Manual Settings On Camera: Photography Basics Overview
September 1, 2021
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Learning to use manual settings on a camera can be very intimidating. There are so many different settings, and it's easy to get overwhelmed.
Manual mode is an essential part of photography that every photographer needs to know, but most people don't learn until they have already purchased their first DSLR camera. When you're just starting with a new camera, the last thing you want is more confusion about how your gear works!
This article will give an overview of each setting (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and metering modes) and explain what it does - specifically for beginners learning how to shoot in manual mode from scratch.
We'll also include some tips for getting started shooting manually and troubleshooting common problems when misusing these settings. By the end of this post, you should feel confident enough about your equipment that you can go out and take amazing photos without worrying about whether or not your photo will turn out correctly or not.
This Is An Overview Article (Dive Deeper Within Each Section)
To ensure this article isn't too long, we've decided to make this a type of pillar article. You'll receive an overview of each manual camera setting with the option to dive deeper into each by following the more profound dive article within that section.
It's encouraged to read the deeper article, but not required. If you grasp the information given within that section - there wouldn't be a need to dive any deeper!
We're just giving you the option to do so.
It's assumed that you already know how to put your camera into manual mode, and it's currently in that set already. Therefore, this article only covers manual mode and the settings used to get the correct exposure. This article does not cover auto mode, shutter priority mode, or aperture priority mode (the links are to their corresponding articles).
Let's get going!
The 5 Main Manual Camera Settings
Generally speaking, there are five main manual camera settings within any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera. These camera settings include:
But, aperture, in a nutshell, is the opening within the front element of your lens. Using aperture blades, you can either open it up or close it down. The process of opening and closing affects exposure, bokeh, and overall image quality.
Aperture is identified on every lens with an F number. An example would be a Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 L USM. 24-70mm is the focal length, F/2.8 is the aperture, L is the class, and USM is the ultrasonic autofocus motor.
The range of aperture depends on the lens and its quality. But, the lower the F-number, the bigger the opening can be. The higher the number, the smaller opening. Example: An f/2.8 will open wider than an F/4 or F/5.6 (which will allow more light to pass through the lens).
By opening the aperture blades, your image will:
Become more exposed (brighter)
Have more bokeh (blurry background)
Have a short focal plane (less of the image in focus, can be harder to focus on specific areas)
By closing down the aperture (closing the blades), your image will:
Become less exposed (darker)
Have less bokeh (background won't be as blurry)
Have a larger focal plane (more of your image will be in focus and easier to focus overall)
There are two ways you can change the aperture (not all can change using both). The most common is by using a wheel or dial that's dedicated to doing just that.
For instance, the dial you control with your thumb rolls left to right on a Sony camera. Rolling it right closes down the aperture, and rolling it left opens them. Pretty simple, right?
The other option is to change it on the camera's screen. Many modern Canon cameras allow you to do this in live view mode - while Sony cameras do not.
Here are a few common problems or results that can be accomplished using aperture.
Blurry buttery background: This is accomplished using low aperture values—mainly apertures below f/2.8. Aperture values of f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4, and f/1.2 give excellent results in relation to the distance from the subject. Generally speaking, the lower you're able to go in aperture (or broader the opening is) - the more bokeh or blur you'll have. Using a high aperture value like f/5.6, f/11, or f/16 would do the opposite (less blur, everything is more focused.
Difficulty focusing: While bokeh is excellent, the more you open your lens, the less the image is in focus. There are extreme aperture lenses like the 58mm Noct f/.95 by Nikon. When shooting at f/.95, your focal plane is no more than a couple of inches - meaning about 2 inches of depth is all you will get in terms of focus and sharpness. Everything else is blurry.
While that is an extreme case - the same can be said about any other aperture value. An f/1.2 lens will be much harder to focus than an f/1.8 - and an F/1.8 will be harder to concentrate than an F/2.8 - and so forth. This is very relative to what and how you're shooting, but it's a fact across all lenses and manufacturers. The solution is to increase your aperture until you get the desired focus and sharpens where you want it (though you will lose some of the bokeh).
