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The 4 Step Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

How do you shoot in manual mode?  It's not as hard as you think! Learn how to use your camera on the manual setting so that you can take pictures that are professional, sharp and in focus!

The 4 Step Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode

Are you still shooting on automatic? ( It’s totally OK if you are !)

Do you ever wonder though how to shoot in manual mode?

If you said yes, I’ve got you covered right here with your 4 step guide to shooting in manual!

Manual mode can be a little intimidating and overwhelming, I get it. But, it will give you so much more creative control over your pictures and you will be so glad you made the switch!

Keep reading and you’ll learn just how to get off automatic mode and using manual in 4 easy steps!

(BONUS! You can also learn more about shooting in manual mode plus more in my free beginner Photography Boot Camp! It’s all online & totally free. Woo hoo! You can register for it right here)

Do you learn better by listening?  Press PLAY on this episode of The Stay Focused Podcast to help you learn manual mode!

1. Set Your Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed is the speed at which your camera lens will stay open. The slower you set the shutter speed the more light will filter through because the shutter will be open longer. This is great if you are in a low lit area. However, setting your speed too slow, it can create blurriness, especially if your subject is moving. Slower shutter speeds work great if you are working with a tripod.

The faster the shutter speed the less light will come through. Faster shutter speeds will also capture quick objects like they are frozen in time. This is great for fast moving toddlers or trying to capture running sports players or drips of splashing water. If you will be holding you camera by hand, even the slightest movement can cause some blur. Shooting with a higher shutter speed can stop that from happening.

The speed of the shutter is in terms of a fraction of a second. The smaller the fraction (or the bigger the bottom denominator) the faster the speed.
There are a couple things to really think about before you decide where you will set your shutter speed.

  • What is the focal length of your lens? Make sure to set it at least double the length. (ex: 50mm lens.-shutter speed a t least 1/100), 100mm lens-shutter speed at least 1/200)
  • Are you shooting hand held? If so you might want to set the shutter a little faster than usual.
  • Is your subject moving (even just slightly)? If yes, set your shutter speed faster.
  • Are you in a dark place? The shutter speed may have to be set slower.

Check your camera manual to see which dial or button you will use to change your shutter speed.
Once you have selected what you think will be a good shutter speed, now it’s time to think about the aperture.


(Here the shutter speed is set fast- 1/100th of a second on a 50 mm 1.8 lens. This helped capture the fast moving water drops for the hose)

2. Adjust The Aperture

Your aperture will determine your depth of field OR how blurry or clear the background will be in the photo. It is also referred to as your f stop. The wider your aperture, the smaller your f stop number will be. The wider your aperture is, the blurrier parts of your photo will be. (EX: wide aperture=f/2.2)

4 Step guide to shooting in manual the easy way!

Wide apertures or small f stop numbers mean that the lens is opened up wider and more light will also come in through the lens. This can be particularly helpful if you are in a low lit area.

Be very aware of the placement of your subjects when setting your aperture . If you choose to set the aperture wide, your subjects should be on the same plane (ex: Line them up in one straight line). Remember that aperture affects the depth of field, so if the subjects are placed several feet behind on another, one is bound to be out of focus.

If you want the entire picture to be clear, set your f stop at a higher number or a narrower aperture (ex: f/5.6). This will help to ensure that more of the picture will be clear. It will also give you more flexibility in posing your subjects farther or closer in the depth of field. (ex: they could be in several rows rather than in one line)

(Wanna learn more about aperture and getting blurry backgrounds Listen to Episode #4 of The Stay Focused Podcast here: How To Master Getting Blurry Backgrounds)

Check your camera manual to see which dial or button you will use to change your aperture.

Once you have selected what you think will be a good shutter speed and aperture , now it’s time to think about the ISO.

The 4 Step Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode. Great for new portrait photographers learning how to get off manual mode and on to manual mode!

(Aperture here set wide at f/2.2 to create a depth of field where the subject is in focus but the foreground (flowers) and background are blurry)

3. Move the ISO

Once you think you have selected a good shutter speed and aperture, now it is time to adjust your ISO.

You might be scared to move this dial any higher than 100. I get it, there’s a fear that your image will turn out grainy. Don?t be scared though! Think of your ISO as your helper to get your exposure correct. Your picture will turn out much more grainy if it’s not exposed properly and the ISO can help you do this! Keep reading below to see how the light meter will help you pick the correct ISO.

