The (very rough!) basics of Manual Mode.

November 13, 2012  •  1 Comment

Manual Mode

Learn to love it (and realise it's not as scary as you think)

Most cameras have automatic modes, this can be full auto where the camera does everything and you press a button, or one of the semi auto functions like Program AE, aperture or shutter priority or one of those 'artistic' modes modern cameras come with. Either way the camera does most of the work for you leaving you to concentrate on composition. Manual mode however requires the photographer to do most of the work in regards of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, WB, etc.

I learnt quite quickly to use manual mode, mainly by accident. When i first picked up a camera (less than a year ago in fact) I didn't have a clue how to take a picture. I wandered into a nearby abandoned building to take some shots with my camera on full auto not realising the dark conditions would dictate a long shutter speed and therefore my handheld efforts would either be ridden with camera shake or i'd have to use the on board flash (eugh). When I took my first shot the shutter opened for about 4 seconds without me realising. I didn't know things like shutter speed and aperture existed so when the shutter closed 4 seconds later I previewed the pic to see a blurred mess (which funnily enough contained a white orb convincing me ghosts do exist, maybe..) All my shots were rubbish and I got a bit mythed with my shiny new Sony a35 because for £450 it should be taking sharp pics, like Iphones do......

The problem was, other than i had no clue what I was doing, dark conditions need either higher ISO, wider aperture or longer shutter speeds in order to expose the scene correctly (or Flash, but that's a different story). Because I had no knowledge of this I had no idea my camera was trying to automatically take the correct exposure the "4 seconds, and f3.5 on my camera display meant nothing to me. Obviously you can't hold a camera still for 4 seconds so the bit of movement my wobbly hands made when the shutter was open caused a blurred shot. I went back home and decided to consult good old Google for some information on taking pics.

It's surprising how easy it is to pick up the basics of using manual mode, at least compared to the assumption that it's hard to use and for professionals only. In short all you do is alter your exposure settings (ISO, Aperture, shutter speed) in order to let enough light through the lens onto the camera's sensor. When using Auto modes the camera does all this for you, whilst this might seem like the easier option it's not. A camera in full auto gives little or no control over the image you want to create so if you have an idea of what you want before you take it auto mode will limit your creativity. Not only does Auto mode limit you in terms of creativeness you may also pick up bad habits and your learning curve in terms of understanding light and other elements that make photography what it is will be seriously slowed down. Each their own definitely, but if you're like me you might want a bit more control over your shots!

I'm not saying you shouldn't use Auto mode, firstly it's your camera and you can do what you want, but I do want to impart the 'eureka' moment I had when i realised it's not as intimidating as it first seems. I've roughly jotted my workflow down below to show what I do when I take my pics, again, i'm not claiming to be the best I just want to share what i've learnt (which is the reason for GHZ photography's creation anyway!).

Exposure parameters

There are three main elements to exposing your shots, these are Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO (Film speed/ASA). All have varying affects on the final image but all control the amount of light the sensor is subjected to (apart from ISO which basically brightens the scene artificially and doesn't increase/decrease the amount of light going into the camera).



Think of this as a diapraghm inside the lens that can either open wide or very small. Each Aperture value is given a number. A wide aperture (opening) has a small number like f2.8 whereas a small aperture has a larger number like f16. The affect aperture has on the final image is huge but put simply it controls the depth of field within the frame (this is a very complicated area I'll try not to get too bogged down with) as well as the amount of light you're letting through the lens. If you use a wide aperture when taking a portrait the subject will be in focus but the background and foreground will be softly blurred out (this is called Bokeh). If you use a small aperture (large number) the whole or most of the scene will be in focus.


As a very rough rule of thumb to get you started the aperture you should use per scene/subject is:-

  • Low to f6.3 - Portraiture, close-up.macros
  • f7-f12 - Street,
  • f13 and above - Landscape, or anything where you want everything to be in focus.

Roughly that is!
(Please note the aperture values your camera can achieve will vary per camera. A bridge camera for example will have a limited range compared to a DSLR/SLT. Similarly, different lenses have different aperture capabilities.)


