Manual mode: How to take control of your photos.

Hey photo fans! How are we all? Enjoying the marginally less freezing weather?

When I asked you guys what you’d like me to write about a while back, one of the things that was requested by multiple people was a quick guide to using “manual mode” on their camera. For those of you in Automode Anonymous who are getting fed up with their camera perhaps behaving somewhat sporadically, or for those of you who know a few basics but just want to gain that extra level of camera control, this blog’s for you. I’m going to attempt to explain each of the key features you’ll be learning to control using manual mode, how they interact with each other and why they’re absolutely freakin’ awesome. I personally found that learning how to use manual mode presented me with a toolkit to start using my knowledge much more creatively, so I hope it works for you too!

The way I’m going to explain this is by using my own personal process, which essentially boils down to choosing what aperture I want to shoot at first (usually a key creative decision in my work) and then adjusting the other settings to get the best exposure possible. This isn’t a completely comprehensive description of absolutely everything, but hopefully it’ll give you a reasonable head-start. If that all sounds like gobbledegook right now, don’t panic, it’ll hopefully all magically make sense a bit later…

Ready? Here we go!

SNAP (20).jpg



Pick up your camera, switch it on and whack it into Manual mode, usually denoted by the letter “M” on the mode dial. First step away from Auto, HERE WE GO. Now, I want you to have a look and work out which button / dial / twizzly thing is going to let you change the f/ number. If an f/ isn’t displayed on your camera screen, then look for the number which you can wind down until it starts to display a decimal point – e.g. you might have an aperture range of f/2.8 to f/16. Your shutter speed range is much larger, so if you’re turning a wheel and the number’s cranking up into the hundreds and thousands, you’ve probably discovered how to change your shutter speed instead. Bank that info for later, though!

So, what’s so genius about aperture control?

  • We can use our aperture setting to creatively change an image.
  • A wide aperture has a shallow depth of field. Using a wide aperture will let you focus on one part of the image and the rest will appear blurry and dream-like. This is perfect for isolating details.
  • A small aperture has a much deeper depth of field, which means more of the image will be in focus.

I adore using a wide aperture for portraits where I can afford to let the backdrop fall out of focus, which immediately draws attention to our subject. For example, here’s the rather gorgeous Hannah James from our last promo adventure:

Hannah James.jpg

This was shot with the aperture wide open at f/2 with a shutter speed of 1/1250 sec and ISO-125 (more on those settings later!)

Conversely, if I’m shooting a more complex or chaotic portrait where I need far more in focus – this snap of big band, Bellowhead, for example – where our subjects are placed at varying levels with all sorts of props and details, then I’ll shoot with a much narrower aperture to ensure that as much of it is in sharp focus as possible.

Bellowhead 1 vII.jpg

This was shot with the aperture at f/10 with a shutter speed of 1/500 sec and ISO-250.

So, a small f/ number means a small depth of field (isolated focus) and a large f/ number means a large depth of field (much more in focus). There are additional factors which can affect depth of field, brilliantly explained in this blog post, but let’s stick with this for now! Should it help you to visualise everything, here’s a super handy diagram:



As you can see above, when we set a wide aperture (e.g. f/2.8) the aperture, like the iris of our eye, is wide open. As a consequence, this lets in a lot of light. To get the right exposure on a bright day, do you think we’ll need a faster or slower shutter speed…? (Hint: A slower shutter speed lets in more light than a fast one.)



On the other hand, a small aperture (e.g. f/11) will only let a tiny bit of light onto the sensor. What kind of shutter speed do think this will need? Faster or slower?


If you said “faster” for the first question and “slower” for the second, woooo go you! If you didn’t, don’t fret, it all made far more sense to me once I actually started putting it into practise. Boy did I do a lot of practise.

Before we move onto the joys of ISO, here’s a little visual tea-break. Isn’t Shelley Richmond a total babe?! One free PS curve to the first three people who correctly guess what aperture I shot this at…

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  • Your ISO setting controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Most cameras have a dedicated ISO button / key, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with where this is.
  • A low ISO number (e.g. 100) makes the sensor less sensitive. You’d use a low ISO on a bright day, or if you’re shooting at a very wide aperture during daylight, to make sure you don’t over-expose your image.
  • A high ISO number (e.g. 800 or more) increases the sensitivity much more. You’d use a high ISO if you were shooting somewhere dark, or with a smaller aperture setting, to get the correct exposure.
  • WARNING: Higher ISO settings may cause “colour noise” in your image, so if you can shoot with a lower ISO and still get the right exposure / a fast enough shutter speed for your subject matter, I would generally recommend that you do so.
SNAP (72).jpg

Using a high ISO (approx 2000) to freeze some late-night firedancing action at SNAP Festival!



  • When you’re shooting at a narrow aperture, if you find that you have to set your shutter speed any slower than 1/100 to get the correct exposure, push your ISO higher. This makes your sensor more sensitive to light, so you can set a faster shutter speed and avoid motion blur.
  • When you’re shooting at a wide aperture, pay attention to your focus! It takes a bit of practice to shoot with such a shallow depth of field, but stick with it. I always set the centre focus point, then focus (by half pressing the shutter) and re-compose (always side to side movement, never forward or back) as needed.


Lucy (27).jpg

Super detailed shoot times with Lucy Ward. Ten points if you thought “NARROW APERTURE TIME!”

…alrighty, how are we doing? Writing this stuff down rather than explaining it real life avec camera has slightly wrinkled my brain, so I hope it makes some kind of sense to you guys?! Like I said at the start, if there’s anything I could explain a bit better, shout up and I’ll see what I can do. Now, before we finish up, I’ve got a little bit of homework for you:



Ok, you know I said the best way to get this stuff to sink in is to practice like a demon? You’re now going to pootle off and take two photos for me:

1) Set the widest aperture (the lowest f/ number) you can and see what shutter speed and ISO setting you need to get a good exposure (i.e. as close to how your eyes see it as possible).

2) Take the exact same photo again, but this time set a narrower aperture (e.g. f/8 to f/16) and change your settings until you get an image with the same exposure – or as close as possible – to your wide aperture photo.

The results may take you by surprise, but hopefully this little exercise will just help set everything you’ve learned into your head. Try it in a few different lighting situations and see how your results differ each time. Practice practice practice! After a while you might find you start to change all of your settings completely instinctively; I can now look at the light in a situation and quite accurately work out approximately what settings I’ll need simply by understanding the relationship between my aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Taking creative control of my camera = one of the best things I ever learned. Auto mode may sometimes nail the shot, but your camera can’t see what you can – all it wants to do is neatly even everything out to a nice percentage of grey. Go help it see something beautiful.





Go have fun! I’ll leave you with these pointers:

  • Manual mode will take a little while to sink in. Stick with it! Just remember to keep checking your images as you go along, and don’t be disheartened if things don’t work instantly.
  • So much of photography is just tinkering. Every professional I know will take a few moments to play with settings. We try lots of different things so we have options!
  • Experiment. It’s amazing what you can discover by accident.


Until next time,

E x



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