The basics of shooting manual photography

The difference between an amateur and a veteran photographer is not in the gear they use, rather the knowledge they have of photography. Specifically, an amateur photographer makes a big leap into the more experienced realm once they master manual photography.

Buying a DSLR camera will make your photos better, but learning how to shoot in manual mode will really unlock the potential of the camera and set you apart from amateurs with money. Using the daunting “M” mode on your DSLR is actually quite easy once you understand the basics of photography.

Photography is all about light and how you can control it to create photos. You can do this in three ways; control how long the shutter stays open for, how much light passes through the lens and how sensitive your image sensor is to the light hitting it.

These three ways of controlling light are done by adjusting the camera’s shutter speed, aperture and ISO (light sensitivity). All three of these work together to create a perfectly exposed photograph (i.e. not too bright and not too dark). Think of it like a triangle:

Light triangle for photography

You want to control how much light hits your image sensor by using the right combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO. All three of these functions come with their own trade-offs and ‘side-effects’, and it’s up to the photographer to find the right balance of the three.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the speed of the shutter that determines how long the image sensor is exposed to light. It is measured in terms of seconds (e.g. 2”, 1/8, 1/60, 1/1000).

A slow shutter speed means that more light can hit the sensor, making your image brighter. A fast shutter speed means less light hits the shutter, making your image darker.

Shutter speed affects the sharpness of moving objects in the image. A slow shutter speed makes moving objects blurry. A fast shutter speed will freeze any movement in the image, resulting in crisp photos.

If a car is driving past as you take a picture, a slow shutter speed (let’s say half a second) will capture the movement of the car as it speeds past, resulting in a streaky blur across the image. If you have a fast shutter speed (e.g. 1/250th of a second), the car will appear stationary in the image.

Motion blur waterfall slow shutter speed
The water appears to be silky. This photograph was taken using a slow shutter speed.
  • Fast shutter speed = less light, freeze movement
  • Slow shutter speed = more light, blurred movement


Aperture is the diameter of the adjustable ring inside the lens. It controls the amount of light that can pass through the lens and on to the image sensor. Aperture is also given a numeral value (e.g. 2.8, 5.6, 11, 18).

Aperture can be quite confusing to beginners because the numbers and terminology seem back-to-front. Just remember – a wide (or large) aperture has a low number; a narrow (or small) aperture has a high number.

A wide aperture (e.g. 2.8) means that a lot of light is passing through the lens and hitting the image sensor, resulting in a brighter image. A narrow aperture (e.g. 22) means that a tiny pin-hole amount of light is passing through the lens, resulting in a darker image.

Like shutter speed, there are ‘side effects’ to aperture – it affects the depth of field (or how much of the photo is in focus). A wide aperture has a shallow depth of field (i.e. the subject will be sharp but the background will be blurry). A narrow aperture has a big depth of field (the foreground/subject and the background will all be sharp).

This has to do with the angle of light coming through the aperture.

[image of aperture and light refraction]

So if you want to take a portrait of someone with a blurry background, a wide aperture is the option to choose. If you want to snap a sharp pic of a beautiful landscape, with details in the foreground and far in the distance, a narrow aperture is the way to go.

Man under umbrella during night rain
The subject is in focus while the street lights are blurred. This photograph was taken with a wide aperture.
  • Wide aperture = more light, blurred background
  • Narrow aperture = less light, sharp background

ISO (light sensitivity)

ISO stands for International Standards Organisation and refers to the light sensitivity of emulsion-based film. Although we no longer use film, ISO now refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor to light.

ISO typically ranges from 100 to over 6400 in most DSLR cameras. Increasing the ISO makes the images sensor more sensitive to light, allowing you to take photos in darker situations. Think of ISO like a digital light amplifier.

Like shutter speed and aperture, ISO also has ‘side effects’. ISO affects the grain of an image. A low ISO (e.g. 100) is darker but it has no grain effect on the photo. A high ISO (e.g 6400) allows you to shoot in very low light by making your image brighter, but it adds a lot of grain (or noise) to your photos. This grain can ruin the quality of the photo in extreme cases.

Man looks at milky way at night
The high ISO used to take this image allows you to see the details but results in a lot of noise or grain in the shadows.
  • Low ISO = darker image, no grain
  • High ISO = brighter image, lots of grain

Using all three settings at once

The mark of an experienced photographer is knowing how to use all three of these settings (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) in conjunction to create a perfectly-exposed image with just the right amount of sharpness.

If you want to capture movement, make your shutter speed slow (e.g. 1/4) but to counteract the brightness you can use a narrow aperture (e.g. 22) and a low ISO (e.g. 100). If you want to create a photo with a silky-smooth background but sharp subject, use a wide aperture. To counteract the brightness, also use a fast shutter speed and low ISO.

If you want to shoot a landscape at night, use a higher ISO (e.g. 1600). To counteract the darkness, use a slow shutter speed (e.g. 20”) and a wider aperture (e.g. 5.6). It all about knowing how to balance the three settings and understanding their side effects.

The only way to get better is to practice; eventually it will become intuitive and you’ll be able to instinctively adjust your settings and predict the outcome of the photograph before even pressing the shutter.

These three settings are the basic tenets of manual photography. Once you master their relationship to one another, you can then rely more on your skill and less on your editing to produce amazing photographs.


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