Facebook Pixel How to Shoot in Manual Mode (+ Cheat Sheets for Beginners)

How to Shoot in Manual Mode (+ Cheat Sheets for Beginners)

How to shoot in Manual mode

Photographing in Manual mode can be intimidating, especially if you’re trying it for the first time. However, Manual offers a ton of flexibility that other camera modes (such as Auto) just can’t match. That’s why I encourage every photographer to try Manual at some point, and it’s why I regularly use it when capturing my own images.

Plus, while shooting in Manual isn’t exactly a walk in the park, it’s not as difficult as it might seem. Sure, you might struggle a bit at first – I certainly did! – but as long as you understand the basic concepts, and as long as you spend a few minutes practicing, you’ll likely find yourself wishing that you learned to use it sooner.

Therefore, in this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about photographing in Manual, including:

  • What it actually is and the many controls it offers
  • How to use it for consistently amazing results
  • Why Manual mode might (or might not!) be a good idea

(I’ll also share with you a few helpful camera settings cheat sheets, courtesy of the London School of Photography.)

So if you’re ready to become a Manual mode master, then let’s get started!

What is Manual mode in photography?

Manual mode gives you complete control over your camera settings. Once your camera is set to Manual, you can adjust each and every setting your camera offers. Most importantly, shooting in Manual lets you independently adjust the three key exposure variables:

  1. ISO
  2. Aperture
  3. Shutter speed

Together, the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed determine the overall brightness of your photos (i.e., the exposure). They also affect your photos in other key ways: by adjusting the sharpness, depth of field, and overall quality of your files.

That’s what makes Manual mode so powerful. In Manual, you can make your photos appear exactly as dark or light as you want. You can also ensure perfect sharpness, create different depth of field effects, and keep your low-light photos looking high quality.

This is in contrast to various other modes, such as fully automatic modes (which don’t allow you to adjust any settings on your camera) and semi-automatic modes (which allow you to adjust certain settings while your camera chooses the rest).

That said, while Manual mode truly is excellent for many types of photography, it’s not the best option for every scenario – and later on, I discuss the times when you’ll want to choose an alternative (such as the very popular Aperture Priority mode).

But before we delve into the practicalities of shooting in Manual, let’s explore the three key exposure settings in more detail – because without an understanding of the exposure triangle, you’ll struggle to use Manual mode effectively.


Simply put, ISO controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. So by adjusting the ISO, you can increase your camera’s light sensitivity which will, in turn, give you a brighter image.

Say you’re shooting at night and your shots are turning out too dark. If you’re working in Manual mode, you can boost your ISO – and your images will instantly brighten up.

latern at night high ISO
A low-light image like this one can benefit from a high ISO; by boosting the ISO, you boost the image brightness to show lots of beautiful details!

On the flip side, if you’re shooting on a sunny day and you want to reduce your exposure, you can drop the ISO to achieve a darker result.

Unfortunately, ISO does come with a significant drawback. As illustrated by the ISO cheat sheet below, the higher the ISO, the noisier your photos become. Noise rarely looks good, and it’s an easy way to ruin an otherwise great image. Plus, there are other ways of boosting image exposure, which I’ll talk about in just a moment.

For that reason, I generally recommend you leave your ISO at its base value (often ISO 100, though I’ve also used cameras that have a base ISO of 50, 160, or 200). The exception is when you specifically need to raise the ISO (e.g., you’re shooting in low light and can’t afford to adjust the image exposure another way).

Manual mode ISO cheat sheet


aperture blades of a lens

The aperture is an opening in the lens. The wider the aperture, the more light it lets in and the brighter the resulting exposure (see the aperture cheat sheet below):

Manual mode aperture cheat sheet

Note that photographers use f-stops to refer to aperture sizes. A smaller f-stop refers to a larger aperture, while a larger f-stop refers to a smaller aperture. (Confusing, I know, but you’ll get the hang of it soon!)

So an aperture of f/1.4 lets in a lot of light, giving you a brighter image. An aperture of f/22 lets in very little light, producing a darker image.

Aperture is also responsible for controlling the depth of field – the window of focus within the photograph. The larger the aperture, the smaller the depth of field, and the narrower the window of focus.

