3 Reasons To Shoot In Manual Mode Why you need to take control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

You have probably heard, over and over, that you should be shooting your camera in manual mode.

But what is manual mode, and why is it so important for your photography?

Lets figure it out!

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Manual mode is one of the main settings on your camera, and it lets you manually control shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

These three settings work together to control the how bright or dark your photo is (known as exposure), as well as change the overall look of the image.

Super important stuff!

Now, if you’re just getting into photography you might not even know what shutter speed, aperture, and ISO do, so taking control over them can be overwhelming. But don’t let that stop you from shooting!

Here’s a big secret that I don’t even know if I should be saying here… You don’t need to know how to shoot in manual mode in order to take great photos. Gasp! Yes, it’s true.

The auto modes (Auto, Program), and semi automatic modes (Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority) on your camera are great places to start.

Manual mode is going to give you much more control over the look of your photos.

So why learn to shoot in manual mode if your camera can automatically adjust settings for you?

Because manual mode is going to give you much more control over the look of your photos. And that, my friend, is a huge deal.

Let’s take a look at the main benefits of shooting in manual mode, and just how that can help you improve the look of your photos!

1. Take Creative Control

The biggest advantage of shooting in manual mode is that it lets you take creative control over aperture and shutter speed, and just brightness in general.

ISO 100,  50mm,  f/1.6,  1/500s


By manually controlling aperture you’ll have more control over the depth of field in your image. (That is, how much of the image is in sharp focus). This can be super helpful when taking portraits. A large aperture (smaller f/number) will help you create shallower depths of field, which can massively help your subject to stand out from the background – not to mention helping you create some amazing bokeh!

On the other hand, you might want to select a smaller aperture (bigger f/number) if you want more of your photo in focus. This can be useful for many situations, like in landscape photography where you want to capture both foreground and background in reasonably sharp focus. Shooting in manual mode let’s you make the choice based on what result YOU want!

ISO 500,  37mm,  f/8.0,  1.3s

Shutter Speed

As for shutter speed, being able to control it can help you capture motion in more creative ways. By selecting slower shutter speeds you can capture shots where your subject shows some motion blur. Think about those neat nighttime city shots of cars making trails of light, or waterfalls with smooth flowing water. Slow shutter speeds are what let you capture that!

Or maybe you want to completely freeze some kind of action, like a child jumping in midair. Using a fast shutter speed will help you freeze that instant in time. Being able to choose your shutter speed let’s you decide just how you want movement to be portrayed in your image.


There are also times you’ll want to take creative control of the overall brightness of an image (by manually adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).

One example would be creating silhouettes. This requires having your subject stand in front of a bright background, and then deliberately underexposing your subject so that they appear quite dark.

Another example is star photography. In this situation you typically need to shoot with a large aperture (small f/number), have the shutter open for a long time (10-30 seconds), and shoot at a higher ISO.

These are two different scenarios that each require a specific approach to choosing your settings in order to get the look you want! But it isn’t just unique situations like silhouettes and star photography that benefit from control over exposure. More broadly speaking, the brightness of your photo is a personal preference, and an artistic choice. Being able to choose the exposure in your image is a big part of getting your message across!

ISO 125,  200mm,  f/7.1,  1/500s

2. Deal with Tricky Lighting Situations

Now here’s a huge reason to learn to shoot in manual mode: Some lighting situations are simply too difficult for the camera’s auto modes to handle! Trying to shoot these scenarios with an automatic mode can straight up give you the wrong exposure, and be an exercise in frustration.

Some lighting situations are simply too difficult for the camera’s auto modes to handle!

The biggest problem is with backlit situations. If the light behind your subject is much brighter than your subject itself, then your camera will try to adjust the settings in order to capture the brighter light. This will result in your subject being completely underexposed, and hard to see. Not good.

The reverse of the above situation can also be difficult for the camera’s auto setting to correctly expose for. If your subject has really bright light on it, but the background is quite dark, then your camera may choose to expose for the darker background. Here your subject will be totally over exposed.

If you’ve ever shot in an automatic mode, or even just shot with a camera phone (as they almost always shoot in automatic modes), you’ll have a good idea just how frustrating these situations can be! Personally they make me want to throw my camera out, or maybe just sulk for a while…

Luckily for cranky photographers like me, there’s a solution. Yep, you guessed it. Manual mode. Being able to manually adjust your settings will let you guarantee that your subject is properly exposed, instead of struggling to get your camera to cooperate.

