Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos

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Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos

“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” Ernst Haas

Do you ever ask yourself why the images you capture are not like the ones you see in your mind’s eye?

Do you ever wonder why your photos don’t look as good as a professional’s? What makes theirs look so great?

The answer is – probably because you are shooting in Auto!

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos5 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 100

Get more creative with Manual Mode

A professional takes full creative control over every aspect of the photo and makes creative choices in the image creation process. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the base. If you don’t control these then you will be unable to create the best possible image.

Digital cameras nowadays make exposure so easy. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to shoot on manual. But there is – it’s creativity. Specifically, creative exposures.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1/200th, f/2.2, ISO 500

Take control of the process

If you want awesome photos, then shooting with control is the most important part of the creative journey with photography. With Manual Mode, you get full control. Total creativity.

I know a lot of people feel intimidated trying Manual, but I have taught hundreds of people to feel comfortable and confident with it so I know it’s totally possible for anyone to learn.

Even if you aren’t tech-minded, you can do this! All you need is the basic understanding of the process – and practice.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos30 seconds, f/10, ISO 200

The camera cannot (at least at the moment) make creative choices in the way that you can. You’ll often end up with un-dynamic exposures when the camera chooses for you.

How many well-exposed photos do you see on Facebook? The majority are shot using some Automatic Mode or another. They are all the same base density. Sure, they are properly exposed, but that base exposure is just the beginning when shooting with intent.

All those exposures start from the same base, zero. Many photographers just leave it there because it looks good, it looks “correct”. That is Auto.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1.6 seconds, f/10, ISO 50

Exposure is part of photographic artistry. Don’t pass on it just because your photos look good….they can be so much better!

Here is the simple method I use to explain the process of shooting in Manual Mode.

The Exposure Triangle

Shooting in Manual Mode means controlling three fundamental settings in photography:

  1. ISO
  2. Aperture
  3. Shutter Speed

Together they are collectively known as “The Exposure Triangle”.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos13 seconds, f/9, ISO 250

What do these three controls do?

  • ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. Think of it this way – do you want the sensor to absorb light quickly, sacrificing detail and contrast (high ISO), or do you want to let the light in slowly absorbing every color, capturing every juicy detail (low ISO)?
  • Aperture controls the INTENSITY of the light flowing onto the sensor. Think of coming out of a Saturday afternoon matinee and how intense the light is after being in the dark for a few hours. You’re practically blinded for a moment (until your pupils adjust to the light and become smaller – the aperture opens and closes much the same way). That’s intensity!
  • Shutter Speed (SS) is a time value – in other words, how long is the exposure. The time is combined with the intensity of the light from your Aperture setting. Shutter speed is represented as 1/250th of a second, for example.

These three settings are all you need to know about making a manual exposure. That’s it. Now let talk about how to approach it.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1/30th, f/2.2, ISO 3200

Think ISO first

When making a manual exposure ISO should always be your first consideration!

There are two questions you have to ask yourself before you start making exposures.

  1. How much light is on the subject?
    This is essentially a technical decision. (ISO)
  2. How can I make my subject look its best?
    This is essentially a creative decision. (Shutter speed and Aperture combination)

The answers to these questions are the key to the whole process. Once you have the answers, you can set your exposure.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1/125, f/13, ISO 400

This is how I shoot in Manual Mode, explained in three easy steps.

Step #1 – How much light is on the subject?

Do I have:

  • Full daylight
  • A gloomy interior
  • A heavily shaded area between buildings
  • And so on…

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos2 seconds, f/10, ISO 320

First off, I’ll set my ISO accordingly. I usually go for the lowest ISO I can get away with shooting handheld. If I have a tripod I’ll go even lower. You can go almost a whole day without needing to change your ISO much.

It’s the easiest thing to set and forget. But if you need to move it you can. This is not a big deal on modern cameras where image quality is amazing at almost any ISO.

ISO scale - Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos

TIP #1

Set your ISO and don’t think about it unless the light level changes a lot – like you go indoors, the sun sets, or you walk into a heavily shaded area, etc. You get the point.

TIP #2

Look at the light! Photography is a study of light, after all, so your first step is to learn to really see it, to observe what it is doing, its strength and quality. When you have a deep familiarity with light from willfully observing it, you grow to know it.

Being aware of light levels makes shooting in manual much easier. When you are out, be tuned in to the light.

Step #2 – I ask myself “What is my priority?”

How do I decide what is the priority for my shot?

