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Beginners Guide to Manual Photography

The transition from automatic to manual photography can be a scary one – and trust me, I shot automatic for a long time before making the leap (and there’s no shame in that)! Photographing in manual has soooo many benefits, including having a lot more control over your image and what the final outcome looks like. Overall, it just comes down to practice, practice, practice – shooting in manual may seem overwhelming at first, but eventually it will click (excuse the pun)! And trust me, once you’ve got it down pat, you won’t look back.

When I was first starting out, I found it hard to find a manual photography guide that made sense to me so I wanted to put it into my own words in case it would help someone else. There is so much information and detail on manual photography out there, but these are the basics to get you started and comfortable with manual. So let’s get into it! 

When shooting in manual, your goal is to get the light meter to zero, which means that your exposure is perfectly balanced. There are 3 main elements that come into play to make this happen – these are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. All three of these settings control how much light is being let into the camera (and thus controlling how exposed your image is) in 3 different ways.

camera settings - beginners guide to manual photography


The aperture is the opening in the lens which light passes through to enter the camera – and this is a confusing one – but the lower the aperture, the more light is being let into the camera (check out the diagram below if you’re a visual person like me!). This is also what controls how blurry the background is and how you can create bokeh (that really blurry background that was made popular circa tumblr 2012). The lower the aperture, the blurrier the background will be – this is also called depth of field.

For example, if your aperture is f/2.8, this is a shallow depth of field and the camera is letting in a lot of light - the background will be super blurry compared to the foreground as there is only a small focus area. Whereas an aperture of f/22 is a deep depth of field where minimal light is being let in and almost everything will be in focus.

Aperture diagram - beginners guide to manual photography


This one is pretty self explanatory! Shutter speed is the length of time the camera shutter is open. The faster the shutter speed, the less light is being let in to the camera. 1/50 is a low shutter speed (letting in more light) and 1/2500 is a higher shutter speed (letting in less light). If you’re capturing a fast moving subject such as an animal or someone running, you will want a very fast shutter speed if you want a crisp image with no blur, whereas if you want to do some astrophotography, you will want an extremely low shutter speed (for example the shutter may be open for 30 seconds) to let as much light in as possible and capture those beautiful shining stars. 

TIP! When shooting handheld without a tripod, you generally don’t want to set your shutter speed below 1/200 otherwise your pictures will come out blurry. If you need a shutter speed lower than this, I would recommend using a tripod.


ISO is your cameras sensitivity to light – a lower ISO value equals less sensitivity, whereas a high ISO means more sensitivity. In general, ISO is the last manual photography setting you want to touch – set your aperture and shutter speed first and then change ISO if required. Where possible, you want to keep your ISO at 100 (or lower if your camera allows) to get a nice crisp image. The higher ISO gets, the more grainy your final image will become.

TIP! As a general guide, with most cameras you will start to see grain in your images with ISO over 600 so you want to avoid exceeding this limit where possible (although in some low light situations you may have to!).


When taking a photo in manual and I am first setting up my camera, I decide what’s most important in the image – shutter speed or aperture. If I am shooting a really fast moving object (like a dog or sports game) then shutter speed becomes my first priority. If I’m shooting a portrait or a still-life scene then aperture is normally my priority as I decide how in focus I need the background to be for the artistic style of that shot.

If aperture is my focus and I want a really dreamy, bokeh background I’ll set my aperture on the lowest priority setting (f/2.8 for me) and then set my shutter speed from there. Finally, if the light meter still is not balanced, I’ll adjust my ISO up from 100 but I will only touch this if absolutely necessary.

TIP! As mentioned, the goal is to get the light meter balanced to zero, however +0.3 and -0.3 are normally okay as well. If anything, it’s better to be slightly underexposed than overexposed as it will be easier to fix with editing later.

When you shoot in automatic, the camera doesn’t know what you are shooting and therefore doesn’t know whether to prioritise aperture or shutter speed, so you have less control over how the image will turn out. Automatic mode will also often bump up the ISO way higher than needed which results in a grainy image – but you can avoid this in manual!

Below are some photos I’ve taken in manual as well as the settings for each to give you an idea of how all three elements come together depending on the situation (I've also included whether or not a tripod was used):

settings example - beginners guide to manual photography

settings example - beginners guide to manual photography

settings example - beginners guide to manual photography

settings example - beginners guide to manual photography

I hope this beginners guide to manual photography helps give you a better understanding of photographing in manual! There is so much more detail and so many more rabbit holes this topic could go down into, but these are just the basics to get you kick-started. In the end, it all comes down to practice, practice, practice, so get out there and shoot as much as possible!

Happy shooting,

Tara x

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