How to Shoot in Manual Mode in 4 Easy Steps


Making the jump to shooting in manual mode is easier than you might think! That's not to say shooting in manual is better than shooting in aperture or shutter priority or the end goal. There are times when you have to shoot quickly and aperture priority may make sense. But if you find yourself constantly adjusting the exposure compensation in aperture priority mode because your images are under or overexposed, it's probably time to jump over to manual.


The mistake I see most often when learning to shoot manual is continuously changing ALL of the exposure triangle settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO). You change the aperture, then you change the ISO, now you have to change the aperture again, then the shutter speed and around and around you go. At this point, you have no idea what is working for you and what isn't. It helps to have some "go to" settings that are constant. This consistency will help you learn what settings work in which lighting situations. Use them often enough and you will no longer need a meter to tell you the settings, just your own eyes to see the light!

1. Set Your ISO - There are some settings you can set before you even leave the house! ISO is typically one of them. Remember there are no set rules in photography. These are just guidelines to help you get started. Think about what you are going to be shooting that day and set your ISO accordingly.

  • 100 - Landscapes/Bright Sun

  • 200 - Walking Around Town - versatile setting and a good ISO to start with if you are unsure of what you are going to be shooting or you are dealing with changing light.

  • 400 - Heavy Shade/Indoors with Good Window Light

  • 800 - Low Light Indoors

  • 1600+ - Dark Indoor Lighting - church, museum, theatre, etc.

2. Set Your Aperture - Next, what depth of field are you wanting to obtain? Long or shallow? This is another setting you can typically set before even leaving the house. Depth of field selection has a lot to do with style and personal preference, but these are some common settings:

  • F2-F4 - Portrait/Shallow Depth of Field or anytime you want to isolate a subject from the background.

  • F11-F16 - Landscape/Long Depth of Field or anytime you want most of your scene in focus

3. Set Your Shutter Speed - At this point, you have already set 2/3 of the exposure triangle before even leaving the house! All you have left is the shutter speed. This will vary greatly according to the light, plus you must keep in mind how fast the subject is moving.

  • 1/8 or longer - Blur water

  • 1/250 - Freeze a slow moving object - walking, kids

  • 1/500 - Freeze running, sports

  • 1/1000 - Freeze very fast subjects- car, train

Keep in mind, if you use a shutter speed that is longer than 1/focal length of your lens, your image may not be sharp. You may not be able to hand hold your camera steady enough for that slow of a shutter speed. Use a tripod to steady your camera or raise your ISO to make your shutter speed faster.

4. Check Your Exposure - Above are the necessary shutter speeds for certain actions, but they may not be the shutter speed the light is requiring, given the aperture and ISO you selected. So how do we determined the shutter speed that will give us the correct exposure? There is not just one tool to determine exposure. Here are some of the tools in your toolbox:

  • Use your meter- The meter is the scale typically found at the bottom when looking through the viewfinder. Adjust your shutter speed until the marker of the meter is under ZERO. Once the marker is under zero, the camera is telling you it believes this is the correct exposure for the scene in your viewfinder. Meters are not 100% correct every time. Results vary according to your desired outcome, if the subject is backlit or in a high contrast situation and the type of metering you are using (cumulative, spot, center weighted, etc.). Remember the suggested shutter speeds above. If you are wanting to freeze a person running and your meter is telling you the correct shutter speed for the aperture/ISO you selected is 1/30, then you need to adjust your ISO. Your subject will not be sharp at 1/30. Raise your ISO until the marker rests under zero when the shutter speed is 1/500 (the desired shutter for someone running).

  • Check your histogram - The histogram should typically indicate there is detail in the shadows and the highlights. This can vary greatly according to the desire effect, but the histogram serves as another tool in your toolbox. We are not going to deep dive into the histogram in this post. I could write a whole other blog post just about the histogram!

  • Check your LCD - I have heard people say they never use the LCD to guide their exposure. It shouldn't be the only thing you use, but it's another tool in your toolbox, so I say use it! Are you seeing your desired results? Remember to view your LCD in the shade or when cupping your hand around it, so that sun glare does not affect how the image appears. Checking the LCD has gotten a bad reputation because of how it can distract the photographer. So choose carefully when you are going to review images on your LCD. You may miss a moment in a fast moving scenario. But not all scenes are fast moving, so if you have the time, check your LCD. It could save you tons of time culling your images later.

  • Use your eyes - Shoot with the same settings often enough and all you need is your eyes to the determine the settings. You will instantly know what the shutter speed is when your in open shade using your "go to" settings of say F2.8 and ISO 200.

As with most things, practice is the key to progress. In photography, it's great to get to a point where you are not thinking about camera settings and the camera is more like an extension of your arm. Then you can get your head up and out of the camera and thinking creatively about light, composition or capturing a moment. So bring your camera with you when you get a coffee or walk your dog. Practice shooting just to see if you can guess the correct exposure settings. Doesn't matter what your shooting, just shoot and you will see improvement in no time!


Happy Shooting!

~ Jennifer Costello