Taking photos in manual mode is like driving a car with manual transmission. It can be overwhelming at first: You have to start the car, drop the clutch, give it a little gas, change gear, take off some gas, drop the clutch once more, change gear, then start the car again because it stalled somewhere along the way.

You have to pay attention to many things at the same time and make sure they match up to get the car moving. But once you’ve mastered it, you have much more control over the vehicle and your experience in it. The same is true with using manual mode on your camera.

There are 3 key aspects you need to know about manual mode that will help you take much more compelling pictures and unleash your creative powers.

Mastering all of these elements at the same time may seem like rocket science at first, but the following tips will make it much easier to put them into practice.

Let’s get started.

ISO: sensitivity

The first aspect to consider is the sensitivity of the sensor. I know – this may sound redundant, but it can help us understand what ISO is better. In slightly more technical terms, the ISO is the number that indicates the ability of your camera’s sensor to capture light. I’m sure you’ve seen it on the screen of your digital camera, it usually looks like this:

When you take a photo, you’re essentially capturing information relating to the light, and the sensor on your camera is responsible for processing it into an image. The ISO lets you control the amount of light entering the sensor; the higher the number on screen, the more light there is entering the sensor

Here’s how it works: the higher the ISO value you give your photo, the more light your image will have. If you’re in a well-lit or bright place, you should keep the ISO low to avoid overexposed or noisy shots. And no one likes too much noise.

ISO allows you to find light in dark places. But as you know, nothing is free in life and there are certain drawbacks to consider. Raising the ISO to get more light into your photos can have an undesirable side-effect: noise.

This term refers to the “pimples” that we see in some photographs, and lately in many Instagram filters. The following photos illustrate this problem more clearly.

This first photograph has an ISO of 1600, leaving it a little noisy. It’s perhaps not so apparent at first, but let’s take a closer look:

ISOLOW Everything You Need to Know to Take Photos in Manual Mode
This first photograph has an ISO of 1600. Though perhaps not very apparent at first, it is slightly noisy.
The second photo has an ISO of 100 and you can see the difference in the contours. They are much smoother and cleaner, they have no noise or grain.

You can see that the image is blurred at the edge of the bookcase, the edges are not so well defined, and it looks as if the photo were made up of small grains.

So in places where there is enough light to show the details of what you want to photograph, an ISO of 100 maintains the right light without sacrificing the softness, or, if you’d like, ensuring the image remains clean. Conversely, if you’re in a poorly lit place or want to run the risk of having a grainy photo, raise the ISO!

Iso Graph Everything You Need to Know to Take Photos in Manual Mode
You can use this very useful graphic as a reference to remember how the ISO works. Save it and always have it to hand 😉

Speed: light and movement

The second aspect to bear in mind is speed. But what does speed actually refer to? In this instance, we’re talking about the shutter speed. To avoid going into very technical details, imagine that the shutter is like a blind that you activate when you press the button to take the photo, which allows – or prevents – light from entering the sensor. If the blind opens and closes very quickly, only a small amount of light will reach the sensor. Conversely, if you leave the blind open for a few seconds, much more light will enter.

But let’s take this one step at a time, the shutter speed usually looks like this on your camera screen:

The lower the number next to the 1 in the fraction, the longer the shutter will be open, allowing more light and movement to reach the sensor. Higher shutter speeds tend to be more common, as they freeze the moment more quickly and reduce the chance of blur. You may now be asking yourself, “How do I avoid unwanted motion in a photo taken at a slow shutter speed?” Simply use a tripod or place your camera on a surface that will keep it steady.

Let’s take a look at some examples to see this more clearly:

In this photo, my intention was that the camera was suspended in the air. I managed it halfway, since having used a very slow speed (1/50) the shutter remained open longer and the sensor perceived more information from the movement of the camera in the air; that's why the camera is out of focus.
In this photo, I wanted it to look like the camera was suspended in mid-air. It didn’t work out quite right, since I used a very slow speed (1/50), meaning the shutter remained open longer and the sensor received more information from the movement of the camera in the air. That’s why the camera is out of focus. Bottom line: the sensor picked up too much information from the camera’s trajectory, and that’s what we see in the image.

So what happens if I increase the speed? Well, let’s see…

On the second try, the shutter opened and closed much faster (1/400), so the sensor received less information from the trajectory of the falling camera, resulting in a sharper image.
On the second attempt, the shutter opened and closed much faster (1/400), so the sensor received less information from the trajectory of the falling camera, resulting in a sharper image.

In short, the shutter speed allows you to play with the movement in the image in many ways.

