A Beginners Guide to Manual Photography

It’s not as scary as it sounds. I promise.

I’ve shot on auto for years stubbornly believing that I, the photographer, would not know what settings to use better than my camera. Even while taking photography classes in college I stubbornly clung to my auto mode more often than not (sorry Meghan!). I thought that photography was more about the composition than knowing how to work your camera.

There came a point where photography was starting to be a bit boring. Prior to taking classes, I had only ever taken photos of far off places or things that people don’t have the chance to see every day.

Alexanderplatz Station Berlin, Germany Photo taken on 35 mm black and white film

Ever since I started playing around with the manual settings, I finally get it. Photos turn out 100% differently and dare I say better when you use the manual settings.

And you can do fun things like take long exposure waterfall shots, capture the milky way, and so much more!

The three most important aspects of manual photography you need to worry about when first starting out is ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.


ISO is what you adjust to get the right light sensitivity. The brighter it is, the lower you want to ISO number. Likewise, the darker it is, the higher you want to ISO number. One thing to always keep in mind when playing around with ISO is the higher the number, the more grain there is. For example, I took a couple shots of the stars not to long ago and had the ISO as high as it would go at about 12800. While I was editing the photos I noticed an insane amount of graininess.

This photo was shot at the highest ISO setting on my camera. All those white spots aren’t stars. A lot of them are grain caused by the settings I used.

If you want to take photos on a bright sunny day, start with ISO 200 or a similar number.

A good exercise for you to understand ISO a little more is to play around with it. Take a photo of the same thing using different ISO settings during the day and the night. See how the different settings affect your images.


Aperture is what controls how much light is let in to expose your image. The more light you let in, the brighter and whiter your photo is. The less light you let in, the darker your image is.

Aperture was so confusing to me for the longest time. The larger the number, the smaller the opening to let light in. Makes total sense, right? It will in time.

Shutter Speed

Sutter Speed controls how fast your shutter opens and closes.

Let’s think about this in terms of film photography for a moment. When the shutter opens, it is exposing the film to light and capturing the image that you are seeing through the lens. When it closes, the exposure is complete and once you develop the film and print the photo you should have a lovely photo.

It basically works the same way for digital, the only difference being there is no film involved.

A good starting point for shutter speed is around the 1/300 to 1/250 range. Mine is normally in that range. The only time I change it is if I want long exposure shots.

Have a No Fear Attitude

Don’t be afraid to have a photo that looks like complete shit. You are the only one that is going to see it and if you hate it, you can delete it. That’s the beauty of learning manual mode on digital! You don’t have to spend oodles of money on rolls of film trying to figure out what went right to get that shot that looks halfway decent and what went wrong on all the rest.

If you still aren’t quite sure how to take a photo in manual mode, PicMonkey created a handy-dandy cheat sheet guide to help you out.

Do you take photos on Auto or Manual?


  1. Quite an amazing blog! Really valuable insights!

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