This essay is for amateurs who have been shooting a while and feel the desire to push the envelope by going to manual mode. For those who are dedicated auto shooters and never want to change, I respect and endorse your choice, and wish you all the good shooting in the world. But this essay is not for you, so you need not read any further. Why go manual mode? Well, there are some very good reasons to do so. I believe that all the fun is in manual shooting, and I also believe that you can unleash your creativity by shooting manual.
I was a JPEG shooter for more years than I should have been, because I somehow found camera settings to be scary. I don’t know what I imagined would happen if I set my camera file format to RAW and the dial to “M”. I had a photography friend who encouraged me frequently to try the manual mode, and I kept promising to do it but somehow never did. Until one day I just did, and I never looked back. I was instantly and permanently hooked. So if you feel that way yourself, I have walked in those shoes and know exactly how you feel!
The five settings that one has to master to shoot manually are:
Camera ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, White Balance and Metering method. Piece of cake, right? HA! Well, in a way it is. The big thing is that you just have to get used to those settings. You can do so with some basic understanding of them and how they impact your photograph.
Nasim and the gang have written dozens of articles about all these settings, what they mean and how to use them. These articles are important and if you haven’t read them, please do so using the links below, as they will make it easier to understand how each works individually. Also, don’t forget that Photography Life has a large library of great photography tips for beginners, so if you feel like you want to learn a lot, check all the articles out – there is a wealth of knowledge there.
Table of Contents
Set Your Camera to Manual Mode
Now we can jump to where to start. It’s a bit like decorating your home – you have to start somewhere. Pick a wall color, pick a carpet color, pick a color out of your furniture, and go from there. In photography, you have to pick a setting to start with and all the rest go from there. So, to begin, set your camera to Manual Mode. It is very easy to do it. Most cameras have a “PASM” dial on top of the camera where you can change your camera mode from. Simply rotate the dial to the letter “M”, as shown in the picture to the left. That’s all there is to it – your first step is accomplished!
Set Your White Balance
Next, I will help you out with some background settings. These will probably not change during your shoot unless something about your environment changes. As you get comfortable shooting in the manual mode, you will be able to decide when a change is necessary. We will start with White Balance (WB), which has to do with the color of light. Your sensor setting should match the color of the light that you are shooting. I will give you one to start with, but white balance is purely a matter of personal taste. There are no wrong white balance settings. As a matter of fact, as you shoot manually for a while, you will begin to see the color of light yourself and will begin to know that you need to change your WB depending on what you see. Let me give you an example of this. My sister’s living room has a golden wallpaper which made the light in the room very gold colored. Every Christmas my pictures had an ugly yellow (gold) cast and I never understood why. Until one day I realized that my WB could affect these pictures and I figured out the correct setting for yellow light, and bingo! My pictures came out looking normal.
White balance is very important, but there are general settings that can work in many usual outdoor scenarios. So set your WB to something like 5260 (daylight) to start with, and as you discover whether or not you like that setting, you can set it to something more to your taste. Later on, if you like your pictures to look a little bluer, set your WB to a smaller number like 5000. If you want to move to warmer tones, set your WB to a larger number like 5860. As you get used to WB, you will start to understand it and not be intimidated by it. And as you use your WB settings, you will want to start reading all about it to increase your understanding, which will then make you better able to set different white balances. If you struggle with WB and want to understand it in detail, check out PL’s excellent Understanding White Balance article for more details.
Set Your Metering Mode
The next background setting is the Metering Mode. This can also change during a shoot, but usually you develop a favorite metering method and stick with it until circumstances call for a different one. For a beginner, a nice general metering method is “Matrix” metering, which does a nice job at evaluating the whole scene and giving you fairly accurate metering readings. Nasim’s article on Metering for Beginners will explain all about that and why it is a nice general method. So for now, set your metering method to “Matrix”. However, if you adjust your settings based on your camera meter and things look too dark or too bright, then you might need to switch to another metering mode such as “Spot”, so that your subject stays properly exposed.
Now we come to the non-background settings. They are the “big three”: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. They are all interdependent, but as I’ve said before, you have to start somewhere, so it becomes necessary to pick one and go from there.
Set Your Camera ISO
I am going to advise you to start with your Camera ISO. You have to pick an ISO based on the light conditions of where you are going to be shooting. So, for example, take your camera and step out the front door. Assess the light. Is it a bright sunny day? Is it a cloudy day? Is it a dark and gloomy day? Let’s say it is a bright sunny day. In that case, set your ISO to the lowest number, such as ISO 100. If it is a cloudy day, you might need to set your ISO to a larger value such as ISO 400, and if it is a dark and gloomy day, you might need to push ISO further to something like ISO 800, or even ISO 1600. These are just numbers to start with until you get the hang of ISO for yourself. If the conditions stay the same throughout your shoot, you can set your ISO and forget about it. So…one down.
