How to Use a Camera in the Dreaded Manual Mode

You’ve heard over and over again from more advanced photographers that you need to learn to shoot in manual mode. But that can be so intimidating and frustrating to a beginner. How do you keep all the settings straight? And what’s the point of shooting in manual mode, anyway? It’s actually simpler than it may seem at first, if you take a little time to master the basics. Sean Von Tagen explains all you need to know about camera settings before you turn that dial to M:

You’ll need to understand how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO affect exposure before manual mode will make any sense.


Aperture refers to the opening in the center of your lens. Think of it like the iris of an eye.

The size of the aperture affects how much light is let into your camera. And, it determines your depth of field (i.e. how much of your photo is in focus or out of focus).

Aperture is measured in f-stops. You don’t necessarily need to understand the math behind these numbers to shoot in manual mode, but you do need to know what a low versus a high number means for your photos.

The lower the f-number (e.g. f/1.4), the wider open your aperture, and the more shallow your depth of field. Less of your photo will be in focus. Many photographers like to use shallow depth of field for portraits, so the subject’s face is sharp while the background is blurred to reduce distractions.

A higher f-stop (e.g. f/16) is a smaller opening. It lets less light into the lens and results in a photo with greater depth of field, meaning more of the image is in focus.

aperture and shutter speed

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open to let in light, measured in seconds and fractions of a second. For example, if your camera shows a shutter speed of 1/100, that means the shutter stays open for 1/100 of a second.

Faster shutter speeds let in less light and freeze action, while slower speeds let in more light and might produce motion blur if your subject is moving.


ISO is most easily understood as the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number (e.g. ISO 1600), the more sensitive it is to light. But be careful with high ISOs, because they can result in grainy photos.

Putting It All Together

So, you understand how your camera settings work. Now what? It’s time to take control to get just the artistic characteristics you want in your images.

A technically correct exposure can be achieved by using many different combinations of settings—there’s no one right way to take a photo. For example, you might want to control whether the background of your image is sharp or blurry, or whether a car driving by is frozen in the moment or shows up as a colorful blur.

When you shoot in manual mode, it’s up to you to make decisions about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for creative effect.

Here, Von Tagen shows us manual mode in action:

“It would be almost embarrassing if I told you how many times I had to revisit these things until they really started to make sense in my mind, and I could reconcile how these three elements—the aperture, the shutter speed, and ISO–could be manipulated by me shooting in manual mode…”

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