Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images


As the owner of a DSLR camera, you may have heard the pros encouraging you to graduate to Manual Mode or M on your camera’s dial. While there are different schools of thought on which mode to use, Manual Mode allows you the greatest control over your settings.

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

So why are so many people still daunted by it and how do you take next step to start working with Manual Mode? In this article, I’ll try to simplify it for you so you can understand how to use it and take better images.

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

Why Manual Mode?

If you use the other modes, the camera helps you figure out some or all of the settings. For example, if you choose Aperture Priority mode, the camera works out the shutter speed and vice versa if you choose Shutter Priority. So if it already does all this, why bother with manual?

Sometimes these automated or semi-automated settings are not always in line with your vision. They may even be incorrect or tricked by unique lighting situations. This is where you take back control by using Manual Mode. You tell the camera how you want your output and your photos to look.

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

Understanding the Big Three

As stated before, with Manual Mode you have control over “everything”- but what exactly does this mean? Well simply put, there are three variables that determine the exposure of your photograph and Manual Mode puts you in control all of them. These variables are the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which together make up what is known as the Exposure Triangle. The balance of these three points of the exposure triangle is what Manual Mode is all about.


Also known as f-number or f-stop, aperture refers to the size of the hole in your lens that lets in light. With a larger aperture (smaller f-number like f/2.8), more light hits your camera sensor. The reverse is also true (a larger f-number like f/16 lets in less light).

NOTE: It is often confusing for beginners because the smaller the number, the larger the hole. Just remember that the aperture is a ratio or fraction so f/2 is like 1/2 and f/20 is like 1/22. So remember that one half of anything is larger than 1/20th. 

Your control of aperture determines the depth of field in your photo – or how much of your image is sharp. A wider aperture (like f/2.8) results in a shallow depth of field. This means that only a part of your image is sharp, leaving the rest blurred or out of focus. Portraits are a good scenario to use wider apertures.

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

Here a shallow depth of field has been combined with a fast shutter speed to get this shot.

If you want most of your image to be sharp, use a smaller aperture. Smaller apertures (higher f-numbers like f/16) are commonly used when shooting outdoor or landscape scenery.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the length of time that the shutter inside your camera is opened and light is allowed to hit the sensor. So to double the amount of light, you can double the length of your exposure.

If you want to freeze motion, use faster shutter speeds to limit the amount of time that light hits the sensor. Conversely, if you want to blur motion in your scene, use slower shutter speeds (or long exposure photography).

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

Taking control of your shutter speed can change your usual day shots. Here a long exposure was used to add a motion blur to the moving water.


To keep the definition of ISO simple, it is the way your camera controls its sensitivity to light. Increasing your ISO value allows you to shoot in lower light conditions without a tripod. Note that higher ISO values add digital noise to your image which affects image quality. Fortunately, most cameras now handle digital noise better that those of times gone by, so experiment with it as it can be quite useful.

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

Higher ISO values can add noise (grain) to your image but it is sometimes necessary to do this.

How to use Manual Mode

Now that you are familiar with what Manual Mode controls, how do you start working with it? Well, after you decide what you want to shoot, pick one the points of the exposure triangle as your starting point.

To shoot a landscape, for example, decide how much you want in sharp focus. Let’s say you choose an aperture of f/16. After your aperture is set, turn your shutter speed dial until the exposure is balanced. You can use the camera marker on your exposure chart as a guide. Theoretically, you have just balanced your aperture and shutter speed.

Start with your ISO at 100 and take a shot. Is your photo too bright or too dark? Based on the results, adjust your settings and retry. When working with the exposure triangle, most times when you adjust one setting, you usually have to adjust one of the other two (in the opposite direction) to get a balanced result and a proper exposure.

Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images


Manual Mode may seem daunting, but as you learn more about controlling light, it becomes easier with time. While nothing is wrong with using the other available modes of your camera, the ability to control the final output of your vision is a great skill to develop.

If you have any tips or tricks that worked for you when you were learning Manual Mode, please share with us in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Nisha Ramroop is an I.T. chick and Project Manager with a passion for photography, currently living in the beautiful Trinidad & Tobago. She’s a published writer and photographer who spends most of her free time traveling and exploring. See more of her work at Nikophotography.