4. Watch the Light Meter

When you look into the viewfinder of your camera, you will see the light meter at the bottom of your camera. It looks similar to this:

guide to shooting in manual looking at the light meter. Excellent guide for new photographers wanting to shoot in in manual mode

Finding the correct exposure is not a guessing game. That meter will show you when you have great exposure! Aim your focal point directly at your subject (if it is a person, aim for their skin). Push the shutter halfway down and the light meter will start to move. If it lines up in the middle-BINGO!- your exposure is good.

If it’s to the right- it’s overexposed. If it’s to the left- it is underexposed. So what will you do then?? Keep reading…

(Wanna learn more about manual modeListen to Episode #9 of The Stay Focused Podcast here: How To Confidently Shoot in Manual Mode)

What if It’s Underexposed?

If that meter is too far to the left, now is the time to crank up the ISO. (Please see your camera?s manual for where the ISO dial or button is) Keep moving it up until you notice your light meter start to get closer to the middle.

What if it’s Overexposed?

Look through your light meter. If it is too far to the right, your photo is probably overexposed. If that is the case, keep the ISO where it is at. Then adjust your shutter speed faster (or a higher lower denominator number) to keep too much light for coming through. Or you can narrow up your aperture (higher f stop number).


Don’t be too concerned with lining up that light meter exactly. It is OK sometimes if it is slightly to the left or right of that center line. Take a few shots and adjust if needed. Start by following these steps to get your subject correctly exposed. ( Once you master that, know that there are more ways to work with that light meter- but don’t overwhelm yourself just yet!)

So let’s see what you’ve got! I challenge you to get off automatic today and try to take a picture in manual. And then keep practicing. You will love the creative control you have over your photos once you’ve mastered shooting in manual.

Let me know how it went for you! I love hanging out over on Instagram, so if you’re there too and you post a shot you’ve taken on manual, tell me about it! Just tag me in your photo or mention me @cozyclicks, so I can check out what your creating!

Learn how to use manual mode with your new camera! Easy to follow instructions so that you can understand manual mode and take pictures that are clear and professional looking!

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  • SarahFebruary 12, 2023 - 12:30 am

    This is extremely helpful to someone like me as a newb in the photography world! I didn’t know the definition or what these things meant so when I try to learn by reading I get so lost! Thank you!!! GREAT INFORMATION!ReplyCancel

  • AmandaOctober 16, 2020 - 8:50 pm

    Thank you so much for this, I have been struggling but this truly helped and excited for my second shoot! ReplyCancel

  • HeatherFebruary 5, 2020 - 7:53 pm

    Best tutorial I’ve read so far! Thank you for making it so easy to understand! I will definitely be sharing. ReplyCancel

  • JamalJanuary 28, 2020 - 11:11 am

    You’re awesome to even want to assist photographers on how to do their jobs for free! ReplyCancel

  • KarenNovember 16, 2019 - 12:37 pm

    OMG – I finally get it! Thank you for making manual so clear and easy.ReplyCancel

  • Stephanie ThompsonMarch 25, 2019 - 5:34 pm

    I just want to say thank you sooo sooo much for this blog. I have been searching and searching for something to help me with understanding how to shoot in manual.. I feel that after reading this I’m a little more confident and more excited about taking pictures. This has been more help then anything else I have read. It is simple. Of course still got a lot more learning to do and more practice but that’s the fun in photography you keep learning new things and different points of views. ReplyCancel

  • RobertMarch 13, 2019 - 3:13 pm

    Finally someone who can explain it so I understand it.  I Plan on subscribing.  ThanksReplyCancel

  • CheyNovember 24, 2018 - 10:36 pm

    Thank you! I am just starting out, building my portfolio and this is very informative and to the point. Saved it so I can come back to it!ReplyCancel

  • Judi Piala DuniaMarch 28, 2018 - 9:40 am

    Awesome! Its really awesome paragraph, I have got much clear
    idea about from this paragraph.ReplyCancel

  • PennyMarch 7, 2018 - 8:50 am

    Very helpful thanks so muchReplyCancel

  • AnaFebruary 26, 2018 - 6:28 pm

    I just have to say thank you so much. I’ve always been nervous about going out of my comfort zone and using the manual setting. I finally tried it out and shot some great pictures of my little girl. I love the blurred background. They look so much better. ReplyCancel

  • malyssaFebruary 22, 2018 - 7:16 pm

    I’m  strictly a momtographer- very new at photography but i loving capturing my children in every day life. I love how brief, to the point, and helpful your posts are!ReplyCancel

