How to use Manual on a DSLR


Do you have a DSLR camera? Do you prefer to use the landscape or night mode (or whatever option) instead of taking time fiddling about with manual? Do you wish your photos looked better? Then you’ve come to the right place!

The secret to your photos looking better = correctly using Manual!

The good news is that once you know how it’s so easy – and in general once you set it up for a particular shot, you’ll be able to take photos with similar lighting so you won’t have to be continuously changing it anyway!

1) Firstly you’ve got to understand the 3 main parameters.

These are:
– ISO
– Shutter speed
– Aperture (f)

2) Secondly you need to know that these 3 parameters work as a sort of triangle.

Each mode affects the amount of light entering the lens so if you decrease one you will need to change another.

Just imagine that you have three lamps and all are turned off, this means you will have no light, if all are turned on you will have a lot of light! You just need to know/remember how the different parameters let light in.

3) Shutter speed

The lower the number the slower the shutter speed and thus the more light that enters.

A good rule for knowing the minimum speed to use whilst hand-holding your camera is 1/length of lens, so with a 30mm lens you can hold it at 1/30 sec but with a 100mm lens you need speed no less than 1/100 (unless you have image stabilisation).

If you want to take photos at night you will need to go lower (especially if you want to make the stars look bright or catch the movement of car lights) in which case you’ll need a tripod.

When you’re outside during the day you can have the number at a higher setting to let in less light.

If however during the day you wish to capture movement of say a waterfall, you will need a low shutter speed (ideally bring a tripod with you). Please see below.

Shutter speed: 1/125 ISO: 200 Aperture: f2.5luang prabang-50

Shutter speed: 1/15 ISO: 320 Aperture: f/10luang prabang-51

As you can see just a difference of 1/100 shutter speed makes a huge difference to the movement of water I was able to capture.

4) Aperture

The Aperture is the size of the hole in the lens which allows light in. The wider the opening the more light that can enter for each exposure. The smaller the opening, or narrower the aperture, the less light you let in.

A narrower aperture (high number) means that more of your photo will appear to be in focus – so great for landscape shots.

A wider aperture (lower number) means less of the photograph will be in focus – so perfect for portraits where you want the background blurred.

See the photos below for a contrast between a wide aperture (bottom) and a narrow aperture (top).

Shutter speed: 1/30 ISO: 2000 Aperture: f/10 (grainy as the ISO is high)iso blog-2.jpg

Shutter speed: 1/125 ISO: 400 Aperture: f/1.4iso blog-1

Aperture is represented in f-stops. A lower number, like f/1.8, denotes a wider aperture, and a higher number, like f/22, denotes a narrower aperture.

The lower the number, the wider the aperture and the shallower the depth of field – the aperture in which your camera can go will depend on your lens. Lenses are generally marked with their widest possible aperture. Some lenses will range between apertures depending on how zoomed in you are – the more zoomed in you are the less likely you are to be able to have a low aperture.

The point at which the background will be blurry will depend on 2 things:

  • The lens – I usually shoot at around f/2.8, but a lot of lenses will be capped at f/4.
  • The distance between the object you are taking a photo of to yourself and the background (the greater the distance the more likely the background will be blurry at a higher f stop). For example the below photo was taken at f/5.6, as the object is in close proximity to the camera with the background further away I was still able to get a blurry background.

Shutter speed: 1/125 ISO: 200 Aperture: f/5.637874449405_e9d9896291_o.jpg

I shoot with a Sigma 30mm lens that goes down to an aperture of 1.4 and I LOVE it!

5) ISO

ISO is the digital equivalent to film speed. If you ever bought film for a regular camera, you will remember getting 100 or 200 for outdoors and 400 or 800 for indoors. The faster the film speed the more sensitive it is to light.

The lower the ISO the less light that enters the camera but the more accurate the light captured is.

Generally I would always try to keep the ISO as low as possible as high ISO = lots of noise (grain). But this might not be possible if you want to shoot at night without a tripod. Luckily when editing you can reduce noise.

6) The light triangle

Now that you know the 3 main parameters that affect your photo lets have a think about how they are linked.

When you are taking a photo you should think about what your priority is.

Are you taking a photo of a moving object? In which case you need to focus on the shutter speed (and then change the ISO and aperture to fit the light of the environment that you’re in).

If you want a blurred background you want to concentrate on the aperture (and change the shutter speed and ISO).

If you want a correct representation of the light you want to set the ISO as low as possible (and then change the shutter speed and aperture accordingly).

Now that you are clued up on shooting in manual, check out my ultimate guide to editing on Lightroom!

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7 thoughts on “How to use Manual on a DSLR

  1. This is awesome Ellie!! My camera is mirrorless as opposed to DSLR but it’s got manual mode and can interchange lenses. If you ever consider doing a post on different lenses i’d Be up for that! 😘👌

  2. Such a helpful post! Concise and I loved the examples, thank you for putting in the time to expain it! I’ve had Nikon DSLR for a while, but never learnt how to use manual. I think it’s time!

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