Brady Cabe Photographer Central California photography | Shooting In Manual Mode

Shooting In Manual Mode

December 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Learning to shoot in manual mode forces you to slow down and think about things.

Intro (Fluff)

There's a lot of technical information out there about shooting in manual mode and still others about why you should and why it's better; this is not that blog post. This blog post is meant for folks who dabble with manual mode, want to start, or maybe shoot in manual and are curious to read someone else's thought process. It's good to learn from each other. Everyone does it differently; this is my method.


I won't run through definitions of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but a Google search will yield lots of detailed information. This is my thought process when I walk onto the scene of an "available light" shoot. I have a post in the works about off-camera lighting, so for the sake of simplicity let's forget that.

Manual Mode Or Bust Mentality

When I got my first DSLR, I was upgrading from my iPhone. That makes me sound like such a n00b but it's the truth. I specifically wanted shallow depth of field which I wasn't quite able to achieve on my phone's camera and from the get-go I wanted to shoot in manual mode.


I want to encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and go full manual. There’s nothing to lose and if you burn through a memory card taking over-exposed photos of your cat; just format the dang thing and go again. Digital baby. You are going to be much more closely in tune with the process of making your photographs, it’s totally worth the challenge. On top of that; if you are trying to transition into doing paid work, you NEED to know what your camera is doing at all times.

You’re the camera's boss or it’s your boss; you pick.

My Mental Process

So here is a basic breakdown of my thought process and step by step of how I setup my camera.

1) set the ISO to where I think it should be to get my target aperture and shutter speed
2) set the desired aperture
3) use the meter/set the shutter speed for proper exposure

Aperture and shutter speed are just as much story-telling tools as they are adjustments to exposure. ISO simply changes your camera's sensitivity to light but aperture and shutter speed help convey meaning by controlling depth of field and showing movement, respectively. There are no hard and fast rules for how to use these two aspects of exposure, other than you need to balance them with ISO to obtain a proper exposure, and even "proper" exposure can be subjective.

My Mental Process Explained

Let me elaborate on the bullet points I mentioned above.

ISO First

I don’t know how everyone else does it, but I am an ISO-first kind of guy. I know my ISO needs to be in certain ranges to obtain usable shutter speeds at the aperture I am wanting for the location and lighting. As I am walking from location to location during a wedding day, I am adjusting my ISO for the environment (while I’m actually walking, especially if I am transitioning between broad daylight and indoors); ensuring I am ready to go when the moment presents itself.

ISO Defaults

Here are a few common scenarios I find myself in, and what ISO I am using as my default.

-sunrise/sunset tripod shots: ISO 50-100 (long exposures at narrower apertures)
-outdoor portrait moving in and out of shade: ISO 200, bump it for sports to obtain faster shutter speeds
-dense foliage shaded portrait: ISO 800+, keep bumping after the sunset and going into blue hour
-indoor event: start at ISO 1600
-indoor event/indoor sports, dimly light: ISO 3200
-astrophotography/outdoor night sports: ISO 4000-6400
-outdoor wedding reception with strings of lights: ISO 6400+

If I am not getting the proper exposure, I always try to push the ISO first before sacrificing shutter speed. A few of the above situations, I would transition into adding a flash; particularly wedding receptions.

The only way to get the target shutter speeds in low light with no flash units/strobes is to bump the ISO.

Bump it.

Set The Desired Aperture

I plan my target aperture based on the given subject matter; let's talk people.

I like to shoot as wide open as possible for shallow depth of field. So wide open (f/1.4-2.8) for single person or couples and stepped down a stop or more (f/4-f8) for larger groups. As a side note, your depth of field is different for different types of lenses at these given apertures. Telephoto lenses have shallower depth of field than wider lenses at the same aperture setting. Full frame cameras make the depth of field even more shallow than a crop sensor camera, compared side by side with identical lenses and settings.

Set The Desired Shutter Speed

There are a few different ways you can end up with blurry photos:

1) moving subjects
2) camera shake

To freeze moving subjects, you need fast shutter speeds: 1/200 or faster for people/kids is my preference. 1/400 or faster for sports. To minimize camera shake, you need fast shutter speeds: reciprocal of your focal length is the rule of thumb; for a 200mm lens you need 1/200 shutter speed. Anything faster than that and I know I am good.

What About Noise?

If you have to choose between a blurry, unusable photo and a noisy/grainy photo, you will pick the grainy photo every time. Obviously there are times when slow shutter speeds can be awesome, even in sports, but we are talking about getting the shot and freezing the moment in this blog post.

High ISO can be really noisy on some cameras, so exercise caution especially for client work. My first camera was a Canon Rebel XS and at ISO 1600 it was pretty dang noisy. But there were many times, on staff at my university's newspaper, I would bump the ISO and it would save my bacon (mmm, bacon.)

Just bump it.

Other Shooting Modes

Although shooting in manual mode is preferred for me, there have been one or two times in the last few years where it was nice to have shutter priority mode. I was shooting a bike race for Santa Barbara News Press and there were two shots I wanted to get: one of the action frozen and one panning shot at a slower shutter speed. Also, I needed to be able to switch all the settings in mere seconds. I knew the newspaper would want the still shot but I wanted a panning shot for myself and my portfolio.



White Balance : Who Cares?

Sometimes setting white balance matters, sometimes auto white balance is simplest. These are just my thoughts/opinions.

Video Shooters

I would not rely on your camera's auto white balance when shooting video. Set the white balance manually and if you have multiple cameras, make sure you set the white balance to match. If you are editing together a scene and cutting back and forth between two camera angles, differing white balances can become distracting to the viewer.


If you are shooting photos in RAW, then shooting in auto white balance works in a lot of shooting situations. If you need to shoot in JPEG because the photos are going to a wire service, press, etc and need to go quickly, you might want to consider setting the white balance manually.

My Canon 6D has a much more consistent and accurate auto white balance than my 7D. All cameras are going to vary in their performance in this regard, so figure out what works best for you and your white balance work-flow. At one point in time I was carrying around a grey card and shooting a photo of the grey card in different light sources at the location for reference later. I stopped doing that because it’s just one more thing to mess with that is ultimately not required, and I want the process to be as transparent to my client as possible (this can be huge.)

That's A Wrap

I tried to make this post as personal as possible, and I sincerely hope you got something useful from it. I am curious to know how you setup your camera when shooting in manual. Please do comment below. Thanks for reading!


No comments posted.