Take Photos in Manual Mode for a Month :: Digital Photo Secrets

Take Photos in Manual Mode for a Month

by David Peterson 6 comments

Remember when you were a kid and your dad ceremoniously took the training wheels off your bike. You started out with him holding the back of your bike seat as he ran alongside of you as you pedaled. The next thing you knew his voice was in the distance yelling, “You did it!” What happened after that moment, whether you fell off the bike and scrapped your knew or kept on pedaling, doesn't matter. The fact is, you rode without the assistance of training wheels.

Swimming might have been a similar experience. Whether you’re young enough to have had those flotation devices or whether you too swimming lessons with someone holding you as you tried to swim from one side of the pool to the other. Eventually, the swimmies and the hands beneath you went away and you swam on your own.

Are you seeing where I’m going with this? It’s time. Yes, it’s time to drop the “Auto” crutch and switch to “Manual” mode on your camera. In order to graduate from hobbyist or amateur to professional in training, there comes a time where you have to free yourself of the help.

Here’s my challenge for you: for one month only use Manual Mode. Of course I wouldn’t put you on a bike or in a pool without some assistance to get you started. If you’ve been a regular reader of my articles, you hopefully know a good deal of what I’m about to tell you, but perhaps have been resistant to letting go of your good friend, Auto Mode.

Note: Since Manual Mode means you’ll be intentionally setting how your camera reads light and captures images, I’m not requiring that you also use Manual Focus for this month-long challenge.

Here’s the lowdown on the settings. I suggest having your camera and its manual with you as you read through these settings and their descriptions so that you can become familiar with how to adjust them on your exact camera.

ISO is always my first go-to setting since it’s the one that controls how sensitive your camera’s image sensor is to the light. Outdoor bright light would do best with an ISO setting of 100 or 200. As your lighting is reduced, bump up the ISO accordingly. Part of this experiment is to get a good feel for ISO settings and when to use which one. The higher your ISO setting, the more “grainy” your images will be (called image noise). There’s nothing wrong with this effect, it’s a personal preference. But, there will be times when you have to push up your ISO in order to get the shot and grainy will happen. It’s better to have some grain and a sharp image than no grain and a blurred image. Photoshop can “reduce noise” for you in post-processing, too. See this article for the ISO setting to use in common situations.

Aperture, which is determined by the f-stop setting you choose, controls how much light is allowed through your lens. It also controls how much of your image will be in focus. A low f-stop setting, such as 1.4, results in a wider aperture and will let in more light. Alternatively, a high f-stop, such as 16, results in a smaller aperture, and therefore less light is allowed in. For a shallow depth of field where your subject is sharp but the foreground or background is blurred, use a smaller f-stop. For greater depth of field, use a higher f-stop setting to allow the entire scene to be in focus, such as with landscapes.

Shutter speed settings control how long the shutter remains open and thereby how long your camera’s image sensor is exposed to light. A slow shutter speed will let in more light, which is better in low light situations. Just remember that any movement from your subjects will cause blurring. A faster shutter speed is best for bright light and moving objects. The use of a tripod comes in handy in low light and slow shutter speed situations. I wrote an article recently about the different shutter speeds and when to use them,

White Balance is used to ensure your images have even white and grey tones. Depending on the light you’re in will depend on the white balance setting you’ll choose since different kinds of light tend to give color to the whites in a photo. For example, fluorescent lights can make snow look bluish. Tungsten lights (like a lamp) gives a yellow tint to your images. Cameras have multiple settings for White Balance, but you’ll be one step ahead in the manual mode game if you learn to use custom white balance. Here's how to set a custom white balance.


While I’m encouraging you to go fully manual, you can use aperture priority or shutter priority mode is a stepping stone.

However, I want you to pay attention to why you’re using these modes. Aperture priority is meant for those whose main result concern is depth of field. Shutter priority is for those whose subject might be in movement or in low light (although a high f-stop setting in aperture priority mode will allow more light in as well). That said, I do encourage you to try full Manual Mode for at least part of the time.

No matter which mode you go with: manual, shutter priority, or aperture priority, take some test shots and look at your preview screen as a guide to how on target you are, then adjust accordingly.

These are all just a guide. As your creativity kicks in Today’s cameras record the selected settings in the image file. Use this as a learning opportunity. When you’re out taking pictures, take the same shot at different settings then go back and look at them on your computer and see how the depth of field changed with the higher or lower f-stop setting or how movement froze with a faster shutter speed. Actually seeing your results side-by-side is like that moment when you realized no one was holding onto the back of your bike and you were pedaling all on your own.

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  1. suzanne simons says:

    i have enjoyed your site and find it very helpful, i can keep going back to different tips as many times as required, thanks for all your work in producing it. thanks suzanne

  2. Bizziebod says:

    I love this site, written in a way that hobbyists, novices and amateurs can understand in plain simple English. Thanks! Very useful!

  3. vicky says:

    great inspiration! OK i take on the challenge....thank you david peterson

  4. behzad says:

    thanks as ever, i will try but no promises as sometimes specially with children and group there is not enough time to keep changing the setting. however, your suggestions are seriously welcome.

  5. satuman says:

    this is fabulous! what a mentor!

  6. Carole Martinez says:

    This is scary, a have too get it right shoot is coming up, I'll do this later.

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