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How to Take Photos With a DSLR Camera in Manual Mode

Updated on November 10, 2019
angela_michelle profile image

Angela, a lover of photography and the beauty it creates, has taken courses and read many books to help with this artform.


How many of you SLR camera owners use the auto option way more than the manual. Well, that was me until recently when I learned how to use all those devices on my camera. To finally get out of the auto mode, I had to learn how to use all those buttons mean. The key to understanding manual mode is to understand the exposure triangle and how to manipulate it to its full advantage. The exposure triangle refers to the three elements that contribute to getting the best exposure possible: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed. These three things, when finely tuned, will give you the best exposure possible! The first thing to understand about these is that each component in the exposure triangle impacts one another. So if you adjust one, you will have to compensate by adjusting another to get the proper amount of exposure plus get the effect you want to get.



The ISO measures how sensitive the picture will be to light. The higher the ISO, the more grainy or noisier your image will become. If you want a crystal clear picture, then you will want to have a lower ISO. An ISO of 100 is considered normal; therefore, 100 or lower will make clear pictures in most settings, which is ideal when there is plenty of light.

You may be wondering why you would ever want a picture that wasn't perfectly clear. Well, you don't, but in some cases, for instance, if you're going to capture something moving quickly, you may want to bump up the ISO, not because you want more grain, but because you need to have a faster shutter speed to capture the picture as still. Just as in aperture and shutter speed, we often have to give and take when deciding what is best for each shot. Like in this instance, we may have to allow more grain to get a picture to appear still. Also, by bumping up the ISO, you can take photos at a smaller aperture. You can see that section to see why that would be beneficial.

Another time when you may need or want to bump up your ISO is when it is dark, or you are not able to use flashes like at a concert or art museum. The reason for this, since you are unable to use a flash, you may have trouble getting enough light in order to have a well-exposed picture. By bumping up the ISO, it allows you to take brighter pictures by giving the image sensor more light.

Fast Shutter Speed

A Shot like this would need to have a fast shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds are also more useful when taking pictures of children. Compliments of
A Shot like this would need to have a fast shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds are also more useful when taking pictures of children. Compliments of | Source


Aperture is my favorite part of the exposure triangle to play around with because it is what gives me the most creative control. I can do so much with it. Like this photo to the right, had a high f-number, which caused less to be in focus. Aperture is the most confusing, so I will try to do my best to explain it clearly.

The aperture measures how much light enters the camera's lens. The f-numbers on the lens barrel will measure aperture. This function will help you if you want to have that blurred background effect, which is also known as bokeh. So if someone has a sharp image with a blurred background, someone might say this picture has a great bokeh!

What the f-number represents is how wide open the lens is. The smaller the number, the smaller the opening of the lens is, which will cause more of the picture to be in focus, which means the foreground, and the background will be in equal focus. Another way you might hear this is, your image has a more significant depth of field. Whereas if the f-stop is higher, then you will have a blurred effect in the background and foreground with a smaller depth of field.

If you are taking a picture of a person, you should focus on someone's eye, which is especially true when you want a small depth of focus. The reason for this is because if you choose to have the lens opened wide for the picture, then you have a very narrow field of what will be in focus. By focusing on the eyes, you are making sure that their faces will be in focus, especially their eyes, which is the heart of any person's soul.

As I said, F-stops can become confusing. The most notable confusion about aperture is because the larger the number, the less that is in focus. Another way of saying this is the larger the number, the smaller the aperture, which seems counter-intuitive, but is, in fact, correct. That is why I try to remember that the higher the number, the wider the lens. One way to remember this is, the more concentrated you are on one spot, the higher you want the F-stop number to be.

For instance, if you have bad eyesight, you can try this, and you might understand. Take off your glasses or take out your contacts. Focus on a spot with your eyes wide open. Everything is blurry, right. Well, now make a tiny hole with your fingers, and look through that hole. You will find that you actually can see better through the small hole. That's why people squint. Well, it's the same way with the camera. If you want to see the whole picture better, the wider the lens needs to be; therefore, the bigger the number needs to be.