My image isn't very sharp: This is a common statement among beginners, and to be honest, there are many reasons this could be happening. It could be from camera shake and subject movement, along with your shutter speed being too low. Or, what I recommend trying, is increasing your aperture if it's below f/2.8. You will naturally lose sharpness and image quality when pushing a lens to its extreme. It's is very apparent when using budget/affordable lenses. The higher the quality of the lens, the less of this issue becomes apparent.
Setting Shutter Speed In Manual Camera Settings
We will now go over the fundamentals of shutter speed settings and set it in your camera while in manual mode. If you'd like a deeper dive into the subject (and how to use it creatively) - you can read our related article, What is Shutter Speed: The Ultimate Guide.
Before talking about speed, let's talk about what a shutter is. The shutter is the piece inside of your camera that moves in front of your camera sensor. It's what makes that clicking noise as you take photos. What it's doing is opening and closing to allow light to hit it - at the speed that you set it.
I like to think of it as an eyelid. You open your eyes to see (absorb light) - and when you close your eyes, you don't see anything. Your camera is doing the same thing. It's the speed of this 'blink' that affects exposure and how the light is captured.
Shutter speeds can range from very slow (1/1 or one second (and even much lower than that)) to very fast (1/8000 or 1/8000th of a second). Slower shutter speeds allow light to hit the sensor for a more extended amount of time - you'll have a brighter image. The opposite can be said about fast shutter speed - light hits the sensor for a shorter time, so your image will be darker.
When you use a slower shutter speed, your image can/will:
Be more exposed (brighter)
Possibility of motion blur (both camera shake/subject movement if set too low)
When your shutter speed is fast your image can/will:
Be less exposed (darker)
Freeze motion (sharper movement images)
Shutter speed is usually the second easiest to understand (with ISO being the easiest)
You can set and adjust shutter speed much like an aperture. For instance, on a Sony, there is a dial on the top right (in front of the shutter release/trigger button) that you can adjust the shutter speed in real-time. Roll it to the right to increase speed; roll to the left to lower it. Again, very easy.
Here are some common questions and problems that can be resolved by adjusting shutter speed.
My images are blurry: Don't mistake this for bokeh. No, there is an apparent unwanted blur in your image that doesn't look good. This problem is directly related to slow shutter speed. Generally speaking, your shutter speed is too slow. You'll want to bump that up. What's happening is your shutter opens and is staying open too long - during this time, it's capturing movement - it's this movement that you don't want. You want it to quickly grasp the image, keeping it sharp - especially when your subject is in motion.
Image blur can also be caused by camera movement (you, as the photographer, are moving too much). This is very common below shutter speeds of 1/80. If you find yourself in this situation, use a faster shutter speed. If you can't - your next best bet is to put your camera on a tripod.
My image is too dark/bright: A few factors could be playing into this issue. First, we're talking about the three aspects of the exposure triangle. So, it could be aperture or ISO that are set incorrectly. I usually start by checking shutter speed. If the scene is too dark - make sure your shutter speed isn't set too fast. If it's too bright, check that it's not set too low. If both of these check out ok - you'll then move on to check aperture and ISO settings.
Setting ISO In Manual Camera Mode
I believe ISO is the easiest to both understand and use when shooting in manual mode.
With that being said, every brand and model handles ISO differently. So knowing how your make and model handles it will allow you to be more prepared when you have to use it. You can find more detailed information in our related article, What Does ISO Mean On A Camera: Everything You Need To Know.
In a nutshell, ISO is a numeric representation of how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light. Increase the ISO number, and your sensor becomes more acute - as a result, your image becomes brighter. Conversely, lower that value, and your sensor is less sensitive, and your image becomes darker. It makes sense, right?
You can easily brighten a dark scene by just increasing the ISO until your image is exposed correctly. But keep in mind, your camera is doing this on a digital level - the increase in exposure isn't 'real' and is created entirely by the processes that happen past the sensor itself (the chip/processor within the camera itself). This is why each brand and sensor is different - they all handle this differently.
