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Shooting in Manual Mode: How to Take Control of Your Camera

Photo of a Manual mode on a Sony A7III mirrorless camera

Automatic mode? That’s cute. But when creating the extraordinary, manual mode is where the magic happens. It’s not always easy, but my photography improved significantly once I understood the power of manual mode.

That intimidating “M” is your ticket to photographic freedom, firmly putting the reins of creativity in your hands. Let’s see what is manual mode on a camera and how to unlock its powers, shall we? 

Why Shoot in Manual Mode?

Many people are intimidated by manual mode. It can seem complex and overwhelming. Yet, once you’ve mastered it, you’ll have complete control over your camera and be able to capture photos exactly as you envision them.

I believe manual mode is an indispensable tool for every serious photographer.

Artistic portrait photo of a young woman in sunglasses.

How to Shoot in Manual Mode – The Magical Trio: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

In the art and science of photography, ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed form the cornerstone trinity known as the Exposure Triangle

These three interrelated settings form the backbone of every shot you take, directly influencing your photographs’ overall quality and aesthetic.

How to use manual mode on camera depends almost entirely on them!

ISO: Your Camera’s Night Vision Goggles

Think of ISO as your camera’s night vision goggles. ISO measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower ISO number means less sensitivity to light, while a higher number indicates more sensitivity. 

In practice, the higher the ISO, the better your camera can see in the dark. But beware: too high, and your images will look like they’ve been dusted with pixie dust.

A screenshot from Adobe Lightroom of a zoomed in black and white photo with a lot of grain because of a high ISO settings and low light conditions.
Here's an example of a photo taken with a high ISO, resulting in a significant amount of grain in the image.

A higher ISO number, such as 800 or 1600, is perfect for low-lit environments. But this brilliance comes with a grainy quality of images. Contrarily, a lower ISO setting, such as 100 or 200, makes the sensor less light-sensitive. The image produced is clear and crisp, ideal for brightly lit environments.

When to Use High and Low ISO?

High ISO settings come into play when dealing with low-light situations, such as indoor sports events, night portraits, astrophotography, and indoor events with little light.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a portrait photo of a young woman standing next to a building on an empty street. Black and white portrait with high ISO.
Example of a photo taken in low-light conditions. ISO: 8000

On the contrary, low ISO settings are best suited for bright environments like photographing objects with artificial lighting, landscape photography with a stabilized camera, or well-lit events.

Landscape of a beautiful city in Amalfi Coast, Italy in 2022.
Example of a photo taken during a bright day. ISO: 100

Creative Uses of ISO

Choosing the right ISO setting is not always about avoiding noise or grain. Sometimes, you might want to increase the ISO intentionally to add a creative effect to your photos, like achieving a grainy look reminiscent of old film photography or creating high contrast and grainy black & white images.

Portrait photo of a young man preparing his tie.
Portrait photo with added grain effect

However, using a low ISO can help you preserve image details by intentionally underexposing your photos, adding contrast, and eliminating distractions.

You can also create stunning silhouette effects with lower ISO settings.

Black and white photo of a male standing next to a bright window. Silhouette photography

Choosing the ISO isn’t just about lighting conditions but also about managing motion. If you capture fast-moving objects, you might need to increase the ISO to achieve a faster shutter speed. Conversely, you can lower the ISO to use a slower shutter speed to capture a sense of movement.

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Aperture: Your Camera’s Eye

Now, an aperture is like the pupil of your camera’s eye. Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening, which determines the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor.

Aperture Essentials – Defining the Terms

F-Stop
Fujifilm x100v mirrorless camera with fixed 35mm equivalent lens
My Fujifilm x100v with Aperture ring set to f/2.0

Imagine your window has curtains that you can open and close to control the amount of light entering your room. When you draw the curtains apart fully, lots of light comes in. When you draw them close together, less light gets in. These curtains are like the aperture of a camera lens – the opening that lets light in. In photography terms, these stages of opening and closing the curtains are referred to as “f-stops”.

A lower f-stop value (e.g., f/1.4) implies a wider aperture, more light entering the camera, and a shallower depth of field, resulting in blurred backgrounds and focused subjects. On the other hand, a higher f-stop number (e.g., f/16) corresponds to a narrower aperture, less light, and a deeper depth of field, thus making more of the scene in focus.

Depth of Field (DOF)

Depth of field (DoF) is a photography term that refers to the range in a photograph that appears acceptably sharp. This field extends between the nearest and farthest objects that are in acceptably sharp focus. The concept is tied to the relationship between aperture, distance, and lens focal length.

So the aperture size (given as f-number) directly affects the depth of field; a larger aperture (lower f-number) decreases the depth of field, meaning fewer elements will be in sharp focus, while a smaller aperture (higher f-number) increases the depth of field, bringing more of the scene into focus.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a portrait of a young woman next to a swimming pool. Photo with a shallow depth of field.
Example of a photo with a shallow depth of field (blurred background). Camera settings: ISO 50, f/2.0, Shutter Speed 1/5000 sec
Stopping Down/Stopping Up

Stopping down, like drawing your curtains closer, restricts the amount of light, resulting in greater depth of field, and vice versa.

