10 Things You Wish You Knew About Shooting In Manual Mode

It's been quite a few years now since I made the switch from Aperture Priority Mode to shooting in Manual Mode, and it was one of the BEST things I ever did to improve my photography skills. 

It was like a whole new world opened up to me, and I started TRULY understanding exposure, and in turn, getting the images that I wanted.

Of course, there was a lot to learn, and there are some things I wish I had known before I started!

So, here are 10 things about shooting in Manual Mode that you might just wish you knew...

#1 - When photographing in manual mode there are no “go to” settings

I know that many people would like to have some "plug and play" settings for using with manual mode, but unfortunately, it doesn't quite work like that!. 

Firstly, the amount of light in the scene will vary from day to day, from location to location - and even hour by hour! Since you are changing your settings in manual mode to balance EXPOSURE (in other words how bright or dark) your image looks, your settings will change every single time you start shooting.  

Think about it: even just your aperture can be different depending on any number of factors (such as camera type, lens choice, distance from subject and so on) never mind your ISO and Shutter Speed! 

This is also why two photographers could be photographing the exact same scene and might end up using completely different settings, just based on how they want the image to LOOK. 

So as much as I would like to be able to tell you which exact settings to use when: I can't. 

That said, with practice you will get better at knowing where you need to start off with each setting, and then how to balance them together to get the correct exposure that complements your vision. 

So what I can do is give you some guidance about which settings to START with. I have a manual settings cheat sheet right here that gives you some suggested settings for aperture, ISO and shutter speed that you can use in varying situations.  Just click on the image below to grab it: 

#2 - It’s better to crank up your ISO than keep it low and underexpose your shot

Another common complaint is you may find that your images have "noise" (that grain over your image) when you use a higher ISO number. 

Because of  this, I know that many people will try to use as low an ISO number as they think you can get away with - even at the expense of having an image that is underexposed. Unfortunately, all that does it give you even MORE noise in your photos!

It's much better to expose correctly and use a higher ISO number, than it is to use a lower ISO number and underexpose.  You'll get less noise, and your images will appear sharper and clearer. 

#3 - Getting the image right in camera will give you a better photo

Although it can be tempting to think that we can fix everything in processing. the truth is that there are some things you just can't put right after you have taken the shot.   

When you over expose to the point of blowing your highlights,  or underexpose to the point of clipping your blacks, you won't be able to bring back detail into those areas, because you simply can't bring back any information that wasn't recorded to begin with.   Also, significant shifts in exposure can lead to skin that doesn't look as great as it could. 

Although the following things are not strictly limited to shooting in manual mode, you will also want to get the following right in camera too: 

  • Focus: since you can't fix that after the fact either!
  • Your Use of Light: You can't magically make bad lighting into good lighting in processing. 
  • White Balance: Unless you already have a good eye for the correct colour, setting white balance in processing can be tricky. 
  • Composition: Although you can tweak a composition in processing, you won't be able to fix or apply many composition rules after the photo has been taken.

That's why my online course, Auto to Awesome, first teaches you how to shoot in manual mode, but it also has modules on focus, white balance, light and composition too - they are all connected, and all important to get right. 

So, although we can fix things in processing, it is much, much better to use editing as a way of enhancing a good, in camera image, and strive to get as much right as we can in camera, 

If you want a ridiculously in-depth, step by step guide that is FULL of information on how to get amazing photos, Auto to Awesome will be your new best friend. You can learn more about Auto to Awesome right here.

#4 - You don’t need to use manual focus in manual mode

Just in case you thought this - using manual mode is not the same as manual focusing!  

Manual focus is when you move the ring on your camera lens to bring an object into focus, rather than having your camera do it for.  You can definitely still use auto focus (where the camera will lock focus for you) in manual mode. 

You should move to manually selecting your focus points, but the camera will still find and lock focus for you. 

Just so you know :-) 

#5 - The image on the back of the camera may look brighter than it does on screen

The preview screen is on the back of your camera is not the best judge of whether an image is correctly exposed. I often find that when I view the image in Lightroom (my preferred editing software) it can look a little darker than it did when I viewed it on the preview screen after taking the picture..

This is because manufacturers tend to make the back screen brighter, so your photos look better (and therefore their cameras!) 

It's not a big deal, and you can usually adjust the brightness of these screens, or just compensate a bit for it, but it is something  to be aware of.  

#6 - Spot metering is your friend

When shooting in manual mode, the best metering mode to use is spot metering, without a doubt. They are a match made in heaven, like strawberries and cream, and Romeo and Juliet.  

Why? Because it really helps you nail your exposure for the scene you are trying to photograph. 

It does take a bit of getting used to, but once you have been using it for a while, you'll find that you can spot meter in just a few seconds, and get bang on exposure for your trouble!  

#7 - Shooting in RAW instead of JPEG is better

Although I just said that you should aim to get it right in camera (you did read that, right?!), there will undoubtedly be times when you stuff up, particularly when you are first starting to use manual mode. 

This is when shooting in RAW can be a bit of a lifesaver :-) 

RAW files allow you more leeway with fixing any in-camera mistakes, like over or under exposure, or fixing your white balance. 

Although you will have to do a bit of work processing your photos in your chosen editing software such as Lightroom, it is well worth it for the extra control you get over how the final image looks! 

#8 - You'll need to practise

Using manual mode at first will feel clunky and long winded, but the more you use it, the easier it becomes. 

Having the knowledge of choosing your settings is one part of it (and the more you truly understand this the easier it will be) but the second part is practising until it becomes second nature.  Honestly, after a while you do it as much with instinct as with any real thought! 

In my course Auto to Awesome, you spend time learning about one piece of the puzzle, and then you get an exercise to go out and practise it.  This is because putting the steps into action really helps make what you are learning stick, and become easier and easier! 

Remember, you can download a manual settings cheat sheet to help you practise if you are not quite sure what you should be doing yet: just click on the image below to get your cheat sheet. 

#9 - You won’t get it right every shot

There will be times when you get the wrong exposure, or you don't get your settings quite right, or you look at an image after you had taken it and wish you had done a, b or c. 

That's perfectly OK! Making mistakes is part and parcel of learning photography. 

Be patient, and aim for progression, not perfection.  

#10 -  The camera does not make the photographer, but learning manual mode does :-) 

You'll all have heard this before: It's not the gear that makes a great photo, it's the person taking it.  

If you can learn manual mode, and get a understanding of how to control your camera so you can operate in all types of light and in all situations, you will be able to rock any type of camera - from the top of the range pro camera, to the basic entry level DSLR that you want to get away from.  

I don't want to sound harsh, but if you are not getting the images you want, it's not your camera's fault - it's yours.  (please don't beat me!) 

Spend your time and money learning how to manually control your camera, and you'll be able to take much better photos even with an entry level camera and your kit lens,

Promise. 

Oh, and if you want a ridiculously detailed guide to using manual mode AND controlling all the other settings in your camera, Auto to Awesome shows you exactly how to do it! It's full to the brim of step-by-step lessons, actionable tutorials, downloadable cheat sheets and more. I give you all the theory, along with the strategies for how to put it into practice, and YOU get amazing results!