Using Manual Modes on Your Digital Camera

Manual modes can seem intimidating, especially if you don't know what the different settings control, and just how powerful those adjustments can be. Here's a crash course on what they do and how you can harness their power.
By , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

Have you seen those superb pictures of silky-smooth waterfalls and wished you could replicate them? Does your kid play a mean game of soccer but you can only manage to capture him or her as a blur?

Automatic scene modes work pretty well for a majority of the shooting situations out there, but will never replace fundamental photographic knowledge. With a quick brush-up on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, as well as a switch to manual mode, you’ll be taking better pictures in no time.

Does Your Camera Offer Manual Control?

Before we get started, it's important to note that most point-and-shoot digital cameras do not offer full manual modes. Most do offer a Program mode (the “P” setting on your mode dial or mode menu), which lets you adjust a few settings like exposure compensation, ISO levels, and white balance, but this is still leaving most of the decision-making to the camera.

When I say manual modes, I'm referring to Aperture Priority (“A”), Shutter Priority (“S”) and Manual (“M”), which lets you adjust both shutter speed and aperture. Check to make sure your camera has these settings before reading on, chances are it does if you paid more than $250.

For those who cringe at the word “manual,” put your minds at ease. Think of it as a biased automatic mode. You make some decisions and the camera adjusts the rest of the settings to ensure an accurately exposed photo.

Shutter Priority: Control the Shutter Speed

The most easily understood manual mode is Shutter Priority. This mode lets you set how long the shutter is open and exposing the sensor to light; the longer the shutter speed the more light hits the sensor. For example, a shutter speed of 1/8 second leaves the shutter open roughly twice as long as shutter speed 1/15 second.

With Shutter Priority, you can appropriately set the shutter speed for a given subject – slower for a serene landscape, faster for a running athlete. Dictating a slower shutter speed results in real benefits, too. A slower shutter speed will result in a lower ISO and less image noise. Your pictures will be clearer, sharper and never surprise you.

Aperture Priority: Controls Lens Opening

Aperture Priority isn’t as important as Shutter Priority for compact cameras, but is the setting I most often use on my dSLR. Rather than choosing a shutter speed, aperture priority allows you to choose the (you guessed it) aperture, which is the size of the lens' opening. This regulates how much light gets through to the sensor. Smaller f/stop numbers, like f2.8, have a wider opening and let in more light than, for example, f/5.6. Aperture also affects the amount of the picture in focus, or the depth of field. Wider apertures, like f/2.8, have a shallower depth of field and thus throw more of the background out of focus, drawing more attention to the main subject of the photo.

In practice, Aperture Priority lets you, at a given ISO, dictate depth of field within normal shutter speed constraints. If, for example, you’re taking a landscape photo you’ll want to choose a small aperture to ensure everything is in focus, but only as long as the shutter speed is above about 1/125 second. A slower shutter speed could cause blur, which will ruin the photo no matter what. Be aware, however, that compact cameras can never equal the depth-of-field control of a dSLR, so Aperture Priority will be of limited use on your compact camera.

Manual Mode: Controls Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

If you switch over to full Manual Mode, the camera makes no effort to correctly expose the photo: that's up to you. If you don't know what you're doing, you'll end up with completely white (overexposed) or dark (underexposed) images. The more you experiment, however, the better you'll know your camera and easier it will become to estimate an exposure. So try it out here and there – just not when you absolutely need to get an important shot.

ISO: Controls Sensitivity

After you've found a shutter speed or aperture that works well for you, tinker with the ISO (or light sensitivity) setting to ensure the best picture quality for a given situation. (Even on cameras without A, S, or M modes, you should be able to adjust ISO). To put it simply, higher ISOs yield shorter exposure times at the expense of more noise and reduced quality. Set it as low as possible to ensure quality, but ramp it up for shooting sports and low-light situations.

That’s all there is to it! It sounds confusing at first but try it out and you’ll quickly see how it works. Choose a shutter speed and play around with it till you’re achieving blur-free pictures. Once you figure out what shutter speeds you can hold steadily, the rest of the battle is in setting an ISO that works for you, or just leaving ISO on auto. Never again will the camera give you blur when you wanted sharp pictures of your kids on the soccer field, or sharp shots when you wanted a smooth waterfall. Enjoy!

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