Here’s an image with a shallow depth of field (shot at f/2.8 or so):

shallow depth of field flower

And here’s an image with a deep depth of field (shot around f/11):

deep depth of field train tracks in forest

See the difference? In the first image, the wide aperture ensured a very blurry background (though a portion of the flower is still sharp). In the second image, the narrow aperture kept the shot sharp from foreground to background.

So if you want a nice, blurry background, you can use Manual mode to dial in a low f-number. And if you want a shot that’s sharp throughout, you can dial in a high f-number instead. (Just remember that widening or narrowing the aperture will also affect the image exposure!)

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is the exposure time of an image; that is, it refers to how long the shutter stays open to allow light to hit the sensor.

Therefore, the faster the shutter speed, the less light that hits the camera sensor and the darker the final image.

The shutter speed also determines image sharpness. A fast shutter speed (such as 1/1000s) will generally freeze the action, while a slow shutter speed (such as 1/10s) will often produce motion blur:

How to Shoot in Manual Mode Cheat Sheet for Beginners

In general, it pays to use a higher shutter speed to capture sharp images. But there are times when you might want to create motion blur for artistic effect, in which case a slower shutter speed is the way to go.

Also, the shutter speed you need to capture sharp photos will depend on your subject; faster subjects require faster shutter speeds, while slower subjects can be tack-sharp at slow shutter speeds. (Though at very slow shutter speeds – often around 1/100s and below – you’ll need to watch out for blur due to camera shake!)

slow shutter speed car moving with background blur

One extra setting: white balance

White balance is one final Manual mode setting worth learning.

It lets you remove color casts from your scene – and by adjusting the white balance, you can achieve neutral white tones. (It’s especially useful for removing harsh yellow tones or redness on the skin.)

Manual mode white balance cheat sheet

White balance can be used in unconventional ways to get different creative results. For example, you can use the Tungsten white balance preset on an overcast day to produce blue hues and enhance contrast. Or you can use the Shade white balance preset at sunset to enhance the golden light.

Therefore, it’s highly beneficial to experiment with the various white balance modes; you never know what creative looks you might produce!

How to use Manual mode: a three-step process

Manual mode lets you independently adjust your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to get a well-exposed – or poorly-exposed – final image. (It also lets you adjust your white balance setting to remove color casts and produce creative effects.)

To get started with Manual mode, you’ll generally need to adjust the mode dial on the top of your camera. The dial will likely include a variety of other options (such as “A” or “Av” for Aperture Priority mode and “P” for Program mode), but you’ll want to set your camera to “M” for Manual.

Then, once you’ve switched your camera to Manual mode, the goal is to carefully set your variables for the results you’re after. But how should you do this? What’s the best way to go about determining the right Manual mode settings?

While there’s no single correct approach to adjusting settings in Manual, here’s my step-by-step advice:

Step 1: Set your aperture based on depth of field considerations

Do you want a shallow depth of field? Or a deep depth of field?

Start by dialing in your desired aperture. If you want a blurry background, pick a wide aperture. If you want a sharp background, pick a narrow aperture.

Don’t pay any attention to the overall image exposure – instead, focus solely on the aperture and its depth of field effects.

Step 2: Set your shutter speed for sharpness

Next, ask yourself:

How fast is my subject moving? What shutter speed do I need to keep it sharp?

Here, if your subject is completely stationary, you might think about using the handy Reciprocal Rule, or you might estimate based on previous experiences. (When shooting stationary subjects without a tripod, I rarely stray below 1/125s or so.)

And if your subject is moving, you may need to do a bit of experimentation until you’re getting tack-sharp photos. Note that reasonably fast subjects (e.g., joggers) can be effectively photographed at around 1/250s to 1/500s, but that some subjects, such as small birds in flight, will need a shutter speed of 1/1600s and above.

Of course, if you’re after artistic blur or you’re using a tripod to photograph an unmoving subject, you’re free to lower your shutter speed to 1/30s and beyond!

So go ahead and set your shutter speed, then proceed to the next step:

Step 3: Set your ISO (and adjust your shutter speed/aperture) for the best exposure

At this point, you should have picked an aperture based on artistic considerations, and you should have a shutter speed dialed in for perfect sharpness.

