The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Manual Mode Photography with a DSLR

So, you are ready to move beyond Auto Mode with your DSLR and you would like to know how to use it in Manual Mode. This article will help you understands a few basic concepts, give you some basic instruction on setting up your camera, and provide an outline of steps to follow when you practice taking pictures in Manual Mode.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that I am not a professional photographer, but I do have aspirations to create great images. Here is my current portfolio. I hope someday it will be better.

In the meantime, everybody is further along the learning curve than somebody else. If I happen to be further along the curve than you, then I would like to help you grow a little and encourage you to start practicing with your DSLR in Manual (M) mode. Doing so will force you to experiment with, and learn more about, your DSLR and photography.

I’ve written this incredibly simple guide to help you get started.

Figure A - Manual Mode
Figure A – Manual Mode

What This Article Assumes

  • This article assumes you have a DSLR and are familiar with its knobs, buttons and controls. If you are not, your users manual is a good place to start. There also are plenty of resources online and in book form on just about every modern camera out there.
  • This article assumes you know how to set your focus points, focus your camera, operate your zoom ring, frame/compose your images, etc. If not, there are plenty of resources to help you learn about those things as well.
  • This article also assumes you want to move past Auto (A+) mode and really get your mind around the basics of operating a DSLR camera.

Why Use Manual Mode?

If you have a decent DSLR, you can put it into Auto mode, and it will do about everything for you, and it likely will do a pretty good job of it. But Auto mode limits you to accepting your camera’s interpretation of the scene, and it does not allow for more advanced or personalized control of your images.

Some of your DSLR’s other modes will allow you to control things such as the depth of field (how in or out of focus the scene is in front of and behind your subject). They also allow you to control your shutter speed so that you can freeze or blur the motion of your subject.  The non-Auto modes also allow you to set the sensitivity of your sensor (in a manner of speaking, more on that later) so that you can take pictures in various lighting situations. So, moving beyond Auto mode gives you more say in how your images portray your subject.

(NOTE: Everything has its purpose, and Auto Mode is still useful. I’ll occasionally use it to grab a quick picture of a subject if I have no artistic interest in it, or if I just don’t have time to dink around with the settings.)

(NOTE: ISO does not actually change the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. Instead, it controls the post-sensor gain. But we don’t want to get too technical in this article.)

Most professional photographers will tell you that they shoot in Aperture Priority (Av) mode, Shutter Priority (Tv) mode, or Manual (M) mode. Av and Tv modes are basically similar to M mode, but they have some differences. If the terminology below confuses you, don’t worry. I will clarify everything in the next section of this article. Let’s compare and contrast the Av, Tv, and M modes:

  • Aperture Priority Mode: In this mode, the photographer decides the aperture setting and allows the camera to calculate the shutter speed that will result in a properly exposed image. The ISO can be set by the photographer or automatically calculated by the camera.
  • Shutter Priority Mode: In this mode, the photographer decides the shutter speed and allows the camera to calculate the aperture settings that will result in a properly exposed image. The ISO can be set by the photographer or automatically calculated by the camera.
  • Manual Mode: The photographer decides the aperture settings and the shutter speed, and the photographer is responsible for calculating which settings will result in a properly exposed image. The ISO can be set by the photographer or automatically calculated by the camera, but for the purposes of this article, I suggest that you manually set the ISO so that you can fully understand the interplay between aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Important Terminology

Figure B - Exposure Meter
Figure B – Exposure Meter
  • Exposure: When shooting in Manual mode, your primary concern (for the purpose of this article) is properly exposing your images. This essentially means the image is not so light that detail is lost in the lighter elements of the image, and not so dark that detail is lost in the darker aspects of the image. There is an exposure meter (see Figure B) built into your DSLR. You will notice a horizontal scale composed of dots and numbers that can be seen through your viewfinder or on your camera’s rear display screen. A little vertical point that moves left and right on that scale will tell you when your image is properly exposed when it rests in the middle of the scale, on the “0.”
  • Aperture: This is the size of the adjustable opening in your camera’s lens. Setting it can be confusing if you do not remember this point: the smaller the aperture setting number, the bigger the opening in the lens; and the larger the aperture setting number, the smaller the opening in the lens. A large opening (small setting number) means that a larger amount of light strikes the camera’s sensor, and vice versa.
  • Shutter Speed: This is the speed at which the shutter opens and closes, typically measured in fractions of a second (i.e. 1/30, 1/60, 1/600, 1/1250, etc …). A slower shutter speed (for example 1/30) will let more light strike the camera’s sensor than a faster shutter speed (say, 1/1250). The shutter speed also effects how your subject’s movement (if there is any) is displayed in your image. If you want to freeze helicopter blades, your speed should be set very fast (say, 1/1250). If your subject is not moving, or if you want to show some motion blur in a moving subject, a slower shutter speed can be used (say, 1/30).
  • ISO: As I mentioned above, your ISO setting controls your camera’s post-sensor gain, but that is a technical factor beyond the scope of this article. For simplicity’s sake, we will say that the ISO setting represents the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light.  ISO comes from the film camera days, when a photographer would be responsible for choosing a film speed (or film sensitivity) that would be adequate for his lighting conditions. A film speed of 100 (or ISO 100) would be good for daylight conditions, whereas a film speed of 3200 (or ISO 3200) would be a better fit in a darker setting. A side effect of using higher ISO settings on your DSLR is that it causes your image to be more grainy. Modern DSLRs typically can take pretty clear images at higher ISO settings, buts lower ISO settings tend to produce better quality images.

