How To Do Manual Photography

Have you ever been confused about how to do manual photography? With these easy tips you can be shooting in manual in no time. So let’s get started.

Manual photography is simply a term to describe photographing things using the manual setting. You’ll find the “M” setting on your dials, located at the very top of your camera. (See photo).

Every single camera that has “dslr” or “slr” has one of these. Manual photography demonstrates that the manual setting is the big “M” on your dial.

Once you turn the dial to M, your manual photography starts. And once you learn how to do it properly, manual photography becomes so much fun and enjoyable. You can then control the way the camera lets light in to the lens. You lens, by the way, is a bit part of manual photography, but learning about your lens is for another time. Right now I’ll teach you some basics about getting started in manual photography.

Firstly manual photography is the best way to control the lighting in your camera. You can control your shutter speed, your iso and your aperture, otherwise known as F stop. These are all really important things in manual photography because it means you can adjust what you see fit, all all situations.

In my experience (having done manual photography for many years), manual photography is like the central control from which the lighting is controlled by. In other words it’s the central hub of your manual photography operation. When manual photography is done properly, you can get the most stunning photos of your life.

When you change your camera from auto to manual, you will notice your internal light meter begin to display in the camera itself. It looks like this photo.

Your internal light meter

The small symbols you see are the first thing to be aware of in manual photography. They are your internal light meter. The two black squares and the black arrow indicate how much light is being let into the lens. When the black squares and arrow show more towards the negative – , it means there is not enough light. When it moves more towards the positive +, it means there is too much light coming in.When there is only one black square sitting under the circle in the middle, it means that there is just the right amount of light entering your lens and your photo will be properly exposed. Manual photography depends very much on your ability to watch what this small indicator is letting you.

Manual photography is the key to understanding what shutter speed to use, and what f stop is best for the scene you are shooting. However, manual photography won’t tell you how fast something is going. Your internal light meter can only judge what is in front of it, not how fast that car is whizzing by you.

This is where manual photography gets beyond the camera. Your ability to know your camera like a best friend and understand how your camera interprets light is where the “manual” in manual photography come from. In other words you will have to determine the most accurate shutter speed for a fast moving object without help from the camera. This takes time and is able to be learned without any problem.

Manual photography teaches us that as good as the camera can be, it cannot tell you everything. And sometimes when you place the camera on the most perfectly exposed setting, the photo may be a little under exposed. Why is this? Not all cameras understand what “light grey” means or what “charcoal grey” means. Sometimes, depending on your camera, your light reading will tell you that “light gray” is really white. So too can it tell you that “charcoal grey” means black.

By knowing manual photography well, and knowing how your camera interprets colour and tone, you’ll be able to know that in order to get sharp, crisp whites, you must increase the aperture by one stop. My camera thinks that when it see’s white, it is actually light gray and will tell me this. I know different however, so I always move the aperture one stop. The internal light meter will tell me the white picture is overexposed but I know better. When I shoot the image, out comes a perfect exposed white scene, even though the internal light meter told me different.

You can see that manual photography is a little more complicated than normal! But do not worry, manual photography can be learned.

About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (32)

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  1. Rani says:

    Thanks Amy, excellent stuff for newbie photo enthusiasts like me.

  2. David says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I’ve been reading a lot of your stuff and it’s great.

  3. Darlene says:

    Thank you for simplifying complicated terms and meanings.

  4. Margie says:

    What an excellent article.

  5. stacy says:

    Really great article, I have always been hesitant to use manual mode. I feel more confident now, thanks Amy.

  6. Latoya Bridges says:

    Thanks Amy, excellent stuff for newbie photo enthusiasts like me.

  7. Randolph says:

    Great stuff Amy. Please keep the info coming.

  8. Samuel says:

    Thanks Amy .. great stuff.. just really started shooting manual mode and love it.

  9. Claire says:

    Second last para second line..”increase the aperture by one stop”..
    a smaller fnumber to open up the lens or ?

    Just checking..Thanks Claire

    • Hi Claire, to clarify, I was writing about white and how your camera does not interpret the true colour when you press the shutter. To get white looking white and night light grey, simply increase the aperture by one stop to get a more accurate reading and colour. So yes, a smaller fstop number is correct.

  10. Donna says:

    Great tip for a starter like me. Thanks, looking forward to more

  11. John says:

    I would be interested to know what brand/type of camera has the startup under manual as pictured in your above description.
    john (GOB)

  12. Bob says:

    Super info Amy, going out to shoot some Manual pics at the local marsh. I do a lot of nature work, this ought to help treondously.

  13. Fred says:

    Hi Amy,going manual makes me a bit nervouse.With your help and tips i am looking forward to the challenge and taking better photo’s–Thank you!!

    • Hi Fred, it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. Try getting used to manual by photographing some still subjects, like fruit in a bowl. Just look at what the internal light meter is telling you. If it’s underexposed then adjust the f stop or shutter speed. Always make sure you dial either one to get the light meter arrow in the middle of your exposure “bar”. Keep the camera still and practice a few shots. You’ll get it in no time.

  14. Melvin says:

    Started last week shooting in manual a progressive move on my part, but with articles like this to help i am sure it is the right move.

  15. San says:

    Thanks Amy,that would have been helpful except the display on my Nikon D7000 top screen And info screen looked nothing like yours….

  16. San says:

    Hi Amy,my Nikon D7000 top and back display look nothing like that which is a pity

  17. Bets says:

    I have learn so much from you in this short period since i have bought your books! And this info on the internal light meter, cant wait to go out this weekend and play around with my camera.
    Thank you so much.

  18. brian says:

    Hi..I cannot set up the ebook i bought recently..can you help me..thks

  19. Maria Martinez says:

    Amy, Thank you for your recent e-mail. I have been reading the “Focus Enzine” and just can’t get enough, I am enjoying every bit of information. Being a New York Institute of Photography student I thought I knew it all, lol. Boy, was I wrong, I’ve learned so much from you these past few days. I love how you make it easy for us to understand, it is put together nicely. Thank you again.

    P.S I joined you in Facebook…….love the updates, advice and tips on photography. :)

  20. Marianne says:

    Dear Amy

    Many thanks for your exellent magazines and tips. Can you please give me an answer on this ISO question:
    I do not know whether I have to increase the ISO every time I make the shutter speed faster. And when I make the aperture bigger, do I have to make the shutter speed faster?
    I am trying to shoot in Manual but am really struggling to get the light right. Most of my photos seem to be too dark. When I compare the photo in Manual with my automatic or landscape, the automatic or landscape is often the better one. Is 400 ISO too much for most times during the day?

    • Hi Marianne,

      Great question, thanks :) If you are having trouble with exposure then it sounds like you aren’t using an external light meter. If you get an external light meter such as the Sekonic L358 then you will find you get a better light reading. This measures the light falling onto the subject which gives you a better reading. It’s not right 100% of the time, as nothing is in life, but it will give you a much, much better reading.

      The settings of the ISO, shutter and f stop all depend on the light. The light is your master and the camera is the slave. Always look and assess the light first so you can get the best exposure for the scene. When you say “is 400 ISO too much for most times during the day” I can’t answer that because what sort of day is it? Cloudy? Sunny? Both? What season is it and how much light is reflected from the environment? These are the questions only you can answer with the help of your light meter. The light is the first thing you must look at.

      I hope this helps!


  21. William says:

    Hi Amy, you have a great website, thank you!

  22. Fred Bishop says:

    You talk about controlling the shutter speed, the iso and the aperture. You do not explain how, in fact, to do this with the camera – an explanation, please.

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