The ultimate guide to shooting in manual

26 Aug 2020 by Monica Linzmeier
15 MIN

With today’s increasingly good and accessible technology, many people have discovered a passion for photography and will spend years practicing. But a classic roadblock in improving is the switch to manual. Many are intimidated by the little M on their camera, and so they are unable to take their photography to the next level. 

While most people now shoot with a digital camera, photography has been around for more than a century and has undergone major changes. 

To read in detail about the history and impact of photography, be sure to check out this three-part series. 

The term photography literally refers to light, and to this day, it remains the main element in photography. The process of creating a photo all comes down to how much light you let into your camera, for how long, and how quickly. 

We’re going to break down how to shoot in manual mode into the three essential components you need to understand to correctly expose your images: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.

To jump to a specific section, just click here: 

Understanding exposure

Shutter Speed



Some suggested settings


Shooting in manual

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

The Exposure Triangle: Balancing your photos 

When you shoot a camera on automatic mode, the camera sensors quickly take in all of the available information in the frame. It analyzes the available lighting, the colors in the shot, the proximity of the objects, and it suggests settings that will permit it to take a well-balanced photo almost every time. 

Typically, the camera will ‘decide’ where to focus, what color tone to use, how long the lens should remain open, how wide the lens should open, and finally, the ISO. Excluding the automatic focus and the color tuning, these last three things need to be balanced to create a great photo that is not too dark, not too light, and not too blurry. 

There are a couple of metaphors that have made it easier for me to understand. 

The first thing to imagine is a bucket that you are trying to fill with water with one single hose. The width of the hose, or the size of the nozzle, is the aperture (i.e. How wide the camera lens will open). 

The second factor is how long you turn the hose on; that’s the shutter speed. Finally, the size of the bucket itself is the ISO. 

So let’s say you have a large bucket (so a large ISO). You have a very narrow hose (small aperture) and you only turn the hose on for a second (Shutter speed). That bucket is going to be pretty empty. 

In photo terms, an empty bucket is going to result in an underexposed, or dark, photo.

Let’s flip it just to really beat the metaphor to death. If you have a small bucket (small ISO), a wide hose (large aperture), and you turn the hose on for a few minutes, your bucket will overflow. And soooo, your photo will be overexposed, blown out, too light.   

The second visual you can imagine is the exposure triangle: 

Exposure Triangle Meero


Picture the exposure triangle as a three-way tug of rope. If you pull too far upwards, the other two corners are going to suffer. If you pull too far to the right, the other two will be strained. 

How to understand Shutter Speed 

Shutter speed is perhaps the easiest of the three elements to understand, as it simply is how long the shutter is open for. 

What happens mechanically? When you set the shutter speed, you are choosing the amount of time the lens will open each time you take a photo. The longer it is open, the more light can enter, therefore brightening your photos. 

On the flip side, the longer the lens is open, the more the objects in your frame can move. This can allow for cool effects, like writing with light or taking pictures with ghostly figures that move. 

What do the fractions mean? Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. For example, 1/100 means the camera will open for one-hundredth of a second,  1/1000 is a faster shutter speed that means one-thousandth of a second, and a slow shutter speed like ½ means it will open for half a second. 

On the camera itself, you won’t see the fraction, just the final number. So if you see 800 on the display, that means your shutter speed is set at 1/800th of a second. 


Shutter speed example

Unless you are taking pictures of something static (not moving) with a tripod, shooting at a shutter speed under 100 will typically result in a slightly blurry photo, simply because it’s difficult for us as humans to avoid camera shake and remain perfectly still. With a tripod and an immobile subject, however, you can leave your shutter speed open for several seconds (up to 30 seconds for most cameras), and it will still turn out clear. 

What does it impact? The shutter speed will impact how long light is able to enter the camera and it will have a direct impact on how much motion blur is captured. If you are shooting something quick like a track race or a football match, having a fast shutter speed is essential. 

How to practice? There are plenty of ways to start practicing, but here are a few ideas to get creative and really understand the impact of shutter speed. To set your camera to shutter priority mode, switch the dial to the TV (Time Value) for Canons, or S (Shutter Priority) for other models like Nikon. 

With this mode, you will get to choose the shutter speed and the camera will choose the other settings to compensate. (Similarly, try experimenting with the BULB mode, which will allow you to override the time limits and keep your lens open as long as you’d like.) 

Then you can practice slower shutter speeds, and then speeding it way up to feel the difference in your own hands. Here are a few artistic styles to try out to really understand.  

Write using light and a long shutter speed:  

Writing with light

Photo by Austin Neill, Unsplash

As you can see in the photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash, the man in the photo stood as still as he could, while waving a flashlight around in a full circle a couple of times to imitate the full moon rising behind him. You can achieve a similar effect with a tripod, the night sky, a friend and a flashlight.  

Capture the motion of a crowd:

Motion blur

Photo by Christian Fregnan, Unsplash

As you can see in the above photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash, using a long exposure with moving subjects can create a ghostly feel or imply motion. You’ve probably seen this effect before with someone in the center standing perfectly still. It’s tricky to capture, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be sure to understand the impact of shutter speed. 