(NOTE: The trick to using your camera in Manual (M) mode is balancing your Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO setting to get the effect you want (for example: shallow depth of field, freezing fast moving subjects) and having the image be properly exposed.)

Taking a Picture in Manual Mode

Below are the steps and thought processes I recommend rehearsing when you start experimenting with Manual mode. For now, I recommend focusing on taking control of your Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. Until you are ready to explore your camera’s other features, leave your Picture Style, White Balance and Metering mode set to your camera’s most automatic settings.

So, with no further ado, here are four steps that you can follow to begin taking photos in Manual Mode:

STEP ONE: Set your camera mode dial to “M” for Manual Mode (see Figure A).

STEP TWO: Decide what ISO setting to start with and set your camera’s ISO. Here is a quick way to guesstimate a good starting point:

  • 100 for bright sunlight
  • 200 for some shade
  • 400 for overcast
  • 800 at dusk
  • 1600 or above at night.

STEP THREE: Decide what the subject of your image will be, and then decide which effect you will be striving for with your image: Depth of Field (how in-/out-of-focus everything is in front of and/or behind your subject), or Your Subject’s Motion (how the motion of your subject is portrayed … frozen or blurred). Then follow the “Step Four” below that applies to your decision.

STEP FOUR (IF YOU CHOSE DEPTH OF FIELD): If you want only your subject to be in focus and everything in front of and/or behind your subject to be out of focus, as is common with portrait photography, choose a large aperture (that is, a small aperture number, say 2.8 or 4.5). If you want your image to have roughly uniform focus from close up to far-away, as is in common in landscape photography, choose a small aperture (that is, a large aperture number, say 16 or 18).

(NOTE: The blur of the non-subject elements of your image is called bokeh. pronounced bōˈkā. The amount of bokeh can be influenced by how zoomed in or out your lens is. Experiment with it.)

Now, push your shutter button half way to activate your camera’s exposure metering function. Then rotate the dial that controls your shutter-speed until the little vertical indicator that runs left-to-right on your light exposure meter scale is centered on the “0.”

Then release the shutter button press it half way again to focus your camera, and then press it all the way down to take the shot. Experiment until you get an image that you like.

(NOTE: If your shutter speed is too low, your image may not have a crisp focus, as your breathing or body movement may cause problems. So, if your shutter speed ends up being slower than 1/60, you might want to try either decreasing your aperture number to let more light in, or increasing your ISO to make your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. Then you can increase your shutter speed and re-obtain a proper exposure.)

STEP FOUR (IF YOU CHOSE YOUR SUBJECT’S MOTION):

If you want the motion of your subject to be frozen in the image, such as taking a picture of a horse galloping through a field, you should set your camera to a fast shutter speed (for example 1/600). If you want your image to show a little blur to indicate movement, you will should choose a slower shutter speed (for example, 1/100).

Now, push your shutter button half way to activate your camera’s exposure metering function. Then rotate the dial that controls your aperture setting until the little vertical indicator that runs left-to-right on your exposure meter scale is centered on the “0.”

Then release the shutter button and press it half way down again to focus your camera, and then press it all the way down to take the shot. Experiment until you get an image that you like.

In Conclusion

As your “feel” for your camera gets better, you will be able to change your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings without much thought. And with experience, your proficiency at capturing good images in Manual Mode will grow.

In the end, you may choose to use Aperture Priority (Av) or Shutter Priority (Tv) mode instead of Manual mode, as they simplify the process of locking in the aperture or shutter speed settings that you want, while offering you additional options for fine-tuning the exposure and various other settings.

Either way, you won’t be able to help but become a better photographer by taking control of your camera’s settings and learning to balance out all the settings that lead to proper a exposure.

Please comment below and let me know your thoughts about this article.