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Simplifying Manual Mode to Help You Take Control of Your Images

As the owner of a DSLR camera, you may have heard the pros encouraging you to graduate to Manual Mode or M on your camera’s dial. While there are different schools of thought on which mode to use, Manual Mode allows you the greatest control over your settings.

So why are so many people still daunted by it and how do you take next step to start working with Manual Mode? In this article, I’ll try to simplify it for you so you can understand how to use it and take better images.

Why Manual Mode?

If you use the other modes, the camera helps you figure out some or all of the settings. For example, if you choose Aperture Priority mode, the camera works out the shutter speed and vice versa if you choose Shutter Priority. So if it already does all this, why bother with manual?

Sometimes these automated or semi-automated settings are not always in line with your vision. They may even be incorrect or tricked by unique lighting situations. This is where you take back control by using Manual Mode. You tell the camera how you want your output and your photos to look.

Understanding the Big Three

As stated before, with Manual Mode you have control over “everything”- but what exactly does this mean? Well simply put, there are three variables that determine the exposure of your photograph and Manual Mode puts you in control all of them. These variables are the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which together make up what is known as the Exposure Triangle. The balance of these three points of the exposure triangle is what Manual Mode is all about.


Also known as f-number or f-stop, aperture refers to the size of the hole in your lens that lets in light. With a larger aperture (smaller f-number like f/2.8), more light hits your camera sensor. The reverse is also true (a larger f-number like f/16 lets in less light).

NOTE: It is often confusing for beginners because the smaller the number, the larger the hole. Just remember that the aperture is a ratio or fraction so f/2 is like 1/2 and f/20 is like 1/22. So remember that one half of anything is larger than 1/20th.

Your control of aperture determines the depth of field in your photo – or how much of your image is sharp. A wider aperture (like f/2.8) results in a shallow depth of field. This means that only a part of your image is sharp, leaving the rest blurred or out of focus. Portraits are a good scenario to use wider apertures.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the length of time that the shutter inside your camera is opened and light is allowed to hit the sensor. So to double the amount of light, you can double the length of your exposure.

If you want to freeze motion, use faster shutter speeds to limit the amount of time that light hits the sensor. Conversely, if you want to blur motion in your scene, use slower shutter speeds (or long exposure photography).

How to use Manual Mode

Now that you are familiar with what Manual Mode controls, how do you start working with it? Well, after you decide what you want to shoot, pick one the points of the exposure triangle as your starting point.

To shoot a landscape, for example, decide how much you want in sharp focus. Let’s say you choose an aperture of f/16. After your aperture is set, turn your shutter speed dial until the exposure is balanced. You can use the camera marker on your exposure chart as a guide. Theoretically, you have just balanced your aperture and shutter speed.

Manual Mode may seem daunting, but as you learn more about controlling light, it becomes easier with time. While nothing is wrong with using the other available modes of your camera, the ability to control the final output of your vision is a great skill to develop.