Shutter Speed.
When you press the shutter button the camera's shutter opens in order to take the picture. Again this controls the amount of light you let into the camera and therefore the exposure level. As well as this shutter speed also determines a few other things. If you use a fast shutter speed, say 1/200 (200th second) and above, it's likely that any motion (short of something fast like a moving car, football, bird in flight etc) will freeze and produce a sharp image. If you use a slow shutter speed any motion, for example a person walking, will be blurred depending on how slow the shutter speed was. The downside to this is camera shake. I find anything lower than 1/80 is not suitable for hand held shots (I have very shaky hands though). This is because no matter how steady you think your hand is it will still shake ever so slightly whilst the shutter is open, when you check the image it may look okay in preview but if you zoom in the detail and edges will be blurred. Motion blur isn't always a bad thing though, many photographers love to experiment with blurred subjects, for example a runner slightly blurred to show motion whilst the foreground and background are sharp. However, regardless of whether you intend to include motion blur of your subject it's still a good (actually, excellent) idea to use a tripod in order to keep the image sharp. Anything moving will still blur but the static areas on the frame will stay still (because your hand isn't shaking!)

Tip - try experimenting with long exposures for night shots. You'll need a tripod though!

Changing your ISO upwards (higher number) changes how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the less light is required to achieve your exposure. Be warned, high ISO settings will introduce more noise into the your image. I aim to keep mine as low as possible. Some cameras handle noise levels at higher ISO settings better than others.

One thing we can use to make everything described above easier is the meter, it will look like this:-

2- - 1- - 0- - 1- - 2

A small arrow should move up and down the scale as you point your camera at different light sources. The aim is to get the pointer into the middle. As you make adjustments to Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO the arrow will move around the scale. If the arrow is on the left of ZERO then the image is more than likely underexposed, if the arrow is to the right then it's most likely over exposed. So, if the arrow shows the image is over exposed then make adjustments to reduce the amount of light entering the camera until the arrow points to ZERO..

That's as brief as I can make it. You'll need to learn to refer to the meter and then balance the three elements above in order to expose your pictures well. Here's what I do.

Camera Workflow

I've found my subject/scene and I want to take a photo. I'm assuming you're not using flash and you're definitely not in a studio! Below are the questions I ask myself as I come to take a shot.

Q1 - Will i need to prioritise Shutter speed or Aperture?
A1 - I'm taking a street shot so I've chosen a 'medium' aperture of f7.1-f9.0. This will ensure most of the scene is sharp, the way i like my street scenes.

Q2 - With my aperture dialled in is the image too dark or light /does the meter show it's underexposed or overexposed?
A2 - If underexposed I need to reduce the shutter speed to let more light into the camera. If the preview is overexposed I need to increase the shutter speed to reduce the amount of light going into the camera. I do this until the meter points to ZERO.

Q3 - Now the meter points to ZERO is my shutter speed sufficient enough to take the shot? I.e is it fast enough to limit camera shake if the camera is handheld? (i'm taking a street shot, I want the buildings to be sharp)
A3 - If yes, take the shot. If no you need to increase your shutter speed in order to reduce camera shake and motion blur.

Q4 - Now i've increased the shutter speed but the preview is too dark again! (doh!) So you've got the desired shutter speed for the image you want but it's now underexposed and i'm back to square one! We'll need to let more light into the camera but we've already chosen shutter speed so what do we do now?
A4- Can I afford to widen the aperture (smaller f# number) to let more light in? If yes (take a few shots and decide if the DoF is right for you) then do so and take the shot. If no, you either need to use a tripod (this will keep static objects like buildings sharp but not moving objects) or up your ISO.

Q5 - I've widened the aperture but I'm not happy with the final image, i have an object close to me and therefore the rest of the frame has blurred out slightly due to the wide aperture I used!! Doh! In this case up the ISO. Once you've done that you can increase the shutter speed and keep the original aperture you chose in order to achieve the desired exposure.

The above workflow takes me a few seconds. It's not as complicated as it first seems. There is A LOT more to it than that, but this is a good start and a great way to progress.


Check the scene. Prioritise Aperture or Shutter speed depending on what you need. Check the meter. Make amendments to the exposure. Check the preview. Make amendments - shoot - check the preview, make amendments.....repeat if necessary.



This is a great introduction to manual mode. Presently I know some things, but get lost in the terminology for others, and this has a serious affect on my confidence. The above, however, is explained in a straight forward and conversational manner which de-mystifies the technical jargon and how it all works together.

It's not always the case that someone with technical skill can explain things in an easy to understand manner (often coming across as overly academic or convoluted), but this guide is clearly written and perfect for someone like me!

My thanks to the author for taking the time to put this together :)
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