Pho­to: pixnio.com

Tak­ing pho­tos in man­u­al mode is like dri­ving a car. If you know how to dri­ve a car with a man­u­al trans­mis­sion, then switch­ing to an auto­mat­ic is not dif­fi­cult. But the oth­er way around does­n’t work any­more. The same log­ic with man­u­al and auto­mat­ic pho­tog­ra­phy modes: mas­ter the first — you can shoot in any of them. Yes, man­u­al mode is dif­fi­cult at first, but now we will help you.

Why shoot in manual mode

Of course, it’s tempt­ing to let the cam­era con­trol all the set­tings. But, first­ly, you will learn lit­tle in the process. And sec­ond­ly, the pic­ture will be the way the cam­era “wants”, and not the way you want. Man­u­al mode, on the oth­er hand, gives you com­plete con­trol over the image, and you will learn more about the basic prin­ci­ples of pho­tog­ra­phy in prac­tice.

You will be able to con­trol how much light will enter the cam­era, and, accord­ing­ly, how much dark­er or lighter your pho­tos will be. You can con­nect cre­ative effects — add or remove Motion Blur (motion blur), “freeze” a non-sta­t­ic object and, of course, con­trol bokeh.

How to shoot in manual mode

First you need to under­stand such a basic con­cept as the “expo­sure tri­an­gle”. The cam­era has three ele­ments (set­tings) that con­trol how much light enters its sen­sor: shut­ter speed, aper­ture, ISO. They make up the three sides of the expo­sure tri­an­gle.

The Expo­sure Tri­an­gle demon­strates the bal­ance of three main para­me­ters. Source: photo7.ru

With this “tri­an­gle” you will eas­i­ly remem­ber that you need a bal­ance of all three ele­ments for prop­er expo­sure. Each of these affects light cap­ture dif­fer­ent­ly and has its own cre­ative effect.

When shoot­ing in man­u­al mode, we choose the set­ting of each of the three ele­ments, bal­anc­ing to get the right pic­ture.

What effect does each of the para­me­ters have on the pho­to? Know­ing this, you will be able to avoid prob­lems such as too dark or too light pic­ture (under- or over­ex­posed pic­ture), out of focus, etc., so read on.


What’s this? Shut­ter speed is the time that the shut­ter remains open after the shut­ter release but­ton is pressed. The longer the shut­ter remains open, the more light enters the sen­sor (and the brighter the pic­ture will be).

How is it mea­sured? Expo­sure is mea­sured in frac­tions of a sec­ond. For exam­ple: 1/100 is one hun­dredth of a sec­ond, and 1/10 is one tenth of a sec­ond. A shut­ter speed of 1/100 is short­er than a shut­ter speed of 1/10, mean­ing the shut­ter is less open.

How does this affect pho­tog­ra­phy? With shut­ter speed you can stop (“freeze”) the move­ment. The longer the shut­ter is open (longer shut­ter speed), the more move­ment it cap­tures (which leads to motion blur). Faster shut­ter speeds freeze motion, which is use­ful when shoot­ing sports, action scenes, mov­ing chil­dren and ani­mals. For exam­ple, for shoot­ing chil­dren, a shut­ter speed of about 1/160 sec­ond is suit­able.

Long expo­sure Motion Blur: Still objects remain sharp and move­ment is blurred. Pho­to: pixabay.com


What’s this? Aper­ture deter­mines the size of the lens open­ing (the open­ing itself is called aper­ture, but they are often used inter­change­ably) when you press the shut­ter but­ton. The larg­er the hole, the more light enters the matrix (and vice ver­sa).

How is it mea­sured? Aper­ture is mea­sured in f‑stops. Depend­ing on the lens, the aper­ture val­ue can vary from f/0.7 to f/22. In this case, the small­er the sec­ond num­ber, the more the aper­ture is open (and, accord­ing­ly, more light will enter the cam­era). So f/0.7 is a much wider aper­ture than f/22.

How does this affect pho­tog­ra­phy? In addi­tion to the bright­ness of the pic­ture, the aper­ture con­trols the depth of field: how much will be in focus in front of the focus point and behind it. An open aper­ture, such as f/1.8, has a much small­er area in focus (shal­low depth of field) than, for exam­ple, f/8. With an open (wide) aper­ture, you can get bokeh: the sub­ject (let’s say a face) is in focus, and the back­ground is beau­ti­ful­ly blurred — good for por­traits. A closed (nar­row) aper­ture pro­duces shots in which all objects in the frame are in focus — good for land­scapes. For exam­ple, to cre­ate a por­trait with pro­nounced bokeh, an aper­ture of f / 2.0 and below is suit­able. You can learn about oth­er basic cam­era set­tings for por­trait shoot­ing in our arti­cle.

