Posted: Jun 11 2012
by: Carrie Swails

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20 Things I Wish I Knew About Photographing in Manual Mode

photographing in manual mode1. ISO is an important setting you shouldn't ignore. It works differently than ISO on an old film camera. It controls how sensitive your camera's image sensor is to light. When you have a lot of available light use a low ISO and in low light you can use a higher ISO.

2. WB or White Balance is a setting used to get the right types and tones of color you want in your images. Different types of lights can create color casts on white objects or skin tones in images and white balance is a great tool for corrrecting this. For example, fluorescent lights can make white sheets appear greenish. Tungsten lights (like a table lamp) can make things appear very orange or yellow. Cameras have many settings for White Balance, but learning to use custom white balance is something that can rock your digital photography world.

3. Aperture (or f-stop) controls how much light is allowed through your lens by setting the f-stop. There's actually a lovely little thingy right inside your lens that opens and closes to let light in or out. A lower f-stop (like 1.4) will let in a lot of light and a higher f-stop (like 16) will let in less light. Aperture also controls bokeh (that beautiful background blur). You get more bokeh with lower apertures.

4. Shutter speed controls how long the image sensor is exposed to light. Higher shutter speeds prevent motion blur and freeze motion, but let in less light because the shutter is not open as long. A lower shutter speed will let in more light, but may give your subjects motion blur if they are moving in the photo because the shutter is open longer.

5. You don't need to use manual focus to photograph in manual mode. Manual mode is all about learning to have control over your camera instead of letting it control you. Manual focus will entail a few extra seconds to use the focusing ring on your lens in order to capture a sharp image. Many photographers auto focus so they can photograph and capture moments quicker and ensure they are tack sharp.

6. We all know that the camera does not make the photographer, but a super awesome photographer who has a handle on shooting in manual knows how to control the camera really well and can rock any type of camera (even that iPhone).

7. Every camera has a 'sweet spot.' Even when you're photographing in manual and you're looking through the viewfinder and the line is right in the very center of your light meter it may still be too bright or too dark in your camera. My camera's sweet spot is just one line over toward underexposed from that center spot on my light meter.

8. When photographing in manual there are no 'go to' settings for shutter speed, aperture, or anything else. You photograph and set your camera up for what's best in that light or for whatever it is you want to achieve.

9. The higher your ISO is the more 'noisy' or grainy your photos will be. Know that there's nothing wrong with that, it's a style choice. I love grainy black and white images from wedding receptions, but it's not everyone's style. If you have to push your ISO up higher you're not doing anything wrong.

10. Shooting in RAW mode instead of JPEG will help Manual photographers in case they get the exposure or white balance a bit off. A RAW photo holds all of your camera information in the file and can be easily fixed later in Photoshop without ruining the photo.

11. Practice! Photographing in manual is hard, but it will force you to learn your camera inside and out and you'll be a better photographer for it. It takes practice so don't expect everything to come naturally the first time out.

12. Don't believe the myth that all professional photographers photograph in aperture priority or some other mode. Believing that is an excuse to not become an expert in your camera. All pro photographers have a favorite mode they photograph in, but you can guarantee all of them also know how to photograph in manual and that learning experience helps them know which choice or mode is the best one for them to use in any given situation.

13. Tack sharp images are a problem. If you're shooting in manual make sure your shutter speed isn't too low so you don't get motion blur. Tack sharp images have a lot more to do with lenses than anything else.

14. Many portrait and wedding photographers photograph "wide open," meaning on the lowest f-stop their lens will allow so they get portraits with background bokeh (blur) and sharp subjects in the foreground. To achieve that look try to keep your f-stop at 2.8 or lower.

15. Steps to setting up in manual: First set white balance, second set ISO, then set aperture, and finally your shutter speed.

16. Scott Kelby's digital photography books are great for showing you photos and the settings recipe. His recipes may not be right for everyone's styles, but I learned a lot by looking through his books and trying some of the shots for myself.

17.  It's okay to ask for help.

18. Do some test shots. Your camera records its settings in the image file so you don't have to write them down separately. You can test your camera, test settings, and see the difference in how manual feels and looks by going back later and looking through your images and seeing what the settings are that helped you achieve a certain look.