One of the reasons aperture is my favorite is because of the ability to make the background fuzzy. By adding bokeh, it makes my subject the center of focus. It has allowed me to step out of always making my picture perfectly centered. I can focus on my daughter, with kids in the background, but because she is in focus and they are not, she is the one that catches your eye. It has allowed me to create some of my favorite photos.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is probably the easiest to understand. It determines the amount of time that the shutter is open to allow light to enter into the lens, which is measured literally by fractions of seconds, although the shutter speed could be left open for days or the smallest fraction of a second possible. If your subject is moving or you are taking a picture of a child, you will want to make sure that the shutter speed is as low as possible, while getting the effect you are hoping with the aperture and ISO. A good starting point would be 1/50th of a second. Faster, if the child is active, 1/50th might be fine for an infant or an adult. Remember, these are fractions, so 1/50th is more than and slower than 1/250th.

Every photography blog I've read recommends that you will want your camera at 1/50th of a second or faster ninety-nine percent of the time. Any slower than that and you will see movement in your picture. One blogger referred to this as camera shakes, which interrupts the clearness of your photo.

Longer Shutter Speed

Notice how the background is blurred because it was moving, but the boy was not moving; therefore, he is very clear.
Notice how the background is blurred because it was moving, but the boy was not moving; therefore, he is very clear. | Source

Longer Shutter Speed Effects

Another great thing to note about shutter speed is that the longer the shutter is open, the more light that enters it. It will pick up any light and movement that occur during this time frame. In other words, the camera will pick up anything that appears in that frame during that time. Someone might choose to have shutter speed open for more extended periods like a couple of seconds if they want to show activity with a stationary object. There is a lot of creativity to be had. For instance, if a train goes by, and you take a picture of a person waiting. The person may be in perfect focus while the train is a big blur.

Whether we are talking about aperture, ISO, or shutter speed, the key to getting the effect you want is by balancing these three. Your goal should be to change these three elements so that way they work in perfect harmony to project the most artistic picture possible. One way to make sure that you are going to have a correctly exposed picture is by looking at the EV meter on your DSLR camera. There will be an EV number somewhere in your viewfinder. You want it to read +/-0, that is your goal. Although, if it is reading -1 or +1 or any other variant, then you need to do some adjusting with the above things until you get the best exposure possible. You will learn to meter more quickly as you gain experience, and believe me, it takes practice. I'm still learning the ins and outs of the camera, but at least now I have fun experimenting! Bottom line, the key is to have a good understanding of what each element does, to get the best picture possible.

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


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    • David Hilditch profile image

      David Hilditch 

      8 years ago

      Hi - we just got the deal to sell the beautiful Kelly Moore camera bags to all of Europe - to find out more visit our shop at

    • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      8 years ago from United States

      It's amazing what are cameras are capable of doing! I wish I was a little more talented.

    • 2patricias profile image


      8 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      My camera was designed for somebody who doesn't want to read the instruction book (like me). However, when I have tried to push the boundaries, I have taken far more interesting photos - and had more fun.

    • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      10 years ago from United States

      I actually think it's more challenging. With a cell phone or a computer there is a right way to do something. On a camera there is a thousand great ways to do something, but there is a best and it's your tricks to find it!

    • GiftedGrandma profile image


      10 years ago from USA

      Using a camera is always a learning experience every time you use one. I'm always learning something new!! It is as challenging as a computer or cell phone :O)

    • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      10 years ago from United States

      Thank you stevewong. Hmmm, maybe I should!!! :) I've been so busy I haven't gotten to make new hubs in awhile.

    • stevewong profile image


      10 years ago

      Thanks for the insightful information on shooting in full manual mode. You may also want to do a hub, tackling off camera lighting. If you google up "strobist" you will see what I am talking about (if you are not already familiar). I just started playing around with remote flashes. Getting the exposure right is a pain, but you really can get some great effects...

    • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      10 years ago from United States

      Mike! Your welcome, my pleasure!

    • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      10 years ago from United States

      Kathy Pi, thanks for the encouragement! I had a really hard time understanding my computer at first, and this information helped me, which is why I chose to post it for everyone else to see!

    • mike1242 profile image


      10 years ago from London

      thanks for the info.

    • kathypi profile image


      10 years ago from CANADA

      GREAT INFO, easy to understand and really helpful, thank you Kathy

    • angela_michelle profile imageAUTHOR

      Angela Michelle Schultz 

      10 years ago from United States

      I think it's very important to understand this in order to fully understand your SLR camera!

    • alexandriaruthk profile image


      10 years ago from US

      I never know about this before, it is good to be informed, Thank you


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