Using ISO introduces grain or digital noise to an image. Again, the amount and severity of the noise created depend on your camera's brand, model, and sensor.
You can adjust ISO on most digital cameras through the menu screen. For instance: One a SONY - there isn't a default dial on the body itself (but you can program one) - you would go into the menu and select ISO then increase or decrease the value to what you need it to be. Again, very simple.
I recommend shooting at your camera's native ISO, usually 100 (again, check with your manufacturer). I never change it (if I don't have to) - I then set my aperture to what I want it to be and use shutter speed exclusively to adjust the exposure from there. Keep your ISO at 100 to avoid overexposure, digital noise and to maintain as much dynamic range as possible.
Here are a couple of common issues that can be fixed by checking and adjusting your ISO settings:
My picture is grainy: This is a widespread issue when shooting indoors. You'll have to use ISO more often than not if you don't have a dedicated lighting setup or a couple of flashes/strobes. The problem arises when increasing your ISO too much. What I would recommend is checking your ISO - if it's above 3200 - lower it. You can then adjust your aperture or shutter speed to compensate for the adjustment. If you can't do either, try to move to a different area in that space (preferably close to a naturally lit window). If that isn't an option either - you'll have to deal with the issue and hope you can fix it while editing.
My picture is too bright: This is much like the problem we ran into when talking about shutter speed. But it's interesting - from the beginners that I have taught - the most common reason for overexposed or too bright images is that the ISO was set incorrectly. A few days ago, I had someone send me an email wondering how to edit an over-exposed image. First, they sent me a jpg (always edit raw files); after walking her through what a canon raw file looked like on her SD card (.CL3 file) - I went to edit it myself and saw their settings. 1600 ISO and a shutter speed of 1/800 on a clear sunny day. That's the issue, and no reason for it. An ISO of 100 and a SS of 1/200 would have equated to a much better image overall.
Overview Of White Balance In Manual Mode Settings
White balance is a manual camera setting that you either care about, or you don't. The reason being - you can change white balance settings after shooting within any photo editing software using RAW camera files.
It only matters when shooting video that isn't raw (anything outside of a RED, Alexa, or Black Magic camera).
Regardless, white balance is a range of color temperatures for a particular scene. These temperatures are represented on the Kelvin scale - with 3000k being very 'cool' or blue, 5500k being daylight (or white), and 7500k+ being 'warm' or orange/yellow.
You can choose whichever kelvin number you want in-camera - but there are settings within every camera that help you with this depending on where you're shooting.
Most cameras have a white balance setting for
Those are the most common white balance presets you'll see (and use) in-camera.
You can reach your white balance seeing in-camera by going through your special menus. SONY cameras, for instance, have a dedicated white balance section where you can choose either a kelvin value or one of the presets mentioned earlier.
Me, personally, I don't worry too much about white balance. However, I take note, mentally, about the lighting and color conditions - shoot in auto white balance mode (AWB) and make the corrections in post.
If I am shooting video - I never use AWB (because you can't change it in editing and make it look entirely accurate). Instead, I actively watch my screen to make sure that the colors look correct - and change it when I need to. The great thing about modern cameras is that you can adjust the camera and watch those adjustments in real-time on the screen. This helps a ton when comparing white balance settings.
A common question(s) and concerns that can be corrected using white balance:
My image is too yellow/warm: This is probably the most common issue that can be resolved with a white balance correction. If it is too warm - go back into your white balance menu and lower it until you have your desired look. Remember, if it is too warm, you want to go left on the scale or lower in Kelvin number. This is a straightforward fix.
Why are all my images different colors: This is something that I had issues with when I first started photography. I would take a photo, then three seconds later take another, and then another. Once I got home, I noticed that all three images would have different color temperatures throughout the photos. This is most likely caused by the fact that you have your camera set to AWB(auto white balance). So your camera is metering off of different things in the environment. Remember, you can always change it in post (if you're shooting photos) - or you can actively track it in camera and make adjustments when you see it happening.
