How to shoot manual on Mirrorless & DSLR Cameras

Shooting manual is easier than you think

By:​ Christopher Claxton

Image 1

My Sony A7ii with a Sony – FE 85mm f/1.8 Telephoto Prime Lens. Credit: Christopher Claxton

In my last article, I gave Tips for Photographing Couples but I just realized how I can give you tips on how to shoot couples when I haven’t explained how to shoot in general. So let’s take a step back and start at the beginning.

When I first started photography, I was hesitant about shooting in Manual mode, I figured why would I need to shoot manual when I could shoot Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority? As time progressed and the environments I was taking pictures in kept changing I began to realize that the preprogrammed functions weren’t the best for all locations. If I wanted to really get into photography I was going to need to learn how to shoot manual for the most flexibility in my final images. I watched a ton of videos on YouTube and now this article will have the information compacted in one area. I watched hours of content so you could read around 5 minutes worth. Thank me later.

The BIG THREE camera settings that will alter your photography game are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.


First is your ISO which represents how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. This sensitivity affects the exposure of your photos, the lower the number the less sensitive your camera will be to light. With ISO you can control if your camera takes in more or less light for an image with a balanced exposure. 

What you need to know:

  • The brighter the location, the LOWER the ISO should be. 
  • The darker the location, the HIGHER the ISO should be.
  • The higher the ISO, The more grain or noise your photos will have.

Some photographers like grain, it’s a choice but most clients might not want a noisy image; you want to avoid grain at all cost unless it’s intentional. I’ve had some noisy images and trust me it kills your photos, noise reduction in post-production helps, but will ultimately make your noisy photo very smooth. The best bet is to get it correct right in the camera so you’ll only have to do minor adjustments in post. If you don’t know what grain looks like imagine small fuzzy dots on your images. 

Play around with your ISO settings to see how high you can raise your ISO until the amount of grain is too much for your photos, then make a mental note of it. I currently use a Sony A7ii and I usually don’t go over an ISO of 1,600.

ISO lighting examples:

  • Outside- ISO 100
  • Shadow- ISO 200
  • Indoors, good lighting- ISO 400
  • Indoors, bad lighting- ISO 800

Key takeaway- The higher the ISO the brighter the image but more grain, the lower the ISO, the darker the image with less grain.


Aperture, also known as f-stop or depth of field, controls the depth of your image and it alters what you have in focus. The aperture controls the opening of the lens which controls how much light passes in. 

Aperture controls your exposure, the lower the f-stop the more light passes through which creates a brighter image since the opening of the lens is wider. Low f-stops are perfect for blurry backgrounds also known as bokeh. While higher f-stops create sharper images and are great for landscape photography. I always wanted crisp images and I didn’t understand why my photos were great but not as crisp as I wanted them to be, it turns out my aperture was too low at 1.8, to get the crispiest of crisp images you should aim for an aperture of 2.8.

Key takeaway- The lower the aperture, the brighter the image and the less in focus it will be, the higher the aperture, the darker the image, and the more in focus.

Shutter speed 

Last but not least is shutter speed which controls how long the shutter stays open and how long the camera sensor is exposed to light. For blurred images of a moving subject, you want a slower shutter speed, for freezing moving subjects in place you want a faster shutter speed. I mostly shoot candid portraits that look as natural as possible, so while I’m talking to the model I’m constantly snapping images to capture all of their motion, for that I would use a faster shutter speed to make sure I don’t miss anything.

The best practice is to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/200 or higher, anything less and camera shake might appear in the image.

Key takeaway- The lower the shutter speed, the brighter the image but more blur, the higher the shutter speed, the darker the image, and the easier it is to capture motion. 

Bonus- White balance 

To be honest, keep your white balance on auto (AWB), when I first learned how to shoot manual I would change mine for each photoshoot but eventually, you begin to forget. I photographed the opening of my friend’s juice bar last year; I was going from taking pictures indoor to outdoor at night, I was changing my ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, but never my white balance. Long story short, I didn’t capture the day as well as I could’ve, all my photos were off. I did my best to save the images but some were just terrible. 

Key takeaway- KEEP YOUR WHITE BALANCE ON AUTO. it’s easier that way, I made the mistake so you don’t have to.


Below you’ll find the cheat sheet I typed up on my phone when I first started shooting manual. Copy and paste it to your notes if you’d like. 

Cheat Sheet 


  • Outside 100
  • Shadow 200
  • Indoors 400

Aperture- The size of the lens opening also controls the depth of field,

Controls the amount of light in photos 

  • Lower the number the more light 
  • Higher the numbers and less light 
  • F/stops
  • How much is in focus 
  • Shooting one person should use f/2-2.5
  • Group of people f/3.5-4
  • Landscape f/16 and up

Shutter speed -the amount of time in seconds where the shutter is open also, controls motion blur 

  • For portraits use between 1/250-1/500
  • Sports 1/800-1000
  • Slower speed more blur 
  • Faster speed less blur 

If an image is too dark 

Make each change one by one and try 

  1. Slow shutter speed 
  2. Lower aperture 
  3. Raise ISO

If an image is too bright 

Make each change one by one and try. Not all at once 

  1. Lower ISO
  2. Raise shutter speed 
  3. Raise aperture 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.