What's the secret to taking photographs in manual mode?


Okay, so we are asked this question EVERY SINGLE WEEK!.

And It’s a valid and very common issue most people come across when owning their first DSLR style camera.

Of course you want to take better quality photographs, like the ones you’ve seen others take and that you love, but why don’t your images work out how you see them in your mind?

There’s no real secret code you have to crack, but there are simple ways to get you started and not give up so easily.

Like a lots of other people, the manual settings can seem really overwhelming at first. The way I try to describe it is - It’s kind of like learning to drive, where you need concentrate on both feet, both hands and all the levers, pedals and mirrors, while simultaneously keeping your eye on the road and everyone else driving on it. Come to think of it, how I ever managed to pass my test with my busy brain I don’t know. but I did, and I also mastered how to use a camera in manual settings in just a few months.

How did I do this?

With simple, straightforward guidelines and LOTS of practice! (I kind of got thrown in at the deep end photographing 52 weddings in my first year of working alongside James)

So I can’t tell you that it will happen overnight, but I can say that with the right information, less noise from all kinds of people with different styles, different purposes, different ideas, you CAN learn how to use your camera settings to take the kind of images you see in your mind with some simple steps.

1 -Figure out the kind of photograph you want to take first

I know that may seem like a REALLY big thing to work out, but I promise you that once you have at least figured out the kind of photographs that appeal to you, it will make it easier for you to work out the settings you need to take the picture. Do you prefer more sharp images, or those with that lovely soft blur, portraits, flat lays or landscapes? Have a little look through pinterest and try to save some of your favourite styles of images. That way you should be able to gather a better understanding of the kind of photographs you would love to take.

2 - Have a good look at your camera.

To be able to you to take the pictures you really want, you need to get really familiar with your camera. and I’ll tell you now, there will be menu’s and buttons you really don’t have a clue about. That’s ok. Try not to overwhelm yourself. Some of these you won’t need to do anything with until you are much more familiar with taking photographs. Make sure you get a feel for where the buttons are you will need to use.

Aperture ( F stop)

Shutter speed dial

ISO (sometimes are on the back of the camera in the digital menu)

Work out how you will have access to these while you are shooting. Feel how your hands will fit holding the camera, while also having your fingers on those buttons. ALL of these may need adjusting to different light situations. so you will need to be VERY FAMILIAR with where they are.

3 - Learn the basics and keep practicing until it makes sense to you

Here’s a quick and very basic lesson in the features and functions of those 3 settings.

You have three dials to set and adjust. APERTURE, SHUTTER SPEED and ISO.

All of these settings CONTROL how LIGHT works along with your camera.  Think of the camera as a box with light pouring in like water, the controls you use like the shutter control how much of that water (light) gets through to the final image. Each of the aperture, iso and shutter have a part to play in this.

Once you understand the STYLE of photograph you want to take, you can go ahead and set your APERTURE.


Allows you to choose the style of image you would like. This is the way we see it, but aperture controls how much light comes in through the lens. It creates the FEELING of your image, DECIDES how much of the area in your photograph will be in focus. ALL finer details right up to just an eye or a tiny leaf and the rest much less in focus.

For example -

F2 would capture a small area in focus and leave the surrounding areas more blurry and soft.

F16 would capture most of your image in focus and give a sharper look to your photograph.


Controls the light sensitivity in different situations. The word relates to when we use analog film. Each roll of film has a set ISO (light sensitivity) and before digital camera’s we had to choose which film would work for our surroundings before we loaded the film. For example if it was a bright day we would choose an ISO (film speed) of 100 ISO or 200 ISO. Or if it was likely to be an overcast day we would perhaps choose 400 or even 1600 if you were working in really low light. Digitally we can use ISO to our advantage and change it slightly to adjust to moving around light. 

Keep doing a combination of seeing and feeling where you dials are AND reading these three descriptions.

SHUTTER SPEED (this might actually be the secret part)

Helps you to make sure the image is in focus and also helps you to subtly adjust how light or dark your image looks. Another way to look at it is that the shutter determines how fast or slow the light comes in, so controlling the light but in a different way.

The part to remember that usually makes ALL the difference when you start out is -





The key here is to

really work on which APERTURE you want - and STICK WITH IT - This is the style you want

really learn how to asses the light around you and choose your ISO with intent

use your SHUTTER SPEED to correctly expose.

You may need to adjust your ISO to suit changes in light and environment but mostly the setting you will be changing up and down most in reaction to your subject should be your SHUTTER SPEED.

I'd like to point out that there are different ways to achieve the same images but our goal for this is to get you started and this is how we got started.
Keep doing a combination of seeing and feeling where you dials are AND reading these three descriptions. They tell you MOST of what you will need to get yourself started in MANUAL MODE.

It’s just a start but if you can really concentrate on these basics - find a subject you would like to photograph (often something still is easier to start with) and pop it near some natural light like a window or doorway and practice practice. I know these may not be the exact photographs you had in your mind but you have to start somewhere.

Think of the first time you rode a bike, or learnt to swim. It’s such a lot like that in the beginning. You need muscle memory to become more natural at taking photographs and from there - well, you have the skills to take this wherever you like!

If learning how to take better photographs for yourself of your business would be helpful to you, we have our Online course starting again on the 4th March 2019 and release new dates across the year. You can click here for more info.

Or If It’s just light you would like to get the hang of seeing and shooting, we have an E book just for you! You can check out all the information for that here too!