How to Use Manual Camera Settings on Your DSLR Camera

Getting the most control out of your DSLR

What to Know

  • Aperture: Represented by the f-stop. Aperture controls the amount of light that enters the camera through the iris in the lens.
  • Shutter Speed: Controls the length of time the shutter is open. Use fast speeds to freeze action, slow speeds for low-light conditions.
  • ISO: The camera's sensitivity to light. Higher settings allow more light into the camera, with a trade-off of introducing noise and grain.

In manual mode, the camera cedes full control of all settings to you as the photographer. If you practiced using aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes, then you'll find it a straightforward transition to manual camera settings. Let's look at the three key components of manual shooting mode. 

What Is the Aperture Setting?

Aperture controls the amount of light that enters the camera through the iris in the lens. These amounts are represented by "f-stops," and a large aperture is represented by a smaller number. So, for instance, f/2 is a large aperture and f/22 is a small aperture. ​Learning about aperture is an important aspect of advanced photography.

However, aperture also controls depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of the image surrounding and behind the subject is in focus. A small depth of field is represented by a small number, so f2 would give a photographer a small depth of field, while f/22 would give a large depth of field. 

Using a DSLR camera.
Ida Jarosova/Getty Images

What Is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed controls the amount of light entering your camera through its mirror—i.e., through the hole in the camera, as opposed to the lens.

DSLR cameras allow users to set the shutter speed from settings of around 1/4000th of a second through about 30 seconds and on some models, bulb, which allows the photographer to keep the shutter open for as long as they choose. 

Photographers use fast shutter speeds to freeze action, and they use slow shutter speeds at night to allow more light into the camera.

Slower shutter speeds mean that photographers won't be able to handhold their cameras and will need to use a tripod. It's widely accepted that 1/60th of a second is the slowest speed at which it's possible to go handheld.

So, a fast shutter speed only allows a small amount of light into the camera, while a slow shutter speed allows a lot of light into the camera.

What Is the ISO Setting?

ISO refers to the camera's sensitivity to light, and it has its origins in film photography, where different speeds of film had different sensitivities.

ISO settings on digital cameras typically range from 100 to 6400. Higher ISO settings allow more light into the camera, and they allow the user to shoot in low light situations. But the trade-off is that, at higher ISOs, the image will start to show noticeable noise and grain.

ISO should always be the last thing that you change because noise is never desirable. Leave your ISO on its lowest setting as a default, only changing it when absolutely necessary.

Putting Everything Together

So with all these things to remember, why shoot in manual mode at all?

It's usually for all of the reasons mentioned above—you want to have control over your depth of field because you're shooting a landscape, or you want to freeze action, or you don't want noise in your image. And those are just a few examples.

As you become a more advanced photographer, exercise more control over your camera. DSLRs are brilliantly clever, but they don't always know what you're trying to photograph. Their primary objective is to get enough light into the image, and they don't always know what it is you're trying to achieve from your photo. 

If you let a lot of light into your camera with your aperture, for example, you'll need a faster shutter speed and a low ISO, so that your image isn't over-exposed. Or, if you use a slow shutter speed, you'll likely need a smaller aperture as the shutter will be letting plenty of light into the camera. Once you have a general idea, you can easily figure out the various settings you need to use. What settings you'll actually need will also depend on how much available light there is.

iron triangle of photography
Wikimedia Commons 

Achieving the Correct Exposure

Knowing whether you have the correct exposure is not completely reliant on guesswork. All DSLRs have metering and an exposure level indicator. This will be represented both in the viewfinder, and either on the camera's LCD screen or the external information screen (depending on what make and model of DSLR you have). You'll recognize it as a line with the numbers -2 (or -3) to +2 (or +3) running across it.

The numbers represent f-stops, and there are indentations on the line set in thirds of a stop. When you've set your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to what you require, press the shutter button halfway and look at this line. If it's reading a negative number, it means your shot will be under-exposed, and a positive number means over-exposure. The goal is to achieve a "zero" measurement, although you need not worry if it's one-third of a stop over or under this, as photography is subjective to your own eye.

So, if your shot is going to be vastly under-exposed, for instance, you'll need to let some more light into your shot. Depending on the subject of your image, you can then decide whether to adjust your aperture or shutter speed—or, as a last resort, your ISO.

Follow all of these tips, and you will soon have full manual mode under control.

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