Exposed | The Basics of Shooting in Manual

"tutorial on shooting in manual"

I have a little confession to make.  I shot my very first wedding with a Canon Rebel XSi.  I had three lenses at the time, one of which was rented just for the weekend.  And yet, despite my “amateur” gear, I got some pretty awesome photos from that wedding.  In fact, I’m actually proud of the work I did that weekend.  Those photos launched my business.  I still get compliments and even some requests to “recreate” photos from that wedding.  And the bride & groom still gush about how much they love their photos.  I consider that a definite mark of success.  Now, I use more “professional” gear - 5D Mk II bodies (though a Mk III is on my wishlist for 2014), L series prime lenses, etc.  Terms that probably mean nothing to anyone except other pro photogs.  I have new gear not because what I had before wasn’t “good enough” but because my needs and my skills simply outgrew the old gear.  And here’s another little part to my confession: gear matters, but only to a certain extent.  It’s much more important that you know how to use that gear to its maximum potential.

From my first wedding.

So, I’m starting a little series.  A series of conversations between you and me exposing (<-- like what I did there?) the behind-the-scenes of photography and how to make the most out of whatever camera you have.  The technical side of photography can be a bit intimidating for just about anyone and it’s really tempting to keep that camera in auto mode.  But don’t!  Please, please don’t.  Because the technicalities of photography are what make it such an awesome and unique art form.  Once I learned the Science of photography -how to make a properly exposed photo with correct colors and tones, balance and composition- I felt a new freedom to explore the Art of photography as a form of creativity and expression.  As soon as I knew the boundaries, I was suddenly free to run wild within them and occasionally push their limits.  After all, you can’t break the rules unless you know what they are, right?

* * * * * * * * * *

So let’s start with the basics of shooting in Manual.

Wait, you’ve already lost me.  What do you mean by “manual”? 

If you have a dslr of any type, you most likely have a little button or knob on your camera with a little capital M.  That is your Manual mode.  When most people first buy a camera, we tend to set it on automatic and just start taking pictures.  Most cameras on the market today can take some pretty rad photos on auto but the downside is, you’re giving full control to your camera.  Your camera decides the exposure settings, the focal point, even the tone of the photo.  You control the composition, sure, but that’s about it.  And as awesome as cameras are these days, they pale in comparison to the human eye and the human brain.  So let's turn that camera dial to M and take control over our own photos!  That’s what I mean by shooting in Manual.

Okay, sounds awesome!  I’d love to have photos in focus and perfectly lit the way I want them to be.  No more dark, blurry faces!  Where do I start?

The number one thing you need to know about shooting in manual is a little thing called the Exposure Triangle.  We’ll go into each aspect of the Exposure Triangle in more detail in future posts but for now there are three key things to remember:

1. The “triangle” consists of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
2. All three are connected and work together like a big hippie commune to create your photo, so if you change one, the other two will be affected, too.
3. All three can be used to for creative expression as well (we'll get into more creative uses in future posts).


Aperture is how wide your lens is open.  The numbers can be a bit confusing so remember -> small number = wide opening, big number = narrow opening.  So f/2.0 is super wide open while f/16 is pretty narrow.

Shutter speed is literally the speed of your shutter, or how quickly it opens and closes, and it's measured in seconds or fractions of a second.  So 1/15 is 1/15th of a second (somewhat slow) and 1/8000 is 1/8000th of a second (pretty freakin' fast).

ISO is term from the old days of film and refers to your camera's sensitivity to light.  A low ISO (100) is not very sensitive to light so it's perfect for bright sunny days.  A higher ISO will be much more sensitive and better for low light situations.

Think of your camera as a window.  The aperture is the size of the window.  Big windows let in lots of light, little windows let in less light.  The shutter speed is the curtain.  How quickly you open and close that curtain determines how long the light fills the room.  And the ISO is ... well ... I’m struggling for a window analogy for ISO but it’s pretty straightforward - a high ISO basically tells your camera, “There’s not much light so soak up as much as you can while the curtains are open.”

Windows in Asolo, Italy. Not cameras ;)


Okay, I understand what each part of the triangle does, but how does it all come together?  I mean, the window thing is great but what does that have to do with taking a picture?