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos10 seconds, f/11, ISO 50

It all comes down to what I’m shooting – prioritizing shutter speed or aperture to whatever I think will make my subject look its best.

  • Am I shooting landscapes and want a wide depth of field? (select a small aperture like f/16).
  • Am I shooting portraits and so want a shallow depth of field? (aperture again, this time a wide setting like f/2.8).
  • Perhaps I am shooting sports or action, and want pin-sharp images of fast-moving subjects? (shutter speed this time – choose a fast one to freeze the subject like 1/2000th).

I’ll make my choice of shutter speed or aperture as my top priority. Now I have two points of the exposure triangle set. For the last setting, I adjust the exposure on the light meter scale.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1/15th, f/4.5, ISO 12,800

Step #3 – Adjusting the exposure

Now is the time to look at the camera meter.

Use the light meter scale – get the marker near the center or thereabouts with the one remaining dial (in other words if you chose the aperture in step #2, the last one being set here is the shutter speed). On this -2 to +2 scale, where you place the exposure matters a lot! This is the essence of creative exposures. It dictates the mood of the photograph.

Being in the centre or “0” position is rarely the right exposure for me.

Light meter scale - Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your PhotosLight Meter Scale

Remember, each point of the exposure triangle is NOT fixed. Each click or interval (usually in 1/3 increments) are equal, so 2 (+) clicks of ISO is equal to 2 (-) clicks of aperture or shutter speed. These are called reciprocating exposures and they are the key to shooting creatively.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you would like a little faster shutter speed, then do it. But compensate with an equal but opposite amount of another setting. What choice you make at this point is completely creative, not technical.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos3.2 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 100

TIP # 3

Let’s say you are shooting a landscape with a good foreground, a large tree perhaps, You set your aperture to f/16 for good depth of field (priority), ISO is at 100 and you have a shutter speed of 1/60th. This is a classic landscape exposure – with a lot of Depth of Field.

For an alternative image of the same scene, you could think of the tree as a portrait photo and open up the aperture to f/4 (+4 stops) and adjust the shutter speed to 1/1000th (-4 stops) keeping the ISO at 100 and the exposure the same.

You would lose most of the Depth of Field, but gain a nice bokeh making the tree isolated, like a good portrait. Now you’ve created a different feel to a classic landscape using a reciprocating exposure. But wait, there is still more you can do!

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos2.5 seconds @ f/4.0 ISO 100

Now, how about underexposing this scene by 1-1.5 stops to create a more low-key moody image. If the tree was in bright sun and the background shaded, I would instinctively underexpose to emphasize that contrast.

Putting it all into practice

You will miss a few exposures now and then. Everyone does, but don’t let it discourage you. I think a big part of the fear of shooting in Manual Mode is the, “I will miss the shot”echoing in people’s heads. Like I say, it happens to everyone.

Losing a few shots is still worth the wealth of knowledge and creativity you get from sticking with it and totally controlling your photography. Those missed shots will appear less and less as you improve, and your new found skill shooting in manual will reflect in your photos.

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos2 seconds @ f/5.0 ISO 50

I recommend you shoot at least 1,000 images in your practice. If you really focus, you could nail Manual Mode over a weekend. There is no substitute for practice.

Slow down and have fun! It will be worth every bad shot you take.

Study your images in post-production

Once you have taken your images, it is a really good idea to study your images in post-processing. All of the information about exposure is stored in the metadata which you access in a program like Lightroom (you can filter and sort your images by ISO, Aperture, etc.).

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1/30th, f/8, ISO 50

A few more final words – and action steps!

Did you know that two of the best ways to fully learn something is to:

  1. Practice it
  2. Explain it or teach it to someone else

By practicing it over and over you are teaching it into your body, almost like muscle memory. You do it so many times you’ll end up with it being automatic like it is for me (and those with years of experience who make it look effortless).

Super Simple Introduction to Manual Mode and How it Will Transform Your Photos1/400th @ f/4.0 ISO 200

By explaining it, preferably a few times, to someone else, your brain starts to build new neural networks (which happens anytime you learn anything). So if you want to remember anything, you need to keep the neural networks alive, and by repeating it, explaining it, and practicing it over and over you’ll make that a solid memory in your brain.

So the short term work of repetition leads to remembering it long term. How cool is that?

I really, really hope this has helped you “get” Manual Mode. I love the creative possibilities of photography, and it makes all the difference when you feel comfortable with your tools. I would love to know if this has helped you – and if you’ll take the leap to practice shooting in manual.

