Manual Mode: One Tool To Give You Control of Your Camera

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Manual Mode: One Tool To Give You Control of Your Camera

I had my “fancy” DSLR camera for well over 10 years before I learned how to flip that switch off of auto and into Manual Mode. I can’t believe I waited so long to take control and use my DSLR to its fullest potential.  Don’t you do the same!  Don’t get me wrong – AUTO is a great feature and there is most definitely a time and a place for it.  Keep in mind, though, that once you learn how to use your camera in manual mode, you will have the option to choose auto when it makes sense and not just because you don’t know any other way.

When you study the dial on top of your camera, you can see there are several modes in which you can shoot.  Here we are going to learn how to change that dial from “A” for Auto to “M” for Manual Mode!

Image of the settings dial on the top of a Canon camera - M for Manual Mode

“Skill in Photography is Acquired by Practice and NOT by Purchase!”

Percy W. Harris

The Manual Mode Exposure Triangle

The perfect exposure for a photo is made up of a balance of three camera controls, Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.  Don’t worry if you don’t get it right immediately.  You will likely need plenty of practice to get these three settings in balance for just the look you are after.  But before you can practice, you’ll need to know where to begin.

One third of the triangle is Shutter Speed

Here’s a couple of facts about shutter speed to get us started:

  1. Shutter speed refers to how long the shutter inside the camera will open up and stay open to let light in.
  2. The faster the action, the faster you need to set your shutter speed if you want to freeze that action. You can read some more detailed info on freezing motion in Capturing the Pour – Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action 
  3. The shutter needs to be open for the correct amount of time to get the desired amount of freeze or motion blur in your photo.
An image of 3 shutter speeds capturing motion for Manual Mode shooting
Image of Shutter Speed Examples

Next, let’s move on to Aperture

Here are a couple of facts about aperture to keep in mind:

  1. Aperture refers to how far the shutter will open up to let light in.
  2. The smaller the number, the more light gets let into the camera.
  3. A larger aperture (smaller #) has a narrower slice of focus and will allow a blurry background (known as Bokeh) that gives separation from your sharp subject.
Image of Donald Duck with beautiful bokeh in the background - taken in manual mode
A great example of “bokeh” or a fuzzy background behind a crisp subject
A diagram of aperture as related to the camera shutter in manual mode
The more light that comes into the camera, the more bokeh you will get… and also the smaller the slice of focus.

And finally, let’s look at ISO

ISO stands for International Standards Organization (this little nugget of detail doesn’t matter so much, but I knew you’d ask, so there ya go!  If you’re really interested,  CLICK HERE to learn more.

Basically, ISO measures the level of sensitivity your camera has to the light that enters through the shutter.  The higher the number, the more sensitive the sensor becomes.  This sounds wonderful for lower light situations, and it can be, as long as you remember there’s a trade-off.  The higher you set your ISO, the more grain you will get in your photos.  If that’s the look you are going for, then great!  But if you want to steer away from grain, then it’s important to keep ISO as low as possible.

An image demonstrating low grain in a photo
An example of an image with a low ISO and not much grain.
An image demonstrating high grain in a photo
This image was taken with a very high ISO. You can see how much more grain shows up.

Manual Mode – Putting it all Together!

Now let’s bring it all together by calculating your exposure with a practice scenario. Imagine it’s a pretty spring day and you are outside enjoying the sunshine with your family.  You’d like to take some photos of your kiddo doing a cartwheel in the yard.

It’s midday and the sun is out, so there’s plenty of light.   plenty of light means we don’t need a high ISO.  Set ISO to 100 – check.

Your subject, aka the kiddo, is moving at a medium speed (not as fast as a race car, not as slow as a snail – remember what we learned in Capturing the Pour – Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action)  so let’s start out with a shutter speed around 1/600 – check.

And finally, let’s think about aperture.  We don’t need the background in sharp focus.  In fact, we’d like to have that a little soft so the detail of that kid-sized cartwheel stands out from the background, so let’s set our aperture fairly wide open (smaller #), around 6.  This should be a big enough slice of focus to get focus on our whole subject while leaving enough creamy bokeh in the background.

Make friends with your Meter!

Once you’ve got your starting point for your settings, now you can refer to your in-camera meter to fine tune those settings.  When you look through your viewfinder into the camera, you will see a screen that looks something like this:

Graphic of an in-camera exposure meter

This is the in-camera meter, which will become one of the most important tools in setting your exposure correctly while in Manual Mode.  You want to line up the tiny line on the bottom of the meter, so it lies in the center.  Once you start with your basic exposure scenario, you can check your meter to see how close your estimate is to a good exposure by looking through your viewfinder at your subject and then peeking at that meter.  Remember that all three of the elements of the exposure triangle can be adjusted and tweaked at this point, so now’s the time to fine-tune your settings.

