How to Easily Get Started in Manual Mode Photography

September 27, 2022

It is not as difficult as you think

Photo by Matheus Munhoz on Unsplash

Today I am going to introduce how I approach manual mode photography.

Many of my students struggle with how to make photographs in M.

The numbers confuse them, or many are unsure how to change the settings. Or worse, many get discouraged and stop shooting.

I am not going to lie. There is a lot of technical information about how a photograph is made. One could spend a lifetime studying math, science, and physics.

But we are not here for that today.

Today I am going to make it easy for you how you can quickly shoot in manual mode.

A story of a ‘professional’ student of mine

Photo by Sonnie Hiles on Unsplash

Before I share the secrets I have in store for you today, I want to share some inspiration with you.

While living and working in New York City, I had a student who contacted me asking how to photograph people.

We scheduled a two-hour lesson to cover the questions she had submitted.

When we sat down together, I asked what her specific goals were. She admitted that she worked for a high-end company and her boss gave her the assignment to photograph an event.

She was stressed beyond belief because her boss gave her a specific assignment. She was to photograph the company’s CEO in a formal setting.

She feared she could not control her camera to make the CEO and the company logo on the wall both sharp.

I assured her that her photographs would be amazing and shared the following tips.

The camera has secrets

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

I first shared with my student that the camera has secrets.

It does not matter what brand of camera you use. If you are making digital photographs, your camera gives you a gift.

It remembers what is called EXIF data.

If you have never heard of EXIF data, it is technical information that lives in the photo files.

My student was using a Nikon DSLR. I asked her to make a photograph in the classroom of a chair in the camera mode she was comfortable in.

Once she pushed the shutter, I asked her to press the play button to review her photo.

When the image appeared, I pushed the down arrow on the arrow pad to reveal the technical details.

Her eyes lit up wide as saucers when she saw that the camera revealed the F-stop, shutter, and ISO details. I could see the wheels spin in her mind of the possibilities.

Keep a small notebook

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

I shared with my student that it is a great idea to keep a small notebook in her pocket to keep ideas for her photography.

We used a sheet of scrap paper and wrote down the details of the F-stop, shutter, and ISO.

I asked her to switch to M on her camera.

She hesitated for a moment and sighed before turning the mode dial.

Once in M, I asked her to set the F-stop, shutter, and ISO the same as she had seen from the previous photo in P mode.

She asked me the point because these settings would produce the same photo.

I replied that I would introduce W.A.I.S to photographing in manual mode to understand the settings entered.


Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash

Now you may think that W.A.I.S. sounds more like a machine name than something you would hear about in photography.

But stick with me; I promise you will enjoy what I am about to share.

W.A.I.S. stands for:

  • White Balance
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • Shutter Speed

My student looked at me with curiosity as I explained.

When you take the settings from the initial photograph to plug it into M mode, it gets the exposure in the ballpark.

This is what the camera ‘thinks’ is the correct exposure.

Sometimes it is good, and sometimes it is wrong.

You can use the base setting of another mode on your camera to determine what the camera deems correct.

Then, you can use W.A.I.S. to set up your exposure before your subject arrives to perfect the shot.

Even the best photographer in the world can make careless mistakes if they don’t have time to find their light.

She questioned how this applied to the C.E.O. she was about to photograph at an event for her company.

I explained that using the prior P mode made a significant exposure, but it was not the image she required.

Yet, using W.A.I.S. as a checklist to set up your manual photographs, she would get the shot she wanted.

