The BASICS of Manual Mode

One day, as Daniel Jackson sat in the second grade classroom at an elementary school, he began to ponder. ‘When I first started learning photography, what scared me the most?’ So he sat wondering till his wonderers were tired. But, just as his pondering ponderers were about at the far reaches of their reach, he thought a thought. “MANUAL!” he exclaimed with exuberance! “Manual…” he said in a much colder tone. Of all the experiences he had in the beginning, the lurking manual mode was the most daunting. “Who can control so many options at once!?” he recalled saying in utter despair. Such power could most certainly never be contained by one person! He had only just begun to understand how to crop and focus properly. But to add in controlling aperture, shutter speed, and ISO just seemed to much! However, despite the insurmountable odds, Daniel made it his aim to overcome, to strive for what no one… the bold few… A LOT of people had done before him! He pushed towards the brink of madness, daring to tempt destruction! Yet, despite the odds he conquered, and his name forever became proudly stamped upon the pictures he watermarked! Never again would he turn back to Auto, as his eyes were not opened.


Daniel, upon realizing that he’d just screamed at his camera in the middle of an elementary school, quickly hid in the bathroom until he was sure no one else was coming to check on him. THE END

Today I want to talk about Manual Mode, a very daunting mode that every beginning photographer is just downright afraid to mess with! And I completely understand! It sure scared the heck out of me when I first started! However, although it is frightening at first, once you start to get this stuff down, it will DRASTICALLY improve your photography! Now, on a very surface level, what do each of the 3 main Manual Mode scarers do?



APERTURE: a measure of how large the lens is open, allowing in more of less light per second to get to the sensor


Not too complicated! It is controlled by the “f-stop” number on your camera. I’ll go into further detail on a different day, explaining the Physics behind how that works. But for now, just suffice to know that this F number controls the aperture in an inverse relationship. BIG WORD CHECK! By inverse, I mean that the SMALLER your F number, the LARGER your aperture. So, if my camera is set to 1.8, then my aperture is bigger than if the same lens is set to 3.5. Likewise, the BIGGER the F the SMALLER the aperture. Now this is important for a few reasons. If you sit down and think about it, just like with shutter speed and ISO, this is about knowing how light works and knowing how to control it!  If you have a SMALL aperture (meaning BIG f-stop), then less light can get into your camera. Let me illustrate!

Now, if you have a BIG aperture (SMALL f-stop), then you are allowing in more light!


To show how this would look on the pictures themselves, look at these two examples. Notice how the photo with the smaller f-stop is brighter, because the camera is more open, allowing more light to enter the camera!








So, aperture controls light! If you have more questions about that, shoot me an email from my contact page. But, aperture does something else even cooler! DEPTH OF FIELD! This is one of my favorite parts about cameras. Now, while what we talk about right before this was all about controlling light, depth of field (DOF) is referring to the “blurriness” of everything outside of the object you are focusing on. So, what does it actually mean!? To put it simply, the SMALLER you f-stop, the shallower your DOF. Or to explain it in even simpler terms, if you have a smaller f-stop, you will get more blur from the objects that are further or closer to you than the object in focus. But pictures will definitely help clear up any confusion on this! So, here you go! Here we’re only focusing on the blurriness so I’ve adjusted the other settings to keep both images looking bright (because remember, if you change the F to change the blur, you’re changing the amount of light coming in).






HIGH F-STOP: smaller aperture, less depth of field, darker

LOW F-STOP: larger aperture, more depth of field, brighter


Here’s just another example of what DOF can do!  If you didn’t know I ADORE eggnog and took this photo for a blog I did a little while ago, describing just how awesome it is!  But on a photography note, notice how blurry the cartons in the back are.  I shot this on 1.8 and focused right on the front corner of the front carton.





SHUTTER SPEED: how fast your camera clicks


Shutter speed really isn’t that complicated! On a different day I’ll talk about how it relates to using artificial light from flashes but I’m still working on mastering that one myself so I’m not quite ready to go into it. However, I do understand the basics of it so I’ll quickly explain. Your shutter speed controls how many seconds your lens remains open while taking a shot and is shown either as a whole number or as a fraction. For instance, if you have your camera set to 1/5, that tells your camera to leave the lens open for one fifth of a second. Likewise, if you set your camera to 2, then the lens will stay open for a literal two seconds. “Mr. Jackson! What does it actually do to my pictures?” Great question Jimmy! It does a few things!  If you have your lens open longer, then you are letting in more light! So while aperture controls light by having a larger opening for more light to get in, shutter speed controls light by more or less light to get in based on the time it’s open. It’s really fascinating actually how it works! My D7100 can get all the way to 1/8000 of a second! WHAT?! That’s super fast! But at that speed, it can only let light into the camera for one eight thousandth of a second, so not a ton of light! Just to illustrate though, here’s a few photos with me controlling only the shutter speed and letting everything else remain the same.




Basics-Shutter-Speed-Aperture-ISO-4 Basics-Shutter-Speed-Aperture-ISO-14


Next though, unless you’re going for some cool, stylized photo, you have to watch out for camera shake! The dreaded blurry image can ruin just about anything. And the longer your shutter is open, the more likely you are to have some camera shake blurriness showing up. To put this in practical terms, if you are taking a shot of someone sitting still smiling at you, then you don’t need your shutter to be THAT fast, but if you are taking pictures where action is involved, the faster the better. General rule: 1/1000 is pretty much fast enough to catch any rapid movement caused during sports photography. Faster and you’re getting into what you’d need to catch ridiculously fast stuff, like cheetah’s running or hummingbird wings.

FASTER SHUTTER: less blur from movement, darker images

SLOWER SHUTTER: more blur from movement, brighter images



ISO: the sensitivity of your camera sensor to light

ISO stands for International Standards Organization and has two main functions. First, as with the other two discussed, it controls light. But HOW!? Well, that parts is a LITTLE confusing but once you understand it makes perfect sense. The larger your ISO, the bigger the pixels in your image will be… Instead of trying to hammer through this and possibly really confuse you, I’m just going to stick up the images and let that be that.  On this image I set my camera to it’s maximum ISO at 25,600.


Notice how when the ISO is higher, the images are a lot more grainy! The explanation, ISO controls how big your particles are. So, if you have your ISO set higher your pixels are bigger, making your image look grainy. BUT, BIGGER particles don’t need as much light to activate them where SMALLER particles need a lot more light.

I’m just confusing myself though re-reading that.  Putting it in the simplest terms I can, if you have smaller particles but setting your ISO low, your images will look less grainy BUT these small particles will require more light to activate.

HIGH ISO: big particles (grainy image), brighter images

LOW ISO: small particles (image will be more clear), darker images


Bringing it all together! In the end, it is a juggling act to make these three work together in harmony and depending on the situation, you’ll need to prioritize differently. If you’re shooting sports, having a quick shutter speed is essential (may have to set ISO higher depending on how much light you have and have a lower f-stop). If you’re shooting children, you can drop the shutter speed down and you may want to have a little bit more blur in the background by having a large aperture. If you are going for an artistic, rustic look you may purposefully increase your ISO (you’d have to make shutter faster and f-stop bigger). And it all comes into full culmination as you practice! Don’t expect this to all happen overnight because that is downright impossible! But don’t allow yourself to shoot on automatic forever either! Just take the plunge and after a few weeks of working on it you’ll be glad you did! And if this was at all helpful, share it with someone you know who’s working on this stuff! Hopefully it’ll help them as much as it’s helped me!


If you have any questions, you can shoot me an email at danieljacksonstudios(at)


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To God be the glory,

daniel jackson

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