Beginners Guide to Manual Photography

Maybe you’ve been here before: you just bought your first DSLR, pulling it out of the box in all of it’s pristine beauty, but you quickly realize that you have no idea how to use it. First off, it’s OK; we’ve all been there. You can find plenty of blogs and articles about the intricate technical details about your DSLR, but this is not one of those blogs. We want to help you get out of auto mode and into manual mode so that you can actually use your camera to its full potential. Keep in mind that these tips are not hard and fast rules, but just guidelines to help you capture the images you want. So let’s start, turn your camera’s dial to “M” to set it in manual mode.


1. How to Get the Right Exposure

With every picture you take, you always need to get a balanced exposure. Exposure is the amount that the camera is exposed to light. Therefore, if your pictures are over-exposed, your pictures will be too bright and washed out; and if you under-expose your photos, they will be too dark.

All DSLRs have an internal light meter that detects what the exposure of your photos will be with the current settings. There is a bar on your camera’s screen with a plus on the right side, and a minus on the left that shows the current exposure. You will know that the exposure is balanced when it reaches the “0”. You can also see this bar in the camera’s viewfinder.

Now bear with me through this next part, I promise it will make sense by the end of this blog.

There are three factors that affect exposure in DSLRs: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. If your photos are under or over-exposed, you can adjust these three factors to balance the exposure. There are advantages and disadvantages for each of these settings, so let’s get into the details.


2. Shutter Speed

The shutter is the part of the camera that lets light reach the sensor. Shutter speed is the length of time that your camera lets light hit the sensors. It helps me to think of how film works when understanding shutter speed. In film cameras, if you let light reach the film for a long period of time, the photo will be brighter. This same concept is the reason that, on really old cameras, you had to stay really still: they had to use a long shutter speed to get the amount of light that was needed. In essence, shorter the shutter speeds will let less light to the sensor, and will give you a darker exposure than longer shutter speeds.

So if your sensor is showing that your photo is under-exposed, you can lengthen the shutter speed to let more light in. In order to do this, you need to understand how shutter speed is measured.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds, or fractions of a second. If your shutter speed is set to one-fifteenth of a second, your screen will read 1/15. If your screen reads 15″, your shutter speed is set to fifteen seconds. Reach back in your memory to learning fractions in grade school, and just remember that 1/2000 is less than 1/20.

Just to reiterate: faster shutter speed = darker pictures

Keep in mind, however, that in order to get clear, crisp pictures, your subjects and your camera have to stay still during the duration of your exposure (as long as your shutter is open). Your shutter speed is normally determined by how fast your subject is moving. For example, photographing sports requires very short shutter speeds. If you’re shooting in low-light scenarios, you will need longer shutter speeds to reach a balanced exposure, but you should be careful that you don’t compromise the clarity of your photos for a correct exposure. It’s better to have darker photos that are not blurry than vice-versa; usually you can recover the shadows and adjust to the correct photos in post-processing (photo editing software). You won’t be able to recover blurry photos.

Rule of thumb: when shooting without a tripod, keep your shutter speed above 1/25.


3. Aperture

Aperture literally means an opening, and that’s exactly what it is on your DSLR. The aperture on your camera controls the size of the opening to let light in. If you want, you can read more about f-stops and what that actually means elsewhere, but all you need to know for now is that a lower f-stop means a wider opening, and therefore more light can reach the sensor. A low aperture would probably look like f2.8 on your camera’s screen. If you’re in manual mode, you might have trouble figuring out how to change the aperture setting. On some cameras, you have to hold down a button while turning the wheel; on others, there is a second wheel to change the aperture. Consult your user manual if you are having trouble figuring out how to change the aperture.

Reiterating: higher f-stop = darker pictures

The best part of your aperture setting is being able to control the depth of field of your photos. The depth of field determines is your whole photo is in focus, or only your subject. With a short depth of field, only your subject will be in focus, and everything that is closer or further away from your subject will be out of focus. The warm fuzziness of the out of focus parts of your photo is called bokeh, and it is one of the main ways to make your photos look “professional”. In order to get this bokeh, you have to have your aperture set to a low f-stop (~f4 or lower) and a composition with depth (you’re not going to get any bokeh if everything in your photo is far away).

So lower f-stop = shorter depth of field = more bokeh

General advice for entry-level DSLRs: keep your f-stop at the lowest possible setting. This allows for high shutter speeds, low ISO (we’ll get to that), and buttery bokeh. Consider a higher f-stop if you want to capture multiple subjects to keep all of your subjects in focus, or if you’re taking long exposures.


4. ISO

I know you’re curious, so here you go: ISO stands for the International Organization of Standardization. If you’re longing for an explanation, head over to Wikipedia, because it really doesn’t have anything to do with how you practically use it. Changing the ISO of your camera changes the sensitivity of your camera’s sensors. A lower ISO means that your sensor is less sensitive to light, and will produce a darker photo. You may be asking why anyone would use a low ISO, but it turns out that you should use a low ISO whenever possible. If you take photos with a high ISO, your photos will be noisy, and look grainy or splotchy. Just try it, you’ll be able to see exactly what noise looks like. A low ISO will be the less noisy, and will produce the sharpest, cleanest photos.

You only want to use a higher ISO when you have to, which normally is the case in low-light scenarios. So if you’re in a restaurant, shooting an indoor sports game, or taking photos at night, you should probably use a higher ISO to avoid taking blurry photos with too slow of a shutter speed.

Rule of thumb: keep your ISO at 100 unless you just can’t balance the exposure with aperture and shutter speed.


5. Putting It All Together

Remember that the goal of these settings is to balance your exposure. If you’re still figuring this out, follow these steps to get you started:

– Set your ISO to 100, your aperture to f2.8 (or as low as it will go), and your shutter speed to 1/25
– Check your light meter (exposure bar) and see if your photo will be under-exposed ( – ) or over-exposed ( + ).
– If over-exposed, decrease the shutter speed until your exposure is balanced.
– If under-exposed, increase the ISO until your exposure is balanced.
– Take your photo
– Check the light meter before you take every photo and adjust to balance the exposure


Now that you’ve scratched the surface into manual photography, take lots of pictures and experiment! The only way to truly know how to use the tools a DSLR offers is to practice. It takes a while to be comfortable with your camera and to be able to take the pictures you want.

If you’re looking to buy an entry-level DSLR, we started with the Nikon D3200 which we thought was pretty simple, easy to operate, and still took great photos. Now we’re using a D7100, check out our What’s in Our Camera Bag blog to check out our gear.

Still confused about anything? Leave us feedback and ask us questions!