Picture This: No Training Wheels, We’re Going Manual!

Okay, Persephoneers! We’ve learned about composition, we’ve learned about types of cameras, we’ve tried editing photos, we’ve worked on being creative, and we’ve even had a little fun along the way (don’t tell anyone!), but now it’s time to bust off those training wheels and try going manual. “WHAT? HUH? I CAN’T DO THAT!” Why yes you can! And I’ve got a few tools to help you do it!

The dial on a camera.
What does it all mean??

You may find your self looking at your camera dial and sometimes wondering what it all means. Most of us understand that “Auto” means Auto Mode–the happy place where your camera does all the thinking for you. It adjusts your settings, it focuses for you, and your photos come out crispy! But what are all those other settings for? We’re going to focus today on the ones labeled M, A, and S (we’ll save P for later), and when I’m through with you, you should have enough of the basics to get out with your camera and try setting up photos all on your own without the help of your camera’s digital brain! Scary? Nah! You can do this! Ready?

For starters, let’s identify what these settings mean. The ones with little picture icons are quick settings pre-programmed in your camera for specific situations such as portraits, landscapes, macro, sports, night photos, and bright lights. While these are great tools for beginners (and honestly, even the pros still use ’em), they aren’t always the perfect option every time. You might find that portraits come out too dark, macros are too bright, night shots are WAY too dark (even if it says you can take pictures of stars in this mode), and the sports option always turns out blurry people. So how can you fix it? Your best option is to learn how to set your camera settings yourself so you can adjust your camera to your needs (rather than fitting situations to your camera–sounds silly) which is why you need those other “letter” settings on the camera dial!

An illustration of a shutter inside the camera.
Technically what a shutter looks like.

The first dial mode you need to know about is Shutter “S” Priority Mode. Inside every camera is a shutter. The shutter is a little sliding window that opens and closes with the press of the button (also known as the “shutter button” or “shutter release button”), and it’s during this open period that your camera records information from the light it receives. Think of it this way: if the curtains are closed in your room, it’s dark and you can’t see anything, but the moment you open the curtains, you can see everything and make out detail in the smallest of things. The camera is just like your eye; it needs light to “see” so it’s “brain” can receive and record information, and like your eye, if the shutter or the curtain closes, no more information can be received.

So what is shutter priority mode and why is it important? We know that we can control when the shutter opens and when it closes (easy, just the push of a button!) but we can also control how fast it opens and how fast it closes. Think of it this way: if you open and close the curtain really fast, will your eye receive enough light to see much? Maybe, that all depends on how much light is outside. If it’s midnight, no, you won’t see much of anything. But if it’s noon and the sun is shining directly into the room, you might see a lot. Now what if you open it for a long time; what happens? If it’s dark out, the moon might be just bright enough that over 30 seconds your eyes adjust and you can see everything in the room. But if it’s midday, the sun might be too bright and hurt your eyes with the curtain wide open. Same thing with the camera: if it’s dark out, you need the shutter to be open longer; if it’s bright out, you need the shutter to be open shorter. The key is balance. You need to manage that little window of time to match the light conditions–long for dark, short for bright. Which is where the mode comes in: the shutter priority mode does exactly what it says it does; it lets you set the shutter speed as priority number one and the camera adjusts everything else to meet the situation.

Next question: how do you know what the right speed is? I found a couple very handy charts to help explain:

A chart explaining shutter speeds and what setting to use in different situations.
Courtesy of

But shutter priority isn’t your only customizable option–you can also try Aperture “A” Priority Mode. Aperture is how wide your shutter (or the curtains) open. If you pull back the curtains all the way, lots of light will come into the room. If you only pull them open an inch, little light will come into the room. So what should you do at  night–pull the curtains wide open or barely open? And during the day, wide open or barely open? Like the shutter, this is mode is going to determine how much light and information your camera’s little digital brain receives and ultimately produce either really dark (under exposed) or really bright (over exposed) photos. In aperture priority mode, you choose the aperture (small number means big window, big number means small window–confusing, no?) and your camera does the rest of the work, setting the shutter for you and focusing the camera. Here’s a good diagram to demonstrate how the two, shutter and aperture, work together:

A graph showing the size of apertures as related to how fast the shutter should be.
Courtesy of
A guide showing the effects of different aperture modes.
Courtesy of

Side question: the diagram talks about depth of field on the aperture side, what is it? We talked about this one before in a Picture This article. Basically, depth of field is how much of the photo is in focus and whether the background is blurred or in detail. Check out this guide to DoF which shows you the effects of different apertures on your photos as well as how aperture effects lighting in photos when a constant shutter speed is sustained.