Metering Modes And How To Use Them In Manual Camera Settings
If you've ever dived deep in your digital camera and noticed there are metering modes... great job! If not - you're in luck. We're going to go over them right now.
Metering is the way your camera lets you know where your scene is at the correct exposure. This is directly linked to the exposure meter/bar that's on every camera. You know, the bar that goes left and right, either + or -3 with a 0 (zero) in the middle... Well, metering is where the camera gets the data to tell you whether you're correctly exposed or not.
Different metering settings will give you exposure recommendations based on that setting. For instance, multi-metering takes exposure readings of multiple parts of the image to provide you with the perfect exposure. This is the most common setting and is set to default on most cameras for this very reason.
There's also point metering that will only meter off a single point in your image and give exposure recommendations based on that.
There's also full screen and highlight metering. Full-screen metering attempts to give you recommendations based on the entire scene. You can think of an HDR image for this one (no harsh highlights or shadows).
Highlight metering meters off of only the highlights in the scene. Great for taking landscape or beach photos where you want as much dynamic range in the sky (highlights) while watching what is happening to the foreground (without casting it straight into shadow).
My Shooting Process On Location (During Every Shoot)
I thought I would include the manual camera settings process that I use on every shoot that I'm on. I do not shoot in priority modes or automatic (although I used to when I was a beginner). I only shoot in manual mode to absorb all of the power and creative potential that my camera offers. Here is my process step by step.
Set my metering mode to muli-metering. This ensures I get the best exposure recommendations based on highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.
Set white balance to auto (this is where it could be different for you if you want to put this manually).
Make sure my ISO is to 100 (to ensure I'm getting the best dynamic range)
Set my aperture where desired (usually wide open or f/1.8-f/2.8 depending on the lens, and i"m shooting portraits)
Adjust shutter speed to correct any exposure issues. Use shutter speed exclusively to adjust the exposure from that point on.
Things can change within a shoot. For example, I may need to increase my aperture if I shoot family portraits or have one subject slightly behind another. So I would shift from f/1.8 to about f/2.8 to ensure both issues are in focus. Or I may adjust shutter speed and ISO if we go outdoors to indoors (wedding photographers do this a lot).
If you're shooting video - everything stated in this article really won't pertain to you. This is because shutter speeds generally stay constant (you don't really want to change them) - and once everything is set - you want to maintain those settings to keep the footage consistent between scenes. Shooting video and getting it correct is a bit more complex than photography. You can check out our related article, Shutter Speed For Video: The Best Shutter Speed Settings For Video , where we discuss everything about shutter speed, but for video!
That About Does It!
We hope this article has been helpful for you and that it gives you the confidence to go out there and take some great photos. We want your photography journey to be a fun, educational experience. Hence, we encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter to receive more information on how-to's, tips & tricks, and discounts from our partners.
Bookmark this article. If at any point during your photoshoot something isn't working correctly with one of these settings (say aperture), reference this article. It'll help you just as much (if not more) in the field. You've got this! As I always say - if you have any questions, concerns, or requests - feel free to reach out directly at [email protected] or a DM on Facebook or Instagram.
Manual settings are settings on your camera that can either be controlled automatically or manually. Seeing as you're asking about manual - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, metering modes, flash compensation, and picture profiles can all be controlled manually within your camera settings.
What are the three basic camera settings?
The three basic camera settings (that will give your the correct exposure) are Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Once you have an idea of how these work (and work together) - you'll be set to understanding the other manual parts of your camera like metering, compensation, and profiles.
How do you use the manual funtioin on a camera?
It's pretty easy for you set your camera in manual mode. Every manufacturer is different - but generally speaking, you'll have a dial of some type that rotates to other methods on the camera. One of those modes is manual. It's usually represented with a large M. Once switched to that, you're able to control everything in your camera manually.
So most photographers shoot in manual mode?
It depends on the type of photographer. Professional photographers whose career is photography using manual mode. That or a priority mode (slightly less control than manual). If you're a beginner or hobbyist - you probably use auto mode or have in the past.