  • HeatherFebruary 5, 2018 - 11:15 am

    Hi Emily, 
    I have a question. In my home I struggle with taking pictures because the lighting is not the greatest… especially in the evening/nighttime. My question is, how do you go about incorporating on-board flash using manual mode? Lets say I have all of the settings I want (shutterspeed of 100 for my 50mm lens, and then lets say 5.6 aperture to get all my kiddos & whatever I am shooting in focus) and it is way to dark… doesn’t even  register on the light meter. Would I just use my flash with the settings I want or would I have to adjust my settings differently to use the on-board flash? I hope that makes sense! I can manage pictures outdoors just fine on manual… but indoors it is such a struggle! 
    Heather ReplyCancel

    • Leo A. PerrinOctober 1, 2018 - 6:15 am

      Heather try increasing your ISO and use a tripod. Watch using on camera flash as it might white wash the kids in the middle. Try using a diffuser or I use a cheap spot type light from the hardware. Good luck and capture lots of memories the grow so fast.ReplyCancel

  • Jai SinghJanuary 18, 2018 - 10:33 am

    Very helpful tips…..ReplyCancel

  • LibbyJanuary 4, 2018 - 9:43 pm

    This was so helpful and written in a simple easy to understand way.  Thank you so much.ReplyCancel

  • Randi ThompsonDecember 5, 2017 - 6:21 pm

    Wow! I cannot say thank you enough for posting this. I am a young, fairly new photographer, and I have been struggling with getting the perfect lighting on my pictures. I really loved the information about the metering- if you are focused on your subject and it is to the left, crank your ISO up and if it’s to the right, increase your shutter speed. I think that’s where I’ve been going wrong! I get aggravated at that point and do not know what to do. Again, thank you. I needed to see this!ReplyCancel

  • Cody McGeeOctober 29, 2017 - 6:18 pm

    Thank you. This really helps me begin to understand things. Very helpful!ReplyCancel

  • OdetteOctober 16, 2017 - 9:20 pm

    Brilliant info. This will help me a lot. ReplyCancel

  • ReenaOctober 13, 2017 - 6:02 am

    Superb article…I am new to photography and this article has helped me a lot…Thank you ReplyCancel

  • AbdullahOctober 2, 2017 - 11:23 am

    Thanks and Greetings Emily. I read your tutorial article. it is nice and direct. I have  canon-EOS-Rebel T1i with 18-55mm Lens. If I do not want to buy any other advanced camera,
    what do you advice me to buy for taking nice portraits, landscapes, and macros? Again, thanks for your nice article.ReplyCancel

  • LaurieSeptember 18, 2017 - 5:11 am

    Thanks Emily. Film was so much easier – you did not have to think about ISO! I think I need to invest in a prime lens, and perfect shooting at one distance. Thanks for this simple tutorial – you explain it so I can understand it. ReplyCancel

  • Laurie ZaharAugust 29, 2017 - 6:14 pm

    Hi Deidre, why do you adjust the ISO for underexposure but not for overexposure? I’m struggling with manual, but hope your easy instructions help me over the hump. I keep thinking after making all the adjustments, then using the meter, you may as well shoot on Automatic. Ugh.ReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks PhotographyAugust 30, 2017 - 10:44 am

      Hey Laurie!
      Don’t give up keep practicing at it- you will have so much more creative control!
      Your ISO will be set low automatically. Increasing it will add MORE light in, so if you photo was OVERexposed, you wouldn’t want to add in more light. What i generally do if it is overexposed is increase the shutter speed:) -EmilyReplyCancel

  • DeidreJuly 18, 2017 - 5:20 am

    this was so eye opening for me! Ive been so frustrated with the blah blah blah technical aspects of manual but you put it into an easy doable post! I don’t have a fancy camera but im practicing every day to find photos that im happy with.Im mostly shooting flowers in my garden so my question is what is a good setting for this with a 50mm 1.8 lens I have been watching that meter in the middle as well but I cant seem to get it perfect yet.maybe shutter speed is my problem?ReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks PhotographyJuly 18, 2017 - 8:34 am

      Hi Deidre! I’m so glad this helped you! With a 50mm and shooting something that is not moving(flowers), I would start by setting my shutter at around 1/100- 1/250. I like shooting with a wider aperture, so I might pick f/2.5. Then adjust my ISO. If those setting are too bright-increase the shutter. Give it a try! Hope that help a little 🙂 -EmilyReplyCancel

