Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

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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.

Aperture

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.

ISO

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

Conclusion

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.

  • Capixaba

    Oh my Gosh
    One more Manual Mode MSC. I Think, they – the Manual mode experts – Forgot the EV button when working with Av Tv A or S. Or like others do not even know what for EV is…
    EV let me take total control of my exposure.
    Manual Mode for better pictures is a MITH.
    Manual mode does not improve your photo at all

  • Maxou

    I’m sorry if I misunderstood what you meant, but I used manual mode a lot to understand how my camera react in some situations, and it was really helpful.
    I still use full manual mode for night sky pictures, and manual mode + auto ISO with spot mettering for portraits.
    I find it great to keep a balance between control of my shots and usability, but I’d like to hear more how you use Ev in these situations, maybe it will improve my technique 🙂

  • Dan

    I have rarely used Aperture or Shutter priority. I know my aperture and shutter speed I want to use. I have only two manual dials on my camera and for ISO I must press some button and turn the dial. But many times Auto-ISO is perfectly all right and I do not do anything. If the light condition is changing a lot this is the only solution. With Auto-ISO I can always set Exposure Compensation by pressing one button and the dial. Together with Back button technique this is my favorite setting.

  • BlackEternity

    It’s not that manual mode improves my photos – it helps me get the view I want.
    For example:
    I had tinkered around with shutter priority mode because in the beginner’s lessons, you often learn that these Priority modes are helpful. I wasn’t getting the pic I wanted because it always changed my Apterture to wide open to let in light.
    I WANTED a dark scene – that was the scene I wanted to capture – so I had to change to full manual to take control of BOTH of these.
    The Auto settings were just compensating for the lack of light and increased everything to make it bright.

    Don’t confuse this article with others that say: “this is superior because I did it for 30+ years”.

    The article clearly says, that it can be helpful to be in full manual to get what YOU want.
    And if you are happy with full auto settings and don’t need manual, that’s fine.

    I miss my full manual settings from my Lumia 1020 on my iPhone. That’s the reason I bought an Alpha 6000. To get that manual control back and to make better pictures.
    Everyone his own 🙂

  • Tom Cooper

    Manual mode does not improve your photography. But it makes you a better photographer if understand and know how to use manual mode, even if you then choose not to.

    No matter what anybody thinks, you cannot truly understand it by reading about it or watching videos about it. Like riding a horse, you MUST go out and do it to understand it. Then your photos may not be better, but you WILL be a better photographer.

  • Niko Phôto

    Thanks for sharing Dan

  • Niko Phôto

    Hey Capixaba, the article does not say that manual mode makes better pictures – the objective was to show how it allows you more control of your settings. Everyone has their methods and modes – this was not disqualifying any of them.

  • Niko Phôto

    Thanks for your points Tom 🙂

  • Niko Phôto

    Thanks for stopping by BlackEternity. I appreciate your thoughts and you are correct, it is meant to explain how it gives you control and not as an alternative to the other modes..

  • Niko Phôto

    Thanks for stopping by Maxou 🙂

  • Sarita Rampersad

    Great, clear article – very useful for those just starting out!

  • Raden Adams

    Hello Nisha, Actually, I will only say this; I do indeed take much better photos in manual mode! Simple as that!

  • Dan

    By the way thanks for nice article. Photography is great fun is not it? Complex procedure with many parameters, situations. Good for whole life learning and exercise (:-)

