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Photography in Manual Mode: ISO, Aperture, and Speed

Shooting in manual mode will help you capture more professional photos and maximize your creative potential.

This guide breaks down the 3 essential elements of manual photography, shares a 5-step process for manual shooting, and provides 5 top troubleshooting tips.

All photography is based on ISO, Aperture, and Speed. Let’s begin our discussion with ISO.

ISO

ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. This controls how much grain will show in your image.

  • Low ISO = less sensitivity, low brightness, low/no grain
  • High ISO = high sensitivity, high brightness, high grain

Ideally, every photo would be shot at ISO 100. This setting will result in no perceptible grain.

However, often a high ISO is unavoidable, especially in low light situations. An image that would be almost black at ISO 100 can reach the correct brightness (or “exposure”) at a high ISO like 1600.

Keep these ISO settings in mind when you start shooting in manual.

  • Outside with plenty of light, you may be able to shoot at ISO 100.
  • In the shade, you might try ISO 200.
  • Indoors, ISO 400 or 800 are good settings.
  • In low light at night, you might need ISO 1,600 of 3,200.

In product photography, it’s best to stay within ISO 100 to ISO 400.

In street photography and nature photography, most photographers find that ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 is the upper limit before their pictures become too grainy. However, some expensive cameras can go past this with good results.

Many cameras allow you to set a maximum ISO. After running some tests, you can decide where your camera should max out, and you can program this limit in your camera settings.

Aperture

Aperture is the opening in your lens that allows light to pass through to your camera’s sensor.

Apertures are described in f-fstops. A low f-stop indicates a wide lens opening, while a high f-stop indicates a narrow opening.

Setting a f-stop value will dictate the blurriness of the background and the brightness of the image.

  • Low f-stop (wide aperture) = blurry background, lots of light reaches the sensor
  • High f-stop (narrow aperture) = sharp background, little light reaches the sensor

Because you can control the amount of light that strikes your sensor in other ways, the most important reason for choosing an aperture is usually the photographer’s choice in how much they want to blur objects outside the focal plane.

Simon Pratley shot these flowers at different f-stops to control background blurriness.

Extremely Low F-Stop: f/1.4

An extremely low f-stop like f/1.4 can create striking results. However, these apertures can be too extreme for many applications. For example, if someone’s face is tilted slightly away from the camera, you will only be able to get one eye in perfect focus. The other eye on a different focal plane will be slightly out of focus.

Lenses with low f-stops, like the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4, are highly sought after since they allow photographers to create a dreamy blurred background that draws the viewer’s attention to their subject. They’re also heavy, large and expensive due to their materials and construction.

A very low f-stop, like f/1.4, can be desirable if you want to focus all attention on one point of a photo.

Low F-Stop: f/2 or f/2.8

A low (narrow) aperture like f/2 or f/2.8 will be good for a portrait shot where you want a blurry background, especially if you are in a darker environment where you want to let more light hit your camera’s sensor.

Sean Tucker shoots portraits at low f-stops to draw attention to each subject’s face.

Medium F-Stop: f/4 or f/5.6

A medium aperture like f/4 or f/5.6 will look nice on a photo of a group of people, where you want every face in focus, and you’d also like a fairly blurry background. (If you were to use f/2.8, one face would be sharp, while the other faces on a different focal plane would be somewhat out of focus.)

This portrait photographer shot at f/4. This created background separation, but also allowed enough depth of field to keep everyone in focus.

High F-Stop: f/8 or f/11

A high aperture like f/8 or f/11 will suit interior or exterior shots where you want everything to be in focus, but you don’t have sufficient light for a higher aperture.

Todd Beltz photographed this interior at f/11, ensuring near perfect focus throughout the scene.

Extremely High F-Stop: f/16 or f/22

An extremely high f-stop indicates a very small aperture. An aperture of f/16 or f/22 will ensure everything is in sharp focus.

This is an aesthetic choice that often suits landscape shots. It can also give you a beautiful sunstar. Since high apertures require a lot of light, you’ll want to photograph in daylight, in a studio with a lot of light, or with a tripod so you can keep your camera perfectly steady for a little longer to allow more light to strike your camera’s sensor.

This photo was taken at f/16 so that the foreground flowers could be in focus as well as the background mountains.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time that your shutter is open. 

  • Slow shutter speed = motion blur, brighter image
  • Fast shutter speed = no motion blur, darker image

Slow shutter speeds (also called long shutter speeds), like 1” (1 second) produce long exposures. Long exposures can smooth out moving water or clouds, create light streaks where cars move on a highway, and reveal more detail in low light situations.

