Everything You Need to Know About Shooting in Manual Mode [Get Off Auto Mode Series]

a woman holding a camera in a field of sunflowers
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Are you sick and tired of getting s***y photos from the camera you paid big bucks for?

It’s likely because you’re shooting in auto mode.

And the only way to fix those problems is to start shooting in manual mode. This is the ultimate guide to teach you how to do just that!

This post is a part of the Get Off Auto Mode series! Check out the rest of the posts in the series here:

Why get off auto mode?

a camera with many dials for shooting in manual mode, photo taken from above
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While I think it’s a pretty safe guess that if you’re reading this post, you already want to make an effort to get off auto mode and learn manual mode, on the off chance you’re not, here are a few reasons that you really should take the time and effort to learn about shooting in manual mode:

1. To stop taking bad pictures – Ok, I know this one is a bit harsh, but it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re shooting in auto mode, you end up with photos that aren’t that great. At least, not as great as they should be for how much money you paid for your camera! That’s because on auto mode, your camera is guessing at the best settings, which can lead to over- or under-exposed, not-sharp photos that just don’t look good.

2. To actually use your fancy camera to its full extent Alright, so how do you get good pictures? Well, by using your camera to the fullest extent. That means having control over all of the settings so that you can get good exposure and sharp images. Simple as that.

3. To have more creative control – Finally, learning how to shoot in manual mode will not only ensure that you have technically good pictures, but it will also let you have more creative control. Ever wanted to have those creamy backgrounds when you take a portrait or blur a waterfall? In manual mode, you can!

How to Get Off Auto Mode – Learn to shoot in manual

So now that you know why you should get off auto mode, let’s talk about the how.

One of the central parts of shooting in manual mode is being able to control exposure, which we’ll talk about more below.

In order to get off auto mode, you need to understand exposure and use a camera mode which lets you control that. And the ultimate control comes with manual mode.

Shooting in Manual – What you need to know

Ok, so there are a few core things you need to understand when it comes to shooting in manual mode, and those are: exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. So let’s dive a little more into those now!

Exposure

Exposure essentially just means how light or dark a photo is.

When a photo has perfect exposure, it just looks right. Basically, like it looks in real life. Here’s an example of a photo with good exposure.

addie sipping an eiscafe on a cafe terrace with perfect exposure after shooting in manual mode
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On the other hand, if a photo is over-exposed, that means it’s too bright. Here’s an example of an over-exposed photo:

and over exposed picture of addie sipping an eiscafe on a cafe terrace
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And finally, if a photo is under-exposed, that means it’s too dark. Here’s an example of that:

and under exposed picture of addie sipping an eiscafe on a cafe terrace
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When you shoot in manual mode, your goal is to create perfect exposure. You do that by messing with 3 different settings: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Aperture

Aperture is the opening in your camera which lets the light in. It’s measured in f-stops, usually from 1.2 all the way up to 22.

Depending on how much light is let into the camera through that hole, your photo will be brighter or darker.

The smaller the number is, the bigger the hole is and the more light is let into the camera, resulting in a brighter photo.

The bigger the number is, the smaller the hole is and the less light is let into the camera, resulting in a darker photo.

In addition to exposure, aperture also controls depth of field. This is how much of your image is in focus.

When you use a smaller f-stop number, less of your image is in focus, meaning that you can create blurry backgrounds like this:

a picture of a leaf with a small background made by shooting in manual mode
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When you use a bigger f-stop number, more of your image is in focus, meaning that you can have sharp, crisp photos like this:

temple towers in bali
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For a deep-dive into exactly how aperture works, be sure to look out for the post in this series all about understanding aperture!

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how long the shutter of your camera remains open, letting light into the aperture hole (however big or small it is). It’s measured in seconds and fractions of seconds, all the way from 30 seconds (or longer) to 1/28000 seconds (or shorter).

Depending on how long your shutter is open, more or less light will be let into the hole, resulting in a brighter or darker photo.

The longer your shutter is open (the bigger the number), the more light is let in, resulting in a brighter photo.

The shorter your shutter is open (the smaller the number), the less light is let in, resulting in a darker photo.

Just remember that when you get down to fractions, the bigger the number on the bottom the smaller the number actually is! So 1/4 is a bigger number (and therefore a longer amount of time) than 1/8.

In addition to exposure, shutter speed also controls how much movement is captured by the camera.

If your shutter is open for a super short amount of time, then movement will be frozen, like this:

a picture of a motorbike on a road in bali
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If your shutter is open for a longer amount of time, though, then movement begins to blur, like this:

a picture of a blurred bicycle, the blur created by shooting in manual mode
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This can be super useful as an artistic effect, but is generally something you want to avoid!

For a deep-dive into exactly how shutter speed works, be sure to look out for the post in this series all about understanding shutter speed!

ISO

The last thing you need to understand when it comes to controlling exposure and shooting in manual mode is ISO.

ISO is how sensitive your camera is to light, and it is measured in increments of 100.

The smaller the number is, the less sensitive your camera is to light, and the darker your image is.

The bigger the number is, the more sensitive your camera is to light, and the brighter your image is.

In addition to exposure, ISO also controls noise.

Noise is when your image is grainy, like this:

a photo with a lot of grain
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The more sensitive your camera is to light (aka the higher your ISO), the more likely it is that you’ll get noise in your photo. So in general, you want to keep your ISO as low as possible to avoid this, and make compensations with your aperture and shutter speed to make your image brighter wherever possible.

For a deep-dive into exactly how ISO works, be sure to look out for the post in this series all about understanding ISO!

Putting It All Together

a woman holding a camera in a field of sunflowers
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The way that you control exposure is by setting all three of these components: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. They come together to create something called the exposure triangle, which I’ll get more into in my post all about exposure.

