How to Shoot in Manual Mode & Unlock the Power of Manual Exposure

Take full control over your images and create the things that you want to create, not just what the camera thinks is best

Apr 6, 2017   |   Justin Katz
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This article is part 5 of the Complete Guides to Learning Photography for Beginners.

Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera on auto is like asking a computer to paint the next Mona Lisa. While auto mode allows anyone to take a photograph, auto mode is incredibly limiting, creatively speaking. On auto, the computer inside the camera makes all the artistic decisions — but on manual mode, photographers take full control of every element.

But manual exposure can sound just as daunting as painting the Mona Lisa. Manual mode does take some time and practice — but with some background knowledge and a few tools, manual photography is an feasible task to tackle. Here’s what you need to know about how to shoot in manual mode.


Manual mode allows the photographer to choose three different camera settings that determine a photograph’s exposure, or how light or dark the image is. Along with altering the image’s exposure, each setting also plays a role in another element of the image. Understanding each of the three elements is essential to mastering manual modes.

Graphics suggestion: a photo labeling where the shutter speed, aperture and ISO is displayed on a DSLR

Shutter speed

A single image can be taken over a span of milliseconds or even minutes — and it’s all determined by shutter speed. The longer a camera’s shutter stays open to expose the image, the more light that’s let in. Short shutter speeds, on the other hand, let in less light. Along with affecting exposure, anything that moves while the shutter is open will blur — and if the shutter speed is slow enough, you’ll need a tripod to prevent the entire picture from blurring.

Full article: What is shutter speed? How simple camera settings can create motion in still photos


Just like a larger solar panel will gather more light, a wider lens opening will also gather more light. Aperture determines just how large the lens opening is, with wide apertures (small f-numbers like f/1.8) letting in the most light. Wide apertures will also blur out the background, while narrower apertures will keep more of the background sharp.

Full article: What is aperture? Use it to create depth (and magic) in photos


Unlike the camera’s shutter and aperture, ISO isn’t a physical camera part. Instead, ISO controls how sensitive the camera is to light. A low ISO of 100 is good for shooting in bright light, while ISO 3200 will help lighten up a photo taken at dusk. There’s an image quality trade off though, so it’s essential to know how well your camera handles high ISOs and how much you can push it while still getting a quality image.

Full article: What is ISO? Taking the mystery out of ISO camera settings


While manual mode means getting off auto, it doesn’t mean shooting blind. Cameras have a built in meter that measures light — that’s how a camera’s auto mode determines where to set the exposure. That same meter can serve as a general guide to help you choose exposure settings without random guesses.

On a DSLR, the camera’s meter is on the inside of the viewfinder, often on the bottom or side. It looks like a line graph with arrows and numbers, like this:

(photo of meter - would be helpful to have both a Nikon and Canon example)

Mirrorless cameras have them too, though sometimes they’re located on the LCD screen when the camera doesn’t have a viewfinder. Some camera brands use an arrow on that line, while others use lines to the right and left of the middle point to indicate exposure.

When the camera’s meter is in the middle, it means the image is properly exposed (or at least the camera thinks it is — more on that in a minute). If the arrow or lines, on the other hand, are towards the side of the meter with a plus, the image is overexposed, or too bright. Towards the minus sign? Too dark, or underexposed.

The meter serves as a great guideline for choosing exposure settings in manual mode — but the meter isn’t always “right.” If there are a lot of white objects in the scene, the camera may say that the photo is properly exposed when it’s actually too dark. That’s because a lot of white objects makes the camera think that the scene is brighter than it is, which is why snowy photos often end up too dark when shot on auto mode. Lots of black in the scene will do the opposite, making the camera think the scene is actually darker than it is. While you are learning manual modes, take a look at the photo on the LCD screen to see if it’s properly exposed and adjust from there.

That’s one of the reasons why learning manual modes is important to becoming a better photographer — manual modes allow you to adjust the exposure when the built in meter gets it wrong.

The Four Manual Modes

Wait, what? Manual mode seemed daunting enough, but there are four manual modes? Actually, the fact that there’s more than one manual mode makes it simpler.


M on the mode dial, is the true manual mode. All of the camera’s exposure settings are set by the photographer. In this mode, you’ll need to set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO yourself. Other settings — like autofocus modes and white balance — are also fully customizable here.

Aperture priority

A (Av on Canon) on the mode dial, is just a partial manual mode — you can set the aperture, but the camera will balance out the exposure for you. Aperture priority mode is a great tool for learning aperture, but even advanced photographers will use both for simplicity and for scenarios when the lighting may change quickly. On many cameras, you can also choose your ISO in aperture priority mode, or choose auto ISO.

Shutter priority

S (Tv on Canon) on the mode dial, on the other hand chooses your aperture while you are free to set the shutter speed. Along with being a good learning tool, it’s a setting frequently used by sports photographers so they can control shutter speed without wrecking the exposure if the sun happens to go behind a cloud. Just like on aperture priority, many cameras allow you to set the ISO or choose auto ISO.

Programmed mode

P on the mode dial, is an auto manual mode hybrid. Unlike aperture and shutter priority mode, programmed mode picks exposure settings in groups. Flipping the dial will change both the shutter speed and the aperture at once. Many photographers don’t consider this to be a true manual mode, but it does give users access to settings that aren’t available in auto, like white balance and focus modes, without knowing much about advanced exposure settings.

On any of the four manual modes, the camera’s control dial (or dials) will adjust the different exposure settings. The new settings will display inside the viewfinder as well as on the camera’s LCD screen. In aperture priority mode, for example, the dial will control aperture. Cameras with two control dials, one on the back and one on the front, make it easier to use manual mode, but on cameras with one dial, pressing and holding the function or Fn button swaps the dial’s setting. On some cameras, there’s an ISO button as well — holding the ISO button allows the same dial to control ISO.

Every camera is a bit different — using manual mode on a Nikon is a bit different from using manual mode on a Canon. Check the owner’s manual (or check out our getting started courses tailored to your specific camera model) and experiment — learning how to use manual mode takes some practice — and patience.

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