Photography newbies often use the same cameras as professionals, but their photos rarely come out as anything close. This is where the manual mode comes into play and with a little playful practice you will find Learning to take pictures manually is not that difficult. In this article you will learn everything you need to know to be able to take pictures manually. With free cheat sheet!

Manual photography is a bit like driving a car with a gear shift. If need be you can easily shift an automatic car into manual, but its a different story the other way around. Changing the dial to Auto can make life comfortable, but you need to take more control if you want to take better pictures. With a little practice, you will soon be able to take pictures manually and take your photography to a whole new level!

Here we show you the hows and whys of using manual mode. Read this article from top to bottom (reading time about 3 minutes) or click on a section if you know what you are looking for:

  1. Manual photography for beginners – Do it
  2. Manual mode? What is it?
  3. What you can achieve with manual photography
  4. Three building blocks: ISO, aperture, shutter speed
  5. From automatic to manual photography
  6. When to use each manual mode: The semi-automatic modes
  7. The Exposure Triangle – Combining Settings: ISO, aperture, shutter speed

Manual photography for beginners – Do it

The manual mode scares off many photographers at first. But this small hurdle is worth taking. Even if it’s not that easy, with a bit of fun practice you’ll be able to master these by learning only 3 basic principles.

Tap the full potential of your camera and your creativity.

You now tell the camera what a nice picture looks like releasing your camera’s full potential as well as of your creativity. We promise you that you will take really good pictures much more regularly than before.

So worry not, every professionals started out like you, and they all did it by learning to shoot manually.

Manual mode? What is it?

Every SLR camera offers the possibility to take pictures in different modes. There are usually different automatic modes and three or four manual modes.

Automatic mode means that the camera does almost everything itself and you only have to press the shutter button. The pictures will be okay, sometimes they are great, sometimes they are absolutely unsightly. One just clicks and never can really know the outcome.

With the manual mode you predefine what the camera does, taking full control over your pictures.

What you can achieve with manual photography

Long-term exposure in Heidelberg, Germany: despite the darkness the photo is sharp due to long exposure time with the camera ion a tripod. Notice how the walking people are blurred.

Still wondering why you should bother taking pictures manually?

Have a look at the following examples to see how shooting in manual can up your photography game:

  • You can decide whether you want an overall sharp landscape image or a nice crisp subject with a blurred out background.
  • Get sharper images with less noise in low light.
  • Immerse yourself in creative image design.
  • Make wonderful portraits (thanks to low depth of field).
  • Capture exciting motifs with moving objects or athletes.
Mountain biking in Norway: The fast athletes are in focus (shutter speed 1/800 sec). In the foreground the grass is intentionally out of focus (open aperture).

Three building blocks: ISO, aperture, shutter speed

Aperture openings in schematic comparison. Source: Source: Wikimedia, KoeppiK

Manual photography consists of the 3 building blocks: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. All three stand alone and should be understood serperatly. Each module has a specific image effect that you should know.

  • ISO: With digital cameras, ISO sensitivity stands for the light sensitivity of the image sensor. The higher the value, the more light-sensitive the sensor is and the more “noisy” the image
  • Aperture: The aperture controls how wide the lens is opened. It is specified in “f/X.X” or “FX”. F1.8 is a very large/open aperture that lets a lot of light through, f14 on the other hand is a rather closed/small aperture. The aperture has an effect on the depth of field, i.e. the distance one’s subject must be to be in focus. The more open (smallerr value), the shallower the depth of field.
  • Shutter speed: The shutter speed is the time at which light falls on the sensor. The shutter speed is given in seconds or fractions of a second. 10 seconds is a long exposure time e.g. for a night shot, 1/1000 of a second is a short shutter speed e.g. to capture an athlete.

From automatic to manual photography

Next to the automatic setting, most cameras have the following four manual programs :

  • A or AV: With A/AV the photographer sets an aperture and the camera calculates the appropriate exposure time. (A/AV: Aperture Value)
  • S or TV: With S/TV, the photographer specifies an exposure time and the camera calculates the appropriate aperture. (S: Shutter Time, TV: Time Value)
  • P: The utility program. The camera tries to avoid exposure errors, but you can always intervene. The camera will only allow promising combinations of aperture and shutter speed – a kind of safety mode.
  • M: The complete manual mode: You set all three components yourself, the camera does not calculate anything.