But basically, it is the combination of these three things which control your exposure. If you have a big aperture (small number), long shutter speed, and high ISO, then you’ll have a super bright image.

If you have a small aperture (big number), short shutter speed, and low ISO, then you’ll have a super dark image.

Your goal is to find the happy middle between these to create perfect exposure. That’s what shooting in manual mode is all about.

By doing this, you also have more creative control because you can choose whether you want a big aperture to have a blurry background (you’d then use a shorter shutter speed for good exposure) or a long shutter speed to blur movement (you’d then use a smaller aperture for good exposure), or anything else along those lines!

How to Shoot in Manual Mode

Alright, so now that you understand the different components which you need to control when you’re shooting in manual mode, here’s exactly how to go about doing that.

Step 1: Switch to Manual Mode

The first step of shooting in manual mode is to actually switch to manual mode (seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget!).

To do so, use the dial on the top of your camera that looks like this:

camera mode dial
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And switch to M mode.

Ta-da!

Step 2: Set Aperture

Once you’re in manual mode, it’s time to set up all of your settings. I suggest starting with aperture because this is usually the most creative part of the photo – choosing how much or how little you want in focus (but switch to picking shutter speed first if movement is more important).

Think about the depth of field that you want to have in the photo, and then set to the appropriate f-stop. Remember, a smaller number will have less in focus (but let more light inn), while a bigger number will have more in focus (but let less light in).

Step 3: Set Shutter Speed

Once you’ve set your aperture, the next thing you’ll want to set is your shutter speed. Do this in relation to the aperture that you’ve picked in order to get a good exposure for your image.

A general rule of thumb is that if you’re using a bigger aperture (smaller number), then you should use a shorter shutter speed, and if you’re using a smaller aperture (bigger number), then you should use a longer shutter speed. This evens out the amount of light that is let in and results in perfect exposure.

As a secondary thing, think about how much movement you want to capture. If you’re using a big aperture in order to have a lot in focus but the longer shutter speed you need to let in the correct amount of light means that you’re going to have blurry movement and you don’t want that, then set your shutter speed a bit shorter and up your ISO instead.

Step 4: Set ISO

The last thing you’ll want to set is your ISO. In general, you’ll be able to get perfect exposure using just aperture and shutter speed, and you’ll be able to keep your ISO at a low level so you can avoid noise.

If, for some reason, you’ve got weird aperture and shutter speed settings (like a big aperture and long shutter speed, letting in loads of light), then you’ll want to set your ISO so that your camera is the correct amount of sensitive to the amount of light that’s being let in.

Of course, be sure to watch out for noise when you’re doing this! Sometimes, though, you’ll need to compromise and let a little bit of noise happen in order to get the photo you want.

Step 5: Shoot!

Alright, now that you’ve got your exposure set up just right, all you have to do is point your camera at your subject, focus (auto focus generally does a pretty good job) and shoot!

Working Up To Shooting in Manual

Ok, I know this was a lot of information that I just threw at you, and I don’t blame you at all if you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed! I definitely was when I first started learning all this.

If you are feeling this way and this all seems a bit intimidating (or even if it’s not), I highly recommend working up to shooting in manual mode – here’s how.

Camera Modes

You camera has a bunch of different camera modes which each allow for a different amount of control. By working your way up through these modes, you’ll be able to get more and more confident with having that amount of control and, eventually, shooting in manual!

Auto Mode

Auto mode is the lowest level on your camera and allows essentially no control. Your camera reads the amount of light and sets everything for you, which can work sometimes, but a lot of the time gets things wrong.

I suggest moving off of auto mode as fast as possible!

Program Mode

The next step up after auto mode is program mode. This is essentially the same as auto mode in that the camera reads the amount of light and chooses an exposure for your based on that, but you get a little bit more control because you can actually scroll through different aperture and shutter speed combinations which will all give you what the camera thinks is the right exposure.

That means that you can see what different combinations will look like (e.g. a short shutter speed and big aperture or a long shutter speed and a small aperture) so you get a better sense of the sort of creative control you can have!

Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture priority mode is the next step up after program mode, and it’s actually my favorite camera mode of them all!

In aperture priority mode, the camera still reads the light in order to set exposure. BUT, you get to choose the exact aperture you want, so you have creative control over how much is in focus in your photo.

Once you choose the aperture, your camera will then set the shutter speed.

If things are a little bit off, then you can change the exposure using the exposure compensation dial. Easy-peasy.

Shutter Priority Mode

Shutter priority mode is basically just the shutter speed version of aperture priority mode.

The camera still reads the light in order to set the exposure, but you get to choose the exact shutter speed you want. So you have creative control over how much movement you want in your photo.

Once you choose your shutter speed, then your camera will set the aperture for you to get good exposure.

And again, if things are a little bit off, then you can easily fix the exposure using the exposure compensation dial.

Manual Mode

Finally, you have manual mode. In manual mode, you have complete control over both aperture and shutter speed.

Now, here’s the secret: You don’t necessarily need to be in manual mode all the time. In fact, aperture and shutter priority mode will almost always do the trick. You only really need to switch to manual mode when you need to override the settings that aperture/shutter priority mode gives you.

And there you have itโ€“everything you need to know about shooting in manual mode! Now go grab your camera and get practicing ๐Ÿ™‚

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Want to learn more about shooting in manual mode? This blog posts covers everything you need to know about getting off auto mode, including exposure, aperture, shutter speed, iso, and manual mode tips for beginners. Up your photography game today!
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2 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know About Shooting in Manual Mode [Get Off Auto Mode Series]”

  1. Pingback: Understanding Aperture: What You Need to Know • Addie Abroad

  2. Pingback: Understanding Shutter Speed: What You Need to Know • Addie Abroad

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