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for sharing that with us, Eileen.
    I’m a beginner for digital photography myself and am in my late 20s. So I’m pretty used to digital stuff and the likes.
    If you look to your old picturs from the compact camera and you see something that you don’t get in your current pictures anymore – have to used your Auto-Settings on your Camera? Or are you using full manual?
    Don’t care so much what others might think that you used some form of auto settings (be it Aperture / Speed prio or one of the true full auto modes).
    Don’t forget: You pay good money to a company that builds a camera and puts much know-how into these auto modes so people use them 😉

    As I said – I’m a beginner and hobby-photographer and what I do when I don’t nail a shot how I want it, I go to one of the auto modes and take pictures with that.
    Review what settings they used (ISO, Speed / Aperture) and then try to understand why they did that different than I did. And for future pics, I might bump up the iso a whole lot to get the look the auto mode did pretty well.

    Don’t let yourself get told what you should do. If you feel confident in Auto, do that. If you want to experiment around – switch to manual. And if that’s too much for you and you just want to take a lovely picture on that beautiful day, then do that with whatever suits you best for that day.

    My mother learned photography 35+ years ago and she was confident and great. She bought a compact camera and sometimes wants to do more than the camera is capable of. I showed her my Alpha 6000. She was overwhelmed and said she could never use it. Put it into one of the priority modes and she snapped happy pictures.
    One step at a time. If all control is too much – let the camera do that.
    Heck, I use Auto-ISO in most of the pictures I take because I don’t want to fiddle around with that if I don’t have to and the camera often does a good job at that (except darkest night).


  • Raden Adams
  • Eileen Thompson

    Thank you for your kind encouragement Black Eternity – I think I’m reaching a happy compromise these days, using the manual stuff I’ve manage to master better with practise and going auto when I get overwhelmed! I love my present camera- Olympus OM D E 10 because of it’s light weight, but the menus are complicated and have taken me a long time to get to grips with – and it’s the same with post processing – I love anything ‘instant’ and avoid Layers for the same reasons as manual v auto in camera. I’m just discovering too how useful some of the camera’s ‘modes’ eg soft can be, ha ha – anything to make life easier! I love being creative ….

  • TByte

    Be sure to wipe off your keyboard when you are finished sputtering, son.

  • TByte

    Triggered much?
    You melted down fast, snowflake.

  • Ian Browne

    Sorry; bit off topic here
    This might help you Eileen
    BTW; the EM1 has over a million possible ways to set the camera!! Yeah :EEK:. I have a very much ‘auto’ everything camera custom setting that does not miss too many photos; but it is set to raw capture. Happy to post if someone wants it
    Not sure which program you use; however On1 and Luminar are pretty handy with one or two click preset editing and very advanced editing
    BTW; OM D E 10; great camera!!

  • Raden Adams
  • Raden Adams
  • Raden Adams
  • Eileen Thompson

    Many thanks Ian. I’ve used Paintshop Pro for some years (since I started) because it’s cheaper than Photoshop to buy and I’m just a hobbyist (albeit a serious one), plus I have ON1 effects as a stand alone plug-in, which I use often and is brilliant. Everyone these days seems to use Lightroom , so articles everywhere assume that’s what we’re all using – there’s very little, if anything at all, for Paintshop Pro. I think that’s why I’ve never got the hang of using Layers – their site’s videos, articles’ etc screen shots are never the same that I’m seeing! I feel the need for someone physically at my shoulder …
    Thank you for the link to customising my camera. Having looked at it I think I would simply get overwhelmed by all the tasks involved …. but I can see how useful it could be !

  • Raden Adams
  • Raden Adams
  • Jack Doy

    No need to chuck your toys out of the pram.