I know, I promise it’ll all make sense soon, young Padawan.  When you want to take a photo in manual, you need to be able to tell your camera three things: how big to make the window (aperture), how fast to open the curtain (shutter speed), and how sensitive it needs to be when the light comes in (ISO).  Pretty much every digital slr camera has a light meter built in that will show you when you have the correct exposure.  (If you look inside your camera’s viewfinder, it’s usually along the bottom but check your camera’s user guide if you’re having trouble finding it.)  I like to start by setting my ISO depending on how bright or dark the scene is.  Once that is set, I dial in my preferred aperture and then use the light meter to make adjustments to find the correct shutter speed.  If the shutter speed ends up being too slow for handheld shots (generally speaking, that's anything slower than 1/60), I make adjustments to aperture or ISO accordingly.

I encourage you to play with your camera so your fingers get used to all the knobs and dials.  Experiment with looking through the viewfinder, checking the camera’s meter, then making adjustments while still looking at the scene through your viewfinder.  This will help train your brain to “see” how much light is available in any given scene and make the connection between that light and your camera settings.  Pretty soon you’ll be able to look at your surroundings and have at least a general idea of a starting point for where your manual settings need to be.  And once you can do that, the door is wide open for getting creative with your photos.

We’ll go into aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in more depth in the next few weeks, and I have some posts on composition planned, too.  But if you have any questions, feedback (are these posts even helpful?), or things you’d like to see covered in the future, just let me know in the comments below. :)


(A little disclaimer: I definitely do not claim to be an expert in photography, nor do I know everything there is to know about every aspect of the artform (don’t even ask about studio lighting…).  But I have been studying and shooting for more than half my life (17 years now!) so I really just wanted to share what I’ve picked up along the way with the hope that maybe it’ll be helpful for you, too.)




  1. Love it. I used to describe aperture and shutter speed to my students using the old filling a glass at the sink analogy. If you need to fill a glass, you can either turn the faucet on high for a very short period of time, or you can turn the faucet to a slow trickle and leave it on for a longer time. Glass with water, light to film. ISO doesn't really fit into this analogy either--but that was later in the semester. Haha!

  2. I've slowly been learing ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. The biggest problem I have is not panicking before taking a shot -- I worry that I'm going to "miss" a moment while fuddling with all the buttons. (Please tell me it gets easier! LOL)

    Do you have any handy tricks to remember the smaller the F stop the more light comes in? For some reason, I keep reversing this in my mind. I jack my camera up to F32 and then wonder why the picture is grainy and over-processed when I wanted to focus in on one detail and have the rest blurred.

  3. Hi Caitlin! This is kinda showing the math nerd in me but I had the same problem with aperture when I first started so I thought of aperture readings as fractions. f/2 is kind of like 1/2 which is LARGER than 1/32 (or f/32), so f/2 means LARGER opening while f/32 is a smaller opening. I'll talk about this a bit more in the post dedicated to aperture but hopefully that'll be a good start for you, but yes, it definitely get easier with practice and my future posts will also have tips and advice on how to use the camera's setting to your advantage so you don't miss those important moments. :)

  4. Thank you so much! I really want to take a photography class to learn more about my camera and manual settings. I feel like I have a good eye for composition and how I want my photos to look, I just need to learn how to communicate that to my camera! ha :) Thanks, looking forward to more in this series! I'm glad you made that image so I could pin this to my photography board!

  5. Love this series. Keep 'em coming!! Well explained.

  6. Laura @ happilyeverparkerNovember 13, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    I love learning more about my camera so this is a series I fully embrace! I mostly shoot in Av while still trying to get a grasp on Manual mode. The shutter speed is what throws me for a loop as well as shooting in low light.

  7. Great post and I'm really looking forward to learning more. I do actually take all my pictures in manual setting, but tend to stick to a few basics to avoid any sudden panics. So, mainly ISO 400, adjusting the shutter speed according to light, f stop somewhere between 13 and 5.4 (I really would like a macro lens) deepening on whether I want an "overall view" or a detailed shot. However, I still think I'm a complete amateur and good shots are more down to luck than expertise ;-)

  8. This is an awesome series! Looking forward to reading more about this.


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