Photos of the stars:

Star photography

Photo by Paul Gilmore, Unsplash

Another technique to try out to practice manipulating shutter speed, is capturing the night sky, either perfectly still, or with the rotation of the earth like in the photo above by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash. To read a full tutorial about how to capture the night sky, read more here! 

Speeding the shutter speed up:

Tennis ball, fast shutter speed

Photo by Shoiab Ahmed, Unsplash 

Finally, practice speeding your shutter speed up and practice capturing things in motion. Either use a prop you can control like the tennis ball in this photo by Shoaib Ahmed on Unsplash, or practice capturing other things in motion like your neighbor’s new puppy or your local football team during a match. Just don’t get discouraged when they come out blurry, it takes time to get it right. 

How to understand aperture

What happens mechanically? When taking a photo, the camera lens opens and shuts. The aperture is the measure of how wide the lens opens and how much light is let in. It works similarly to our pupils, the darker the light, the more dilated our eyes become. 

What does the number mean? Aperture is measured in what they call f-stops. It goes from the smallest f stop of f/22 to the largest f stop of f/1.4. 

Seem a little counterintuitive? That’s because it is actually a fraction. 

For example, setting your aperture to f 1.8 means widening the opening nearly all the way, whereas setting your aperture to f 22 means opening it only 1/22nd. If you’re a photographer, you’re probably a visual person, so hopefully, this will help… 

Aperture sizes diagram


What does it impact?  Technically, the wider the lens, the more light you let in with each click of the shutter. So when you use a low aperture like f 2.8, you are going to be able to take photos easier in low lighting situations. 

But in addition to how much light is captured, the aperture will impact the depth of field. The narrower the aperture, the more your image will be in focus and vice versa. 

How to use it? Aperture is one of my favorite things to play with, as it will make a big impact on your final result. For example, when shooting landscapes, you typically want everything to be in focus, so you are going to choose a narrow aperture of at least 11 or more. 

On the other hand, to capture that beautiful bokeh in a portrait, you want your aperture to be very wide to create a shallower depth of field. Here’s a quick example: 


Different aperture comparison

Ways to practice? To get a good grasp on aperture, try practicing with the two extremes. You can put your camera in aperture priority mode which will allow you to set your preferred aperture and the camera will determine the other factors, letting you control the depth of field. 

Aperture priority mode on a Canon

Landscape photography is traditionally shot with a narrow aperture between 11 and 16 because you want to get as much of the terrain in focus as possible. Depending on the light available, to capture those beautiful shots you may need a tripod to avoid any unwanted motion.  

If you want to shoot landscape photos on a sunny day start with the following settings

ISO 100 / f 5.6 / Shutter speed of 1/200

If it's too bright, bump up your shutter speed or reduce your aperture up to f 16. If you find it too dark, lower your speed and raise your ISO. 

On the other hand, if you want to practice shooting with a very narrow aperture, start practicing with portrait photography. If you shoot with a low aperture, you can get a subject’s eyes and face in focus, while bringing in that beautiful bokeh effect behind them. 

Portrait on a sunny day? Start out with:

ISO 100 /  f 2.8 / Shutter speed of 1/200

To go more in-depth about how to master portrait photography be sure to check out this article! 

How to understand ISO

ISO display on a DSLR

Photo by ShareGrid, Unsplash

Finally, we’ve reached the ‘bucket’ portion of correctly exposing a photo. ISO stands for international organization for standardization, and the name is a leftover legacy from film cameras. With digital cameras, we can modify the ISO between shots, but with film cameras, the ISO was determined by the roll of film used and so they needed an international standard when selling film. 

Different ISO on film

Photo by Markus Spiske, Unsplash

To wrap your head around ISO settings there are a few ways to think about it.  

You can imagine that ISO will impact how sensitive your material will be to light or that it will simply impact how bright your photo is. 

What do the numbers mean?  ISO typically has a base number of 100 and typically as they climb they double in number.  100 will be the darkest you can make the photo and will have the best image quality, it’s typically what you’ll shoot on when you’re outdoors on a sunny day. The higher the number goes, the brighter the photo will turn out, but at the expense of image quality. 

What does it impact?  The ISO is going to impact how bright the photo is and with how much grain. When there just isn’t enough light available, you have to up the ISO and the quality of your photo is going to suffer: 

ISO Example diagram

The higher the ISO, the grainier the photo will become. You’ve probably seen this before in your nighttime shots in low lighting situations. This used to be a much bigger deal, but the better cameras become, the easier it is to boost the ISO without a huge impact. 

Practice, practice, practice

Getting a correctly exposed photo is the most important part of getting usable photos, but there are lots of other aspects to master as well, from managing the white balance to choosing the right settings for the right usages.

But at the end of the day, the best way to understand these three components is to take out your camera and start playing with it. 

And that's it! Be sure to come back regularly as we are always posting new tutorials and guides like this one! 

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