How to shoot in manual mode

What is shutter speed, aperture and ISO? How do they work together? The article I wish I had when starting with photography about manual mode for beginners.
Thomas Poecksteiner

Thomas Poecksteiner

Co-Founder of FilmSpektakel and Time Lapse Magazine

This is a basic guide on how to work with the manual mode on your camera. It’s for beginners who have no idea how to shoot manual. When I bought my first DSLR camera, I had no clue about photography whatsoever. This is the article I wish I had read before starting with photography.

What photography is all about

Many people will laugh at how basic this might seem. But the truth is that when I started with photography, it would have helped me a lot if someone had explained photography in this way first. You need to imagine light is all around us. I always imagine it as tiny little particles swirling in the air.

These are photons.

At its core, photography is about capturing the right number of photons with your camera.

How your camera works

I’m assuming you are using a digital camera, but the same (simplified) mechanics also apply to every other camera. Here’s how a digital camera records a picture:

  1. Photons enter your camera body through the lens, where the sensor awaits.
  2. The sensor counts the photons crashing onto its surface, which is divided into a grid of pixels. Pixels (in this context) are tiny squares that can sense when photons hit them.

When your camera is in ‘auto’ mode, it tries to estimate how many photons are “flying around”. In manual mode, you can control that yourself. That way, you don’t need to trust your camera, which is often a lottery and doesn’t lead to the results you wished for.

You’ve got three tools that let you regulate the number of photons “flying” into the camera.


Within your lens is the aperture, which is a gap through which the photons enter your camera body. You can make this gap bigger, allowing more photons in, or smaller, leading to fewer photons entering your camera body. The lower the aperture number (for example F1.8), the bigger the gap and the more photons can pass through. The higher the aperture number (F22), the smaller the gap, which limits the photons.

All these settings change the way your image will look. With the aperture, for example, you can control how light sources look:

Control the look of light sources by changing the aperture in manual mode
Control the look of light sources by changing the aperture

You can also control the depth of field:

Control depth of field by changing the aperture in manual mode
Control depth of field by changing the aperture

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is the length of time you allow the photons to strike your sensor. Your sensor is usually blocked by something like a mirror, so it doesn’t count photons all the time. By setting the shutter speed, you tell the camera how long photons can hit the sensor. This can range from for example 1/1000 (a thousandth of a second) to 30″ (30 seconds), which means that photons strike your sensor for half a minute.

For time lapse photography, this is an important setting, since it allows you to control the amount of motion blur a moving object has.

Control the amount of motion blur by changing the shutter speed in manual mode
Control the amount of motion blur by changing the shutter speed

Note: if you chose a longer shutter speed and your image is blurry, you will need to use a tripod.


The ISO number adjusts the sensitivity of your sensor. The camera does this by amplifying the signal of each pixel’s recording of photons. This is called adding “gain”. In some cases, it also decreases the signal. The higher the ISO number, the more gain is added to the recorded signal. In a low light scene, you’ll need to increase your ISO, thus amplifying the signal of the photons that reach the surface of the sensor. But be aware, a high ISO number will also increase the noise in your picture.

Look at this example:

High ISO increases unwanted noise
High ISO increases unwanted noise

How to avoid noise in your image: Most people and blogs will tell you that you have to keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid unwanted noise, but that’s not entirely true! It’s not the lowest ISO possible you want to look out for, but a thing called “native ISO”. Every camera has its own native ISO – the ISO setting at which your camera produces as little noise as possible, because this setting does not add any extra gain or take any away.

The reason most people tell you to choose the lowest ISO number is that most cameras have their native ISO at the lowest number (for example ISO 100), but it doesn’t have to be that way. Find the native ISO of your camera and choose an ISO setting as close to it as possible to avoid unwanted noise.

This is the art of photography

With all this knowledge, you can regulate the number of photons going into your camera. All of these settings depend on each other, which means if you open the aperture as wide as possible (for example F1.8), choose a long shutter speed (for example 1 second) and set the ISO to 1000, your picture might be way too bright (depending on what you are shooting). You might want to close the aperture to F8, set the shutter speed to 1/25 of a second and decrease the ISO to 100.

This is an extreme example, of course, but as soon as you understand how all this works, you’ll be able to create every shot exactly how you want it.

Example: I want the moving car in my picture to be blurred (motion blur). This means I need a long shutter speed. I try a shutter speed of one second, and I like the result. It’s daytime, meaning there is a lot of light. So, I need to limit the photons going into my camera by setting a low ISO and a small aperture (F22) to ensure my picture is not overexposed (too bright), and I can use the shutter speed of one second.

Once you understand all of this, it’s time for you to create your very first time lapse video. Read How to shoot a basic time-lapse video to find out more.

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