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What is Manual Mode on a Camera?

Updated on May 22, 2020
Photography Focus profile image

I have always used manual mode on my cameras (30+ years). When I started in photography I had no option. My first camera had no auto modes.

Manual mode on a camera can seem quite complicated for new photographers. Many wonder “How do I use my camera in manual mode?”


Manual mode on a camera is not so complicated once you understand it a little. Most cameras are easy to use on the auto settings. But these do not always produce interesting photos.


In this article I will teach you what manual mode is on a camera and how to use a light meter for photography.

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Manual Mode on a Camera Is …

Camera modes vary little between camera brands. Manual mode on every camera works the same way. This is how you can control the way your photos are exposed. Using the manual mode on your camera you must use the light meter and set the exposure controls yourself.


There are three controls that affect the exposure. To use manual mode on a camera you must set the Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO yourself.


Your exposure needs to be set correctly or your photos will be too light or too dark. When you use an auto-exposure mode on your camera, the exposure is set for you.

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Auto Modes on a Camera are …

Cameras have various different auto modes and names for them. The most common camera auto modes are:

  • Aperture priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Auto ISO
  • Program Mode
  • Scene Modes

When your camera is set to any of these modes the AI in the camera helps set your exposure. This is calculated by complicated algorithms. These configure your camera settings for standardized exposures. Using these settings leaves little room for creative exposures.

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How Do I Use My Camera In Manual Mode?

First you must change the exposure mode to the M setting. Then you must use the light meter to help you choose the best settings.


The light meter in your camera reads the light and displays a read-out showing when you have set the camera correctly. Manual mode on a camera requires you to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so your exposure will appear how you want it to.


The advantage of using manual mode on a camera is that you can be more creative than on any of the auto modes. Nikon manual mode and Canon manual settings control the light in the same way. This is also true for every other camera brand.


Manual mode on a camera has never changed since cameras were invented. The biggest change with digital cameras and how they work in manual mode is with the ISO. Now you can set a different ISO for each photo you take. With film cameras, you had to change the film if you wanted to use a different ISO. Keep reading to learn more about what ISO is and how to set it well.

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What Setting Should My Camera Be On?

For the most creative control of your photography manual mode on a camera is best. This may seem more difficult to use, but once you understand it all that’s required is practice.


Many photographers prefer not to use their Nikon on manual mode or their Canon manual settings. They think using auto camera modes is better because they can take photos faster. With photography, faster is not often better.


There are many benefits to slowing down and using manual mode on a camera.


Photography is often an expression of appreciation for the world around you. If you’re moving too fast to enjoy your environment, how will you take great pictures of it? Learn to look at the light. Compose your subject well. Set your aperture and shutter speed for creative results. Your photography will improve!

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What Are the Three Basic Camera Settings for Manual Mode Photography?

  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO

Every lens has a diaphragm inside it. This controls the size of the opening we call the aperture. Adjusting the aperture allows more or less light to enter the camera. It also has an effect on how much of your photo is in focus.


The shutter in your camera opens and closes when you take a photo. The duration the shutter stays open is the shutter speed. This controls how long light can enter the camera for. Using a slow or a fast shutter speed can also affect how sharp your photos are.


ISO is the measurement of how responsive your camera’s sensor is to light. The function of the sensor in your camera is to capture the image when light reaches it. ISO has no particular creative influence on your phots, but a very high ISO setting can result in poor technical quality in your pictures.

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How Do I Use a Light Meter for Photography?

To set your exposure well, you need to pay attention to your light meter.


This part of the camera shows when you have the correct balance between your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Typically it looks like this in many cameras.

Some brands, including Sony cameras, have the display for the light meter set differently. They use numbers only and do not have the graphic. They function the same way.


To get a good exposure on any camera the aim is basically to have the light meter showing 0 (zero). To achieve this you must find a balance in your selection of the three basic camera settings.

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Should I Shoot In Manual Mode?

Many beginner photographers ask “Should I shoot in manual mode?” I always tell them “yes!”


Manual mode on a camera takes a little study and practice to learn how to use well. Once you have an understanding of how the three basic camera settings work, it’s not so difficult.


In this article I have provided an outline of the basics you need to understand. There is more to learning manual mode on a camera. Once you have got your head around how to balance your exposure you can learn to refine your exposure choices for more creative photos.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Photography Focus

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    • sparkleyfinger profile image

      Lynsey Hart 

      13 months ago from Lanarkshire

      Yet again more insightful tips for developing my photography skills. I'll be a pro in no time at all! Thanks again- I am looking forward to reading more of your articles.

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