3 Steps To Become Familiar And Comfortable With Your Camera In Manual

There’s comfort in having your camera in automatic. When you first take that dive into the deep waters of photography, there’s something that makes shooting in automatic feel safe when there are so many additional things to consider about shooting. Shooting in automatic is like wearing a life jacket– it can help keep you afloat, but you’ll never deep dive to see the treasures that lay beneath the waters. Those treasures are finding your style, your voice and creating the work you’ve dreamed of.

I’m sharing with you my top three tips for becoming comfortable with your camera in manual, along with exactly how I set my camera when I begin shooting. I do what works best for me to get all of my manual settings correct so I can begin to shoot freely without worrying about major adjustments until the lighting begins to change (which happens often when shooting at sunset). 

Step 1 – Turn your camera to MANUAL.

I get it, this tip sounds really basic. BUT, bear with me, this first step is a big one. This is the step that shows how committed you are to your craft and learning how to develop your skills so you can create the images that make you wanted to try photography in the first place. Be bold. Switch the setting. I’ll meet you at Step 2 when you’re there.

Step 2 – ISO at 100 + Aperture Selection

I start off with my ISO set to 100. Think of ISO as a curtain on a stage. When the curtain is LOW, you don’t see what’s happening on stage. When the curtain is HIGH, you see the lights, the action, everything is illuminated and you can see everything. ISO is similar– a higher ISO, the more light you’ll be letting in. The lower the ISO, the less light. So, if you’re shooting outside where there is already a lot of natural light available, you’ll probably want a lower ISO to help control the light that is already around. If you’re shooting indoors, which is generally darker, you’ll want to let in all the light and illuminate your surroundings so you’ll want a higher ISO. Starting at 100 gives a neutral base to start.

From there, I’ll select my aperture. Aperture is measured in F-Stops. Imagine aperture as your pupil. When it’s dark, your pupil gets BIG to bring in light. So, a larger F-stop number will give you LESS light. When there’s a lot of light, your pupil shrinks down to block out the light. So, a smaller F-stop number will give you MORE light. Personally, I love shooting wide open, so depending on my subject, I’m usually shooting at an F-stop of 1.8-2.2

Step 3 – Shutter Speed

The final pieces of the ‘shooting in manual’ puzzle is shutter speed. Imagine the shutter as your eye blinking. The quicker you blink, the less light you let in and, often, the crisper the image when all your other settings are in place. The slower you blink, the more light you let in and, depending on your other settings, the more chance for motion blur is available.

For most sessions, I’m looking for a nice, crisp image with no motion blur. I’m often shooting kids running around or playing– they are in fast motion so for this reason, I shoot with a shutter speed of 1/250 or higher. 

The brighter the day, the faster the shutter speed will need to be! Full sun shutter speed would be 1/4000 and, as I approach blue hour with the setting sun, my shutter speed will fall to 1/250 so I can let more light in. Once my shutter speed hits 1/250, I will begin to increase the ISO, allowing more light in. 


  • Different cameras will handle ISO and shooting in low light differently. I have invested in a Nikon D750 because of its amazing low light capabilities and how well it handles high ISO images. I often photograph at ISO 12,800 and still love the quality of the images. If I happen to max out my ISO to 12,800, I can then start lowering my shutter speed again. A great rule to live by when shooting in manual is that It is better to have a well-exposed image with high ISO than to underexpose an image and have to bring up the exposure later in post-production. If you underexpose an image and are editing it to make it brighter, you will end up introducing lots of unpleasant noise to your image and you will lose image quality… definitely not what we are looking for!
  • When you start losing light at the end of the session, use your center focus point! The center focus point is the strongest of all focus points on your camera. When you notice your camera is having a difficult time focusing, use the center focus point and look for an area of high contrast (white shirt next to a black jacket on a groom for example) to focus on.

Shooting in manual takes practice, commitment, and a lot of trial and error. The best way to learn is just to try. Grab a friend or a prop, head outside, and play around with your settings. Try shooting with various ISO settings, adjusting the F-stop and watching what happens and playing with shutter speed. Grab a notebook and make notes about what you’re noticing. Then, come inside and try experimenting again. The only way you will become confident is starting with exploring what the capabilities of your camera are and seeking to understand the power of each feature.

Have any questions about shooting in manual? Add a comment below.

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