top of page

A Quick Guide to Manual Photography

For those wanting to get serious

If you've been wanting to learn how to take full control over your camera, to be able to use it in full Manual mode, this one-page guide may be useful to kickstart your photography ambitions.



Most entry-level cameras will come with an "M" mode, the manual mode. All you need to know are the following three components: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These three core components together are called the "exposure triangle," as they are inter-connected; if one element gets adjusted, the two other two elements are affected simultaneously. You are no longer just pointing and pressing the shutter. You are now trying to correctly expose the image according to your needs.

Photography all comes down to how much light you allow the camera to let in and be exposed by the sensor (the standard sensor size is 35mm). The photographer needs to adjust the respective settings on the camera to produce a photograph that is exposed in the way you intended it. Some may prefer it dark, some may prefer it bright. Some may prefer a blurry background, and some may prefer a flat image. The only difference is, that you now have full control over the final product, rather than letting the camera take control. It is in your artistic right to use the camera to its fullest extent when the time is right.


Long exposure photography is one popular example of how to take control of light in a unique way. This technique opens doors to a whole new world of photography as it explores the capabilities of the camera to its fullest extent. Its purpose, in fact, counters the typical purpose of a camera - to capture a sharp moment in time. As such, practicing long exposure photography is one way to study the exposure mechanics of a manually operated camera.


Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is the duration of time that it takes for the camera shutter to open and close. It is basically equivalent to opening and closing your eye (your eyelid is the shutter). Shutter speeds can range anywhere between around 1/4000th of a second, to half a second, to a few minutes, all the way up to a few hours and days on rare occasion. The average photograph is usually taken anywhere between 1/500th of a second to around 1/25th of a second taking into account the brightness range of bright daylight and nighttime darkness. If you open your eyes for a quarter of a second, you will only take in and recognize what happens within a quarter of a second - if your eye receptor is the camera sensor in this analogy, it allows the camera to see all motion that occurs within that timeframe. Once the shutter closes and the camera processes the image, any trail of physical/visible motion will be imprinted, including light. If you open your eyes for 200th of a second or even shorter, the amount of time needed to capture what you are seeing is very quick, making it an effective way of sharply capture fast subjects (e.g. sports, cars, animals). If you open your eyes for one minute, you take in every object and light source that passes through your vision during that minute. This leaves you with a unique trail of light; an imprint of motion during a long period of time, which is what inspired long-exposure photography.



The aperture, also often referred to as the F-stop, determines the depth of field of a photo. The aperture is a mechanical pupil inside of the lens that grows wider and narrower according to how you adjust it on the ring. The f-stop value (e.g. f/5.6) is how the aperture is numerically expressed: given by the formula f/d where f is the focal length of the lens and d is the diameter of the ring/pupil inside the lens. Rest assured it is not needed to learn the math behind the f-stop value. As confusing as it sound, larger the aperture, the smaller the f-stop value, and the smaller the aperture, the larger the f-stop value. If the f/stop on your camera reads small, (the smallest usually at f/1.4 or f/2.8), the aperture is able to open wide and therefore creates more space to take in a lot of light. This results in a shallow depth of field. A shallow DoF means that only a small part of the image is in focus, while most areas of the are blurred out. A larger f-stop on the other hand, (the largest at around f/22 or f/30), takes in a lot less light because of the very small opening of the aperture, allowing for a deep depth of field. A Deep DoF refers to when most, if not everything the image is in focus, resulting in a flat image. 


Finally, the ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. It ranges from around 50 to 6400 depending on the camera. When shooting outside on a sunny day, the ISO should be set to the lowest setting at around 50 or 100. At night, depending on how dark it is, the ISO needs to be bumped up to anywhere between 800-2500 to compensate for the lack of light around you. The higher the ISO, however, the more digital noise and grain is be produced. For the most part you will only need to leave the ISO anywhere between 100~2500. Anything higher will begin to produce visible noise and grain that may be distracting the image and significantly degrading the quality. Changing the ISO on a digital camera is always your last resort, only after adjusting the shutter speed and aperture. If those two didn't do the trick and it is still too dark, it's time to raise the ISO. For example when taking photos of the starry sky at night, adjusting the shutter speed and aperture usually isn't enough to capture the very miniscule amount of light emitted by each star. It is difficult to capture a sky full of stars in most cases, which is when the extra ISO boost comes in handy. Adjusting it is however a luxury only available on digital cameras, or advanced film cameras. When shooting film, the film stock is made to adjust to a specific level of brightness, resulting in only a single ISO level, also known as ASA. This is why when shooting on film, you have to stick to the aperture and shutter speed adjustments.

Owning a Film Camera

One of the best ways to learn how to manually operate a camera, while it may require a budget, would be to own a film camera. Because of all the limitations you have when shooting on film, you will learn to appreciate each and every shot. You will become selective about when, where, and how you choose to dedicate that one frame out of only 36 chances you have not to waste this roll of film, which costs you to purchase, develop, and print over a period of time. 


bottom of page