19. You won't get things right every shot. There will be lots of over exposed and underexposed shots when you photograph manual and you're learning your settings.

20. Once you've mastered your manual settings in your DSLR camera, you can purchase an external flash and start learning about setting your flash manually to perfect your settings with that. Using a flash will affect how your settings look completely differently so if you're into flash photography you'll want to learn what settings mean with and without your flash.

These tips are not by any means rules to follow. These are tips that made learning photography easier for me, and there are more tips out there I'm sure. There is no wrong or right way to learn to photograph in manual mode and everyone has their own style and ways of doing things that work best for them.


  • Actually with my earlier Nikon-D80 I was a casual and time pass photographer. Recently aftre getting Sony A77 M2 I satred learnig and this info I will frame in my mind. Thx

    Posted by Bajra sikder, India on August 01, 2014
  • Very useful tips. Thanks…

    Posted by saidul on July 08, 2014
  • Just a “TY!” for publishing such a great, informative post.

    Posted by Earolyn Teague Criativa on May 23, 2014
  • Great advice on manual mode. Owning a DSLR is all about creative control which cannot be fully achieved on auto, P, or A priority. Practice, practice, practice. It will be worth the effort.

    Posted by Michael Hart on May 07, 2014
  • If some one wants to be updated with most up-to-date technologies then
    he must be visit this site and be up to date daily.

    Posted by Liliana on April 10, 2014
  • This info is awesome! Can’t wait to try it out!!
    Appreciate directions are very understandable…

    Posted by Karen on April 03, 2014
  • This info is awesome! Can’t wait to try it out!!
    Appreciate directions are very understandable…

    Posted by Karen on April 03, 2014
  • I am just starting out with a personal blog and this was very helpful! Manual mode was something I wouldn’t touch but now that I have an idea of what some basic things are, I can’t wait to try it. Thanks! :]

    Posted by Emily on April 02, 2014
  • Thanks for this information! I am a fan!

    Posted by Munya Andresen on September 07, 2012
  • How do the colors come out so brilliantly? I’m still a beginner, but my photos from manual mode always turn out so dull. Is it a setting?

    Posted by Raven on July 21, 2012
  • Raven – There are no settings for getting brilliant color. Color will vary depending on the type of camera you use and its quality.

    Posted by Carrie on July 21, 2012
  • Hi, there’s no better way to learn to shoot manually than actually shooting manually! Maybe get an old slr from 30+ years ago that has no auto settings? I still have my Pentax K1000 purchased in 1980. Still works great except the hot foot. I’m not a pro by any means, but this was the only camera I had until about 2003 and I got some great family pics with it, and a few duds, no delete with that baby!

    Posted by Linda on August 23, 2012
  • this is so great! thanks!

    Posted by anita on July 14, 2012
  • […] 20 things I wish I knew about photographing in manual mode. SUPER helpful if you’re new to photography. Seems like I’m learning something new […]

    Posted by Stuff & Things, Volume I | Ginger Mandy on July 15, 2012
  • This is great! I’ve been having trouble setting everything right so I’ve just been using aperture priority for everything. I’ll definitely give manual another shot.

    Posted by Kathy on June 27, 2012
  • Where would you suggest would be the best place to start practicing in manual mode? Indoor or outdoor?

    Posted by Monica on July 01, 2012
  • Either, because you’ll want to learn to do both equally well. Start your practice wherever you are most comfortable and it’ll be easier to work outside of your comfort zone.

    Posted by Carrie on July 02, 2012
  • Hi Carrie, I bought a “canon eos digital rebel xti” and hate it. everyone who see’s what camera have says, wow that’s a awesome camera. now I mainly use it on auto but I try real hard to use it on manual, and no matter how I set it my colors come don’t come out right and people come out to bright most of the time. I want to take a pic of faces and see their beautiful eyes. What am I doing wrong? help?


    Posted by Monica on June 27, 2012
  • Hi Monica,

    If you want to email me an example carrie@ I can probably help you figure out better!

    Posted by Carrie on June 27, 2012
  • Do you have any tips on the settings one should use for photographing sports? My son plays baseball and I always have blurred or slightly out of focus shots on the ‘good’ plays! Is there a go-to setting for my Canon Rebel? Love your blog!

    jacksonville, fl

    Posted by Cara on June 27, 2012
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