Petite style blog | Shooting in manual mode

So you just purchased your first DSLR camera and you have it in your hands. The first question in your mind is probably, “how do I learn to use my camera better?”. Almost anyone can take pictures with a DSLR camera, but to really understand how to take pictures well, one needs to have a good understanding of how their camera works and how to use that to your advantage.  There are several different exposure modes you can use, but once you understand how to take pictures using manual mode you will really understand the steps that are involved with taking a high-quality photo. Manual mode is the only way I take pictures, and hopefully in this post I can show you how to do the same thing!

What is Meant by “Exposure”?

To begin to understand how to take pictures in manual mode, you first need to understand what “exposure” is. Exposure is simply how light or dark an image will appear when taken by your camera. Exposure is determined by three things: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Exposure triangleAperture: The unit of measurement that determines the size of the opening of the lens. Measured in “F-stop”. Aperture is inversely related to depth of field. The larger the aperture, the narrower is the range of distance that appears sharp. A larger aperture produces more “bokeh”, or blurriness. A smaller aperture will produce an image where the range of distance that appears sharp is much larger.

Shutter speed: The length of time when the film or digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light. It is the time the camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time. A shutter speed that is too low will produce motion blur.

ISO: This is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to available light.  A low ISO means your camera’s sensor has a lower sensitivity to light and a higher ISO means your camera’s sensor has a higher sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO however, the more potential for “noise” to be introduced to the image. Generally one wants to shoot at a low ISO (100-200) when possible.

It is the interplay of these three parameters that ultimately determine the “exposure” of the image.


Methods to Determine Exposure

Your camera has several available modes in which to take a picture.

Programmed Auto: A mode in which the camera automatically adjusts shutter speed and aperture for optimal exposure. You can however choose other aperture and shutter speed combinations that will produce the same exposure. Best used for snapshots.

Shutter Priority: You choose the shutter speed that you wish to shoot and the camera makes a decision about aperture. Best used for situation where freezing motion is desired.

Aperture Priority: You choose the aperture and the camera makes a decision about the shutter speed. Best used when you want a narrow depth of field.

Manual Mode: This is the mode that gives you complete control. You the photographer choose the aperture and the shutter speed as well as the ISO. Utilize the in-camera meter (or an external light meter) to determine optimal exposure.

In-Camera Metering

Metering is used to measure the brightness of the subject being photographed (how much light is entering the lens and illuminating the camera’s sensor). In the film photography days an in-camera meter did not exist and thus photographers relied on external light meters. These are the most accurate meters available because they measure incident (as opposed to reflective) light. In the digital photography era cameras are equipped with in-camera meters that rely on reflected light from the subject. When a camera meters it samples the amount of light from several areas of the photo, and then calculates what the current exposure of the photo you are about to take is. There are three basic metering modes:

  1. Matrix (Nikon) or Evaluative (Canon) metering: Light is sampled from all areas of the viewfinder to determine exposure. This is the default metering for digital SLR cameras. This works best when the subject and background are evenly lit. It does not work for backlit photos.
  2. Center-weighted metering: Light is sampled from a small circular area where the point of focus is located. This does work well for fashion photography so that the subject and clothing can be properly exposed.
  3. Spot metering: Light is sampled from an even smaller area of the viewfinder to determine exposure. This is the mode I use all the time. The subject is my point of interest, and I want to make sure my subject’s skin is properly exposed. It does not work well if the subject is wearing white (as you may end up over-exposing white clothing). In that case, meter off the clothing, not the skin.

Your in-camera meter can be found in the viewfinder of your camera. You can control the exposure by adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. It generally looks like this:

By changing the three parameters (ISO, shutter speed and aperture) you can either properly expose, under expose, or over expose your subject. Neither underexposing or over exposing is ideal, so care must be taken to meter correctly to create an image that has been properly exposed. I purposely overexpose by one step, as most skin tones have a tonality that is a brighter gray than middle gray (this is the tone that all in-camera, or reflective, light meters are programmed to read – more on this topic here). Below you can see how a properly exposed image will look, in comparison to an underexposed image or an overexposed image:

 Petite Style Blog | How to Shoot in Manual Mode

So How Do I Determine Exposure?