Another classic problem is shooting in low light. It seems like the auto modes of most cameras are designed to activate the camera’s flash at even the slightest hint of darkness. The thing is that on-camera flash looks terrible! If you’re shooting in manual mode you can set the camera to a higher ISO (increasing the sensitivity of the sensor). Higher ISOs do tend to produce more image noise, but personally we would prefer more noise (which can often be corrected in post-processing) vs. icky camera flash.

ISO 200,  35mm,  f/1.4,  1/8000s

3. Get Consistent Exposures

If you’re shooting in Auto mode then you’re letting your camera decide how bright or dark the photo should be for each and every photo. The problem is that it’s a bit like rolling the dice every time you press the shutter release.

Basically your camera has a light meter inside of it that takes measurements of the light coming in through the lens. In auto mode the camera takes that light meter information and determines what it thinks the ideal settings are for are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in order to hopefully produce a good exposure when you take the photo. As the frame changes (because you move the camera, your subject moves, or the lighting changes) the exposure may also change. That means that two shots taken one after the other in the same scene might have very different exposures. It can create a pretty inconsistent set of images.

But, if you’re shooting in manual mode, then your shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings won’t change from shot to shot unless you change them. You can be certain that you’ll get consistent exposures.

Getting consistent exposures might not seem like a big deal at first, but think about how it affects your photography. If you are able to get predictable and repeatable results then you’re no longer rolling the dice – you’re just winning every time!

Getting consistent results is especially important when shooting professionally. It can look pretty awful if a sequence of photos in an album, or gallery are inconsistent in brightness. Some of this can be corrected with editing (especially if you’re shooting in raw), but really it’s a waste of your time to be trying to correct mistakes in editing that you could have easily gotten right in camera.

ISO 4000,  16mm,  f/2.8,  16.0s

Tips for Shooting in Manual Mode

Hopefully by now you’ve seen just how awesome it can be to shoot in manual mode! You can have more control over the look of your image, and not have to fight the camera to get your shot looking the way you want! So now let’s chat about some tips for turning into a manual mode ninja.

It Just Takes Time

The first thing to know is that it might take a little while before you get really comfortable shooting in manual mode, especially when you’re first learning photography. You have so much to think about, like composition, lighting, subject interaction, etc.,  that it can be tough to constantly keep your aperture, shutter speed and ISO in mind as well.

When we were first shooting we actually stayed away from manual mode for a long time. It just seemed too hard! We shot in Aperture Priority for a couple years until we realized that it was important to learn Manual mode if we wanted that creative control.

But the big thing to keep in mind is that eventually it will feel natural and intuitive! With enough practice you will start to adjust your settings quickly and easily. So stick with it!

Start with Program Mode

If you’re just getting started with photography, you may want to slowly work your way up to Manual mode. You can start off by shooting in the Program mode (usually “P”). This is like Auto mode but it gives you access to exposure compensation. Basically exposure compensation allows you to tell camera to make a photo brighter or darker than the automatic settings (by adjusting a dial up or down while shooting). So if you’re shooting in Program mode and the photo seems too dark you can increase the exposure compensation and then take another photo and it will be brighter. It’s a very simple way to start taking more control over the look of the photo.

Move Up to Aperture Priority

Once you get comfortable with Program mode you can move up to Aperture Priority mode. With aperture priority you set your aperture, and ISO, but the camera automatically sets the shutter speed. It’s pretty easy to get the hang of Aperture Priority mode and it gives you a lot more control over the depth of field in your photos. With Aperture Priority you also have access to exposure compensation, so you can also control brightness. Now you’re in charge of a few things! Look at you go! Once you’re really comfortable in Aperture Priority mode it’s just a little hop up to Manual mode!

Aperture Priority vs. Manual Mode

Now I actually think there are some situations where it’s better to use Aperture Priority over Manual mode! Sometimes light conditions are changing so quickly (or you’re moving through varied lighting conditions) that you might miss a shot if you’re trying to adjust your settings manually. This is often the case when shooting photojournalistically, in scenes with a lot of variety. So don’t think Manual mode is the only way to go. The key is to be comfortable in every mode, and then choosing the best one for the situation!

The key is to be comfortable shooting in every mode, and then to choose the best one for the situation!

Learn How to Shoot in Manual Mode

Excited about learning to shoot Manual mode? Awesome! We can show you exactly how to get comfortable taking control over your camera, and shooting in manual mode, in our easy-top-follow tutorial,  Extremely Essential Camera Skills!

