and Shutter priority modes. I really need to start spending more time in manual mode so I can be a little more creative! Great article.

  • rhermans February 14, 2009 07:30 am

    Funny ... never had a not manual camera ...
    although now that I think of it some of them had a strange hart-shaped icon or green thingy on the dial where I choose the settings ...
    unless does the P setting also count as not manual ...

    great article


  • The_Stig February 14, 2009 06:57 am

    AWESOME article. True statement - I just started leaving my camera in full manual mode this weekend and playing with the settings to see how everything works together (or doesn't in some cases). It's made things a lot more fun. At first it's intimidating, but with some practice things start clicking into place and the adjustments aren't all that hard to make on the fly.

  • Spencer Thomas February 14, 2009 06:06 am

    I find the WB setting on my camera to be pretty much irrelevant. Why? Because I shoot in RAW. At least in the D100, when shooting RAW, the only effect that the WB setting has is to record the setting into the RAW file. It has absolutely no effect on the pixel values. I generally leave it on "auto", and then manually adjust the WB in Aperture. That way, the camera provides a "guess" at the WB, and I fine tune it, which reduces my post-processing time a little.

  • Jeffrey Jose February 14, 2009 05:50 am

    Most digital SLRs will even give you a audible or visual cue when you’re manually focused correctly.

    I am not sure what you are talking about. The Camera gives a confirmation of the focus even if you're doing manual focus ? Can you tell me if its there in Canon Cameras ? (specifically Canon 40D)

    Great post, BTW. Thanks

  • Ashleigh February 14, 2009 05:01 am

    Excellent post. I hope people look at me strange someday. ha. ha.

  • John Flinchbaugh February 14, 2009 03:02 am

    Did I read too fast, or did we not actually get to Manual Exposure in this article? ;) I shoot lots of old Nikon prime lenses, so I had to get lots of practice with manual exposure and manual focus.
    Learning to easily walk your way all over that exposure triangle (ISO, aperture, shutter) allows you to do anything you want. Try it out -- you have an LCD and a histogram to lead your way.

  • K. Praslowicz February 14, 2009 02:39 am

    I've always been a huge fan of the manual modes. I find it a much better learning experience to look at an image that is flawed in some way, and being able to take fulla ccountability and say:

    What did I do wrong?

    Instead of:

    What did the camera do wrong?

  • Richard February 14, 2009 01:44 am

    Fantastic article. One I shall be bookmarking. I've been after a simple guide to how to approach photographing in manual for ages. tis fits the bill perfectly!


  • Govert February 14, 2009 01:26 am

    pity that this blog is Canon oriented.. why not P, A, S, M?

  • Patrick February 14, 2009 01:13 am

    "You are smarter than your camera." Brilliant! Why has it taken me 10 months to begin to realize this.

    "Trusting my auto focus has ruined more shots than I can count." So true. I have only recently begun to ditch the autofucus. It's hard when your subjects are fast moving, but I often don't do any worse than the camera.

    Well written article. Good job.

  • Kevin February 14, 2009 12:56 am

    I try to shot manual as often as possible, but most of the time I'm shooting subjects that don't give me a lot of time for adjustments: two toddlers.

    I'm usually able to get the results I'm looking for in either AV, or TV modes, setting my ISO and WB accordingly.

  • Ilan February 14, 2009 12:45 am

    A month after buying my first DSLR I switched 100% to manual.
    Manual lets you express yourself with little as possible interference from that "little computer" (I know some might say that in digital world there is little self expression room left.. ) but at leaves room for human error, that sometimes might be called art.
    It's like driving an automatic gear in car - yes, it's more comfortable, but where is the connection with the road? The feeling of control? The romanticism? :)

    Go MANUAL!

  • LisaNewton February 14, 2009 12:44 am

    Between the post yesterday about aperture and today's post on manual, soon people will think I'm strange, which is a good thing. Thanks for all the valuable information. I've been a little nervous thinking about going manual, with all the fancy features on my camera, but the way ease with which you've described it here, I think I'm ready.

    Thanks for the easy to understand post.......................:)

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