  1. Set your aperture of choice – Choose your aperture to achieve the depth of field that you want. I almost always set my aperture at F2 as I love to have a narrow depth of field to place emphasis on my subject (this is how you achieve “bokeh”)>.
  2. Set your ISO – You should generally try to keep your ISO between 100-200. The lower the ISO the less “noise” you will have in your image. This is easy to do in an outdoor setting with plenty of light. You will likely need to raise your ISO when shooting in a low-light setting such as an indoor setting or at dawn or dusk.
  3. Set your shutter speed – You change your shutter speed while watching your in-camera meter. Make sure that your photo is properly exposed by watching your in-camera meter to make sure your marker is in the center or slightly in the positive region. Your shutter speed should always be at least 2x your focal length (for a 50 mm lens this should be 1/125th of a second). I shoot most often with the 135f2 lens, so I make sure my shutter speed is at least 1/320th of a second at all times. If your shutter speed is to slow, camera shake will be introduced and your image will be blurry. If your shutter speed falls below the necessary threshold then you will need to raise your ISO until your shutter speed is appropriately fast.

You can also check your camera’s histogram to make sure the exposure of the photo is correct (more on this topic later, but you can read more here now as well).

These are the steps that  I do when I am the photographer taking pictures of someone else. When I am the subject, I typically will determine proper exposure by metering off the skin of my assistant (usually my daughter, husband, or one of my colleagues) in the spot where I want to pose. Then we switch places and I pose while my assistant takes the picture. In the event that I am taking the pictures by myself with a remote trigger (which I will often do), I will meter off the sidewalk because the tone of the sidewalk is typically close to skin. I shoot in RAW and will make final exposure adjustments in Lightroom as necessary.

This process may seem daunting at first, but with a little practice you will be a pro in no time. As soon as I discovered how to use my in-camera meter, I never looked back. Now manual mode is the only way I ever take pictures. I want ultimate control, and manual mode is the way to accomplish this.

I have given a lot of information in this post and hopefully you find it helpful. The final thing I will say is if you want to read further on the topic then I highly recommend you read Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. It is the only photography book I have ever read, but it is the most important book available to learn how to take great pictures.

Thanks for reading!

xo April

Leave A Comment
Leave a Reply to Emily Soto Cancel reply

I accept the Privacy Policy

18 thoughts on “How To Shoot in Manual Mode…

  1. I love these posts BECAUSE I always shoot in auto..I know..I know..I have had my DSLR for about four years now and still..I tried but I just never get it right! I love how easy you make it seem, I will get my camera out tomorrow and test some of these tips out! I would love to learn how to use my camera properly so I can get better shots! Thanks babe!
    Courtney Bentley ||

  2. I seriously just pinned this so I can re-read until I get it. I just (finally) got a legit camera and it’s very overwhelming! I tend to use “auto” mode but know that I need to learn manual mode. Thank you for this! I can’t wait to play around with my camera and feel more comfortable with this.


  3. April, this is an AMAZING post! Thank you SO much for sharing with us. And I even have owned this “Understanding Exposure” book for ~5 years! I need to re-read some of it again (I think!). I still mostly shoot in Aperture Priority but will work my way towards Manual Mode 🙂


  4. Very informative post. I would like to know how do you shoot your photos yourself.I am trying to figuring it out as I dont have anyone around me who I can I ask to take my pictures for my blog. Would love to hear from you on this topic.

    1. KV – I sometimes take pictures of myself but not often. To do so I use a portable battery powered router hooked up to my camera (in HTTP mode) so I can see myself on my phone. I then use a remote shutter release with the camera on a tripod to take the pictures. The whole process is quite involved, so I prefer to have someone else do it, but it is totally possible.

  5. Thank you so much for your insightful post!
    Brand Animators – Bringing Your Vision to Life with Innovative Video Solutions. From start-ups to large corporations, every business has a unique story to tell. At Brand Animators, our mission is to help you tell that story in a captivating and memorable way. As a top quality 3d, 2d animation video production company in Houston, Texas and best explainer video company in San Antonio, Texas and professional Healthcare & Medical animation video making studio in Dallas, Texas offer services such as 2d animation videos 3d animation videos, Motion graphics, 3d medical animation, Healthcare videos, Corporate films, Whiteboard animation videos, 3d Architectural walkthrough animation, Marketing and training videos, Product videos. And more! Whether you’re looking to promote your brand, educate your audience, or simply convey information in an engaging and visually appealing manner, Brand Animators has you covered. Our video solutions are tailored to your budget, timeline, and company objectives.