It’s a multi-media tutorial, packed with example photos, illustrations and videos to make it really easy to learn this essential skill! You’ll gain a full understanding of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, get our three step process for finding the perfect settings every time, and learn all about focusing, lenses, white balance, and more!

It’s the guide we wish we had when we were first learning how to use our cameras, and it will have you you shooting in Manual mode in no time. Check it out here and start taking control over the look of your photos!

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photography ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

Extremely Essential Camera Skills

Extremely Essential Camera Skills

A multi-media tutorial designed to help you get control over your camera, and get creative and confident with your photography.

Learn more →


22 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. I was brought up shooting on film, since then I’ve never felt comfortable using automatic mode. There’s something about being in complete control that amplifies the creative process of photography. I guess that’s my inner perfectionist speaking… Thank you for sharing your thoughts Rob :-)

  2. Good read thanks for sharing =)

  3. Yes, I agree with you 100%, shooting in manual mode is necessary if one wants to improve their photography skills and get better at what they are doing. It is not easy, especially if you are so used to just pointing and clicking your camera at something, but once one gets used to it, it opens up so many options.

  4. Always used manual mode. But, still not all that simple. I’m going to a picnic this weekend, and thinking how about if i set my ISO to 640 (a good medium setting), and then use a 3 stop neutral density filter for everything.
    It would allow me to shoot in the shade with a fast enough shutter speed, and also allow me to shoot with sunshine in the shot using the same aperture i always use (around F.4).
    I use off camera flash, so this would also let me keep the s.speed down fair enough to not diminish the flash too much (TTL).

  5. I’m using manual mode only. When I started photography a few years ago, it was with a simple compact camera that you couldn’t really use with a manual mode. And when I moved to my first DSLR, I used the automatic mode, but only on the first weekend. When I first switched to “M”, it was a shock!
    I realized that I didn’t really know how to photograph – I just knew how to press a button!
    I then switched to “M” – and since then, never switched back…
    It took me hours and hours, days and days, months and months of practicing. But it’s so much fun. It feels very different to me, especially combined with manual focus on my optical viewfinder, my camera feels almost “mechanical” and I absolutely love that.

  6. Thanks for saying that it’s okay to shoot in aperture priority or another mode that you choose based on the scenario. I think that’s part of being the professional and knowing when to adjust everything and when to make sure you won’t lose the shot because of fiddling with your gear! I do struggle still with the times I’m taking family photos with tiny tots running around, and they’re faster than I am! It’s so hard to keep up and get the shots of them smiling. I find that in those instances I’m much more comfortable with using aperture priority, and I’m okay with that. Then, when it’s grown-ups or still shots, I work with manual primarily.

    I think I’ll be “learning” for a long time, but for now I’m content with this mix. Any suggestions on how to stretch myself and get into using manual modes in those tricky situations like with little kids or quick moving subjects?

  7. I haven’t used this mode nearly as much as I should be and it’s almost entirely due to laziness and not taking the time to really play with it.

  8. I’ve always been afraid to shoot anything other than manual. I freak out with any loss of control. However after shooting weddings for several years and the consistent light changes I have adapted to switching to aperture priority every now and then. I would rather have a slightly less exposed image than loose a moment. Still though, I love me some manual mode. Great article, thank you!

  9. Loved this article! I recently started being more focused on programme mode.

  10. i’m using manual mode because i don’t know for setup my new camera, but the image is still good.

  11. Bonus points for discussing the fact that Aperture Priority can sometimes be more useful than Manual.

    I always say that it’s important to know what each mode does, and in what situations you should be using them. Full Manual is great, but there’s always going to be a time where an auto, or partially auto mode, is going to be a better option.

  12. Vietnam Wedding Photographer says

    Thank you, I always use manual

  13. Deepanshu Malik says

    Best article on Internet today. I usually dont give reviews but this is the stuff i was looking for, very precise and explained very simply. Thank you

  14. Manual mode is fun to use since you can do your own thing, you can play with the camera with different effects of the shot..

  15. Thank you for the article!!
    I always use Manual mode for shooting inside and with off-camera flash.
    And, in some cases, when I’m in the hurry, I use Aperture priority + exposure compensation for shooting outside.

  16. This helps so much with my photo shooting. Thank you! Rob Lim, do you have a guide on manual focus lenses?

  17. Thank you for this simple to understand article. I’m considering taking a non credit beginner’s photography class online. I’m concerned that I won’t be able to learn the trifecta of combining iso, shutterspeed and aperture. Your article explains this to me like I’m 6, which is exactly what I need.

  18. Thanks for sharing this article, Rob. I love how you talked about progressing from program to manual mode.

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