The checklist

  1. First, set your white balance. Set it to automatic and forget it. And as a professional photographer, I suggest that anyone set the automatic white balance on modern cameras. Some of us enjoy technical challenges in WB, but most of the time, the camera does a great job without modifications.
  2. Second, choose your aperture (also known as F-stop). If you are not sure where to start, begin in the middle. The average point for most lenses on the market today is F8. Remember, F8 is great! Any numbers lower than F8 produce a shallow depth of field (subject in focus, with the background more blurred). Any numbers higher than F8 on your apertures create a large depth of field (subject and background more in focus). The lower numbers produce more light, and the higher numbers make less light also. Set the aperture number that you choose and forget it.
  3. Third, choose your ISO. If you are confused about where to set your ISO, use this cheat sheet: 100 for bright sunny days, 400 for cloudy days, and 800 + for indoors and nighttime. Note: The lower ISOs will produce less light, and the higher ISOs will produce more light. The lower ISOs have less noise/grain, and the higher ISOs produce more noise/grain depending on the camera you use. Set the ISO that you choose and forget it.
  4. Last but not least, choose your shutter speed. If you are confused about where to start, there are two ways to go. The first is to set the shutter to 1/60th of a second (known as the handheld mode in photography). You can decide if you need to adjust darker or brighter. The second and more practical way is to use the camera’s built-in light meter.

The light meter

If you have never seen a light meter before, no worries. It looks like a little line when you look into your viewfinder.

Some more modern mirrorless cameras will have a digital light meter.

The normal light meter looks like this:

— ___|___|___|___0___|___|___|___ +

The newer light meters look like this:

— 1.0 or +2.0 will be on the bottom right of your screen if you have a camera that supports this style.

The first goal of the light meter is for you to try to balance the light by getting the dot or line to 0. On your digital light meters, you will see it read 0.0.

By using the W.A.I.S. formula above, you can easily set your shutter speed until your light meter gets to 0.

Every time your light changes, you change your light meter

Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash

If you are paying attention, the above method gives you an easy way to set up your photographs.

You have one job: playing with one setting under the shutter speed to learn.

I always suggest that my students play with one set at a time in M until they get comfortable with it.

Once you are comfortable, you can begin to play with the relationship of ALL the settings.

When you see the light change, change your shutter speed or settings to adjust your light meter.

With vigilance, you can get the image you want instead of the one your camera gives you.

And in the case of my student, she left my class with confidence.

Weeks later, my student shared that the CEO used her portrait for an email that went out to over 2 million people.

And the best part was that she created photographs every day after she understood her camera.

The photograph was a great shot, giving her momentum to take on other work in her company.

What we all need to remember about our cameras

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

One secret I will leave you with today is that you do not have to shoot in manual mode.

A great photograph is excellent, no matter what mode you shoot in.

I like the joke someone once shared about a couple in a restaurant that shared a delicious meal.

They asked the waitress what pots and pans the chef used to produce such a great meal.

The waitress explained that the pots were from the local dollar store. The chef started his restaurant with love, passion, and experience.

The couple was shocked, thinking that the restaurant only used the most expensive of everything.

The moral of the joke: You do not need expensive equipment or fancy ingredients to make a great meal.

And the same applies to your photography. You do not need expensive cameras or fancy tricks to make great photographs.

Love, passion, and time are three gifts that create what we want in our photographs.

And now that you understand your camera more, you too can make what you want with practice, like my student.

Thank you

I hope that this has inspired you to pick up your camera today.

I made a downloadable cheat sheet for you to practice manual photography with bonus tips. You can download it on my Gumroad for just $1 if you would like.

Or download my video course on “How to Improve Your Photography in Just 16 Minutes” with this cheat sheet for $9.99.

If you have specific questions on photography, I am happy to set up a remote photography coaching session with you on Zoom.

Sessions begin at $35/hr, and like my student, I can help to get you where you want to be.

Go forth with confidence, and happy shooting!

Hi, I am Charlie Naebeck
I am a husband, photographer, teacher, writer, and digital nomad.
Contact me here to book a photography coaching session.
Or find my digital classes and Ebooks on Gumroad or Udemy. 
-Voted in the top 10 photography teachers in NYC. 
-Top photography and inspiration writer on Medium.
-Students in over 42 different countries.
I also have written for The Phoblographer, Adorama, Dpture, and more.
If you like what you read, please consider giving me a follow on Medium.
Thank you!

How to Easily Get Started in Manual Mode Photography was originally published in Photography101 on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.