Shooting in Manual Mode

Cameras contain all these different settings so why shoot in Manual Mode? What’s the point? Why not just set the camera to the proper pre-defined built in scene mode to shoot what I want? Many of us have different reasons why we shoot with the settings we do. But when it comes down to it, the different settings only change three different values in the camera. Aperture. Shutter Speed. ISO. The Exposure Triangle. What do Triangles have to do with taking photos? Absolutely nothing unless you are taking photos of triangles. But Exposure has everything to do with taking photos.


So lets get down to the basics. I don’t have all the fancy graphs that can visually show you everything, but I can sure try to explain. Lets start with Shutter Speed. It seems to me to be the easiest to explain. Shutter Speed controls how long the sensor/film is exposed to create the photo. When wanting to shoot a fast subject, you need fast Shutter Speed. If you want long exposures, you need a slower Shutter Speed. The longer the shutter is open then the more time light has to hit the sensor/film. In darker situations you need more time for the sensor to capture the photo. In brighter situations you don’t need as much time.


Now on to Aperture. Aperture is what is used in order to control how much light hits the sensor/film. It is also used to help with creating more or less depth of field in your photos. Aperture I think is the most confusing piece of the puzzle, or triangle in this case. The smaller the number (f/1.8) the larger the Aperture. The larger the number (f/18) the smaller the Aperture. I know it seems a little backwards but that’s just the way it works. Larger Apertures (f/1.8) will allow more light to hit the sensor/film which also allow for a more shallow depth of field photo. To not make this more confusing I won’t get into how focal lengths play into this role but if you are testing this on a wide angle lens, you might not notice much of a difference. You also need to keep into consideration the distance from the subject in focus as well, but that’s a whole other topic that we can cover later. Now where were we… Yes, Apertures. Smaller Apertures (f/18) give you a greater depth of field. This is more useful for a lot of landscape photos where you want a lot in focus throughout the frame. Below are example photos of using a large Aperture and a small Aperture.

Awaiting Growth

Large Aperture = Shallow Depth of Field (DoF) = Less in Focus

Snow Covered

Small Aperture = Greater Depth of Field (DoF) = More in Focus



Now to the last part of the triangle. ISO. This is one setting that I rarely change but it is useful in some situations. What ISO does is change the sensitivity of the sensor. For those of you who shoot film or remember when you did shoot film, you may remember that film always had a number associated with it. But for film it was more commonly known as ASA but in layman’s terms this equates to the speed of the film, or how sensitive it was to light. So what does this all mean for exposure? It means that you can take photos in low light situations without needing to sacrifice the other settings. That sounds awesome because you could just set your Aperture and Shutter Speed to whatever you want and just adjust the ISO to get the correct exposure! But at a price of course! There’s always a sacrifice somewhere and here it is noise or grain for those film critics. The higher the ISO number the more noise/grain is introduced into your photo. Newer cameras are better at higher ISOs but for those of us who care about the best photo quality you could possibly get, the lower the ISO the better your photo will look.


Now that we have all this triangle business done I hope you are still with me. Getting the three to work together comes into play of how the Exposure Triangle works. Think of it as a an equilateral triangle with three equal sides. One side is Shutter Speed, one side is Aperture and the last side is ISO. The triangle in its entirety is your exposure. The goal is to keep all the sides of the triangle the same length. If you change your Aperture, then imagine that the Aperture side of the triangle changes. You then need to change your Shutter Speed and/or ISO to equalize the triangle again. Sorry if it is confusing about talking about triangles when photography is on the mind.

Vibrant Reflections

Lets take this approach. If you change your Aperture by one stop, lets say from f/1.8 to f/2.5 then that would decrease the amount of light hitting the sensor by one stop. In order to make sure that you maintain the proper exposure that you want, you will then need to adjust the Shutter Speed or ISO counter against that. If you adjust the Shutter Speed you would need to slow it down by one stop. Lets say you are shooting at 1/400 of a second. To allow one more stop of light to hit the sensor you would need to change the shutter speed to 1/200 of a second.  If you decide to change the sensitivity of your sensor to allow for one more stop of light then you would change the ISO from 100 to 200 for instance. I’m not going to go through all possible scenarios but the essence here is that if you change the setting for one then you must change the setting for another if you want to maintain the current exposure.

Peaceful Reflections

So what does all of this have to do with why you would want to shoot in manual mode? It doesn’t really have any reason why you would want to shoot in manual mode. It’s all confusing mumble jumbo and doesn’t equate to specific reason why. But it does give you an idea of how these things work so you understand how to shoot in manual mode. So now that we have all that knowledge under our belt, it’s time to understand the why which is the whole point of this post. To be more honest though, I’m not going to tell you why YOU should shoot in manual mode, but more why I shoot in manual mode and it may help you make a decision whether or not you would like to or not.

Flowing Down

If I’m shooting something with tricky lighting and want a specific exposure to get a specific look, then I don’t want the camera changing exposure values on me all the time which would make it more difficult to get the shot I want. For the below shot I wanted to expose off the sunrise but focus on the grass. Since the camera will expose off either the entire scene or based on where the focus point is, neither would have gotten me the results I wanted. Now I know I could of used exposure compensation but if I would have forgotten to reset that, then my next photo may have been too underexposed.

