A beginner's guide to Manual mode

Let me guess: You’ve bought your first DSLR, and you’re eager to take your photography to the next level – but you still feel a bit threatened by the Manual mode? I totally understand. We’ve all been there. I had my very first DSLR for months before I even considered going Manual. I was scared I would miss moments because I was fiddling too much with my settings, whilst desperately trying to remember the difference between shutter speed and aperture. ISO was as mythical to me as unicorns, and I hadn’t even heard about white balance!

First of all, you need to know that shooting manual is a learning curve. Don’t expect perfection from your first try. Whilst reading about the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO is great, I believe that the only way to truly gain a great understanding of it is by experimenting. Play around with different combinations of settings, look at how your results varies, and have fun with it! After a couple of times, you’ll realize that shooting manual isn’t as scary as first suspected. And best of all - you’ll truly be creating images, instead of letting the camera do the job.

So how do you determine your settings?

The first thing I do when preparing my settings, is to determine what ISO I want to use.

ISO measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO (ISO 100), the less sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the ISO (ISO 4000), the more sensitive. If you’re shooting outside in daylight, you’d generally set your ISO to the lowest setting (for most DSLR’s, this would be ISO 100). If you’re shooting in a darker environment – say your living room in the evening – you would need to up your ISO. However, be careful with your ISO – the higher you go, the more grain you’ll have in your final image. (Don’t be too scared though – a grainy image is better than a black image!)


The next thing I do is to decide my preferred aperture. Aperture can be compared to the human eye: Imagine the camera lens to be your eye, and the aperture your pupil: it gets bigger and smaller as you adjust your settings, letting in more or less light.

A large aperture is like a large pupil – it lets in more light. A small aperture is like a small pupil – it lets in less light. That’s not too confusing, is it?

What can be confusing with aperture though, is that a small number (say f/2.8) is actually a big aperture, whilst a big number (f/22) is a small aperture. You will let in more light at f/2.8 than at f/22. If you were taking photos in your living room in the evening, and you didn’t want to set your ISO too high, you could compensate by using a big aperture that lets in more light.

Aperture is also what controls the depth of field. I remember when I got my first DSLR, and I couldn’t wait to make my backgrounds blurry and wonderful! Sometimes you want the whole image to be sharp, other times you might want to isolate the subject from the background by having it be the only sharp thing in the image. Portraits are a great example of when it’s common to blur out the background.

A big aperture will give you a shallow depth of field, leaving just a small piece of the image sharp. A small aperture will make the whole image equally sharp.


You’re almost ready to start shooting! The only thing that remains now is your shutter speed. This is basically the exposure time, and decides how long the camera’s shutter is open to light. A fast shutter speed will freeze movements and keeping the image sharp, but it will also make the image darker. A slow shutter speed will give you brighter images, because it allows light to enter the camera over a longer period of time, but it will also give you motion blur if you make it too long.

If you’re not using a tripod, try to stay above a shutter speed of 1/125 – otherwise you might find that your image isn’t as sharp as you want it to be. If you want to freeze high-speed activities, you would want to have a very fast shutter speed (for example 1/800).


ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together to create your desired lighting conditions. Not sure what settings to use? Set your ISO to what you think is best (the lower, the better), choose what depth of field you want (do you want your subject to stand out from the background, or do you want the whole image sharp?), and then finally, adapt your shutter speed until you get the exposure you want. The best way is to take a guess with the shutter speed and have a look at the image. Is it too bright? Increase your shutter speed. Is it too dark? Try with a slower shutter speed.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up your new camera; turn the wheel to M and start playing around! I can promise you that shooting manual will revolutionize your view on photography, and allow you to visualize anything you want!

To find out more, email us at: hello@thephotographyschool.com.au