Want to use and understand Manual mode like a pro? In this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about shooting in Manual, including:
- What it actually is
- How to use it for 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 different settings and even control your flash.
Most importantly, shooting in Manual lets you independently adjust the three key exposure variables:
- 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 image quality.
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.
Now let’s explore these three settings in more detail:
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 keep turning out too dark. If you’re working in Manual mode, you can boost your ISO – and your images will instantly brighten up.
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.
For that reason, I generally recommend you leave your ISO on its lowest value unless you specifically need to raise it (e.g., you’re shooting in low light).
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):
Note that photographers use f-stops to refer to aperture sizes, where a smaller f-stop refers to a larger aperture and vice versa.
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. Make sense?
Aperture is also responsible for controlling the depth of field – the amount of your image that is in focus. The larger the aperture, the smaller the depth of field.
Here’s an image with a shallow depth of field (shot at f/2.8 or so):
And here’s an image with a deep depth of field (shot around f/11):
See the difference? The wide aperture ensured a very blurry background (though a portion of the flower is still sharp). The narrow aperture, on the other hand, 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.
Shutter speed is essentially the exposure time of an image; that is, how long the shutter stays open to allow light to hit the sensor.
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 freezes the action, while a slow shutter speed will produce motion blur:
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.
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.)
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
So, Manual mode lets you 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.)
And 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 approach 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.
Step 2: Set your shutter speed for sharpness
How fast is my subject moving? What shutter speed do I need to keep it sharp?
Here, you might think about using the handy Reciprocal Rule, or you might estimate based on previous experiences. When shooting handheld, I rarely stray below 1/125s or so (and if my subject is moving quickly, 1/800s is my bottom limit).
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.
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).
Start by setting your ISO to its lowest value. This is generally ISO 100, but might be ISO 160, ISO 200, or ISO 50, depending on your camera.
Then 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.
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 instead. Whereas if you’re using a slow shutter speed for artistic motion blur, then narrow your aperture.
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, well-composed 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.
Manual mode is good if…
- You’re working in unchanging lighting conditions.
- You want complete control over your different exposure variables.
- You want to underexpose or overexpose your photos for creative effects.
- 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…
- The light is changing rapidly or your subject is moving between sun and shade.
- You care about the aperture or the shutter speed, but your other settings are less important.
- You’re photographing action where nailing the autofocus is your primary concern (and your particular exposure settings take a backseat).
- 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 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.
Manual mode: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be able to confidently use Manual mode in your own photography.
(Also, don’t forget to download the cheat sheets featured throughout!)
So head out! Practice working with different settings. And have fun!