Set Your Aperture
Next decide on your lens Aperture. Do you want close-up pictures with those nice blurry backgrounds with the strange name of bokeh? Do you want pictures that are sharp from front to back? Do you want something in between? Let’s say you want a closeup picture with nice bokeh. Set your aperture to the lowest f/ number that your camera has, such as f/2 or f/3.5. Do you want a nice sharp landscape photo? Set your aperture to f/5.6 or f/8 to start with. Do you want something in between those two? Set your aperture in the mid range, maybe f/4. You get the idea. For now, don’t try f/16 or smaller…yet. Instead, start with something like f/5.6.
Aperture can get a bit confusing for beginners, because a small number like f/2 represents a larger aperture, whereas a large number like f/16 represents a smaller aperture. Check out the aperture article I linked earlier for more details on why this is the case.
Being able to control how much you have in focus is important and you can read about Depth of Field in more detail to understand how different variables impact your images. Most importantly, don’t underestimate camera to subject distance – that’s the biggest variable of them all!
Set Your Shutter Speed
The third and the last of the big three is Shutter Speed. This one should always be set last, as it is so dependent on the other settings. Both Camera ISO and Aperture settings that you set earlier have told your camera how much light to let in through the lens and how your camera sensor will capture it. Now you have to control that light with how fast your camera shutter opens and closes when you take the photo. When you set your camera to manual mode, your shutter speed indicator will appear in your viewfinder as a bunch of little vertical lines bisected with one single bigger vertical line right in the middle (some cameras will have the metering bars displayed on other sides of the viewfinder):
There are also little lights that appear that will tell you if you are choosing an exposure that will work, but for this moment we will not pay attention to that light. If you have read the other articles about shutter speed, you will know that all the little lines to the left will make your picture darker, because the shutter speeds are faster and will restrict the light coming into the sensor. The little lines to the right will make your picture brighter, because the shutter speeds are slower and will let more light onto the sensor. What I will have you do is set your shutter speed to the center vertical. That will give you a good exposure to start with. As you practice more and more, you will be able to decide how you want your pictures to look and will be able to go off the center with increasing confidence. Three complete!
Putting it All Together
Well, here we are with all the settings for your camera ready for you to try a manual photograph. Pick a sunny day to start. To recap, we have chosen WB of 5260, Matrix Metering, ISO 100, Aperture of f/5.6, and Shutter Speed on the center vertical line. On this sunny day that shutter speed might read something like 500 (technically it is 1/500 of a second), but it could be larger or smaller in value. It all depends on whether you are shooting into shadows or bright light, dark trees or light colors. Don’t shoot into anything white just yet – it is too soon. Shooting white things has a special challenge where you might be overexposing or underexposing, so pick something else to aim at.
Take a deep breath to steady your nerves. Ready, set, focus and shoot!
How did you do? If you got a terrible picture, don’t despair. Digital photos don’t cost anything to develop. Just try again.
One more thing. You should be shooting in RAW format so that you can adjust your photos when you make mistakes. If you don’t have any software for post-processing, I recommend using your camera’s own software to do your exposure corrections with (such as Capture NX-D). From there, you should be able to do basic edits, such as cropping, straightening your image or tweaking colors, and convert to JPEG file format. For those who think that post-processing is a PITA (pain in the a**), you should know that correcting mistakes in post is where all the learning happens. Post-processing makes you a better photographer. Say you find yourself shooting dark all the time and constantly have to lighten your pictures. Eventually, it will dawn on you to slow down your shutter speed in the camera, or tweak your camera’s ISO to make your image look brighter. Say you keep shooting your pictures off center. Having to constantly crop your photos will teach you to start composing pictures better. Say your pictures always come out a little too blue. You will figure out through correcting your white balance in post what white balance to try in the camera that will be more satisfying to your eye. Post-processing is your friend and you will soon come to see its value as a tool for you to become the best photographer that you can be. So please, always shoot in RAW format and learn to post-process!
This method will work. Just persevere and discover the fun of shooting manual. After a while, you will discover that you have lost all your fear. All these settings will become second nature to you, and you will get really good at choosing what settings you need for whatever situation you find yourself shooting in. Just keep on shooting and don’t stop. And have FUN! Before you know it you will stop thinking of yourself as an amateur and start thinking of yourself as an advanced photographer, or a semi-pro and maybe even someday a pro!