  • Raden Adams

    Hello Nisha, Another great and informative article as I have come to expect from you and your knowledge and talent! I primarily shoot in manual mode mainly because of my type of photography. But, all modes do have their place and time and when to use them. I shoot mostly fast moving, flittering, fluttering migratory warblers in the deep shade and canopy of the forest, using a super telephoto 150-600 mm lens. I would love to use either AP or SP more often, mostly because of having Exposure Compensation available for help in the low lit shadows, but for some reason, I have yet to learn how and to trust in letting the camera select a fast enough shutter speed and have lost lots of shots when relying on the camera. Nothing I hate more than to have a blurry, out of focus, shot of a cool migratory bird that I won’t see again until next year when he passes through again, if then. Therefore, when I shoot in manual mode, setting all controls myself, I always have much better success. Now, when I use a smaller, faster lens, and in a much different setting, I have much better luck in using another mode and in a lot of situations, AP or SP , is a much preferred mode. It’s another ballgame entirely when I am shooting something that is stationary, an old historic house, for example, and with plenty of light with a smaller and faster lens. Don’t get stuck on the idea of any mode being your only choice and learn how and when to use them all because you will only become a better photographer when you completely know and understand your camera and/or lens and everything it is capable of doing. Sometimes, I love to carry my dogs riding the country back roads around my home and a considerable number of my best shots were taken out of the Jeep window. I am usually juggling one camera with my largest zoom lens, another with a medium zoom and a third with my 18-200 mm lens because you never know what is around the next curve. I couldn’t possible have them all set on manual mode and have enough time to, set the ISO and other settings then focus and get the shot. So, I set them accordingly to the mode that will allow me enough time to focus and shoot. So, I may even set one to full Auto mode, another to Priority mode, etc… Also, this is a time, among others, that I will also use and experiment with Auto ISO, the different settings available in Auto Focus, a different metering mode and so on. I am usually happier with my composition and capture of something cool and exciting than I am worried about what mode I used to capture it in. Just get out there and learn it all and have fun. I do prefer and use manual mode almost always. I learned manual mode by taking thousands and thousands of shots, literally, and once I learned how and what it all means and does, especially the different setting combinations, I developed another sense, if you will, and could select or change any setting very quickly, while also just knowing what setting is best for that individual shot. I also my be somewhat of a control freak and prefer the camera to do what I tell it to do! Folks, this girl knows what she is talking about, just go look at her portfolio. That’s all I had to do about year or two ago and still I love and learn from her to this day!

  • Gil Sousa

    Thank you for this article. Of the three edges of the triangle, the ISO is really the one I find the hardest to understand. Usually I shoot in manual mode, but to be honest I play a lot by ear, and what it seems to look better in the moment, but in fairness I still struggle to understand how to really use the ISO. What I usually do, I go for the lowest ISO possible, and then from there I increase it according to the light available. Is this the correct way to go?

  • KC

    ISO can be confusing. You’re not far wrong with going with “starting low” and working your way up. Let me try this from the theory side first. It might help.

    Technically, digital camera sensors have one sensitivity, typically the lowest ISO number. As you climb up the increments, the signal from the sensor is amplified. As the signal is amplified it starts to degrade, creates distortions, or noise, and the camera’s processor tries to filter that out.

    Now, as to selecting the best ISO for a situation. Well, lower is better, but it’s situational. I haven’t had much need to drift over 1600. If that calculates to a slow shutter speed, then I’ll use some sort of support. Unless I absolutely need to stop action I’m fine with a bit of motion blur.

  • Ian Browne

    If I may; I would like to throw in a couple of tips in about the subject
    The way I got my head around shutter/aperture/depth of field — something like 40 years ago — was to think the longer the shutter is open the more of the subject from front to back can get onto the film. Bit weird but it worked.
    Having used manual only film cameras in the past, I’m not in any hurry to go back to manual when using cameras of today that are smarter and can think faster than I can. However I still use ‘manual’ for most photos I take by the using exposure compensation dial. Imo; that is still using manual

    Anyone interested the more advanced photography do need to know how the use full manual without thinking about it when required. For me now, that is not very often as I would rather let the camera do what it does best while I concentrate on the one thing the camera cannot do; and that is pick the best composition for the subject.

    Last tip; stop reading stuff like that!! Too much information can be worse than not enough when learning. Pick a ‘teacher’ and run with them. Imo a good book is better than all the confusing **** on the web these days and the best teacher is still the camera in your hand, or better still, on a tripod.
    If you haven’t bought a camera; consider the great mirrorless cameras instead of an old fashion dslr.