If you want to capture a moving object in focus (athletes, people walking, objects in the air, etc.), use a fast shutter speed. If you want to create lines with the trajectory of the moving object (writing with lights in the dark, making sweeping effects with cars at night, etc.), use a slower speed that allows the sensor to convert the movement into an image. Check out this example:

If you want to create lines with the trajectory of the moving figure (writing with lights in the dark, sweeping cars at night, etc), use a slower speed that allows the sensor to convert that movement into an image; as in this example.
If you want to create lines with the trajectory of the moving figure (writing with lights in the dark, sweeping lights from cars at night, etc), use a slower speed that allows the sensor to convert that movement into an image like here.

For long exposure images like this, I recommend you watch my video tutorial that provides a step-by-step guide. 😉

shutterspeed graph copy Everything You Need to Know to Take Photos in Manual Mode
This graphic also provides a useful overview of movement with different shutter speeds.

Insight: That’s two of the three aspects in the bag, and if you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering, “If the shutter opens and closes very quickly, how can I compensate for the amount of light entering so that the photo isn’t too dark?”

That’s what we have the ISO for! At a higher shutter speed, you can use a higher ISO so that the sensor is ready to receive more light, even though the shutter opens and closes super fast.

Aperture: depth of field

At first glance, the last aspect we want to master is the part of the camera that most closely resembles your own eye: the aperture or f-stop. So how is the aperture like your eye? Well, more accurately, it’s like your pupil. The aperture is responsible for focusing and blurring the image captured by the camera, and it’s usually shown on screen like this:

It’s the only value that we’ve seen so far in which less is more. Let me explain: the lower the number that accompanies the F on your screen, the wider the aperture will be. But what does this mean for the photo?

As I mentioned before, the aperture is the part of the lens that focuses the image and affects the depth of field. Let’s take a closer look in this example:

Aputure Close Everything You Need to Know to Take Photos in Manual Mode
The aperture is the part of the lens that focuses the image and affects the depth of field.

To take this portrait without losing the depth of field, which in short is how much or little the background is blurred, I used the smallest aperture that the lens allows (F22). The “pupil” of the camera is closed as much as it can be, so it focuses much more (Yes, like your eye!).

Let’s try opening the aperture as far as possible to see what happens:

Aputure Open Everything You Need to Know to Take Photos in Manual Mode
The pupil of the camera is as closed as it can be, so it focuses much more (Yes, like your eye!).

Have your pupils ever been dilated at the eye doctor? Do you remember what it was like? Objects that are closer to you are easier to focus on, while those that are further away are out of focus. The same thing happens here. I used the smallest possible aperture for that lens, which is the widest (remember: less is more!), and the result is a shallow depth of field – the background is almost completely out of focus.

To recap: if you want to create an out-of-focus background, open the aperture as far as possible. If you want your shots to be in focus, close it. Think of the face you make when you’re trying to focus on something that is far away.

Aputure Graph Everything You Need to Know to Take Photos in Manual Mode
You can also use this graphic as a reference without having to make that weird face 😉

Insight: You probably now realise that the aperture not only focuses, but also allows or prevents light from passing through. So how do you get depth of field without making the photo dark? That’s right! You compensate the amount of light entering with the shutter speed or the ISO, depending on the effect you want to create in the image.

Summary and tips

Keep these three aspects in mind and refer to the graphics I shared with you so you don’t forget the essentials for each one. There you go, you now have all the information you need to manually configure images to how want them.

Here are a few more very helpful tips:

  • ISO for taking photos outdoors during the day: In principle, use an ISO of 100. With this value you don’t risk graining the photo and you don’t have to spend loads of time calculating the light input.
  • Moving body photos: When you use a slower shutter speed, you can’t just rely on your pulse. Stabilise the camera on a static surface or use a tripod to avoid unwanted movement in the photo.
  • Depth of field: Playing with the aperture can help you create dramatic effects in the photo, but don’t forget about the light! Always keep an eye on your ISO and shutter speed values.

I hope you found this quick guide useful and, above all, gives you the confidence to take full advantage of manual mode on your camera.

Manual is the way to go, don’t let the camera do all the work for you!

Hanns Schmelzer

¡Hola! Soy Hanns. Nací y crecí en Venezuela, pero vivo en Berlín desde 2014. Puedo hablo tres idiomas (alemán / inglés / español), disfruto cocinar y soy un apasionado por los videojuegos. Pero sobre todo, ¡me encanta todo lo que tenga que ver con las imágenes en movimiento!

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