Slow shutter speeds can be very expressive, as in this shot by Giulio Annibali.

Fast shutter speeds (also called short shutter speeds), like 1/250 of a second, produce short exposures. Short exposures will freeze fast action, like a bird snatching prey or a raindrop falling into water.

Fast shutter speeds can also create expressive effects, allowing viewers to see the world in a new way, as in this shot by Denver Rodrigues taken at 1/500 of a second.

In general, a shutter speed of about 1/125 works for most situations. This means that the camera is allowing light to strike the camera’s sensor for exactly 1/125 of a section.

You can adjust your shutter speed depending on the motion effect you want to achieve.

  • An extremely slow shutter speed, like 15” or 30” (15 or 30 seconds), will let you see details in the night sky if you’re interested in astrophotography.
  • A slow shutter speed, like 1” or 5” (1 or 5 seconds) will let you blur water motion to create a dreamy effect. You’ll need to plant your camera on a tripod or another stable surface to avoid capturing any camera shake. If you’re happy with your aperture and your shutter speed, and you already have your ISO at the lowest setting (100 ISO), you can add an adjustable ND filter to your lens, which acts like sunglasses to dim your shot.
  • Shutter speeds between 1/2 to 1/30 second have little use, unless you want to convey movement. You’ll also need to have a stable surface to hold the camera.
  • A medium shutter speed, like 1/60 or 1/125 works for indoor photography. You might catch some blur on a person’s arms and legs if they’re walking, or on their mouth if they’re talking. However, in medium light settings, you can get a nice shot without grain from cranking your ISO too high.
  • A medium fast shutter speed, like 1/250 or 1/500, is perfect for street photography or portrait photography where you want your subject to be tack sharp. A fast shutter speed like this will usually require outdoor lighting or a studio light; otherwise, your image will be too dark.
  • A fast shutter speed, like 1/1000 or 1/2000, is fantastic for sports or animal photography.
  • An extremely fast shutter speed, like 1/4000 or 1/8000, will freeze motion on lightning fast subjects. With this very short exposure, you can capture horse hooves while a horse runs at top speed.
You can capture rain midair at 1/4000 shutter speed, as Simon Carr did in this photo.

Process for Manual Shooting

Now that you know how to use ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, it’s time to bring all of these together.

  1. First, put your camera in manual mode.
  2. Next, set your ISO. If you’re outdoors and you have a lot of light, you can bring your ISO down to 100 or 200. If your indoors with moderate lighting, try ISO 400 or 800.
  3. Decide how much depth of field you need. If you’re taking a portrait, try a shallow depth of field with f/1.4. If you’re taking a picture of a group, use a medium f-stop like f/4 or f/5.6. If you’re shooting an indoor scene where you want everything in focus, try f/8; an outdoors scene, f/11.
  4. Raise your shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure. To maintain sharpness, use 1/250 shutter speed or faster. If you need more light but you want to keep your depth of field, bump up your ISO.
  5. Finally, take a test shot. Preview it, zoom in on it. Then adjust your settings as needed.

Troubleshooting Tips

Shooting photos in manual mode will enable you to capture stunning shots and maximize your creative potential. However, it can also create new problems.

For example, if you want the 1-3 second exposure time for “smooth” waterfalls, your image will be white unless you compensate with your ISO and aperture.

If you notice problems with your test shots, try these fixes to common photography problems.

Image Is Too Dark

If your image is too dark, the most common remedy is to increase the ISO. Most photographers stop increasing ISO at 6400, and would then proceed to slow their shutter speed from higher values like 1/125 to smaller values like 1/60. Lastly, you can increase the size of your aperture, say from f/5.6 to f/2.8; this is usually a last step since it will affect the look of your shot.

Image Is Too Bright

If your image is too bright, and you already have the minimum 100 ISO, try speeding up your shutter. As a last resort, you can try “stopping down” – decreasing the diameter of your aperture, say from f/2.8 to f/5.6.

Subject Is Blurry

If your subjects are blurry, raise your shutter speed. Even if you hold your camera steady and your subjects are quite still, there’s always going to be some motion in your shot. Increasing your shutter speed will eliminate blur caused by unwanted movement.

Image Is Too Grainy

If your image is too grainy, lower your ISO. Try to stay below ISO 6400. Keep in mind that if the image will only be shown at small resolutions (like a 1200×1200 social media photo), grain will not be a huge issue.

Parts of Your Shot Are Out of Focus

If you need more of your scene in focus, bump up your aperture to f/8, f/11, or, if you have a lot of depth in an outdoor shot, f/16 or f/22.

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