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Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. He is also a teacher - writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques.

  • Capixaba

    bla bla bla bla bla
    Shooting in M mode does not improve your picture at all.
    If you keep doing what your meter says, you do exactly what Mode P does.
    Learn to interpret light and use Av. A, Tv or S along with exposure compensation … and have full control of your exposure ….
    Shooting in M mode is a Myth that needs to be broken urgently.
    And also use Canon cameras because it has ISO AUTO which makes it easy to understand the light much easier

  • Wandering Jones

    Good tips. As someone who is just starting out in the DSLR world, I found this post very helpful! Practice certainly makes perfect.

  • Albin

    Most new photographers want to and will try full Manual (M) mode because it’s there and success is a measure of proficiency. Can’t say I’ve ever succeeded with full Manual except on a tripod, with a stable situation and plenty of time for trial and error – handheld on the move or in a changing environment, forget it. It’s very healthy, however, to understand the holy Exposure Trinity even while posing the ecumenical question, “What would Auto do?” (First note, the DSLR boom with several million retirees dropping $15k on gear and shooting Auto (disappointing themselves, throwing their backs out with gear bags, and boring the heck out of family and friends on vacation) is a decade past: DSLRs are for pros and serious hobbyists. Almost all have worked their way up the food chain through some pretty good compacts and bridge cameras, nowadays with pretty large sensors, decent lenses and good microprocessors, at less than a 15th the price.) Hard to imagine most DSLR buyers today not being well beyond on these basics.

    Most of the properly exposed but lousy amateur images posted on the internet (set aside stale composition and “trendy” fads like radioactive multishot hdr, dry ice moving waters, or “bokeh”) are caused by shooting at high ISO and then letting the in-camera noise reduction algorithm smear the noise into the details, leaving finger-painted blobs and a plasticky texture – that is because consumer cameras make their adjustments (mistakes) on the side of increasing ISO. For most new users, especially handheld, better results will come from locking the ISO at an acceptable level for the model of camera (which you’ve used long enough to know), and then using a live histogram to adjust either shutter priority or aperture priority mode (with exposure compensation – not available in full Manual)) for the right combination of exposure, motion-capture, and depth of field. Nearly all cameras also permit multishot exposure bracketing, which provides a margin of error for individual shots, or can be combined for “hdr” to capture it all.

  • DD

    I’m surprised you need so much time and such a non-dynamic environment to get a good exposure in manual mode. Typically light isn’t changing all that much. Get a good exposure by looking at the in-camera meter, and start shooting. If the sun goes behind clouds, nudge the ISO up a bit until you get a good exposure in the meter. It’s pretty straight-forward and not as scary as many educators make it out to be.

  • Lucia S. Hatch

    In Manual mode, the only way I can change the exposure compensation on my old Nikon D3100 is to twist the command dial; I can’t go into the commands available in A or S modes. So twisting the dial immediately affects the shutter speed, often to a speed requiring a tripod (when I’m out without one). So I find myself using A a lot more. I’d love to have more control over exposure comp AND shutter speed separately!

  • TByte

    “The answer is – probably because you are shooting in Auto!”
    What a ridiculous claim.

  • Michael

    This is very controversial subject and I think everybody has their own comfort zone of modes to shoot. My personal take on that is if you really care about the craft and the art of photography, Manual mode is the way to go. Personally, I always use Manual mode while shooting with flash and even sometimes using my off camera flash in Manual mode too. However, outside I mostly shoot in Av (aperture priority mode) with Exposure Compensation when it’s needed.

  • pete guaron

    Shooting auto has its place – but so of course does shooting manual. One is for grabbing a snapshot – the best you can in the time slot – and the other is for composing and taking a photograph.
    These days, most of the time, the snapshot works reasonably well. But it will have its limitations. Because all those automatic functions are simply a batch of “averages”.
    The exposure reading is a classic. If you are taking a photo of a small lightly coloured subject, in a predominantly dark environment, the photo will be overexposed unless it is shot in manual. Conversely, if you take a photo of a small darkly coloured subject, in a predominantly very light environment, the photo will be grossly underexposed.
    And shooting manual still allows you to use auto focus – which cane be fundamental to the photo, if the subject is moving.

  • Wolfgang Medlitsch

    No, as I stated above there is no single correct exposure setting that depends on the dynamic range of the scene (and the camera) and upon which You set the focus – e.g. in back light scenes do You want the set the emphasis on the foreground object thus burning out the highlights to same extent or are You interested in a more silhouette representation. Are You interested in sharp contrasts or in showing details in particular areas.
    Read something on the zone system from Ansell Adams..

