Photographing in Manual Made Simple | Sarah Kane Photography

If you are new to this blog series you may find it helpful to start from the beginning. All current posts can be found at the end of this post in chronological order. If you’ve already been following along then welcome back!

mastering manual

Today’s blog post is going to change your life! I’m about to share with you a few easy tricks that will drastically improve your photography skills and send you on your way to becoming a better photographer! Before we get started let me tell you a little bit about how my brain works, so you have a better understanding of my teaching methods. 

I am self-taught in the area of photography. Yes, I took film photography in high-school 20 years ago, but I really had no idea what I was doing. Once point and shoot digital cameras were introduced I gave up learning and surrendered control to my tiny little automatic camera. When I purchased my first DSLR back in 2008 I was under the misconception that because it was a fancy expensive camera with a large number of megapixels (10.1 which is no longer impressive compared to my current camera with 22MP) that the camera was incapable of taking a bad picture. I cringe now when I hear someone say “wow, your camera takes great pictures”. It’s like nails down a chalk board. A camera is only as good as the person operating it. 

Learning to shoot in manual mode was very frustrating for me. So many people tried to help and explain what the different settings meant and how they worked, but it was all so technical which went right over my head. It just never made any sense (my brain couldn’t be any more towards the right)! It would take a few years for me to really “get it” and once I did it was so simple! If you’re like me then hopefully this blog series saves you a lot of grief and frustration.

As mentioned in my previous post, Three Ways to Improve Your Photography Skills, what I am going to teach you pertains to my own personal style of photography and is not the only way to do things. It’s also not the only way I do things. This is a very basic approach to get you started and hopefully things will begin to make sense. Once that occurs then you will start to learn your own style and how to change the settings in different lighting situations. 

 Exposure: Natural Light: one subject

The following approach to learning manual only pertains to natural light settings (no flash) and photographing of 1 single subject or object. When using a flash (always use off camera flash, but that is a whole other post) the settings will be different. 

The 3 settings that control exposure

EXPOSURE refers to how bright or dark your image is. Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are the 3 settings that determine the exposure of an image.  Aperture and Shutter affect the amount of light let into your lens and ISO is related to sensitivity of light let into your camera, but each setting controls exposure differently. 

1. Aperture (f/stop) - Affects the amount of background blur or bokeh in your image (depth of field). The lower the f number (f/1) the more background blur. The higher the f number (f/7) the less background blur and more background detail

2. Shutter Speed - Affects motion blur. The lower the shutter speed 1/10 (of a second) the more motion blur. The faster the shutter speed 1/250 (of a second) the less motion blur

3. ISO - Affects the amount of noise or grain in an image. The lower the ISO the less noise. The   higher the ISO the more noise. 

Exposure Cheat Sheet.jpg

For right now, during these beginning stages, that is all you need to know to get started. If you are more left brain or somewhere in the middle and need a more in depth explanation check out Fstoppers.  

The camera setting below works best when photographing a single subject (a child, a pet, a still object) in a natural light setting (no flash). 

Settings Made Simple

I want to share with you a setting that I use quite often and is a great place for you to start. Grab your camera, put it in manual mode and set each to following settings below (every camera is different, so if you don't know how to do this you will need to get your user manual out. If you've lost it I'm sure you can find the manual on the internet. 

  • Shutter Speed - 1/200
  • Aperture - (set your aperture as low as it will go, but no lower than f/2 and no higher than f/4) 
  • ISO - 100

Leaving your shutter speed at 1/200 will ensure there is no blurring of your subjects. I almost always leave my shutter at this speed when shooting in natural light.

I like my images to have a lot of bokeh (background blur) and almost always shoot wide open (meaning at a low aperture or f/stop). For photographing 1 subject I almost never shoot above a f/2.8.

Once you have the shutter speed and aperture set you likely will not need to adjust them. With  practice you will start to understand all 3 settings and how they work, then you can begin to play around with adjusting shutter, aperture and ISO to create your own unique style.  

The only setting you now have to worry about adjusting is your ISO. Pretty simple!

Understanding ISO

You learned above that ISO affects the amount of noise or grain in an image. Remember ISO also has to do with how sensitive your camera is to the light. Every camera has a sensor which gathers surrounding light and transforms it into an image. Back in the day of film ISO was the film speed. If you need more light simply increase your ISO.

Getting the correct exposure

  • Shutter Speed - 1/200
  • Aperture - between f/2.0 -f/4.0
  • f/4 - ISO - 100

Find an object to focus on and take a picture. Look at the back of your camera. What is the exposure like with your ISO set to 100? If the image is too dark then simply increase your ISO to 200. Keep increasing until your image is properly exposed. The chart below is a great guide for how to set your ISO in different lighting situations.  I know when I am in full sun my ISO is going to be no higher than 100. I also know if I am in the shade I am likely going to begin with my ISO a little higher. One thing to be careful of is if your ISO gets too high your images will begin to look grainy and noisy! 

What if my image is too bright?

If your ISO is as low as it can go at 100 and your image is still overexposed (too bright) you will need to increase either your shutter speed or your aperture. By increasing your aperture you will lose some of the bokeh (background blur). Because I like an image with strong bokeh, in this situation, I would increase my shutter speed. Keep increasing until you achieved the correct exposure. 

Practice, practice, practice!

I hope this blog post has given you the confidence and tools to begin learning your camera! Remember this is only a starting place. The best thing to do is practice in many different lighting situations! 

Now onto lighting!

Shooting in manual mode is just the first step to taking better pictures. Obviously light is the key to photography, but not all light is "good" light. Next weeks post talk about good light versus bad light. 


I'd like to invite you to join my closed facebook group "Community Over Competition". Once you become an approved member (which costs nothing) you will be able to ask any questions you have! 

Join Community Over Competition Now!    


Out with Automatic Series

Three Ways to Improve Your Photography Skills

Not All Light Is Good Light!