  • AmandaJuly 6, 2017 - 5:54 am

    I am really a beginner for about two years now Lol. I have always wanted to shoot manual but to afraid. I have had some great pictures in auto and some not so great. I struggle  a lot in photography but I love doing it. ReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks PhotographyJuly 6, 2017 - 10:36 am

      Hi Amanda!
      I think the important thing is that you love doing it!Don;t be afraid to switch to manual. With most things, it takes practice, so just keep it it:) EmilyReplyCancel

  • JuliaJuly 2, 2017 - 11:29 pm

    Super helpful post, I’m pretty happy at the moment with my ability to use my camera on manual mode but I always like reading guides like this because I inevitably end up coming away with some bits of info that I either didn’t know or have forgotten over time!

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    Julia // <a href=”http://www.thesundaymode.com”>The Sunday Mode</a>ReplyCancel

  • Kim M BohnertJune 24, 2017 - 4:14 am

    Thank you Emily for helping this photography beginner.  I try shooting in manual, but get so frustrated when my pictures don’t turn out how I want..  Your article has made it so much easier to understanding the basics!  I will be practicing more now.ReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks PhotographyJune 24, 2017 - 7:47 pm

      Awesome Kim! I’m so glad to hear it helped! Feel free to share some with me once you practice more 🙂 EmilyReplyCancel

  • Laurel GalassoMay 2, 2017 - 8:16 pm

    Thank you for breaking it down into steps. Can’t wait to practice more….Please Share more if you do anymore teaching…Love this!ReplyCancel

  • skyApril 25, 2017 - 1:43 pm

    I have been taking photos for more years than I can tell you. I have spoken with people in camera stores and others who KNOW how to get the focus correct??

    I started out with manual focus many years ago and had some if my best work then. With digital we tend to shoot many shots and get lucky at times with the very best shot.

    The part that crystalized for me in your tips on focus was the part that said adjusting the iso as step 3. I was never told that and always saw that as step one.

    the first thing I want is a good clear picture. You have helped me get a grip on that and I am very grateful


  • HollyApril 24, 2017 - 5:16 am

    Thanks for the tips!! Check out my photography website http://hollyjosphotography.com/ReplyCancel

  • Peggy GomesApril 17, 2017 - 12:18 am

    Most camera manuals seem to overwhelm me, when I read your version I had no problem understanding each process. You made me feel much more confident. I’m 71 and I just want to enjoy taking pictures and sharing them with my children and grandchildren.
    Thank youReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks Photography LLCApril 17, 2017 - 7:31 am

      I’m so glad to have helped you! With practice manual mode gets easier too! Have fun taking pictures of your beautiful grand kids:) -EmilyReplyCancel

  • ManarApril 14, 2017 - 2:02 pm

    Finally! Someone who can explain everything in a simple understandable way.

    Love your article and I’ll absolutely check out the other ones ??ReplyCancel

  • AllisonApril 12, 2017 - 12:57 pm

    Best article I’ve read on manual mode.ReplyCancel

  • AllisonApril 12, 2017 - 12:56 pm

    This is probably the best basic photography article i’ve read.ReplyCancel

  • Peachy EnanoApril 6, 2017 - 6:51 am

    I agree with karen lambert. Now i understand fully.thanks for this. I will practice manual mode.ReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks Photography LLCApril 6, 2017 - 11:46 am

      Hey Peachy!
      Awesome! Glad the article helped you:) Keep on practicing and manual will definitely start to come easier to you!

  • LizApril 5, 2017 - 7:41 pm

    Great article! Thank you for taking the time to write(:
    It was definitely very helpful. I’m very new and have been practicing for a month or so now. Since day one, I have tried very hard to stay away from auto. Your arrivals was very easy to follow and understand!ReplyCancel

  • Natalie DiVito-StandriffMarch 31, 2017 - 9:30 am

    I am learning this. Thanks for sharing
    Natalie ?ReplyCancel

  • Karen lambertMarch 25, 2017 - 4:26 am

    Thank you! I have been practicing manual mode for several weeks now. Your 4 step guide has made more sense to me than anything i have read thus far.ReplyCancel

    • Cozy Clicks Photography LLCMarch 25, 2017 - 12:36 pm

      Awesome Karen! Glad it helped you! Keep on practicing and it will make even more sense;) -EmilyReplyCancel

      • OkaforAugust 12, 2017 - 8:02 am

        Mhen been using for the past 1year but never knew anything about the metering ish thanks this will help me a long way.ReplyCancel

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