Asymmetrical Symmetry

A disclaimer about this next photo was that it was shot with a flash but the same principles apply. I wanted to allow the light to hit as little of the frame as I could as possible which meant using the fastest shutter speed I could with a flash and I also wanted to control the Aperture so the Depth of Field was the way I wanted it to be. I would say that without manual mode this shot would not have happened because the camera had no idea what kind of shot I was looking for.


This next shot would have been very tricky without manual mode because the light was constantly shifting due to a sunrise. The light was changing constantly which would have affected my exposure causing different values each time I pressed the shutter button. Because I was shooting in manual I was able to find the proper exposure after I got a nice composition easier.

Behind the Falls

Long exposure shots are primarily why I learned how to shoot manual. These shots are nearly impossible to get with any other setting, especially if you want to go beyond 30 second exposures. Anything at 30 seconds or less can be done in Shutter Priority but if you start to throw ND filters into the mix then the camera’s light meter may get confused and you never know what your results might be.

Free Flowing

When it comes down to it I really just shoot in manual mode because I’m used to it. I always know what Aperture or Shutter Speed I want and I always shoot at ISO 100 unless I don’t have my tripod or I want to freeze motion in lower light situations. I also know how dark I can make a photo before I can’t recover the details in the shadows. This allows me the flexibility to shoot how I want to without the camera stepping in and telling me what my settings should be at. I have a vision when I shoot and the camera doesn’t know that vision. I shoot high key and low key photos at times and want to expose for such. I know there’s a scene mode for both but what the camera doesn’t know is how high key or how low key I want to be. Only I know that. I don’t want to be messing with dials that are tricky to get to or going through a menu. I want to just have my eye to the viewfinder and just have to move the dial on the front or back of the camera to adjust the Aperture or Shutter Speed then click when everything is in place. To me it means getting the photo faster and moving on to the next one.

A word of advice for those of you who would like to shoot manual mode. Know how you learn the best. Take baby steps and learn about each part of the Exposure Triangle to fully understand how each part works together. Because when it comes to working in manual, it means to understand how each piece creates the exposure for the end result.

Sorry if this is confusing to any of you. I know it is a lot of content to digest for some. I also know that you can get pretty much any shot in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and even some shots in Auto, but when it comes down to it, shoot in whatever mode that gets you the shot you want.


Why Shoot in Manual Mode?

27 thoughts on “Why Shoot in Manual Mode?

  1. How did you know I was just about to google this information to start my manual journey. Wow, that is so much information, thank you for writing it all down! My Sony RX100 arrived in the mail yesterday…it has a fine auto mode, many options for many shots but I bought it because of all the manual features, RAW capture, great ISO depth and that I was familiar with Sony’s menus. Plus it fits in my pocket and has great macro capability. It is my first, what I consider to be “real” camera and I am so excited to learn with it. I am feeling quite a bit of first time jitters actually, but I am sure I will get to know how to use it soon enough. Thank you for the introduction into the “triangle”, I need to go back and read again, with a notepad!

    Liked by 2 people

    • No problem Carrie! We all need to begin somewhere and where I began was by reading other’s blogs to understand everything. Although I took it one step at a time first getting comfortable with what each setting did before moving onto the next. I think the hardest part was working with all three parts together but the more you do it the easier it gets.

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes, small steps! I have a book coming in the mail today which will help me understand all the settings and I should be able to get some momentum. Once that happens I usually gain ground quickly 🙂 And I totally agree. I have learned and continue to learn so much from other bloggers, I am so thankful for that!


  2. Thank you for this. I’m on my way to being confident. I started by watching the aperture. Then, I started noting the shutter speed. I am now at the point where I’m playing with the effects of altering the ISO. Play, play, play…. That’s the way I’m learning. Be brave… Nothing terrible is going to happen.


    • Thanks! I started out in aperture priority almost right away since I always wanted to control depth of field. I decided one day that I needed to learn how to use Manual. I thought it would make my photos look better but was disappointed when I’d still get the same results. But after learning how to master it and use it for awhile, I’ve determined that it helps me get the exposure I want faster than messing around with the exposure compensation. I think the biggest key is to pay attention to your camera’s light meter because that will always get you close to the exposure you want. But when working with higher contrast lighting the camera’s light meter can be all over the place not helping you much at all. That’s when you’ve just got to pick some settings and shoot and see where you are, then adjust from there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice post Justin! I am mostly working in aperture priority mode but every now and then I am switching to manual and you describe pretty well why: because I want to have full control over the exposure. Especially since I have Tom, my black cat, I started to work with manual more because the camera metering get’s confused and often uses a longer shutter speed then I actually need.


    • It is nice to be in full control. As I start to work more in the field with my flash for landscape photography, and even when photographing my kids in the house, manual mode will make it that much more easier as I can just set the camera to the settings I want and then I just need to adjust the flash power from there. And I know what you mean about shooting dark subjects. The camera’s light meter is only good for so much. For situations like that it becomes much more difficult for the camera to properly estimate the exposure, especially if you are in spot metering mode and have the focus point on the black subject.


