2017theme3: How To Improve Your Photos By Mastering Manual Mode

Photo by Alvaro Araujo Alcalde
Photo by Alvaro Araujo Alcalde

We’re halfway through January already, which means a lot of you are well into your 365 photography projects. I hope you’re finding it challenging and rewarding in equal measure. These days, scrolling through the Fresh feed and seeing everyone’s focus and effort is a motivating experience.

For last week’s winter landscapes theme, I asked you to find your inspiration in ice, snow, mountains, and stark leafless trees. I was nervous the cold would deter people, but I needn’t have worried. There were a ton of entries!

This week’s theme is all about shooting in manual mode. Don’t stop reading here! I know how scary making the jump to M for the first time can feel. For some reason, the idea of being in full manual control of your camera can cause steady hands to tremble. Trust me, I’ve been there. However, I believe the best way to remove that fear is to learn about exposure. Let’s jump into it!

2017 theme 2 Theme Winners:

Congratulations to these members! You can expect a PM from me in your inbox soon. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Check out the beautiful winning entry from PhotoBlog user Ian McGregor below. Props to Ian for being out shooting in minus 50 degrees!

Photo by Ian McGregor
Photo by Ian McGregor

2017 Theme 3: How To Improve Your Photos By Mastering Manual Mode

What is photography the art of? Photographer Elliot Erwitt described it as an art of observation. Meshack Otieno called it the art of frozen time. I’ve also heard it described as the art of capturing light. Which one sounds right to you?

I lean towards the last one. When we open our shutters, we expose our camera’s digital sensor or film to light. As photographers, it’s up to us to decide how best to capture that light.

Photo by Marcus Dall Col
Photo by Marcus Dall Col

This week, you’ll learn about the fundamental elements involved in creating an exposure. Then, you’ll experiment with manual mode until you feel confident. Finally, you’ll share your favorite images from the week.

Once you learn how to use manual mode, I’m sure you’ll be hooked. Many photographers use it in conjunction with shutter and aperture priority modes. The power and control going full manual provides is addictive. Personally, my photography has come on leaps and bounds since mastering manual mode. It’s all about wrestling back control from your camera’s onboard computer. Own the creative process!

How to Participate:

Deadline: January 22nd, 2017

How to submit: Add 2017theme3 as one of the tags in your post on the PhotoBlog platform

Check out the submissions: Use the Weekly Theme tab

Support and encourage: Like and comment on your favorite posts

Exposure: The 3 Elements

There are three essential elements to every photograph you take. They are interrelated, so a lot of tutors talk about an exposure triangle. The elements making up the triangle’s three corners are ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.


This means how sensitive your digital sensor or film is to light. The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity. The standard ISO is 100, which is typically used for shooting on a bright sunny day. Modern cameras, such as the Canon 5D Mark IV, can go anywhere up to ISO 102,400!

Shutter Speed

This means how long the shutter stays open for when exposing the sensor or film. My camera shutter’s highest speed is 1/8000th of a second, while its slowest is 30 seconds. In manual mode and shutter priority mode, you dial in this speed.


This means the blades inside your camera’s lens. They open to form the hole that allows light into your camera. In manual mode and aperture priority mode, you control how wide. For example, an aperture of f/22 means the blades form a very small hole. This restricts light into the camera. An aperture of around f/1.4 is a large circle allowing a lot of light in. The pupils in your eyes work in exactly the same way.

Getting Your Priorities Straight

Altering any of the above three elements has a different creative effect on your image. It’s important to know what these effects are. It’s also important to know if you alter one element, you’ll need to alter the others to get a correct exposure.

It really isn’t so difficult because of your camera’s inbuilt light meter. You can see it when you put your eye to the viewfinder. When the line hits the center, this means you have a correct exposure.

Take a break from reading and watch this fantastic video by photographer couple Tony and Chelsea Northrup. They’ll explain what altering ISO, aperture, and shutter speed will do to your photos, as well as explain manual mode further.

I’ll recap some of the main points:

Altering Shutter Speed

You can use a slow shutter speed to imply motion. A good example of this is when photographers blur moving vehicles:

Photo by Carina Sze
Photo by Carina Sze

You can use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. This is particularly useful with fast-moving sports:

Photo by Johannes Waibel
Photo by Johannes Waibel

Altering Aperture

You can use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field. This means a nice blurry background in portraits and street scenes:

Photo by Michael Ramey
Photo by Michael Ramey

You can use a narrow aperture to create a deep depth of field. This means front to back sharpness throughout the image. You’d want this in a landscape:

Photo by Michael Baird
Photo by Michael Baird

Altering ISO

Increasing the ISO makes the sensor more sensitive to light. This enables you in turn to have a faster shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds allow in less light, so you need to make your sensor more sensitive with extra ISO. Makes sense!

A more obvious use for a high ISO is in low light situations. For examples, indoors party photography. A more specific use is with astrophotography, where an ISO of 800 of 1600 is used in combination with a long exposure:

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan


There’s a reason why the two semi-manual modes on your camera are called the shutter and aperture priority modes. It’s because you’ve got to train yourself to ask ‘What is my priority for the shot I’m about to take?’ Is your priority to blur motion or to freeze it? Or is your priority to have a blurry background or front to back sharpness?

Think about what your priority is when shooting this week.

First, think about ISO. Even in manual mode, you can tell your camera to select ISO automatically. This could be helpful if you’d like one less thing to think about. Next, pay attention to either shutter speed or aperture depending on your priority for the shot. After you’ve selected one accordingly, alter the other until the light meter shows a correct exposure.

Your mission is to experiment with full manual mode and share your images. Since it’s more of an educational post than usual, I promise to offer some constructive feedback on every entry. Feel free to combine this theme with the 365 calendar of photo ideas. All you have to do is switch that dial to M!


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About the author

Ben McKechnie

Ben is a photographer, writer, and editor. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Currently to be found editing, photographing, and eating his way around beautiful Taiwan. Ben is a graduate of MatadorU's Advanced Travel Photography course. Check out more of his recent India-based photojournalism over on on his Facebook page and Instagram using the links above.

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