Master manual mode

camera settings

Want to learn how to use your camera to the best of its abilities? Do you want to know how to get perfect exposure in manual mode? Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, what does this even mean? It’s too complicated when you are just starting out as a photographer but I want to show you how to make it simple.

Requirements: First lets make it clear what kind of camera we need. The only requirement is your camera must be able to shoot in manual mode, or have the ability to change shutter speed, aperture, and ISO independently from each other. That’s it, you can you use whatever brand camera you want and any lens as long as it has the ability to shoot manual. Now you can follow along and learn how to use and understand how to shoot in manual mode and achieve the perfect exposure.

Exposure triangle

I didn’t sign up for a geometry class, what’s this talk about an exposure triangle? Don’t worry, no geometry is involved in this post. The exposure triangle consists of the 3 most important settings on your camera. Shutter speed, aperture (a.k.a f-stop) and ISO make up the exposure triangle. If any of these terms seem daunting to you, relax, I will explain it all to you. It’s important to understand that these 3 settings work independently from each other but they all work together to achieve the correct exposure.

Shutter speed

Exposure – Shutter speed is defined by how long the camera allows light to hit the sensor. If you imagine shutter speed as a faucet it will help understand how it relates to exposure. If you quickly turn on a faucet and turn it off as fast as possible a very small amount of water will come out. If we think about this example as shutter speed it is very easy to understand that if we have a very fast shutter speed we have the lens opening and closing at a very fast speed and the amount of light that can hit your cameras sensor is very small. What this means is that if you use a very fast shutter speed your photo will be exposed darker. The same is true if we turn on a faucet and leave it running for a few seconds. What happens when you leave it on for a few seconds? A lot more water comes out than if we had quickly turned it off. Same principle applies to shutter speed, if we have a slow shutter speed we let in a lot more light to the cameras sensor. Having a slower shutter speed will make your image expose brighter.

Purpose – Shutter speed doesn’t just have an impact on exposure it also is important for sharpness, freezing motion, and the ability to hand hold your camera without the need for a tripod. Your shutter speed is important if you want sharp photos. If your shutter speed is too slow it will pick up on your hand movements and cause the image to be blurry/out of focus. Depending on your scene or your subject your shutter speed will determine how much motion blur you get.

There is no correct choice, if you are photographing a fast moving subject and want to freeze motion you will need a fast shutter speed. If you are photographing a waterfall and want to show the motion of the water you will choose a slow shutter speed to show the motion blur from the water.

If you handhold your camera while taking photos its important to understand the reciprocal rule. The reciprocal rule states that whatever mm your lens is (example 50mm lens) your shutter speed should be higher than 1/50 of a second to have a sharp image. If you are using a 100mm lens you should have a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second or faster.

aperture of a lens
Photo by Pixabay on

Exposure Aperture controls how much light can enter the lens by opening or closing the blades inside a lens (see photo above). Let’s use the faucet example again. Suppose we have two faucets side by side and one has an opening of 3 inches and the other has an opening of 1 inch. Assuming the flow rate is equal on both, if we turn each them on at the same time and let them run for 5 seconds while collecting the water in a bucket, the faucet with a 3 inch opening will dispense more water in the bucket because it had a larger opening for water to flow through.

If we use the faucet example and think of aperture its easy to understand how it influences our photos. If you have a large aperture (large opening) more light will go through the lens and reach the cameras sensor meaning the photo will be exposed brighter. If you have a small aperture (small opening) less light will go through the lens and it will be harder for light to reach the cameras sensor meaning the photo will be exposed darker.

F-stop? Aperture? F/2.8? – Why are there so many different terms if they all mean the same thing? When you are just starting out a lot of these terms can get very confusing. No one learns this in 5 min, it takes time to be able to understand how to use manual mode. Learning what all the terms and functions of your camera are will help you take better photos.

F-stop – What is f-stop? F-stop is related to your aperture and how open or closed it is. It is basically a fancy way of describing how much light can go through the lens. When you see f/2.8, f/4, f/11 those are all f-stops. Each one allows a different amount of light into your lens.

A number like f/1.4 is a very large opening and brings in a lot of light and f/16 is a very small opening and brings in a very small amount of light. Every f-stop we go up or down slowly opens or closes the lens and changes the amount of light allowed to enter the lens.

Purpose – Aperture does more than just control how much light enters the lens. If you have ever seen a photo with a beautiful blurred background you may have wondered how they did that. The aperture controls how much depth of field you have (a.k.a. background blur) if you have a large aperture such as f/1.4 it will produce more background blur than f/16. Background blur looks nice but there are times we need to use a smaller aperture to have more of the image in focus such as landscapes.


Exposure – ISO is basically your camera trying to brighten a photo without actually using real light. When you control shutter speed and aperture you are actually allowing more or less light into your camera which is what exposes your photo. What happens when you have your shutter speed and aperture set to the right settings but your photo is still underexposed? This is where ISO comes into play.

ISO is measured by numbers such as ISO 100, ISO 400, ISO 1600. What does this even mean? The lower the number, the less the camera is trying to “add light” to your photo. Most cameras have a lowest ISO of 100 but can vary from camera to camera. The maximum ISO varies greatly from camera to camera but it ranges anywhere from ISO 400-ISO 100,000.

If the camera adds light to the photo then why can’t i just use the highest ISO? I like to think of ISO as a “last resort”. Why is ISO so bad? The reason you should try to keep your ISO as low as possible is because it adds unnecessary grain to your photos. Most of the time grain is not very pleasing in photography and can ruin a photo if it’s too grainy. You should try to set your shutter speed and aperture to correctly expose your photo while keeping your ISO as low as possible. If that’s not possible, raise your ISO until your photo is properly exposed.

Tying it all together

The most important thing to remember about all of this is that you will need to actually practice. Depending on what camera you use there are different controls for shutter speed, aperture and ISO. You need to learn which buttons control these 3 important settings so you can correctly expose your image.

Try figuring out each setting individually and then slowly tying it all together into the exposure triangle. If you are just starting out you will most likely mess up and that’s okay it’s part of the learning process.

Practice, practice, practice and then practice some more. The more you use your camera in manual mode the better you will get at using it and you will be able to perfectly pick your settings for each photo.

You probably don’t want to hear this but there is no “secret” to manual mode, it takes lots of practice to master it. There is no “right or wrong” settings. Photography is an art and its up to you to pick the correct tools for your masterpiece.

If you found this post helpful or if you still have any questions drop a comment down below. Don’t forget to follow and sign up for email alerts so you never miss out on any new posts. Feel free to share this post with your photographer friends.

Read my previous post here

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