Learn How To Shoot In Manual Mode - ISO, Shutter Speed & Aperture


Understanding your camera will provide you more confidence and more artistic photographs.  

But how do you learn without getting frustrated before you even begin?

Becoming a manual-junkie is about understanding three components ...

Shutter speed, ISO & aperture

You see these settings every time you use your camera, but isn’t it just more efficient to let the camera choose what they should be set to?  

NO!  Nope, no way!  

Not gonna get me to agree with that!

A camera is a mean machine, and it’s auto setting will want to make EVERYTHING in focus, including the backgrounda not so artistic way to photograph unless you are doing landscaping.

To be comfortable shooting in manual you will need to know what your necessary adjustments are.

Though these settings are all numeric, there isn’t some insane math equation that you need to do to find out what to dial them into.  (Thankfully, because I hate math & who has time for equations.)

You need to play with those number’s prior to each session, within your session surroundings, to get a good understanding. But don't worry, I'm going to teach you how!

You're going to walk away from this blog post with an "a-ha" moment.


(also read "Get your A$$ off Auto" here)



Let’s chat shutter speed!

Shutter speed is like your eyelids & blinking.  And here is how:

  • The shutter blinks in your camera.  The number you assign to the shutter speed defines the speed of the ‘blink’.
  • When you have your shutter speed turned down you are essentially blinking slowly and allowing more light to pass through.  Note:  When you have lower shutter speeds you will also show more camera shake so be careful going too low.

When you have your shutter speed turned up you are essentially blinking fast and filtering out the light and limiting what passes through your lens.

Shutter Speed is the FIRST setting I go to when I need to adjust my light.

I take one test photo and then ask myself what I need to do to correct the exposure.  

Yep, I won’t blow smoke up my own tail.  My first test shot is never perfect.  

Let’s face it, the number combinations for shutter, ISO & aperture are not a math problem you can figure out.  They are merely situational.


Camera settings for how to shoot in manual mode 

In this photo above I was shooting in mid day so I had to turn up my shutter to take out bright light.  As you can see I pushed it up to 1/1600 of a second.


What is the shutter speed setting I use before I start any session?  

Honestly I don’t preset this number.  I take a look at the light that’s outside and ask myself  ’is it bright or shaded?’ If it’s bright I will twist the dial up high and work my way down until I get the perfect test shot.  If it is shaded I will twist the dial low and work my way up when deciding the correct setting to use for that shot.

  • Lower your shutter speed will lighten exposure
  • Increase your shutter speed and you darken your exposure.

If adjusting shutter is all you need to get the correct exposure it is not necessary to adjust the other two components.  I always start with shutter first.


Wanna get to know your ISO?

ISO is like mini-blinds on a window.  Here is how:

The ISO is a light regulator, just as blinds are in your home.  

When the blinds are drawn DOWN the light is minimal, when you pull them UP you bring in all the light from outside.  

The reason that we choose blinds is so that we can pull them up or down depending upon how much light we want.  This is the function for ISO.

  • The lower the ISO number the less light – keep it this way unless you must adjust for a brighter photo.
  • The higher the ISO number the more light – however if too high you could introduce noise.


What is the ISO setting I use before any shoot?

I start off at the same ISO setting for every shoot.  I always start with 100 or 200.  

The reason for this is I generally don’t adjust my ISO unless I have to.  

100-200 will provide no noise and it is where I feel most comfortable.  If adjusting the shutter wasn’t enough then I will increase my ISO number.  So it makes perfect sense to just keep it as low as possible and adjust only when needed.

ISO outside in the sunlight (example)

how to shoot in manual mode - tutorial for photographers

What is ISO for camera

Notice that the ISO is at 100.  That's because I was outside and needed no extra help with light.  Keeping it at 100 ensured I did not introduce any grain.


ISO outside in the dark with no flash (example)

Learn about ISO

 Turn up ISO when it's dark

For this example I wanted to show what would happen to ISO when it's dark out and there is no flash.  Notice I bumped it up to 3200.  For some cameras this might be too high, and grain is introduced.  But with the Nikon D3s it can handle this and more.  Regardless, turning up the ISO brought light into the photo.




The icing on your camera cake is Aperture!!

Aperture is seriously the cream cheese frosting to my white cake (ohhhhh my favorite of all kinds).

Without aperture control I would have no ‘style’ to my skill.  

I rely on this to create the very thing that draws my attention – narrow depth of field.

What is that?

The beautiful creamy, blurry background that you see in much of my photos.  It’s not for everyone and certainly not for landscape photographers but boyyyyy do I love me a narrow depth of field.  

So let’s learn about how it works and why you need it.

Though you can use aperture to adjust light within your camera, it is also a tool for creating depth of field and an artsy photo.  

For this purpose I do not use aperture as a light adjuster.  

I keep my aperture, the f-stop setting, at its lowest number available.  

I like everything but my subject out of focus.  

Note:  If I have more than one subject I increase my f-stop one point for each person until I reach 4.5 and then never – as my own personal rule – go over that!

Aperture is measured in F-stops on your camera.  

I remembered the F-stop by comparing it to how your pupil reacts to the lighting situation around it. Here is how:

  • A fully dilated pupil is the bodies reaction to less light – a large F-stop number gives less light.
  • A small pupil is the bodies reaction to more light, the smaller the F-stop number the more light is provided.

So remember when thinking of aperture, the smaller the f-stop number the more light you will give to your photo.

By increasing this number you will slowly close out the light source.


How to adjust Aperture (f-stop) in camera


Notice that I shot it at 1.4 -- I wanted to create a creamy bokeh feel to the background and foreground.

... and if you were paying attention through this tutorial you will know that my shutter was at 1/1000 of a second because it was bright out (so I wanted to bring down the light) and my ISO was 100 because I already had enough light from the sun.




Learn how to shoot in manual mode - the easy to understand way


  • Joe

    Thank you for creating this posting. Good advice. Can’t wait to try.

  • Dan

    Great and simple explanation. Very easy to understand. Thanks for taking out the mystery.

  • sunil

    So far best fundamental explanation …..very nice even i started now playing with shutter speed……thanks for enlightening the basics ….keep up the great work …..Thank You …..

  • Armia

    Hello stacie,
    Thanks for your article wich is very usefull to me , i tried it and the result was mind blewing ,
    But i have a question a bout what is the best options for cloth photography settings of my camera and tools i need

  • Kaamilah

    Hi Stacie!!!

    I am so grateful for this article. Brilliant i love it!! I hate maths as well ? So when i hear numbers my brains go haywire lol When i ‘Picture’ things… it makes much more sense to me. THANK YOU FOR SHARING XXX

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