Photography – Mastering Manual Mode


Simon Thomas explores the basics of shooting in manual mode, and using it to get the most of your photography

Take a deep breath, you’re about to become a real photographer, clip off the training wheels and dump the photographic clutch. Yep, we’re going full manual. If you’re like most, myself included, manual mode (designated by ‘M’ on your camera’s setting dial), is the mode that you avoid like the plague.

You’ve probably assumed that you have to hold a photographic wizardry degree, handed to you by Professor Dumbledore himself, to even look at this mystic camera mode. Guess what, you’re wrong and once you begin to explore where this mode can take your photography, you’ll wonder why you didn’t use this setting years ago.

The idea with this article is just to give you the basics of manual mode, de-mystify it, and hopefully give you the confidence to turn that dial to ‘M’ and give her a go. OK, in manual mode, you’re in the driving seat and you control each of the individual camera settings. In truth, the key to shooting great images in manual mode is understanding the ‘Exposure Triangle’, which is made up of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

We’ve covered each of these settings in previous articles, but in this one we’re going to look at controlling all of them to create some special images. Imagine aperture at the pinnacle of your triangle, with shutter speed and ISO at the lower corners.

Now, as you look through the viewfinder or at the LCD screen on you camera you’ll see a ‘light-meter’, which displays a set of horizontal numbers leading from -2 on the left (if you’re using a Canon or Sony) through to +2 on the right. Something like this -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. If you’re using a Nikon, the meter might be reversed.

We’re going to use that meter to correctly expose your photos, by altering either one or all three settings. What we’re looking for is to get the marker (little moveable white indicator) to sit on the 0, meaning that the image is neither under or overexposed.

I start by setting the aperture (f-stop in fancy photo speak) and my settings are determined by how much of the image I want to be in focus. For example, when I shoot portraits, I often want my subject to be in focus, but I’d prefer the background to be blurred and softened.

In this case I’d choose a wide aperture, which means selecting a low aperture setting like f1.8. This means the lens is open very wide, letting in a ton of light.

However, if I’m shooting Lisa riding through a vast landscape, like the shot to the right, and I want the foreground, the rider and the background all in sharp focus then I’ll select a higher number like f11. The higher the number the smaller the aperture (the hole in the lens that lets the light in) and the longer the lens has to stay open for, in order to create the photograph.

Now, if your white indicator is sitting happily on the 0 of the light meter, you’re good to go, but if not then we need to adjust. ISO settings affect how sensitive to light your camera’s sensor becomes. If you’re shooting in bright light an ISO setting of 100-200 is perfect, but as the light diminishes, you might have to increase the ISO setting by increasing that number.

So, once you’ve set your aperture if your light meter is indicating the image is underexposed, go ahead and turn the ISO dial and crank that up, until that light meter indicator starts nudging back toward the ‘0’. Top Tip: Lower ISO number = less light / Higher ISO number = more light You’re on the home stretch.

With the aperture and ISO set the next step is to select the shutter speed. This is how long the lens stays open and therefore how much light actually hits the sensor.

Too fast in dim light and the image will be dark and underexposed.

Too long and your image will be blown out and overexposed.

Your camera will display the shutter speed with a number for example 1/1000 which means the shutter is open for just 1000th of one second.

This kind of speed is perfect for freezing a moment that is too fast for the eye to see. Likewise 2” actually represents a slow shutter speed of 2 seconds and 1/125 confirms your lens is open for 125th of one second. You get the idea.

Remember the longer your shutter stays open the more chance there is that your image will suffer from camera shake and will be out of focus. So, the target here is to set the aperture, then the ISO and then to select a shutter speed that is as fast as possible, while keeping that light meter indicator somewhere near the 0.

Top Tip:

Any shutter speed above 1/200 should provide you a sharp image. But if your shooting at speeds lower than 1/125 then using a tripod or resting your camera on a solid surface is the way to go.

Remember don’t be intimidated by manual mode, play around, have fun and just hit ‘delete’ on the images that don’t work out.

You’ll be surprised with the results in manual and your photography will thank you. Ride safe, click that shutter and share the good stuff!