Like most of us, when I first started my photography journey, shooting in manual mode was super overwhelming. However, I quickly realized that to get the most out of my camera and to get the best shots, auto mode just wasn’t going to cut it. You see, shooting in manual mode allows for so much more creativity. Instead of the camera deciding what your settings should be, you get to decide. In manual mode you get to pick how you represent a scene. And this can allow for some incredibly beautiful and unique photos and really up your photography game.

Manual Mode – Tips for Conquering the Exposure Triangle and Getting Awesome Shots

I’ll admit that after over a decade of doing photography I still don’t shoot in full manual mode. I typically hang out in aperture priority. I feel like this gives me enough control over how my images look without having to constantly be checking my settings. I’m a real estate photographer in my every day life so I don’t have to worry too much about my subjects moving. However, after years of trial and error, I know how to shoot in full manual mode if I have too.

You don’t always have to be in full manual mode. Sometimes a scene or a subject will shoot just fine in aperture priority or shutter priority modes. But knowing how to shoot in full manual will help you understand how shutter speed, aperture and ISO all relate to each other and how best to capture a scene or a subject.

Understand Exposure

Understanding how your camera captures light is the most important part of learning photography. Cue the Exposure Triangle. The Exposure Triangle consists of three settings:

Shutter Speed: This is how fast your camera’s shutter is opening and closing. The faster the shutter speed, the less light that will be let in.

ISO: To state it simply this is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive the sensor is, which means the brighter your image will be.

Aperture: This is how wide the opening on your lens is. The more open it is, the more light that will come in, which means your image will be brighter. Aperture can get a bit confusing so here is a whole guide on understanding it.

These three things work together to create a perfect exposure. In manual mode you get control over all three to create an exposure that you feel fits the scene. Overwhelmed about the Exposure Triangle? Here is a guide about how these things work together.

Practice in Aperture Priority First

One of the first things I learned how to do with my camera was to shoot in Aperture priority mode. I knew I wanted a blurry background and a subject that was in focus, so naturally, aperture priority made sense. Start off shooting your subject in aperture priority. Use a super wide aperture (f2.8 – f5.6) to start off with. Then change the aperture setting every few shots. See how not only did your image change, but also your shutter speed and ISO? Trying shooting with your ISO on Auto as well as choosing your own ISO and see how this changes your image and your shutter speed.

Try Your Hand at Shutter Speed Priority

I’ve always felt that shutter speed priority was much harder to grasp than aperture priority. But understanding how your shutter speed works with aperture and ISO is key to learning how to shoot in full manual mode. So we’re going to do the same thing we did with Aperture Priority. Set your camera to Shutter Speed Priority (TV is you’re on a Canon) and set it to a slower shutter speed (1 sec or so). Now bump it to a faster shutter speed every few shots. Did you notice any camera shake or motion blur on those slower shutter speeds? How did this affect the aperture and ISO? Practice with both moving and non-moving subjects to see how shutter speed can affect the look and feel of these kinds of scenes.

Prioritize One Setting Depending on the Scene

For this image, I prioritized shutter speed to capture the movement in the water. ISO and Aperture were set after to adjust for the brightness of the scene.

Once you’ve gotten a feel for how aperture, shutter speed and ISO all relate to each other, it’s time to start shooting in manual mode. To ease into it, focus on one setting first depending on the scene or subject. Are you trying to isolate your subject while having a blurry background? Set your Aperture first to make sure you have a large depth of field. Are you trying to capture motion blur or freeze a subject in movement? Set your Shutter Speed first according to what kind of movement you want to capture. Now you’re free to adjust the other settings to get the perfect exposure.

Start with Baseline Settings and Adjust from There

Set your camera to a baseline setting and adjust from there depending on the lighting situation. Try setting your Aperture to f8, your Shutter Speed to 1/125th of a second and your ISO to 200. Why these settings? They work pretty well for a brightly lit room or an average, partly sunny day. Take a few snaps and see how the images look. Did the image come out too bright? You can close your aperture, speed up your shutter or both to get the image a little darker. Did the image come out too dark? Open your aperture up and slow down your shutter. You could also leave your camera in this baseline setting and take some shots in some different locations. How do the images taken in the shade compare to the ones taken in full sun? What about ones taken inside compared to outside.

Check Your Histogram

Your histogram is a graphical representation of the tonal distribution of an image. It tells you how much of your image is falling into shadow, highlight and midtones ranges. Yeah, I know, this sounds confusing. Essentially what your looking for with your histogram is for the peak to be somewhere in the middle. This means you want most of your image to fall in the midtones range. You’ll probably see a couple of other peaks as well, especially if your shooting a high contrast scene. That’s okay, that just means some of your image has really bright highlights or really dark shadows. The main thing you want to look for is the big peak. If it’s somewhere in the middle, you’re good to go.

Practice and Patience

Mastering manual mode can be overwhelming, challenging and frustrating. Don’t let the early challenges get you down. Knowing how to shoot in manual mode can make such a difference in your photography. So keep practicing. Pick a few subjects out for yourself and practice photographing them as often as possible. Compare your earlier shots to your most recent ones and see how far along you have come.

Conquering Manual Mode and Getting Better Photos

Shooting in manual mode doesn’t have to be this scary overwhelming thing, even if it seems that way at first. By understanding the exposure triangle and practicing in different modes and on different subjects and scenes, you can learn the ins and outs of shooting in manual mode quickly. If it seems to be challenging and frustrating at first, don’t let it discourage you. Keep shooting and soon you’ll have conquered manual mode and be well on your way to taking amazing photos!

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Hey there! My name is Leah and I'm a photographer, blogger and wanderer from north Texas. I've been doing photography for nearly a decade now and absolutely love it. My day job is real estate photographer and in my free time you can often find me at a park taking pictures of leaves and flowers. Outside of that my fiance and I love to travel. We spent nine months backpacking through Europe and now spend our free time attempting to plan and going on shorter trips both in the States and abroad.

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