  • Ian Browne

    I agree Eileen ; the Olympus are rather complicate and that’s why I have this custom setting that suits MY photography. Others will need to make as suits them. I also have an auto bracketing Cs.
    My Oly custom setting
    Av – F8 – raw – Af – auto iso to max of 1000 – centre single point focus (that is all I even use) – Sunny white balance (auto would be OK) – 4:3 ratio – single shot – multi pattern metering – EVF histogram on – no auto photo checker needed – screen off – rear dial set to exposure compensation – front dial set to Av/shutter. (I very seldom check photos on the screen ‘in the field’

    With similar settings you just need to turn the camera on or spin the dial to where you have the setting (I use iAuto) and the camera is ready to go.

    Aperture is fast to adjust if need be (front dial)
    Exposure is quick and easy to adjust with the back dial as the live histogram is in the view finder — now that’s something the DSLR users don’t have – I would not travel without it.
    Fn1 button for WB
    Fn2 button for shutter speed.
    I never use the bells and whistles they have to included so the cameras sells so hate paying for them lol.

    Very much fully auto, but still MANUAL EXPOSURE to my mind; and with experience it’s so easy to change all settings on the run so to speak. I have to admit I’m getting a bit rusty at that due to lack of use.

  • Eileen Thompson

    You have been so kind and generous with your sharing Ian and I am truly grateful – I think I may have a go at customising after all , I won’t know if I can do it if I don’t try will I? ?? Thank you so much,

  • Stephen Moylan

    When first getting to grips with full manual operation, I found it useful to switch on the stop bracketing feature. That way I would get an image at the exposure I selected, one slightly over exposed and one slightly under exposed. This allowed me to get a photo that was still decent even if I managed to get the settings a little wrong, whilst also showing me the subtle differences minor adjustments to the settings have on the result.

  • TByte

    That was posted by a guy who works as a grocery bagger and believes he has magical powers. You kind of remind me of him….

    So now you are googling me and messaging me on Facebook too?
    Achievement unlocked: Maximum Patheticalness.

  • PDL

    My 2 cents.
    My first camera, Brownie Box, 1 shutter speed, two apertures for bright and “normal”. Minimal “manual” control.
    My first 35mm camera was a automatic 35mm rangefinder. The meter needle was “trapped” by the shutter choosing f:stop and shutter. ISO (ASA) was set manually. It does have a manual mode where the shutter speed is 1/30 of a second and you choose the aperture.
    The first 35mm SLR was a manual camera, yes it had a meter but you adjusted the appropriate shutter/aperture to match the LED in the view finder.
    The Yashica, Foth Flex, 4×5 mono rail and other cameras were all manual.
    My Pentax SF1 was fully automatic/autofocus and I fought that thing.
    My current digital DSLR cameras are, well, DSLR’s with the ability to do what I want.

    So manual is the ultimate way to get better pictures? I don’t think so, the 1960’s called and they want their falsehoods back. Use the best method you can to get the images you want. It is knowing how to use the appropriate mode to get the best image while not getting all wrapped up over which “way” is better.

    If understanding manual makes you a better photographer – then I must be one of the best on the planet since I have been using manual from the early 60’s to just a few weeks ago.

  • Raden Adams

    Hey man! Yes sir, I do agree with the level of patheticness but I had insomnia, was very bored, and you won the prize. Lucky you, huh!? Actually, I was posting it, more as it being stupid and funny, and not a stab at you, but I had to go sleep and did not explain. Did you get to read my other message? Anyway, in my longer post to Nisha, I was explaining that, in my choice of photography and the surroundings that I find myself in, I have yet to master AP or SP modes, like I have manual, thus better photos. I love having exposure compensation available in those modes for the deep, dark canopy of the forest but my photos are, most often than not, blurry when letting the camera select the shutter speed, when shooting a flighty, fluttering, tiny warbler in the low light of the forest. Harder still, is the fact that I am using a 150-600mm telephoto lens that is much slower to focus and adjust to low light. One of the reasons I really like this type of photography, other than the birds, is because it is such a challenge for me. Take care and I am sure you really found more humor than insult with my comments.

  • Raden Adams

    Hey Jack, that sounds funny but I don’t know exactly what it means.

  • Jack Doy

    Hello Raden,
    It’s what babies do. So more Sarcastic than funny, or maybe slightly insulting.
    You make some valid comments, but let your self down by being rude to people.
    Have a nice day now.

  • Raden Adams

    Same as me , Dan.

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