    I often feel it’s strange that those starting out today are making the same mistakes I was making when I started out.

    Good article Nisha

  • Capixaba

    I do know that the article did not say that.
    I said. And repeat: Manual mode is a mith. I do not use it and I have total control of my exposure. Thanks for your atenttion

  • Ian Browne

    and that is mainly due to you needing to think more before clicking
    GREAT point
    I find a tripod does similar

  • TByte

    Yet another article about Manual Mode.
    There’s this mathematical concept known as “degrees of freedom”, people.

  • TByte

    No, you don’t.
    I guarantee that you have never taken a picture in manual mode that could not have been taken in one of the priority modes.

  • TByte

    You didn’t need to change to manual mode.
    You just need to learn how to use the exposure compensation button.

  • Tom Cooper

    I can guarantee that of the hundreds of night sky photos I have taken, maybe three or four could have been taken by any of my camera’s auto modes, including the night sky mode. The rest could not.

  • Niko Phôto

    All very salient points Ian. Thank you for sharing. I totally agree that the best teacher is indeed the camera in your hand, and lots of practice.

  • Niko Phôto

    Hi Gil, as primarily a landscape photographer, I also have a preference of going for the lowest possible ISO and increase accordingly.

    DPS has quite a few comprehensive articles targeting ISO specifically. Here’s a link to one:
    https://digital-photography-school.com/understand-iso-digital-camera/

  • Niko Phôto

    Thanks for weighing in with some good info KC 🙂

  • Niko Phôto

    Hey Raden, thanks for your detailed post with many valid points. I agree different modes have their place. Hope you’ve been well 🙂

  • Niko Phôto

    Thanks Sarita 🙂

  • Niko Phôto

    I agree Dan. Photography is indeed great fun. One of the reasons I am so drawn to it, is the learning element. There is always much to learn and play around with in the different genres. And when you figure stuff out … and get that great shot, it comes with an amazing feeling 🙂

  • Niko Phôto

    It all comes down to knowing your camera, the respective buttons and the modes right TByte? This article just serves to explain one of the modes that the camera comes with 🙂

  • TByte

    Touche’.
    But those are night sky photos. They require long exposures or even bulb mode. For general photography….no. And I was referring to Priority modes, not auto modes.

  • BlackEternity

    Then please goo ahead and elaborate me on how to do that instead of just blatantly writing that I should have done.

    I am not saying I only use full manual and it’s superior above everything.
    For shots I really want to take safe, I switch to one of the Auto modes or Speed / Aperture priority.

    Because I’m fairly new to the camera scene, I often take one or two shots with one of the Auto modes and then check what Settings were chosen and try to understand why.
    Of course, often these pictures are really beautiful and I admire the technology behind all that. But again – Photography is an expression of you view – your storytelling. There is no right or wrong.

    I am still learning and I use my camera in manual mode to understand how the picture comes together. When I take pictures of a few horses or animals, I choose multiple different settings: Speed / ISO to see the changes and I always take a couple of Auto-Settings to just see how the Camera would have done that.

  • Eileen Thompson

    You talk a lot of sense Ian … some of us are not born with a mathematical/technical brain, so it’s harder for me to get the hang of and then remember all the advice, buttons,dials,menus etc of my camera. I’ve been struggling with it for some years now and I’m happier trying to get the best shots from an artistic and design point of view. Sometimes I look back at my compact camera days and think the pics I took then on auto were comparable or even better technically than my pics now! Plus I can correct techy things in post processing.
    I find myself trying to do what the professionals want me to do , and now I am getting a lot older (& wiser??) I keep wondering if I should make life a lot easier for myself by going auto again – And I too, currently use my camera’s exposure compensation button for when the sun is too bright or it’s a cloudy day!
    The worst thing is the danger of not being looked on as a serious photographer because you used ‘auto’ tut-tut!