  4. I mostly use shutter priority mode because most of what I photograph is moving- my dog, the garden birds but I want to learn manual because I know it can be really useful if you want a specific look for your photo and because I feel it is part of becoming a photographer. I won’t feel like I know how to use my camera until I can use manual mode.


    • I wouldn’t considering knowing how to use a camera in Manual as determining whether a person is a photographer or not. I know some people who can take great photos and never shoot in Manual. It doesn’t work for everyone. I know people who shoot events who always shoot either shutter or aperture priority because the lighting situations change so quick that it’s very difficult to keep up. I think you step out of that “snapshot” realm into the “photographer” realm when you learn how to work with composition and lighting. The camera is just a tool that helps you create your photograph. There’s many ways to use it and none of them are the wrong way, just a preference on how to use the tool. For you with constantly shooting moving subjects that may be going into and out of the sunlight or other artificial lights, then shutter priority may help more. But if you are looking for shooting a specific exposure then Manual may help as well in those lighting situations.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I know a lot of photographers don’t use manual or don’t use it that much, but I think for me, I will finally feel like someone who isn’t just messing with a camera when I fully know how to use it, which would include manual even if I don’t use it. I’ll probably stick with shutter priority mostly but I feel like I should know how to use manual even though logically I know it won’t suddenly make me a photographer. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself very well but hopefully you understand what I mean


        • I know what you mean because I’ve been down that road. It did take me awhile to figure out that my photos weren’t turning out very well because I wasn’t composing correctly or the lighting wasn’t right. But after learning how to shoot in Manual I’m glad I did because it was a step in the right direction for me. It does help you understand photography quite a bit because it makes you think about your settings and understand how they will affect the outcome of your photo.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I use manual most of the time and aperture priority when I am walking around. It really depends on my situation and my subject. I get most of my students to use Shutter and Aperture priority at first to get them to understand the principles of manual but still get some good shots and then move them over to manual.


    • I think that is a good approach because when using a priority mode you can see the other value change when changing the value that is in priority. I honestly can’t remember the last time I shot out of Manual but I also don’t shoot in situations where the light constantly changes from one second to the next. To each their own. In the end what I care about is the final result regardless how you get there.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Nicely said Justin and well written.
    I think Manual is valuable to learn. I mostly shoot manual, but will use the priority modes depending on the light and situation.
    Good on you for putting this in words for others!!!


  7. Good explanation of the variables that go into getting the exposure that you want to get. I think that having a good understanding of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and being mindful of what happens when you change them is really important, though I usually go into manual mode only when the lighting conditions are extreme. Many of the subjects that I shoot are moving (lots of birds and insects) and it’s almost impossible to adjust manually fast enough as they move in and out of the light. (I tend to shoot aperture priority most of the time and adjust ISO and exposure compensation a lot.)


    • Thanks Mike! If I shot more moving subjects then I probably would shoot in shutter or aperture priority more but most of my photography tends to be still subjects within the landscape scene. But the camera’s wouldn’t have multiple settings if they weren’t useful. I wouldn’t shoot in manual if I was a sports photographer where the lighting is constantly changing.


  8. Its certainly of value to know how to shoot in manual for sure, and if you want to achieve a certain look or shoot in certain conditions it may be a requirement. It’s a touchy subject because a lot of photogs say you aren’t a real shooter unless you use manual but for me I use a range of styles.

    When I started out I used P which is a really good way to learn and play with settings and to be honest I shoot in that most of the time. Most of my landscape is shot in Aperture Priority as I set it at F8 or F9 and go with that. For waterfalls and fast moving subjects I use Shutter Priority.

    Sometimes I use Manual but only for the really “there is no other way this will work” shot, like a long exposure or HDR or Pano shots where I need the settings to stay the same.

    For landscape and still subjects where you have time manual works fine, but for wildlife, and birds and other fast moving subjects I prefer to let the camera do its thing, after all I spent several thousand $$$ on all that technology, surely it must have some capability 🙂


    • Yes, manual mode is most definitely useful and mandatory for different types of photography. I was going to mention panoramas but forgot. I don’t do much of those but some. I think that it is hard to gauge if someone really knows how to control exposure if they never shoot manual because they may not know to change settings once one has been changed. But like with anything, with practice it gets easier. I do agree that if you spend that kind of money for a high end camera then it should work better than a point and shoot for some of its semi-auto modes.


  9. I mostly use manual mode because I mostly do landscapes. Sometimes though if I’m out at a beach and it’s the same exposure, a bright sunny day, I’ll use AP or if I’m shooting birds (which is not that often) I will use AP. I just can’t work out AP for landscapes when I’m taking sunsets or low lit areas. I HAVE to be in manual, but I learned that way so maybe that’s why. Nice explanations here Justin.


    • Thanks Laura. I just use manual because I’m used to it. The last time I shot anything else was in early 2012 when I got my first Nikon DSLR. Learned how to use manual within a couple of months and just never changed.

      BTW, my new son Liam is here now! I may do a post tomorrow with a photo of him if I can get a nice one that doesn’t look like a snapshot. 🙂


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