So all that’s left is to nail the exposure, and I recommend you do it with your ISO, if possible (though you may also need to tweak your shutter speed and aperture along the way).

Start by setting your ISO to its lowest value. As I mentioned above, this is generally ISO 100 but could be ISO 160, ISO 200, or ISO 50, depending on your camera.

Next, simply point your camera at the scene you want to photograph and carefully observe the exposure bar at the bottom of your viewfinder. If the bar is showing underexposure (skewed to the left), you’ll need to increase your ISO until you get a centered exposure bar. Alternatively, if you’re worried about high-ISO noise effects, you can lower the shutter speed or widen the aperture. Just bear in mind that lowering the shutter speed will increase the likelihood of a blurry shot, while widening the aperture will narrow the depth of field.

If the bar is showing overexposure (skewed to the right), you’ll need to either increase your shutter speed or narrow your aperture until you get a balanced exposure bar. Which setting you adjust doesn’t really matter – the key is to preserve any creative effects you want to produce. So if you’re using a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field, then boost your shutter speed. And if you’re using a slow shutter speed for artistic motion blur, then narrow your aperture and leave the shutter speed where it is.

cat in the grass with blurry background

Should you always use Manual mode?

Manual mode is superb for many situations. It’ll help you step up your photography game and capture sharp, well-exposed, creative photos.

That said, there are plenty of times when you’ll want to choose a different camera mode instead, such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program mode. Here’s a quick breakdown to help you out:

Manual mode is good if…

  1. You’re working in unchanging lighting conditions (e.g., you’re photographing in a studio or a room with constant ambient light).
  2. You want complete control over your different exposure variables.
  3. You want to underexpose or overexpose your photos for creative effects.
  4. You’re shooting slow, deliberate photos (e.g., landscapes) and you have the time to carefully adjust your settings.

Manual mode is best avoided if…

  1. The light is changing rapidly or your subject is moving between sun and shade (e.g., you’re photographing a bird as it darts in and out of the trees).
  2. You care about the aperture or the shutter speed, but your other settings are less important.
  3. You’re photographing action where nailing the autofocus is your primary concern (and your particular exposure settings take a backseat).
  4. You’re a beginner and don’t yet feel comfortable with the different exposure settings.

Other shooting modes

As you can gather from the lists above, Manual mode is great for situations where you need control over your settings and you have time to fiddle around with your camera dials. But you’ll want to avoid shooting in Manual if you’re dealing with fast-paced conditions and changing light, or you’re just not yet an experienced photographer.

In such cases, you’ll generally want to use a semi-automatic mode instead.

  • Aperture Priority mode lets you control the aperture and ISO while your camera selects the shutter speed. It’s great for situations where you want to set the depth of field, but you don’t want to spend too much time dealing with shutter speed. It’s also a good transitional mode if you’re not quite ready for Manual mode but you want to start experimenting with different settings.
  • Shutter Priority mode lets you control the shutter speed and ISO, while your camera selects the aperture (it’s like Aperture Priority, but reversed!). It’s useful in situations where you want to select a particular shutter speed for creative purposes, and you don’t particularly care about the aperture.
  • Program mode lets you control the ISO, and you can also adjust the exposure via your camera’s exposure compensation setting. It’s a great transitional mode when getting off Auto.
camera modes - How to Shoot in Manual Mode Cheat Sheet for Beginners

Manual mode: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to use Manual mode in your photography!

You know all the basics, such as how to set your camera to Manual and the effects that various settings will have on your images.

So go grab your camera and do a bit of practicing. Get a feel for the different variables. Take plenty of photos, and see what you can create!

(Also, don’t forget to download the cheat sheets featured throughout the article!)

Now over to you:

When do you plan to use Manual mode in your photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Antonio Leanza
Antonio Leanza

owner of the London School of Photography is a photographic artist, coach, and teacher with extensive experience lecturing at LCC for over 10 years and for Ilford Film across the UK. His approach to teaching focuses on helping students to invest in their creative processes and inspire a transformational learning experience. Antonio also believes in helping students achieve their full potential as creative individuals to realise their aspirations in the photographic world.

I need help with...