Shooting in manual mode

Manual mode settings cheatsheet |

Let me start by stating that I'm no photography 'expert'. All I know is it took me a LONG time, a lot of research and even more practice to get to grips with manual mode, and it’s definitely come in handy taking pictures of our travels and family members. My photos have always been the one ‘thing’ I cherish most, so if you’re anything like me you’ll want to benefit from having beautiful, high quality photos to do those precious moments justice.

Since blogging some of my recent travels I’ve had a few emails and comments asking what camera it is that I use, how I edit my photos, etc etc. While valid questions, I feel that no matter how much editing you do or how much you spend on a camera (I’ve spent my fair share on cameras in the past hoping that the fancy new equipment will instantly turn me into a pro and yep, it doesn’t work)… what’s really important, in my opinion, is 1. shooting in manual mode, and 2. understanding natural lighting. It's only since getting used to these two things that I've seen a real improvement in my photos.

This does of course require a DSLR (or an advanced mirror-less/compact that has manual capabilities) but I believe by shooting in manual mode you can get some stunning shots whether you have an entry level DSLR or the Canon 5D Mark IV (which I still can’t afford!)

So here is my extremely basic explanation of those tricky manual mode settings, i.e. the three components which make up the ‘Exposure Triangle’…


1. Aperture

What is aperture?

The aperture is the hole in your camera which lets in light.

How is aperture measured?

The size of that hole is measured by the aperture number (aka 'f stop'), i.e. 1.8, 2.0, 2.8… etc.

What affect does aperture have?

The lower the aperture number, the bigger the hole gets and the lighter your image will be. You will also get that beautiful blurry backgound (aka shallow 'depth of field') - but beware shooting at the lowest aperture (aka ‘wide open’) as it becomes more difficult to focus, so you’ll want your subject to be as still as possible. If it’s moving, shoot at a higher aperture.

The higher the aperture number, the smaller the hole in your camera gets and the darker your image will be, and everything will become more focused (which means less of that blurry background if that’s what you’re after)

I think I’ve said ‘hole’ an inappropriate amount of times. Let’s move on…

2. ISO

What is ISO?

ISO is the cameras sensivity towards light.

How is ISO measured?

ISO is measured by the ISO range, i.e. 100, 200, 400, 640, 800, etc.

What affect does ISO have?

The higher the ISO number, the lighter your image will be, and the lower the ISO number, the darker your image will be.

Bear in mind the higher the ISO, the more grain your image will have (professionally referred to as ‘noise’).

When shooting outdoors I usually stick to an ISO of 100 / 200, and tend to control how light my image is via the Aperture & Shutter Speed instead. When shooting indoors I might knock it up a fair bit depending on the light situation.

3. Shutter speed

What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed is the length of time the camera’s shutter is open for.

If you look down your lens and press the shutter button you'll see the shutter quickly close/open.

How is shutter speed measured?

Shutter speed is measured by the 1/'number' - i.e. 1/15, 1/125, 1/500, 1/1000, etc. It effectively means that the shutter is open for say 1/15th of a second.

What affect does shutter speed have?

The lower the shutter speed number (the longer the shutter is left open), the lighter your image will be, but the subject may also be blurry as it'll have longer to pick up on any slight movements or camera shake. 

The higher the shutter speed number (the quicker the shutter is closed), the darker your image will be, but the subject will be sharper. If your subject is moving and want it in focus, put your shutter speed up and adjust your aperture/ISO to let in more light.


Once you figure out how to quickly change these settings on your camera, all that’s left to do is get outside and practice in natural light to figure out what works best for you and your personal style.

If you’re anything like me you’ll make plenty of mistakes. There will be many over exposed shots, under exposed shots and blurry shots, but sooner or later it’ll become second nature and you’ll notice your photos getting better and better, promise!

Also, is anybody else not ready to admit that Summer is over? If anybody needs me I'll be swooning over these photos reminiscing over a beautiful summer's evening spent taking photos with family. (My gorgeous little nephew pulls the best faces)...