The Beginner’s Guide to Photographing in Manual Mode • The Blonde Abroad
Ready to take your photography to the next level? The best way to step up your game is to learn how to shoot in Manual Mode. I know it may sound extremely daunting when you hear technical terms thrown around like “bokeh, aperture, ISO, and reading the meter,“—so that’s why I’ve created this beginner’s guide!
Trust me, it’s not as scary as it seems! You just have to take it step by step.
Shooting in Manual Mode gives you significantly more control over every shot. When I first made the jump to an interchangeable lens camera, I was WAY to intimidated to learn technical photography and wasted many years settling with Auto.
While photo editing is a big part of the process, becoming a better photographer is essential.
Want to step up your photography game? Here’s my beginner’s guide to shooting in Manual Mode with your camera!
Camera Settings Tips
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW can be a lifesaver, especially when you are a newbie. This will allow you to edit your pics and make significant changes if you need to. Shooting in JPG takes a bit less space but that’s about the only benefit.
Heads up, if you shoot in RAW—you will need to convert it to a JPG before transferring it to your phone/sharing online. RAW usually can’t be transferred directly to mobile phones.
If you want to share instantly, snap a quick shot with your phone. You actually can get good shots on your phone if you know what you’re doing (check out this guide).
Watch a Tutorial
I can’t stress this enough—take the time to find a high-rated video that goes over all the settings of your camera so you can locate them more easily and know what features the camera has. You’ve invested in the camera so you should learn how to use all of its settings!
So many years went by where I missed out cool photos I could have taken, simply because I didn’t know my camera was capable of taking them! Heads up, some of the videos can be quite long (about 45 minutes to an hour, but they’re well worth it).
Tutorials will typically show you how to change the format from JPG to RAW as well!
Body and lenses vary depending on the camera you invest in. When you take the leap from a point and shoot camera to one with interchangeable lenses, I would recommend investing in a mirrorless camera and there are a few things to consider: full-frame or crop sensor.
Full-Frame: essentially there are more pixels present in images shot on full-frame cameras, which will result in higher resolution and better quality images (great for if you’re blowing up photos and making prints).
Crop Sensor: generally crop sensor cameras are less expensive, but you can still snap gorgeous photos!
I recommend investing in a kit lens. You’ll typically see these lenses bundled with the camera body of your choice. It’s usually a zoom lens—for example, a standard Fujifilm kit lens is the 18-55mm F/2.8; which means that it can zoom from 18 to 55mm and the widest aperture available is 2.8.
Prime lenses are great for fashion photography and portraits. If you foresee yourself doing a lot of this kind of photography, it’s a great lens to have in your arsenal.
For landscape photographers, a wide-angle lens can also be quite beneficial. I shoot with the 10-24mm f/4 with Fujifilm. The nice thing about this lens is that it’s wide-angle at 10mm, but when I zoom in to 24mm it’s no longer wide, so it makes the lens a little more versatile.
If you have specific questions about a lens or your camera, going to a local camera shop or B&H are great places to get tips on which lens is right for you.
Curious about my photography gear? Find my essentials for travel photography here!
Cape Town, South Africa
The Best Lighting for Photography
Your optimal hours for photography are going to be daylight hours as there is more light available, and you can basically set your ISO and not worry about it the whole day. The trickiest times to shoot will be around dawn, dusk, and after the sun goes down…or in a place with a lot of shadows.
In the world of photography, there is something called the “golden hour” that occurs just before and after the times of sunrise and sunset. The “blue hour” is when the sun is below and the indirect sunlight creates a blue shade.
I’m not the type of person who only shoots during golden hour as that doesn’t usually work for my schedule. There are times when I have to deal with really difficult lighting but you make do with what you’ve got!
However, as a general rule of thumb, if you are able to plan things around nice lighting (early morning or just before sunset) the light will be softer and is conducive to a “dreamy” feeling in your photos.
Camera Settings: The Holy Trinity
You know how auto-correct never seems to know what you want to say when you’re composing a text? Your camera operates in a similar way when you shoot on Auto.
You can’t trust the auto settings on your camera to read your mind and capture exactly what you want.
When you shoot in Manual Mode, you have complete control over all of the camera settings. You can fine-tune your images and figure out the best settings to capture what you want. Say goodbye to blurry and overexposed images!
To get your head around using Manual Mode, there are three core ideas you need to know:
Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed.
Aperture controls how wide the lens is open.
This is a crucial aspect because it affects two things: how much light enters your lens and determines how much of the scene you have in focus.
Aperture is commonly referred to as F-stop (not really intuitive, I know) and you’ll sometimes see this written as “F” followed by a and number, like F/2.8.
This is the setting you need to master to nail the depth-of-field you want!
That dreamy blurry background of a portrait that so many folks love? That’s called bokeh—and by learning how to play with the aperture, you can achieve just that.
A low number aperture (F/1.4 – F/5.6), gives you more depth of field and it’s what you want for a bokeh effect in the background. The lower the number, the more the background of your subject will be out of focus.
If you are shooting a landscape shot and you want the whole scene to be in focus (your subject and background), you want a higher numerical aperture (ex. F/10 – F/22).
The lower the number aperture, the more light will be let in, and the higher the number aperture, the less light will be let in. While it’s easy to think of aperture as the depth of field, it works directly with ISO and Shutter Speed, which we will touch on later.