The fastest and simplest way to fine-tune is to use the Main Control Dial (I call it the “index finger dialy-thing”) on top of your camera to adjust shutter speed.  Just remember that sometimes it will work better to adjust your ISO or aperture for better results.  When?  Time and practice will help you sort that out.

Image of the main control dial on the top of a Canon camera
Image of Main Control Dial – use with right index finger to change settings simply.

When you see the small line at the bottom of the meter lined up perfectly with the “zero” symbol in the center, you will know you have achieved the optimal exposure (as determined by your camera) for the overall lighting scenario.  Just remember that photography is an art, and what looks good to your eye may not look perfect to someone else.  Use the meter as a guide to get you in the ballpark of the type of exposure you like.

Image of the in-camera meter showing exposure

It takes practice to master Manual Mode

Once again, remember that the meter is a guide to help you calculate your exposure. All of these details can be overwhelming when you’re learning how to shoot in manual, but don’t forget…  The most important detail to remember is to JUST. KEEP. PRACTICING.

If you have any questions, please comment below.  I am here to help and happy to answer questions!

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”

Anton Chekhov

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PIN image for Manual Mode showing a camera dial with an M
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14 thoughts on “Manual Mode: One Tool To Give You Control of Your Camera”

  1. There is such a difference between understanding the concept and being able to apply it when it comes to art. I got an A in every art class that I ever took because I understand the concepts but I am probably the worst artist ever and that includes photography. It’s so frustrating because I have always been a very creative person but my skill never caught with my ideas.

    • That must be soooo frustrating! And yes, putting this concept into practice definitely calls for plenty of practice! I feel that way about music. I just cannot do it. And it makes me so very sad. I say that when I get to heaven I’m going to be a concert pianist! <3

    • Hello Ai! So sorry for the slow response! I would definitely say that your shutter speed will be less important when you’re taking photos of still food. The basic rule for a clear shot with no camera shake is to keep your shutter speed at least as fast as the focal distance. This means if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens then you don’t want your shutter speed below 50. This will keep your image clear. If you must go slower than that, then you’ll definitely want a tripod! Hope that helps! Thank you for the question!

  2. I keep trying. My issue is when I get in the moment, I really have to think about switching all of these controls, takes me a while. I know that will improve with experience. I have improved so much, just understanding these concepts, though, even though I still really have to think things through. I need some note cards to keep with my camera gear. That would be ideal.

    • You will notice a big difference when you take control of your camera! Have fun and please feel free to ask if you have any questions!

  3. I have a camera that I use in auto mode because I don’t know what to do with any of the settings. This article is quite helpful and I’ll be going through it a second and probably a third time to make sure I get all the goodness from it! Thanks!

    • Wonderful, Shirley! You will be amazed at what a difference it will make in your photography once you learn how to get off that auto setting! Please feel free to contact me with any questions you have!

    • Hello Germaine! The very best way to start understanding is to begin practicing! Don’t be afraid to make a lot of mistakes. That will help you learn. I promise. I’m always happy to answer your specific questions, so feel free to reach out. Please join my FB Group, also, where everyone is friendly and happy to help one another. You can join here:

  4. Nice basic explanation of the components of exposure. Just one suggestion, you’re posts tend to be Canon focused (pardon the pun). A in every other camera brand is Aperture Priority, not Auto. Only Canon uses the quirky Tv and Av notation.

    I would suggest adding one other detail. Just because you have the exposure meter showing zero doesn’t mean its properly exposed. What the meter sees depends a lot on the meter mode (e.g. spot vs. area) and what’s in the scene. For instance, metering on a bride’s dress will be underexposed, while a grooms dark suit will be overexposed. Perhaps that’s a subject of another article.

    There’s another way to teach exposure, that works well with mirrorless and live view. By using Aperture or Shutter priority modes. You can set one of the variables, lets say aperture, the teach using exposure compensation and look what happens to the other two variables, and also what the image looks like. Since you can see it in real time, I find it helps explain to new users what’s happening. Fixing the ISO can help for those who have a hard time understanding that two of the elements can change. BTW, you can do this in manual too, but you lose the concept of exposure compensation.

    BTW, I applaud you for making the effort in publishing this kind of material. I’m not criticizing, more along the line of constructive critique.

    • Thank you for the feedback, Robert! Always interesting to hear another photographer’s explanations and insights! I really appreciate your time and comments. One can never go wrong in sharing information, right? And you’ve given me an idea for another post, which I always appreciate. P.S. Yes – I tend to be Canon focused (nice pun!). I have shot with Canon for so many years, I sometimes forget that there are other excellent cameras out there in the world. 🙂 Great point to remember for future posts!


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