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Photography: Trying Manual Mode

One of my projects for this year was to learn how to use my camera properly. Most of my photographs until recently have been taken with my compact camera and my phone. At the end of last year I bought my first DSLR. Until recently I have been using it mainly in auto mode, but over the last few weeks I have got more adventurous and tried some of the other settings. I have learnt how you can use aperture priority mode to create a blurred background and how you can change the shutter speed to capture fast moving objects. Finally I found out what ISO was. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO all work together to ensure that a picture is correctly exposed, not too light or too dark. When you are in auto mode the camera will adjust all these for you and will aim to create a picture that is 18% grey. In manual mode you need to learn how to adjust these yourself to get the correct exposure. This week I have finally put my camera to manual mode to the first time.

The exposure triangle

Exposure trangle diagram

Before trying manual mode I needed to learn about the exposure triangle and stops. The exposure triangle shows the interaction between aperture, shutter speed and ISO. If you alter one you need to alter another to compensate.

  • Aperture – Aperture is the size of the hole in the camera lens which controls the amount of light entering the camera. The size is measured in F numbers, like F4, F5.6, F8 etc. These are called stops. The larger the F number the smaller the hole in the camera and the less light enters the camera. Each stop lets in half as much light as the one before. Aperture also controls depth of field which is how much of the image beyond the subject  is in focus. You can use this fact to blur a background.
  • Shutter speed – The shutter is a little door on the camera that opens and closes to allow you to take the photo. How long that door is open is the shutter speed.  The shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second like 1, 1/5, 1/30. These are called stops. The smaller the number the faster the shutter speed and the less light enters the camera. Each stop lets in half as much light as the one before.
  • ISO – ISO is a measure of the camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light it is. It is measured by an international standard. Each ISO setting is double the one before: if you increase the ISO from 100 to 200, you double the camera’s sensitivity; and if you increase it from 200 to 400, you double it again. The higher the ISO the more grainy your picture will be.

On manual mode if you adjust one of these settings you need to adjust one or both of the others to compensate.  This is the exposure triangle. For example if you reduce your aperture by two stops, you are letting in less light. To correct the exposure you need to increase the light and you can do this by increasing the shutter speed by two stops or increasing the ISO by two stops or increasing the shutter speed by one stop and the ISO by one stop.

Turning my camera to manual mode

Time to experiment with manual mode. First I took a picture in auto mode to see what settings the camera used. This picture used aperture F4.5, shutter speed 1/15 and ISO 800.


Next I had to work out how to turn my camera to manual mode. This was a case of reaching for my camera manual. To change the camera to manual mode on my Nikon D3200 I had to turn the dial to the M setting. Without any changes I took this picture. In this case the aperture was F4.5, shutter speed 1/15 and the ISO was 400. As the ISO was less the picture was darker.

Manual mode

I then had to figure out how to change the shutter speed, ISO and aperture on the camera. This took a bit of figuring out but I eventually worked out you can change the shutter speed by turning the dial, change the aperture by holding the plus/minus button and turning the dial and the ISO is modified on the display. I tried to increase the shutter speed to make the image brighter. This one was aperture F4.5, shutter speed 1/25 and ISO 400


Finally I increased the ISO even more and the image looked very much like the original. This was aperture F4.5, shutter speed 1/25, ISO 1600.

Now I know how to take a photograph on manual mode. Do you know how to use manual mode on your camera? Have you ever tried to use it?




  1. Su Tyler
    March 4, 2016 / 4:59 pm

    I tried it last week too. I wish I had checked before leaving the house how to change the settings though!! I did manage it in the end!
    Reading the email and the task sounded really complicated to start with but I found it quite easy to follow.
    Just need to work out when I’d need to use manual!!

    • March 7, 2016 / 10:59 am

      I am so glad I had my manual handy. Figuring out how to change the aperture on manual mode took me ages. At least I know now

  2. March 5, 2016 / 2:56 pm

    It’s fascinating isn’t it? I am loving learning all the technical details to photography it has made such a huge difference to my photography x

    • March 7, 2016 / 10:59 am

      I think my photos are getting better as well. It really helps to think about what you are doing

  3. March 6, 2016 / 10:00 am

    Such an interesting and helpful post Alison, my camera is compact rather than a DSLR but I have realised recently that I can change the setting a little (though clearly not on the same scale as a DSLR). I had no appreciation that if one element was changed compensation had to be made with another alteration. You explained it really well, thank you. Saving for future reference.
    Angela x

    • March 7, 2016 / 10:58 am

      Thank you. I only just learnt this myself and it is so fascinating. I have a compact as well and it actually does a lot more than I thought

  4. March 7, 2016 / 10:54 am

    Any photography expert will tell you to take your camera off automatic mode and learn how to use the settings.

  5. Suze - Luxury Columnist
    March 7, 2016 / 2:39 pm

    I do use manual mode now when there’s low lighting and it certainly makes a difference once you’ve got the hang of it!

    • March 8, 2016 / 10:13 am

      It really does make a difference to know what you need to adjust on the camera when the light is not so good

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