Get Your A$$ Off Auto - How To Shoot In Manual Mode

This blog post is for the thick-skinned.  

No sugar-coating here.  

Read only if you want a little aggressive push to get to the next level. I'll start by saying there is nothing wrong with shooting in auto.  


We've all done it.  I've done it.  Your favorite photographer has done it & you might be doing it -- which I suspect since you're reading this.

This is about how to move on to the next step in photography. It's time to get that A$$ off Auto & into Manual, where you can express your creativity more freely.    


Learn to shoot in manual mode


Do you have a photographer that you envy?  One you look at with great admiration?  

Of course you do!

We are human and always see growth in the distance.

There is a reason that the work of others is catching your eye.

They are somehow delivering results that you wish to accomplish, and there is NO REASON why you can’t be as good as them.


Say it with me ... "There is no reason why I can't be just as good!" 


This post is not about how to see art — it’s how to capture it.

This post is not about good, bad or impossible — it’s knowing your equipment.

And I’m going to teach you!



Auto is what your camera thinks is RIGHT.  Auto is LIMITING for that purpose.

Your camera is a smart piece of equipment and when it is allowed to make the setting decisions, it will work to ensure you have the BEST focus available.  Is that artistic?  Well maybe, if your style says so.  Mine begs to differ.

Out of focus areas are dreamy, they invite question, they are everything I strive to achieve, they make your subject appear to be the most important piece of the art – Yep, that’s what I want!

Yes, you are going to frustrated at first.  

Everything you ever knew was done for you by your camera.  

While learning you will want to throw yourself on the floor, scream, cry, get flustered … it’s all normal.  Push past it!

So if you have to take 20 test shots to get the perfect exposure before beginning your session, so be it.  You are about to make some AMAZING art!



Get a coffee cup, yea … it’s a strange request for a learning session but do it. Coffee cups are the perfect prop for this session!!!

Put it on the counter a few feet in front of you.

Make sure that nothing else is too close to it.  Anything behind it needs to be at least 15-24 inches BEHIND.  You are trying to make a “depth of field” … remember that name it’s the basis of your profession.


Take one photograph and look at the play back of it.  Generally speaking, nothing about this first photo will be perfect!

Exposure is probably way off, but that’s normal on the first shot — don’t get overwhelmed.  I’m here right along with you.

This first photo is actually very important.

It’s going to tell you the story of exactly what you need to do to get the best image.  Was it overexposed?  Maybe underexposed?  Blurry?

Now look at your camera settings, you will need to make three adjustments to prepare for the next shot.

There are 3 settings that make up the exposure of your photograph –  Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture.  Know these in and out.  Study them.  Memorize them.



Your new best friend and the first thing I adjust!

I always shoot ‘wide-open’, that means I have my aperture set at the LOWEST f-stop my lens will allow.

Aperture is what makes that depth of field, that blur, that dreamy yummy goodness photographers strive to achieve.  I do not like a lens that won’t let me shoot lower than 2.8 f-stop.

Note:  This is just my preference because I like a great deal of blur.  Please use whatever f-stop you like.

To adjust aperture you have to change “F-stop” on your camera.  Here is how to understand aperture in relation to the f-stop adjustment on your camera.

The lower the f-stop number the more light comes in and more background blur.  

The higher the f-stop number the less light comes in and background comes in focus.

A lower f-stop makes the camera sharp ONLY where the focus is on and everything else is blurry.  So to achieve this, turn DOWN your F-stop to the lowest setting possible.  By turning the F-stop down you are actually making your aperture larger.  This is what shooting wide open means, it creates blur on anything not in the focus point. My favorite.

A higher f-stop makes everything in focus.  So to achieve this, turn UP your F-stop to the highest setting possible. By turning the F-stop up you are actually making your aperture smaller and making everything in focus, the higher the f-stop number the less background blur you will get. (Conclusion:  Smaller aperture = larger f-stop#)

Note:  I don’t use my aperture to adjust my light because I am strict about shooting with it all the way open (smallest f-stop possible) but you can use it for light by using the above explanation.  Also, because aperture controls depth of field if you are shooting a group of people you will not want to go as low as I describe here.  You will need to have your f-stop at 2.8 or above (depending on the size and distance your clients are).

A more in depth article on how to shoot in manual mode.  




Shutter Speed is like your eye lids.

The faster you blink the less light goes in.

The slower you blink the more light comes in.

This is the same for the camera.  The shutter is the blinking.

If your first test shot was too bright that means you brought in too much light so you need to “blink” faster … turn UP your shutter speed a few.

If your first test shot was too dark it means you need more light so “blink” less – turn DOWN your shutter speed.

Conclusion:  Lower shutter speed number = MORE light.  Higher shutter speed number = LESS light!!!!!

Shutter speed is the first thing I adjust on my settings to get the best exposure.  This adjustment (higher or lower) may be all you need to do.  After taking that first test shot look at the picture and ask yourself is it too light or too dark.  Change your shutter speed using the above directions in response to that question.

Note: if you set your shutter too low because you need more light, such as to “80”, you will get some blurring because your hand is a little shaky.  If you feel you need to go below this number don’t … move to adjusting your ISO which will also bring in light.

My standard shutter speed:  there isn’t one.  My shutter speed is ALWAYS different because this is how I control light.




Think of the ISO as a being the curtain at a theatrical play.  When the curtain is low you don’t see a lot of stage lights, when the curtains are high you have those beautiful lights beating down on the stage.

Like the curtain, the lower the ISO number the less light you see.

The higher the ISO number the more light you see.

So if you are in-doors your ISO will always need to be set higher!  Pull up the curtains!!!  However, if you are outdoors your ISO will need to be low, pull down the shades that sunlight will blind you!

Conclusion:  Lower ISO number = LESS light.  Higher ISO number = MORE light!!!!

Note:  The higher the ISO number the more grain you will introduce to your image.  Don’t go too high.  Use your shutter speed more often than your ISO as a tool for bringing in light.

My standard ISO speed:  I keep mine on 100 or 200 when I am outside.  I don’t like to adjust this if possible.  If I am inside I will take it up to no more than 2000.



Ok so you have learned what these three settings are and now it's time to try it!

Take many test shots and begin making camera adjustments to these three things.  

I want you to start with just adjusting your shutter speed.  

If this is all you need to do to get the perfect exposure than you are done.  

If after adjusting the shutter speed and taking a new test shot you still need more or less light, then go to the next step which was the ISO.

Try to let the aperture setting stay consistent.  

I do not adjust this much ever.  

I keep mine between 1.4 and 2.8 – never higher. (but certainly this will depend on how much background blur you like -- everyone is different)


  • Angel Digh

    My a$$ will never be on auto! Great info that is explained so well..and easily understood! After shooting in manual over the past year, I couldn’t imagine ever shooting in anything else! Thanks for sharing..well done!

  • admin

    I absolutely agree. Shutter speed is the ticket. Must be at 200 or higher. That’s why wipe open is great for this. More light

  • RoseMary Zwirner


  • Donna

    Thank you so much Stacie for sharing this info! You are great and I so appreciate all you share with us!

  • Becky

    I also love that creamy bokeh but I have a hard time keeping my 2yr old daughter in focus when I shoot wide open. I’m still learning so maybe it is just something that will improve with time…I guess my question is would you still shoot wide open with a toddler? and I have heard my shutter speed should not be lower than 1/200-1/250 for a toddler……do you agree? Thanks! Great article!

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