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How To Shoot in Manual Mode

How to Shoot in Manual

I cannot tell you how excited I am to be writing this post! When I was starting out with photography, shooting in manual mode was SO intimidating. I avoided it for so long! When I finally toughened up and started reading my camera manual and trying out this mode, I was surprised at how easy it was. Why should you shoot in manual? Think of it this way, when you shoot in a mode that automatically adjusts settings for you it gives you less customization and personal touch in your photos.

Just like with automatic vs manual cars, shooting in manual will always give the person behind the wheel (you!) more control and power. There are three settings you need to understand to really have a grip on manual mode: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In this post, I'm going to refer to these settings together as The Big Three. These are the settings I want to dig into with this post. Trust me, I am going to make this so simple for you!

Shutter Speed

We are going to move from left to right on this. Navigate to the LCD screen on your camera and give the top left box a look - do you see a fraction (1/250, 1/500, etc)? This box controls your shutter speed.

Low and High Shutter Speed on DSLR

Here's what you need to know about it: • The lower the number, the slower your camera will take a photo. • The slower the shutter speed, the more light is let into the camera. • The more light that gets into your camera, the brighter your photo will be.

Keep in mind: The slower shutter speed is great for getting a more exposed photo, however going below 1/125 can be a little bit of a risk. This may mean your picture will capture shaking movement of your hands, blurring your photo. But you can also do some neat things at lower shutter speed, like catch the streams of car tail-lights or give a ghosty look to your subject. Sports photographers rely on high shutter speed settings to capture athletes in action!

Slow shutter speed leaves the lens open to catch more light

High shutter speed lets you freeze motion

The Nettik Rule: To keep your images as sharp as they can be make sure you are using a tripod if you go lower than 1/125.


Okay moving over to the right, this middle box will have an "F" followed by a number (1.4, 2.8, 4.0, 8.0). This is where you control aperture and is what some refer to as the "f-stop".

Low and high aperture on DSLR

Here's what you need to know about it: • The lower the number, the shallower your depth of field (more blur surrounding your subject). • The higher the number, the deeper your depth of field (more of the image will be in focus). • Lower numbers also mean a more exposed photo because your lens is wider. • Higher numbers mean less exposed photo because your lens is tighter.

Keep in mind: This is your focus-center. If you want more or less of an image in focus, this is where you will make adjustments. When you're lowering your f-stop, make sure you pay extra attention to getting your subject focused in your viewfinder. Lower numbers mean focus is much more sensitive and if you don't pay attention you may end up with more out-of-focus images.

Example of aperture setting adjustments

Full Settings for A - Shutter Speed 1/200, ISO100 • for B - Shutter Speed 1/100, ISO 640 • for C Shutter Speed 1/100, ISO 10,000

The Nettik Rule: Take your time. Double check your shots for crisp focus. If you're in a rush, don't go below f2.8 - and even that is probably too low. Trust me, you don't want to go home and upload a ton of blurry, soft photos to your post-processing software. It's a huge bummer.


All the way to the right now. This is where you adjust your ISO. The Digital Photography School goes more in-depth on the technicalities behind this setting here, but explains that "ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor... the lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light and the finer the grain."

Low and high ISO on DSLR

Here's what you need to know about it: • The lower the number, the darker the photo will appear. • The higher the number, the lighter the photo will appear. • The higher the number, the more you risk a "grainy" or "noisy" photo. • Lower numbers are good when shooting outdoors on a very bright and sunny day.

Keep in mind: If you're shooting indoors or in low light conditions you'll most likely have to bump this number up. More modern cameras perform really well at high ISO and don't give you too much grainy feedback. In picture B below you can see the grainy feedback that comes with increasing your ISO.

Example of low vs high ISO

Full settings for A - Shutter Speed .5 seconds, Aperture f4.0 • Full settings for B - Shutter Speed 1/400 seconds, Aperture f4.0

The Nettik Rule: Try your darnedest to keep your ISO below 800-1000. When you go up from there you should expect grainier photos. Grainy, noisy photos are a huge pet peeve for me. However, if you don't mind grain go higher!

Now that you have an overview of the Big Three... we need to address something important.

When you adjust one of the BIG THREE, you will typically need to compensate for whatever exposure change by adjusting another one of these settings. For example if you like how your shot looks but want to get a more shallow depth of field by going lower with your f-stop, you should expect a brighter photo with that adjustment. If you want to keep your overall exposure the same, you'll have to increase your shutter speed or go up in ISO. You can see how I adjusted for exposure in the full setting information provided beneath some of the example photos. This all might seem overwhelming now, but play around in manual mode for a day or two and you'll get the hang of it!

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