How to shoot in manual mode for beginners

So you went to the shop and got yourself a brand new DSLR. That’s great! But how do you go from shopping at your local camera shop to becoming a skilled photographer who can make a living from his pictures?

Well, the first step towards it is understanding how your camera works and learning how to shoot in manual mode.

After all, simply having a tool does not automatically make you a professional of the trade. It takes time and effort to learn how to utilize your camera to the best of its ability.

And I know how scary the amount of buttons and different settings may seem to you when you unbox your camera, but don’t worry. Just follow this guide to DSLR camera settings and you’ll get there in no time.

How to shoot in manual mode for beginners
How to shoot in manual mode

So where do I begin?

The most important thing you need to know about your camera is how to set it up. These settings are always the same, no matter which brand your camera is. With such advanced technologies, most high end cameras can be easily compared in quality and so it is often down to personal preference when choosing a brand.

First, you must understand how a camera works.

Camera is a tool that captures light reflected from a surface and converts it into pictures that you can view on your computer.

It does this by passing light through the lens in the front of the camera to the sensor at the back of it. By dialing in your camera settings, you can control how this lens will behave and how much light it will let into the sensor.

To master this skill you must become familiar with the camera settings of aperture (also known as f-stop), shutter speed, and ISO. By understanding how to use these settings to the full, you will be able to shoot under any light condition and walk away with a high quality photographs every time.

What is Aperture and what does it do?

Aperture controls how narrow the lens opening is. It is measured in stops starting at f/1, then f/1.4, and then doubling every other stop until you get to f/32.

It is very important to remember that the higher the number is, the narrower the opening of the lens is.

The full stops chart for aperture is: F/1 F/1.4 F/2 F/2.8 F/4 F/5.6 F/8 F/11 F/16 F/22 F/32

As you can probably guess, the smaller the opening of your lens, the less light gets in, the darker the picture is going to come out.


However, as well as controlling the amount of light, aperture changes the depth of field in your picture.

Depth of field refers to the area of your image that is in focus. So, the bigger the f-stop (aperture) the more focused everything is. Using aperture such as f/1.4 you can create really soft images, that are mostly used in portraits or detail shots.

On the other hand, if you use wide aperture such like f/32, you will let much less light in but will end up with an image that has everything in focus. Wide apertures are very popular in landscape photography.

What is Shutter Speed and what does it do?

To compensate for the underexposure or overexposure made by your aperture, you can change your shutter speed.

As the name suggests, this setting controls how fast the shutter will open and close. The shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second and the longer it stays open, the more light gets into the camera.

Same as the aperture, shutter speed doubles or halves every time you change it. For example, if you are using a very fast 1/1000 of a second shutter speed, then dialing down would be 1/500 or dialing up would go to 1/2000.

The shutter speed stop chart would look similar to this: 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 and finish at 1 second.

Same as aperture, the shutter speed has another effect on the way your camera behaves. The faster the shutter speed is, the quicker it captures the scene. So if you are trying to photograph a fast moving object (like a runner), you would want to use the fastest shutter speed available. This way you would be freezing the motion and having a crisp image.

TIP: Of course, you can be more creative and shoot the runner with a slower speed. This will result in the running motion being blurred and leaving a trail. It may be a very creative way to capture motion and make your shots look more interesting and come alive.

What is ISO and what does it do?

Last on our list is ISO. Instead of being controlled by one of your command dials, this setting usually has a dedicated button that you press and hold to change it. Rather than controlling the way your lens behaves, ISO changes your sensors sensitivity to light.

The higher the number, the more sensitive your sensor becomes, the more affected by light it is. If you are shooting in low light conditions, for example night shots, you will probably struggle to take a shot using only aperture and shutter speed.

This is when you want to kick up your ISO and have your sensor much more sensitive to light than it usually would be.  

Downside of increasing the sensitivity is that it also becomes more susceptible to light noise. This is tiny grains that appear on your final image, thus reducing its sharpness and overall quality.

TIP: Really you should only go into the very high ISO numbers if you have a really great camera that has good noise reduction. Remember to bring a tripod to your low light photoshoots, this might allow you to shoot with lower ISO and use slower shutter speed to compensate for low light. This way, you can keep your superb quality and have very little noise.

What are Full Stops?

You must have noticed that each camera setting was referred to as a stop. It is a term that is used to describe each step up or down in any of the settings.

These stops is what relates each setting. In order to keep the same exposure, but at lower aperture you would compensate with shutter speed at 1:1 ratio. For each stop lowered of aperture, you would increase the same amount of stops in shutter speed, and vice versa.

For example, if your original shot was at F/11 with shutter speed of 1/60 and you decide to dial down your aperture to F/5.6 this is a reduction of 3 full stops. All you have to do to compensate is increase  your shutter speed by 3 stops. You would end up with F/5.6 and 1/500.

Practice shooting in manual mode
Practice shooting in manual mode

Putting your knowledge into practice

Now that you have the know-how of taking pictures, it is time to take your brand new toy, put it into manual mode (M) and take it outside. The only way you can truly learn how these settings work individually and how they each affect one another is by practicing first hand.

Go outside and start taking pictures. Try out opposite ends of aperture. See how that changes the focus in your pictures. The most visible effect of this can be seen while taking pictures of long fences or portraits with a background further away. Play around!

Try out very fast and very slow shutter speeds. Does the subject blur from movement? Try and use this to your advantage to create some wonderful shots with great motion trails.

In the evening, set your ISO really high. See how much noise your camera produces and how far you can push it. Maybe you will find a way to make that noise add an interesting effect to your picture.

There really is no right or wrong settings when it comes to photography. Only creative decisions, that with time, are easier to make. You can only get better and become a skilled photographer by spending time experimenting and trying out new things.



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