Our recommended procedure:

Most photographers choose the program A or AV directly after the automatic mode. With A/AV the photographer sets an aperture and the camera calculates the appropriate exposure time.

Examples: For a portrait you usually use a large/open aperture (e.g. F/2.8 or F/3.5) for a landscape photo a small/closed aperture (e.g. F/8 or F/11).

When to use each manual mode: The semi-automatic modes

We will now explain the two semi-automatic systems: A/AV (aperture priority + aperture priority) and S/TV (time priority + aperture priority).

AV – Aperture priority

With this setting you choose the aperture, i.e. the the width of the opening in your lens which allows light through to the camera. The camera will then calculate the appropriate exposure time automatically giving the aperture priority.

With aperture priority the control of depth of field is mostly in the foreground.

A classic landscape photo with great depth of field – i.e. the whole image is in focus. Use a closed aperture here, e.g. f11.

Example: A small aperture for sharp landscape photos, the large/open aperture for a portrait with romantic blur or in the evening when it is darker.

Typical problems: At large aperture and when it is very bright, even the shortest exposure time may not be sufficient. This results in an overexposed image with blown out whites.

When the aperture is closed, you may have to use a long shutter speed. The result is a blurred photo unless stabalised with a tripod.

TV – Shutter speed

When capturing fast movements, you need a certain short shutter speed to freeze the movement – like here, to capture the mountain biker about 1/800 sec was used.

Example: A fast moving cyclist is only “sharply” captured from about 1/500 sec. A waterfall needs at least 0.5 sec exposure time (and a tripod).

Typical problems: With a short exposure time, the largest aperture may not be sufficient. The result is underexposure.

With long exposure time the smallest aperture can not be small enough. This results in overexposure.

For exposure times slower than 1/30 use a tripod or your image will blur.

The Exposure Triangle – Combining Settings: ISO, aperture, shutter speed

The exposure triangle illustrates hos shutter speed, aperture and light sensitivity ALWAYS influence each other. If you change one factor, at least one of the other two factors must be adjusted for the same exposure. Source: Wikimedia WClarke

You have now understood the three building blocks iso, aperture and shutter speed and have already tried out the semi-automatic functions. Maybe you have already practiced different situations (indoors, outdoors, portrait, movement).

In manual mode you have to understand the connection between these three elements so that you can take full control over them.

Note: All three settings influence what is sent to the sensor. The “exposure triangle” shows you this connection.

Correct exposure – Manual exposure: Decide according to your priority

Now you have to think about all three settings for each picture before you take a photo. Don’t worry, there are many situations that repeat themselves and make it easier with practice.

The best thing you can do to make it easy is to give priority to one of the settings. Decide what is most important:

  • Do you want to achieve a shallow depth of field (e.g. portrait, macro photography)? Then your priority is the aperture.
  • Do you want to get the most accurate representation of light and colors? Make ISO your priority.
  • Do you want to avoid as much motion blur as possible? Focus on the shutter speed.

Once you have decided on your priority, all you have to do is adjust the other settings to to bring bring the right amount of light to your photo.

Tips for correct exposure:

  • Experiment with the aperture: Take a subject and blur the background. Change the aperture setting and observe the pictures what changes with your motif.
  • Experiment with the shutter speed: Take a moving subject, for example a cyclist or a car. Change the shutter speed to control when the subject is in focus, or when it is blurred.
Experiment with the building blocks. Here: Aperture and its influence on exposure and depth of field. Source: Wikimedia Markus Mayer.

Tipps for using ISO

When considering your priority, always use the lowest ISO values possible – ISO100 to 200 in daylight and only when the conditions are darker, e.g. in a darker room or after sunset, slowly increase the ISO value.

Rules of thumb: Up to ISO400-800 you will get a pretty good basic image, above ISO800 your sensor will pick up more noise, use it only when you really need it – fast indoor sports, fast movements in a dark forest.

Image control

You control your image and thus your exposure by means of exposure meter. This internal meter shows you directly if you have exposed too bright or too dark (left: too dark, right: too bright). Alternatively check the finished image on your display or like the pros in the histogram.

Tip: If a new situation arises, make a test pattern. Evaluate your exposure in the display and correct if necessary. If necessary repeat this until you findthe most suitable setting.

Additional tip: Take note of the changes you make on your picture. This way you will get a feeling for the perfect settings over time.

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