  • TByte

    Use either Shutter Speed Priority or Aperture Priority. Set that value you want for the scene. Allow the camera to choose the other settings most of the time. If there are unusually bright areas of the scene then set the exposure compensation down a stop or two. If there are unusually dark areas, boost it up a notch or two. Use your histogram.
    If you need to control both shutter and aperture, then put it in auto-iso mode.

  • John Miner

    thank you, Nisha. your article was clear, except for one sentence. if you could explain it, i’d appreciate it.
    “You can use the camera marker on your exposure chart as a guide.”

    is the exposure chart provided in some of my in-camera information?

  • Niko Phôto

    Hi John, I was referencing your exposure guide – which you can see on your camera settings or even while looking through the view finder. Hope this little diagram helps 🙂

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7094973c061f7db5d1f2565cb8230dca818d57aa8c801793508cbce542647a90.jpg

  • Niko Phôto

    Do you shoot in studio? If you do, please share with us what Mode you use there?

  • John Miner

    oh yes, now i know what you meant. thanks so much.

  • Raden Adams

    Shut up fool. I don’t even have time for you and your girlfriend, TBytes, ignorance, pretending like you even understand photography. Besides, that 10 year old point and shoot camera that you both share, well, it doesn’t even have a manual mode.

  • Raden Adams

    TByte this is also intended you and it applies perfectly without a single change but your stupid name, Shut up fool. I don’t even have time for you and your girlfriend, Ians, ignorance, pretending like you even understand photography. Besides, that 10 year old point and shoot camera that you both share, well, it doesn’t even have a manual mode.

  • TByte

    I accept your concession that you cannot defend your claim.
    Good day, sir.

  • Raden Adams

    Once again your ignorance is on display but this time, your fear shines very bright!

  • TByte

    Once again your impotence is on display.
    You’re funny, dude.

  • Raden Adams

    Impotence, now that is funny says the troll that still lives with his mother.

  • Raden Adams

    That you can’t understand! Go back to your comic books.

  • Raden Adams

    You are simply an idiot!

  • TByte

    My background is in statistics, son. I understand degrees of freedom very well.
    Try again, boy? So far you’ve just been embarrassing yourself.

  • Raden Adams

    Oh no, mama’s boy. You continue to fail miserably pretending to be someone else other than the loser that you truly are.

  • Ian Browne

    There is CERTIANLY nothing wrong with using basic compact camera Eileen; in fact, I think a good quality compact off the top shelf is the better camera to get after the smart phone. Too many make it so hard for themselves by jumping to a DSRL; a camera I will very likely never own/use again.
    I often say; don’t make digital photography harder than it already is Eileeen. And to be quite honest; I’m not sure I could handle the digital learning curve if I was starting out from scratch today. Using manual film cameras was a great teacher ; for a slow learner LOL
    Using manual all the time is making it harder than it needs to be for weekend happy snappers.
    Not understanding to basics of manual may mean you miss that photo; but then we cannot get every photo we might see; no matter how much gear we have.
    A mirrorless cameras will likely make learning photography somewhat easy imo; as does having or using LESS gear.
    Sadly; basic editing is just part of photography today; the same way basic editing was once done when getting films printed (I used to own a minilab many years ago)

    Using your cameras spot meter is a way to get around the need for knowing all the ins and outs of manual exposure settings.
    When not sure about the “prefect” settings is the time to bracket a few exposures; especially if not using raw capture — don’t know about or understanding bracketing; do some googling — or I’m sure this digital photography school would have a few articles.

    K.I.S.S. — keep it simply simple — or keep it simple stupid — or keep it simple silly-billy or as I said to my wedding brides clients; keep it simple sweetheart
    I’m happy to help out anyone when and where I can (facebook) ; and no ; I have nothing to sell you ;).

  • Ian Browne

    ROF LOL I totally agree with you there TByte .

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