What Photographers Should Know About Manual Mode

by David Em
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Manual mode is an important camera setting that allows you to control ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. This is beneficial because you control the exposure.

Person holding camera.

What’s manual mode?

Manual mode is one of the main settings on your digital camera. The others include automatic and semi-automatic modes.

Related: Understanding focus in photography

At the top of your camera, you’ll find a dial with different letters on them. The letters stand for the following digital camera modes:

  1. Program (P): You control flash, exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance.
  2. Aperture Priority (Av or A): You set the aperture and the camera will adjust the shutter speed.
  3. Shutter Priority (Tv or S): You set the shutter speed and the camera will adjust the aperture.
  4. Manual (M): You manually set all of the settings.

In most DSLR cameras, you’ll notice that the ISO still has to be set manually, regardless of the mode. If you don’t want to manually adjust the ISO, set it to “Auto ISO”.

Photographer with text overlay.

Why shoot in manual mode

The main reason that you should shoot in manual mode is that you get to have complete control.

There’s nothing wrong with using your camera’s automatic or semi-automatic modes but using manual mode will help you understand your camera and overcome tough lighting situations.

Since photography requires creativity, what the camera thinks is perfect might not be what you had envisioned. This is where manual mode shines because it allows you to execute your vision.

Manual mode is also great for times where you want to shoot from a creative angle, implement foreground blur, or purposely expose the image a certain way.

How it works

When you’re using manual mode, there are key aspects to focus on. These are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Let’s take a look at each one and how it works.


A black and silver camera with an arrow pointing at the lens.
The aperture is similar to the iris.

By manually controlling the aperture, you get to control the depth of field and how much light enters your camera. You can change the aperture by changing the f-stop, which is the number after “f/”.

A smaller aperture or larger f-stop number means that the hole will be smaller which allows less light in. While a larger aperture or smaller f-stop number allows more light in.

Here’s an example of how changing the f-stop affects the aperture:

ApertureDiameter Relative To
f/8Tennis Ball
f/16Golf Ball

Although the actual sizes aren’t the same, the point is to show you what happens to the aperture as you change it.

Depth of Field

Person looking to the side.
Photo: Unsplash

One of the most powerful ways in which the aperture affects the image is the depth of field. This means that the aperture controls how much of the image is in sharp focus.

Using a large aperture will result in a shallow depth of field which means less of the image will be in sharp focus. A shallow depth of field makes your subject stand out and can create great bokeh.

On the flip side, a small aperture results in a deep depth of field which means more of the image will be in sharp focus. This is great for landscape photos or if you’re photographing portraits with important backgrounds.

Control over the depth of field is one of the most important reasons why manual mode is important.

Shutter Speed

Person in the air.
Photo: Unsplash

Shutter speed is important when it comes to controlling light and movement. It’s represented by a number that stands for seconds.

A smaller number such as 1/500, means a faster shutter speed. Whereas, a larger number such as 1/8, means the shutter speed will be slower.

When it comes to light, faster shutter speeds will allow less light in, while slower shutter speeds allow more light in. The more light that enters, the brighter the image will be.

Fast shutter speeds are generally 1/80 of a second or faster. Whereas 1/60 and slower are considered slow shutter speeds.

Movement is another aspect of the photo that’s affected by the shutter speed. Fast shutter speeds will freeze motion, while slow shutter speeds blur the movement.

If you’re shooting a photo of someone running, fast shutter speeds are the way to go since it’ll freeze movement. On the flip side, if you want to shoot a blurred image of the person running, use slow shutter speeds.

When you’re using slow shutter speeds, use a tripod because that’ll eliminate the camera shake that occurs from your hands. A camera shake is what causes a blurry image.


ISO doesn’t have to do with the light reaching your camera sensor as aperture and shutter speed does.

When you increase your ISO, you’ll notice that the image gets brighter without changing any other settings. This is because the image is brightened in-camera, whereas using a lower ISO can result in a darker image.

The downside of increasing the ISO, is the noise, grain, and discoloration that occurs. Therefore, use the lowest ISO possible which is typically the base ISO of 100. The base ISO will give you the highest-quality image without noise and grain.

Using the light meter

When you’re shooting in manual mode, the best way to ensure that you get the right exposure is to use the light meter. You’ll know the exposure will be correct when the light meter is centered at ‘0’.

Perfectly expose the brightest part of the image and naturally, the shadows will be underexposed but that can be fixed when you edit. If you don’t expose the brightest part of the image, you’ll risk a blown-out and overexposed photo. When the highlights are blown out, it’s hard to get those details back in post-processing.

For a Canon 6D Mark II, the light meter appears in the viewfinder, live view, and at the top of the camera. Most cameras will show a light meter in the viewfinder or live view. Here’s an example of the light meter:

The top of a camera with an oval around the light meter.
The light meter helps you perfectly expose an image. Photo by David Em/Portraits Refined

Frequently asked questions

Do I have to shoot in manual mode to be a pro?

Many photographers will say that you must shoot in manual mode but that’s not the case. It depends on your preferences and what you’re photographing. Often, semi-automatic modes can be very helpful. For example, if you’re shooting outdoor portraits, you can set the camera to “Aperture Priority” which means you choose the aperture and the camera will do the rest. Using other modes can save you time and speed up your workflow so you can focus on other things, like composition.

What’s the best way to get started with manual mode?

If you’re new to photography or camera modes, start with Program Mode (P) and once you get the hang of it, move to Aperture Priority (Av or A). If you’re comfortable with Aperture Priority, move on to manual mode.

Should I use auto white balance?

Auto White Balance is a helpful tool that allows the camera to adjust the white balance for you. It’ll save time and if you shoot in RAW, you can adjust the white balance in post-processing. If you want more control over the initial results, use the white balance presets or a custom one that you can set.


Manual mode is a great way to familiarize yourself with your camera and understand how different settings work.

It’ll also help you understand how to resolve different lighting issues and work around them. Manual mode is a great way to control the outcome of the photo.

Featured photo courtesy of Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and advice to grow your photography business. Learn more about Portraits Refined