So now you know about shutters and apertures, what else is there to know? Lots! But now you know enough to start trying settings out on your own! If you’re feeling brave and want to try setting both aperture and shutter settings (ie. going independent style and giving auto mode the ol’ heave-ho), you can try using Manual “M” Mode. In this mode, everything is manual–the focus, the shutter, the aperture, and lots more! You can have a play around in M mode trying out all different setting to look for the right fit. Here are a few really awesome tutorials that I HIGHLY recommend for trying out settings and learning more about your camera:

An SLR camera simulator tutorial that explains aperture, shutter and ISO settings as it walks you through your options.

SLR camera simulator that lets you set aperture, shutter, distance, tripod, lighting and focal length.

And as a bonus, there is also a composition simulator that gives you pointers on how to frame your photos.

One last guide to help you on your way: when you look into your view finder, you will see a series of numbers along the bottom of the viewfinder. These numbers help you know what the settings of your camera are. If you don’t know how to set your shutter or aperture, refer first to your camera’s manual. It’s very likely that these settings are changed by turning a wheel dial (sometimes next to the shutter button, sometimes on the back panel) but some cameras need to be changed through the camera’s menu options on the LCD screen. When you’ve figured it out, you’ll see the numbers appear in your viewfinder.

A photo of the what a view finder looks like.
Courtesy of

You should note that the viewfinder has at the bottom a shutter speed of 20 and an aperture of f3.5. Most cameras also have an exposure scale and an ISO display (among other things) but don’t worry about those for now–we’ll get to them soon! But knowing that you can see your settings while looking through your viewfinder is really helpful and when you get good and play around a bit, you’ll find that you can also change those setting while looking through the viewfinder! Nifty, eh?

So your assignment this week is to try taking off the training wheels and going manual–either with Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Manual Mode. Getting a good photo takes practice and I wouldn’t feel discouraged if you don’t turn out a masterpiece (I’m still learning a lot about shooting in manual and honestly, a lot of my manual photos are crap!), so don’t worry about posting your photo here unless you want to. You can shoot anything you want this week–it’s open season! (Pun totally intended!) But please do come back and tells us about your experience in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts, help with your questions, and celebrate your successes! You’ve got two weeks to work on this assignment. Are you ready? I am! Let’s go hunting, er, shooting, er, take some photos!

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

10 replies on “Picture This: No Training Wheels, We’re Going Manual!”

I didn’t start using manual or either of the priority settings until very recently (like a year ago) and I felt really intimidated. It can be really complicated and time consuming if you’re out on a weekend trip and you want to pull out a good photo. It’s easier sometimes to just opt for Auto than to spend 20 minutes figuring out how to do it manually. I also think some photographers shame people who don’t use manual settings as if that’s the only condition under which you can call yourself a *true* photographer. (These people are also typically gear monkeys and I fart in their direction.) I’m not sure if the article came across well but I wanted to make this article felt less intimidating for those who haven’t given it a try yet and maybe a little easier to understand. It’s a good little challenge but shouldn’t leave you feeling down if you can’t get it right. One thing I have to remind myself is that being a photographer is a life long marathon. It’ll take time to perfect my technique.

I think having control over your shots does make you a better photographer, but it doesn’t necessarily make your photographs better. Does that make sense? It takes time to develop the skill necessary to take consistently awesome shots in full manual. I’m nowhere close to there. Knowing what you want to gain out of each shoot should determine which settings to use. That’s something I’m learning for myself.

When I first got my camera I told myself I could only shoot full manual for a good three months, before I let myself do anything else. I really, really want to learn well. It worked so well that I forgot how to use the shutter or aperture locking settings. (By the way, on a Canon the setting options look completely different. I’m attaching a photo – hope that’s OK.)

This weekend was the first time I shot in the shutter-locking setting (“TV” on a Canon – why?) and I was amazed at how liberating it was. I’ll definitely be playing with my settings more. The lesson for me is that knowing how to use ALL the settings is also part of what can help me be a better photographer.

This was a really well written article (I also liked the one you wrote about editing pictures, I’ve only recently started post-processing –mostly with GIMP). I learnt how to take pictures with a manual camera (my parents are the manual camera using, stick-shift driving purists) so by now, I just use manual mode intuitively, but some of this stuff would have been great to know when I was starting out.

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