Tips for Shooting in Manual Mode

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When you first get your camera, you will probably spend some time shooting in automatic mode. The big “M” on your mode wheel might seem a little daunting. However, it doesn’t need to be with these tips.

Why Shooting Manual is Important

Shooting in manual mode gives you creative control over the picture you’re creating. Simply pointing and shooting a camera in automatic mode is totally fine when you’re just starting out. Chances are though, if you’re reading this it’s because you want to begin to create unique images. The only way to do that is by learning to control your camera.

Your camera is ultimately tool. The better you understand how to control that tool, the more expression you have to create images that didn’t exist before. That’s the difference between a “photo taker” and a “photographer”.

Two men throwing a duffle bag.

How to Make the Switch

The switch can be as gradual as you like. Stay in automatic for a while longer. Start to pay attention to what your camera settings are doing in different lighting situations. If you’re shooting in direct daylight with no cloud coverage, pay attention to what the settings are at. Look at your shutter speed, your aperture, and you ISO.

Understanding Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed refers to how quickly the shutter of the camera opens and then shuts again. The longer the shutter of the camera is open, the longer the amount of time light is being let into the sensor. The faster the shutter closes again, the less light will reach the sensor.

You’ll begin to see that in situations where there is a lot of light, your camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to be very fast. In lower light situations like shooting at dusk or dawn, the shutter speed will be a lot slower. That’s a clue for when you make the switch to manual.

Understanding shutter speed will become really important for all kinds of outdoor photography styles. Fast shutter speeds can be really important for shooting action sports, and moving subjects. Where as a slow shutter speed is crucial for long exposure photography which is a very popular kind of landscape photography.


Aperture is measured by “F stops”. Think of aperture as a pupil like the human eye. When you shine bright light directly into somebodies eye, their pupils will shrink significantly. Limiting the amount of light exposed to their retina (in the camera’s case, the sensor).

For example, if you’re photographing in direct sunlight, your shutter speed will be fast, like 1/640 and your aperture might be stopped down to F/16. The higher the F stop number, the smaller the aperture or “opening”. The lower the F stop number, the more open the aperture. It’s a little confusing, however it’ll begin to make sense once you start to play around the settings on your camera.

Aperture can affect the “fall off” or bokeh on a subject. For example, portraits can sometimes have a nice soft feel to them with a wide open aperture around F 2.8 or 1.4. With landscapes, you often want everything in the frame to be sharp and in focus. So you would want to typically have the F stop between F 8 and F 16.


ISO can be a confusing concept to understand initially. It’s essentially the camera using technology to increase the brightness internally. So if you require more light to hit the sensor, but your aperture is already wide open and you shutter speed is already veery slow, like 1/50, you’ll have to turn up your ISO.

Often with sports and action photography you require some extra ISO so you can still be shooting at a hight shutter speed to avoid motion blur in lower light conditions.

Couple hiking on coast Georgian Bay on the Bruce Trail.

Next Steps

Try shooting some scenarios where you might be forced to practice your new skills.

Portraits In Direct Sunlight

Typically you’d want to take portraits at dusk or dawn. It’s a good exercise though because it will force you to play with your settings. Try opening up your aperture to f4 and see how fast you need to adjust your shutter speed.

Shooting Landscapes or City Scapes After Sunset

Waiting for the sun to go down then take some photos of a landscape or city scape. Pay attention to how slow you might have to make your shutter speed. Keep in mind if you have some foreground in your photo, you’ll want everything to be sharp. Your aperture should be around F 8. You might have to push your ISO a little bit.

Moving Subjects in Low Light

Try waking up early and photography a moving subject like a friend running along the sidewalk or moving cars. Track the moving subject. Try to make everything sharp, and in focus. If you’re moving your camera to track a moving subject you typically down want to be shooting much slower than 1/250 to 1/400 depending on how fast the subject is moving.

If there isn’t much light outside from the sun yet, you’ll really have to bump up your ISO and have your aperture open as much as possible.


The learning curve for transitioning from auto to full manual is like anything else. It take paying attention and lots of practice. Luckily for you, practicing photography is a lot of fun and it shouldn’t take too long to get a grasp on how to get full control over your camera settings.

There are plenty of exciting tricks and techniques in a multitude of different shooting scenarios where controlling your camera in full manual will really open up an entire world of possibilities for you. We’ll get more into techniques in our intermediate courses later.

For now, practice those scenarios. Shoot in tons of different lighting situations, and keep the stoke high!

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