You can get blur­ry back­grounds in por­trait shots by shoot­ing wide open. Pho­to: www.piqsels.com


What’s this? The ISO val­ue mea­sures the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the matrix to light. The high­er the ISO val­ue, the greater the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the matrix and the brighter the pic­ture will be.

How is it mea­sured? Most cam­eras start at ISO 100, increas­ing in steps: 100–125-160–200-250–320-400–500-640–800 and so on. Each step increas­es the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the matrix to light by a third com­pared to the pre­vi­ous step. At ISO 200, the sen­sor will be twice as sen­si­tive to light as at ISO 100.

How does this affect pho­tog­ra­phy? As you increase the ISO, noise (“grain­i­ness”) appears. And at very high ISO set­tings, sharp­ness can begin to be lost. How­ev­er, increas­ing the ISO allows you to take pic­tures even in low light. Oth­er things being equal, it is bet­ter that the ISO val­ue be as low as pos­si­ble. “Grain­i­ness” for dif­fer­ent cam­eras appears at dif­fer­ent ISOs, so you can find the extreme accept­able val­ue exper­i­men­tal­ly. For por­traits, in gen­er­al, try to keep it below 400.

Noise increas­es as ISO increas­es. Pho­to: Roger Smith / flickr.com

How to use it all

Now you need to adjust the set­tings for shut­ter speed, aper­ture and ISO in order to:

1. Get the right expo­sure: not too bright and not too dark, with just the right amount of detail. As you can see, all three set­tings affect the bright­ness of the shot — the secret is to bal­ance them.

2. Get the desired cre­ative effect, such as blur­ring or sharp­en­ing the back­ground (depend­ing on aper­ture), blur­ring or “freez­ing” motion (depend­ing on shut­ter speed).

How to bal­ance them? You need to choose set­tings in which your light meter will be at zero. Let’s talk about this in more detail.

exposure meter

Your cam­era has a built-in expo­sure meter that shows how much light is hit­ting the sen­sor. You will see it in the viewfind­er or on the screen and it will look some­thing like the pic­ture below.

In dif­fer­ent cam­eras, the design of the expo­sure meter may dif­fer, but it will always be a ruler between the num­bers ‑2 and +2. Source: Youtube chan­nel “Pho­to­school 717”

If you point the cam­era at the sub­ject and press the shut­ter but­ton halfway, the expo­sure meter nee­dle will stop some­where on its ruler. The posi­tion of the arrow will indi­cate if your pho­to will be over­ex­posed, under­ex­posed, or per­fect­ly exposed.

  • If the expo­sure meter nee­dle is cen­tered (some­times it is dis­played as zero), this is the ide­al expo­sure.
  • If the arrow is to the right of cen­ter, the image is too bright.
  • If to the left of the cen­ter — too dark *.

* In Nikon cam­eras, the oppo­site is true: on the right are neg­a­tive val­ues ​​(under­ex­posed), and on the left are pos­i­tive (over­ex­posed).

It is impor­tant to note that if the ambi­ent light or tones are too bright or dark, the expo­sure meter may be wrong. Also, the cam­er­a’s idea of ​​ide­al expo­sure does­n’t always match your own vision. How­ev­er, this is a good start for choos­ing set­tings for the first test shot, which you can then tweak a lit­tle.

Prop­er expo­sure is the key to a great pho­to! Pho­to: Tam­bako The Jaguar / flickr.com

So, for man­u­al shoot­ing, we alter­nate­ly adjust the aper­ture, shut­ter speed and ISO (the very order of set­ting the para­me­ters is an indi­vid­ual mat­ter) and make sure that the expo­sure meter is at zero. For exam­ple, to get a blur­ri­er back­ground, we open the aper­ture wider, which results in a brighter shot, so we need to com­pen­sate by slow­ing down the shut­ter speed or increas­ing the ISO. At the same time, they usu­al­ly try to keep the ISO val­ue at the low­est pos­si­ble lev­el (of course, if you are not a fan of Lo-Fi aes­thet­ics).

We hope you get some great hand­held shots now! You can read more about the dif­fer­ent cam­era set­tings in our pre­vi­ous arti­cle.