Wide-Open Shooting

In photography, ‘wide-open’ shooting, which means the lens aperture is set to its widest, letting in as much light as possible (resulting in a low f-stop number). This also results in a shallow depth of field, keeping the subject in sharp focus while blurring out the background.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a portrait of a young woman sitting on a chair. Photo taken with a shallow depth of field.
Here's an example of a portrait photo taken with a wide-open aperture of f/1.8, resulting in a shallow depth of field and a blurred background.

Aperture Uses

A wide aperture is ideal for creating a shallow depth of field and blurring the background for natural light portraits or shooting in low light conditions.

In contrast, a narrow aperture is excellent for landscapes, macro Photography, or product photography, where the aim is to keep most parts of the frame in focus

Photo of a bottle of Beeatree cream. Product photography for a skincare brand Beeatree.
Proofread this: Example of a product photography photo shot with a narrow aperture f/16.0

A medium aperture can be used in scenarios requiring a balance between field depth and light intake.

Lastly, you can use aperture creatively. For example, in a landscape, you can choose to set a wide aperture to highlight certain elements or a subject.

Shutter Speed: Freeze or Flow?

Shutter speed controls how long your camera’s shutter stays open. It controls how much light hits the camera sensor and how motion is portrayed in your image. It can freeze action or introduce motion blur, adding a dynamic or artistic effect to your shots.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. The smaller the fraction (e.g., 1/1000s), the faster the shutter speed; a more significant fraction (e.g., 1/10s) represents a slower shutter speed.

In practice: Shutter speed lets you play with time. Want to freeze a hummingbird in flight or create a silky-smooth waterfall? It’s all in the shutter speed. A faster shutter speed freezes action, while a slower one lets you create that dreamy blur.

Photo of a male person driving ATV in a forest with splashes coming from the tires of an ATV.
Example of a photo taken with medium shutter speed. Camera settings: ISO 125, f/8.0, 1/160 sec.

Shutter Speed Uses

Fast-moving subjects need fast shutter speeds to freeze the action, while slower subjects require slower shutter speeds. 

Low-light situations require slower shutter speeds to let more light in, while bright conditions need faster speeds to avoid overexposure. 

Moreover, longer lens focal lengths prone to camera shake need faster shutter speeds.

Fast shutter speeds are ideal for capturing action, preventing overexposure on bright days, and freezing motion in landscapes.

Photo of a male riding a drift bike inside of a building.
Fast shutter speeds are ideal for capturing action

On the other hand, slow shutter speeds are perfect for night photography, capturing water movement in landscapes and removing people from busy scenes.

Landscape photo of a sunrise taken in Riga, Latvia.
Example of a landscape photo taken with slow shutter speed. Camera settings: ISO 100, f/10.0, 1/20 sec

Shutter speed allows creative techniques like light painting, panning Photography, and ultra-long exposures to capture star trails. Slow shutter speed photography can result in abstract images, smooth water movement, and ghost-like figures.

Abstract photo of an old train taken with slow shutter speed to create light painting effect.
Example of a photo taken with slow shutter speed to create an artistic light painting effect. Camera settings: ISO 50, f/7.1, 13,0 sec

Note: Modern cameras usually offer a range of shutter speeds from 1/8000th of a second to as slow as 30 seconds.

Factors to Consider Before Setting Your Shutter Speed

  • Balancing Motion and Exposure: Shutter speed affects both the amount of motion blur in your photos and the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor. Therefore, it’s essential to balance getting the motion effect you want and the correct exposure.
  • Lens Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction: Image stabilization (IS) and vibration reduction (VR) are technologies that help reduce the effect of camera shake. These features are handy when shooting handheld at slow shutter speeds. The rule of thumb is that it’s safe to handhold a camera at a shutter speed that’s the reciprocal of the lens focal length. So, if you’re using a 50mm lens, you’d want a shutter speed of at least 1/50th of a second.
  • Flash Sync Speed: When you use a flash, the flash must fire when the shutter is fully open. This is known as the flash sync speed, and it’s usually around 1/200th – 1/250th of a second for most cameras. If your shutter speed is faster than the flash sync speed, the flash may fire before the shutter is fully open, resulting in a photo that’s only partially lit by the flash. If the shutter speed is too slow, the flash might not freeze the motion as effectively.

Balancing ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

Exposure triangle diagram

Here’s the real art: making these three elements sing in harmony. It’s like conducting a symphony, where ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are your orchestra.