  • DavidR8

    I cannot understand why these debates continue.
    Auto v. manual v. program: try them all, use the one that suits you and the situation.

  • Kenneth Greenberg

    I started photography with a Pentax ME Super with only manual and still photograph primarily in manual. I recommend to folks starting out to take a class photographing with film and a basic camera as not having a digital display and near unlimited frames forces you to slow down and think about each image, what you are doing, what you expect to capture and why. Manual allows you, the photographer, to make all of the decisions not the camera. Photographing in manual makes what you do more deliberate. I find in particular I have more successful images photographing at night, low light in general and capturing motion in M mode than other modes. The only exception to M is sometimes I’ll use aperture priority for street photography.

  • Wolfgang Medlitsch

    The in camera meter only says when there is 19% gray in the average – but I have to decide whether this is what I want. Maybe I want to emphasize the dark areas either to want them really dark or on the contrary want as much details as possible. So with the highlights.
    There is no one correct exposure setting and the camera is calculating very obstinately its algorithms without taking notice of composition or feelings an image should express!

  • Thank you all for your commenting.I am still amazed at how difficult I found it trying to explain and encourage people to shoot with manual. I think I’ve distilled it most by saying : It’s all about the craft man! Anybody can make a good exposure at whatever settings. If you get good enough at it then fine. But Manual is more than about just exposing. It’s about the craft of photography and your abilities apart from the camera.

    Anyway, I wanted to respond to all your comments with a Story of Manual.

    I’m walking in the woods. There are sights, sounds and smells and I’m making an effort to totally absorb it all. I am very much present.

    All is good. The sun is high. The light is hard and strong filtering down through the high pines. I know I want fine detail and good depth of field for the images I’m about to make. Contrast and latitude come to mind.

    I set my exposure in camera and in memory – giving aperture priority though I watch my minimum shutter speed. ISO was chosen before walking into the woods… I make images. Through the trees I see a clearing in full sun. I think +4-5 stops of light. I see potential shots just moments in the future by observing the light through the trees.

    Making my way to the clearing my fingers adjusting exposure that -4-5 stops, without looking once at the camera, just mentally counting clicks. I don’t have to be spot on. I want it close so I don’t have correct by 12 clicks when a potential shot arrives. Just 2-3 clicks max. That is enough to get the base exposure set.

    I know it’s best to have my exposure set for the light not for the subject. I know if I set it for the subject then it is most likely going to come too late…I need it set BEFORE the shot comes WHATEVER it may be.

    I get to the clearing, my exposure already set. Or at least very very close.
    On the opposite edge of the field I spot Bigfoot standing in the dappled light of a slanted sun through leaves. He smiles at me. Shutter speed I think! Again the fingers move in a reciprocal fashion simultaneously towards a faster shutter speed exposure as I raise the camera – a re-prioritization in an instant. I see an EV of -2/3rds. Close enough. Click.Click.Adjust.Click.Click. I think “tone” mood” “key” – what am I feeling right NOW. I’ll make adjustments quickly and instinctively. Click. Over exposure seems appropriate to capture full shadow detail( don’t want someone telling me my Bigfoot was just a tree due to terrible shadow detail!)

    I walk off the field into the open shade of a mountainside. Again I know this is a +4-5 stop change from the previous base exposure I was using. ISO comes to mind. I change my exposure for soft open shade light. I choose a nice balanced exposure not really prioritizing shutter or aperture as I am not sure what I will find ahead of me yet. I can get a good base exposure as long as the light remains the same. I will not think of exposure again for awhile I know. My eyes are keyed into slight changes of the light – heavier shade or dark recesses, brighter dappling of light, these will need small adjustments, or not – Adjustments of less than ? to 1 stop of exposure are made on a per image basis and not for “correctness”, but for tone, key and mood.

    Across the field and out of the woods I come upon a sea. The sun is now low just a few degrees from the horizon. The cirrus clouds are plentiful for golden hour and there are few low clouds on the horizon. Conditions are good for colour and dynamic light. A wide lens goes on and aperture again takes priority. The tripod comes out. Now things have really slowed down. I know I will be in this spot for awhile making a photo every few minutes, but mostly just watching it all happen and feeling most alive! Shutter times get longer as the light leaves. As dark approaches aperture is widened. The stars come out and ISO increases.

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