I remember three years ago when I first had the confidence to switch my camera from Auto mode to manual. I was terrified. 

What if I missed my shot? 

What if I couldn’t change my settings as fast as my kids could run away from me? 

And I still had that little doubt inside of me asking if there really would be a positive difference in my photos when I shot manual mode versus Auto. I knew that everyone told me I needed to make the switch…but my camera seemed pretty smart!

If you are feeling the same fear and apprehension I felt when I made the switch, I am here to help! Maybe you are just getting started with your camera or perhaps you are someone who is pretty confident shooting in other ‘Auto modes.’ But if you aren’t using your camera in manual mode, you likely aren’t taking advantage of all your camera has to offer.

Let’s explore what it means to shoot in manual mode and how it can make your photos better together.

boy at top of yellow slide jyo bhamadipati
1/320, f/5.0, ISO 640

The Auto Modes

First, let’s define what the various Auto modes are on your camera and what they do.

Auto mode

In full Auto mode, your camera is “looking” at any scene and choosing the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get the best exposure. And your camera? It’s pretty smart! It will often get your exposure just right and allow you to snap away with photos that aren’t too dark or too bright.

But your camera is a tool, not an artist. When you shoot in Auto mode, it won’t know whether or not you want a blurry background. Your camera won’t know that you want to expose for that tiny area of bright light rather than balancing the exposure of the whole frame. So while your camera in Auto mode is smart, it is not able to make artistic decisions.

macro photography water droplets on green leaf jyo bhamadipati
1/250, f/2.8, ISO 400

Aperture Priority mode

It is usually the A or the Av mode in your camera. In this mode, the photographer sets the aperture (f-stop) and the camera automatically selects the shutter speed and ISO to get proper exposure in any given situation.

This mode allows you to fully control the depth of field of your shot. However, you are trusting your camera to know what shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the motion of any given subject. You are also risking having more noise than you may want in lower light situations.

girl on path in rain boots jyo bhamadipati
1/320, f/2.2, ISO 100

Shutter Priority mode

This is usually the the symbol Tv or S on your camera. In this mode, the photographer sets the shutter speed. The camera sets chooses the aperture (f-stop) and ISO that allows you to capture proper exposure with any given shutter speed.

If your priority is to freeze motion or capture motion blur, this is a great option! However, you might find that your camera chooses an aperture with a depth fo field that is too narrow. Your fast-moving subjects may end-up blurry not from motion blur but because they are out of the plane of focus.

1/400, f/3.5, ISO 160

ISO Priority mode

This mode makes it so that you can choose the ISO and the camera chooses the shutter speed and aperture. When shooting in this mode, you have control over the noise in the frame.

Related: What is auto ISO and when should you use it?

However, you risk getting blur from motion and a narrow depth of field if the ISO is so low that your aperture and shutter speed have to overcompensate.

boy in yellow jacket laughing by jyo bhamadipati
1/250, f/2.0, ISO 200

What is Manual mode?

Manual mode is typically indicated by the symbol M in your camera. In this mode, the photographer chooses the aperture (f-stop), the shutter speed, and the ISO.

The photographer makes the decision on exposing the image correctly by controlling all three elements of the exposure triangle. The camera does not choose any of these settings and the photographer must dial all three in individually in any given situation.

Note that shooting in manual mode is not the same as shooting in manual focus. Shooting with a manual focus means that the photographer moves the focus ring on the lens and turns it until the desired elements are in focus. Autofocus allows the camera to move the focus ring until the area selected in the viewfinder is in focus. This is a separate concept from Manual mode.

Shooting in manual mode is widely seen as the most important step in advancing yourself as a photographer and artist. Manual mode allows you to control the exposure of your shot exactly as it matches your vision.

girl smiling in crib jyo bhamdipati
1/250, f/2.2, ISO 640

Exposure

The relationship between these three settings is called the exposure triangle. Having proper exposure means that you have details visible in the shadows and highlights of the most important areas of your photographs.

These settings affect the amount of light entering the camera as they affect how wide the lens elements open (aperture), how fast the shutter opens and closes (shutter speed), and the sensitivity of the camera sensor (ISO). As aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, each change individually, you will need to adjust the other two settings to compensate.

girl by window with eyes closed black and white jyo bhamadipati
1/200, f/2.2, ISO 500

Aperture

Aperture controls the amount of light that enters the camera by controlling the size of the aperture ring. It also controls the depth of field in any given photograph.

When the aperture is larger (which means that the f-stop number is smaller), more light will be let into the camera and the depth of field will be smaller. This means that a smaller area away from the camera will be in acceptable focus as you choose your focal point.

If you like blurry backgrounds(often desired in portrait photography), you will want a larger aperture. If you are trying to get more of the frame in focus (often desired in landscape photography) you will want a smaller aperture.

As you choose your aperture, you will need to adjust your shutter speed and ISO to let the proper amount of light into the camera so that your exposure is correct.

girl in yellow sweater playing with yellow balloon jyo bhamadipati
1/250, f/4.5, ISO 100

Shutter speed

Shutter speed helps freeze motion or create blur in a given shot. A slow shutter speed will capture the blur of the movement and a high shutter speed will freeze the motion.

Shutter speed also affects the amount of light that is let into the frame. The faster the shutter speed the less light is allowed into the frame. The slower the shutter speed, the more light that is allowed into the frame.

As a photographer, it is really important to understand the importance of using the right shutter speed. Blurry shots as a result of slow shutter speed cannot be fixed with Photoshop magic! You will want to choose a shutter speed that will allow you to control the blur while using all three exposure variables to ensure that there is enough light entering the camera.

toddler in red crayon costume jyo bhamadipati
1/250, f/4.0, ISO 125

ISO

ISO controls how much light enters the camera by making the sensor more or less sensitive to light. With film photography, the ISO was determined by the film stock. In digital photography, we choose the ISO in our camera settings.

In general, you will need a higher ISO when there is less light available. You will need a higher ISO when more light is available.

It is also important to note that ISO also brings in additional grain to the final image when increased to a somewhat higher number. This higher number is usually dependent on your camera’s make and model and it’s ability to handle light/grain in low light situations.

Member exclusive tutorial: How I learned manual mode

woman holding child and red coffee mug in front of christmas tree jyo bhamadipati
1/250, f/1.4, ISO 200

Make the move to “M”

I know. All these settings can be really daunting at first. But I promise you that it all comes together with practice.

Try experimenting with your camera. Change one setting while keeping the other settings constant and see the effect on your images. This is a great exercise to see how each setting affects what the camera sees!

Then, try getting the same exposure while adjusting all three settings in tandem. See how you can control the light in the frame while changing aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

As you continue to control each of these variables, you will not only be better able to control the light and technical success of your photos. You will also be able to control how you use those settings creatively. You will be allowed to use your camera as the tool to create art. And from there the possibilities are endless.