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  • TIP #1: Start with your camera in auto mode. Note down the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings for a particular scene. Then switch to camera manual mode and try to recreate the same image using the same settings.
  • TIP #2: Start with what you want your photo to look like. Do you want a blurred background? Start with the aperture. Want to freeze the action? Start with shutter speed. Want to shoot in low light without a flash? You guessed it – start with ISO.
  • TIP #3: Always use a tripod with slower shutter speeds to prevent camera shake.
  • TIP #4: I suggest starting with stationary objects in a controlled environment. Note down the settings you used and the results you obtained. This way, you can learn from both your successes and mistakes.
  •  TIP #5: Join photography groups or forums to share your images and receive constructive criticism. This feedback can be invaluable as you strive to improve your skills. For example, I regularly post photos that I take with my Fujifilm X100V to the Fujifilm subreddit to receive feedback and compliments from other professional photographers.
Screenshot of one of my photos that I've uploaded on Fujifilm subreddit.
I regularly post my photos to Fujifilm subreddit.

Additional Settings in Manual Mode

White Balance

White balance affects the color balance in your photos. It ensures that the colors in your images appear as they do in real life, counteracting different color casts from various light sources. For instance, fluorescent lighting adds a cool, bluish cast to photos, while tungsten (like light bulbs) creates a warm, orangey color cast.

Auto white balance (AWB) is generally okay for most scenarios, but there are situations where manual control will give you a better result. 

For example, suppose you’re shooting a winter landscape with lots of snow. In that case, your camera might interpret the scene as overly bright and try to compensate by adding a cool (blue) tint to your photos. In this situation, you might want to manually adjust the white balance to the “daylight” setting or even “cloudy” to add warmth to the scene.

Photo of a male running on in the field covered in snow.
Camera settings: ISO 100, f/5.0, 1/1000 sec. I took this photo with Auto White Balance and added a blue tint in post production.

Metering

Metering is how your camera determines what the correct exposure should be. The camera looks at a scene and estimates how much light is available to create an optimally exposed image. There are usually three types of metering modes: matrix or evaluative, center-weighted, and spot metering.

  • Matrix/Evaluative Metering: This mode measures the light intensity at several points in the scene and then combines the results to find an accurate setting. It’s an excellent all-around choice but might fail in high-contrast situations. For example, if you’re taking a photo of a person standing against a bright sky, the camera might expose the sky, making the person too dark.
  • Center-weighted Metering: In this mode, the camera measures the light in the entire scene but gives extra emphasis to the center. This is useful for traditional portraits where the subject is in the center of the frame.
  • Spot Metering: This mode only measures a small area of the scene (usually the center, but some cameras allow you to move the spot around). It’s useful when you must expose a specific part of the scene. For instance, when shooting a bird in a brightly lit sky, you can use spot metering to expose correctly for the bird, preventing it from being just a silhouette.

FAQs

What Are the Benefits of Manual Mode?

Photo of a young woman walking

Manual mode on a camera allows you complete control over your camera’s settings. 

This means you can adjust settings such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO according to your specific needs instead of relying on the camera’s automatic settings

This can lead to better control over the final image, including its exposure, depth of field, motion blur or freeze, and noise level. Camera manual mode is also excellent for learning about the relationships between these settings and how they affect your photos.

Why Are My Photos Blurry in Manual Mode?

blurry photo example 2

Blurry photos in manual mode could be due to several reasons:

  1. Your shutter speed might be too slow, causing motion blur. If you photograph a moving subject, a slow shutter speed will not freeze the action.
  2. Your focus could be off. It’s easy to miss the focus point if you’re manually focusing.
  3. A high ISO can cause noise, which can be perceived as blurriness.

Understanding how these settings work together—shutter speed, aperture (depth of field), ISO, and focus—can help you prevent blurry photos.

What Is Full Manual Mode on a Camera?

The full manual mode camera setting is where the photographer has complete control over the three primary exposure parameters: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. 

Unlike in automatic or semi-automatic modes, where the camera adjusts one or more of these parameters, full manual mode requires the photographer to change each individually. 

This allows for greater creative control over how the image is exposed but also requires a good understanding of how these parameters interact.

How to Take Photos in Manual Mode: Conclusion

Shooting in manual mode allows you to take full control of your camera, enabling you to adjust settings like shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, and metering based on your creative vision, the subject matter, and lighting conditions. 

We’ve seen the manual mode photography definition, how to use manual mode on camera, and how this flexibility is essential for professionals and advanced hobbyists to get the exact shot they want.

Once you’ve honed it, the sky is the limit! So pick up your camera, switch it to manual mode, and experiment. And if you don’t know where to start, check out our other articles here at OhmyCamera. Happy shooting!

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Disclosure: OHMYCAMERA.com is a participant in several affiliate programs and may be compensated for referring traffic and business to companies from affiliate programs at no additional cost to you.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Disclosure: OHMYCAMERA.com is a participant in several affiliate programs and may be compensated for referring traffic and business to companies from affiliate programs at no additional cost to you.

Discover Why 2,367 Photographers Love This Free eBook!

Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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