When you’re first starting to play with different settings, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. So why not just try one thing at a time? Your camera actually has a setting just for this!
We’re talking Aperture Priority.
Lion photographed at F/2.8; less depth of field. Elephants photographed at F/5.6; more depth of field.
Using Aperture Priority, your Shutter Speed and ISO will be set automatically. This way, you just control aperture and can focus on depth of field.
Your camera will display the Aperture Priority as A or Av.
It’s helpful to take the same photo at different apertures to see how it really changes a photo.
Now that we’ve covered Aperture, let’s talk about ISO! ISO controls your camera’s sensitivity to light and affects the graininess of your photo.
Here again, you’ll just need to learn the right number for certain lighting situations.
The brighter it is outside, the lower you can set your ISO. For super sunny days, you might get down to 200-400 ISO. If you are shooting in low-light conditions, you might need to bump your ISO higher to something like 3200.
However, a higher ISO will create a grainy effect—so most of the time it’s best to stick to a lower ISO (if possible).
Typically, I keep my ISO at about 400 and don’t need to touch it until dusk/sunset .
The shutter speed controls how long or short your camera is open to expose light. This determines if your photo is crisp or blurry (think cars blurring on the street or water in motion).
When it is bright outside, you will want a faster shutter speed so that the scene doesn’t get washed out.
Aperture and Shutter Speed work together—think of it like your eyelids and pupils. The Aperture works like a pupil to control how much light enters. Meanwhile, the shutter comes down like an eyelid blinking.
PRO TIP: A general rule of thumb for the slowest shutter speed you can use without a camera is to measure 2x the length of your lens. For example, if I’m shooting on a 35mm lens, 2×35= 70. The slowest I would shoot without a tripod is a shutter speed of 125 instead of 60, because I know 60 is too slow and would result in a blurry photo.
You will need a faster shutter speed if you are trying to capture a moving object (a horse, fast car, trying to capture a jumping shot) and for very bright lighting situations.
If you’re using a tripod, go wild with slow shutter speeds! This is what you would use for night photography and extremely low-light situations.
PRO TIP: If you are shooting in low light with a tripod, also use your timer so that your camera has as little movement as possible before the shutter is triggered.
Using Your Light Meter
You might have heard the phrase “reading the meter” before. When people say this, they are talking about the little bar inside the viewfinder. This will tell you if your photo is properly exposed to the current settings or if you need to make an adjustment.
Why do you want a photo properly exposed?
If it’s too bright, you will lose a lot of the details. On the contrary, if it’s too dark you might not be able to brighten or bring up the shadows enough.
Either case could leave you with a photo that you’re not happy with.
Remember that photography is an art. Some photographers like to shoot a little underexposed while others go for an overexposed style. It’s just a personal preference. However, when you are starting out—I’d highly recommend aiming to properly expose your photos (0 on the meter) and discover your personal style in the editing process.
This ensures you have a good base photo to play with and don’t have to worry about rescuing it.
PRO TIP: If you are shooting in mixed lighting (ex. backlight subject or a scene with shadows) you might not be able to trust your meter. In this case, you’ll have to trust your eye. I personally choose to shoot slightly underexposed in these scenarios to capture better lighting of the brightest part of my photo. It’s easier to lift shadows than to fix overexposure.
Master the colors of your shots and create a consistent aesthetic as you master the essentials of photography. I created these custom Lightroom Presets for Desktop and Mobile to help you add a beautiful aesthetic to your photos. Apply the presets then customize your settings to make them your own!
When it comes to composition (the position of objects/people inside of your frame), the first thing to learn is the Rule of Thirds. Turning on the grid view will allow you to use this. In fact, your phone probably has these grids so you can turn them on right now to do a quick practice.
The idea of the Rule of Thirds is that you are breaking your image down into thirds to create nine parts.
With your view broken down into nine parts, you can spot the four key points of the photo that should serve as the centerpiece. Rather than placing your subject dead center, you might want to put it/her/him at one of the four intersections of the lines.
The rule of thirds plays into the balance of what our eyes naturally find appealing.
With or without gridlines set, be sure that everything in your photo is level. If the horizon or any other line is visible, be sure that it is straight across in your shot.
I typically shoot photography with Auto Focus on. Most modern cameras have great AF and you can leave this setting on auto. However, it is useful to know where to switch from auto to manual focus should you need it.
If your camera says the shot is in focus but the scene looks blurry to you through the viewfinder, it’s time to check your diopter. Your diopter dial is usually located near your viewfinder and can be turned clockwise or counterclockwise to adjust the focus of your eyesight. Be sure to look through it while you adjust it so you can tell when it’s in focus.
The white balance sets the temperature of your photo to determine if it’s more blue or yellow in tone. Having a consistent tone in your photos will start the editing process on the right foot (or just give you an instantly gorgeous shot!). You’ll find “White Balance” options for daylight, cloudy, and other conditions.
Typically, I leave mine set to auto, but there are scenarios where I’ll switch my White Balance from Auto to match tricky conditions.
Congrats for taking this huge step in learning a new skill. When you first start shooting in Manual Mode, it’s going to feel tedious BUT it gets easier! Like learning a new language, the more you practice, the more natural it becomes.