How To Use Your DSLR Camera in Manual Mode
If you want to learn how to use your DSLR camera and take photos that look more professional, you’re in the right place!
Did you just get a new camera? Or do you have an old one that never gets used because using your camera phone seems so much easier?
Do you feel overwhelmed by all your camera’s buttons and dials?
Learning photography can feel overwhelming! I know, I’ve been there. But…
I believe any mom can master her camera and confidently capture beautiful memories.
It’s 100% possible to go from being clueless about photography to taking photos you love. <<< Check out how my own photos went from bad to beautiful 8 years ago.
I’ve created this page to help you learn how to use your DSLR camera step by step. It will take you from beginner concepts to more advanced photography techniques.
Take a moment to pin this post to your photography board for later and come back often for new tutorials and updates!
How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Step 1
If you’re a photography beginner, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to study when learning how to use your DSLR camera.
It’s the foundation for learning photography.
Every camera utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or photo.
We’ll look at the function of each leg of the exposure triangle in detail below. If you’re new, this can feel like learning a foreign language, so I’ve simplified it for you with an easy to understand photography cheat sheet.
How To Use Your DSLR Camera PDF
ISO – The First Leg of the Exposure Triangle
Your camera’s ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor (the part inside your camera that captures an image) is to light. The lower your ISO setting, the less sensitive. The higher the setting, the more sensitive.
The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will be able to “gather”. A high ISO is useful when shooting in low light and under dark conditions, such as indoors.
A higher ISO setting has one major drawback. The higher you set your ISO, the more “noise” you’ll get in your photos. Noise is similar to grain and reduces image quality. Use the lowest ISO setting possible to avoid too much digital noise in your images.
This photo was taken under dark conditions with a high ISO setting:
When you zoom in closer you can see the digital noise created by the high ISO setting:
Shutter Speed – The Next Leg of the Exposure Triangle
Shutter speed refers to how long your camera’s shutter stays open when you snap a photo, expressed in seconds or fractions of a second.
A shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter will stay open for one one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second.
A shutter speed of 1/800 (one 800th of a second) is faster than SS 1/50 (one 50th of a second).
A fast shutter speed of 1/125 or faster will freeze motion. This is usually what you want when photographing people and if you’re photographing children, you’ll want an even faster shutter speed, like 1/250 or faster.
This flower was photographed when the wind was blowing. It was moving around wildly, but the camera froze its motion with a shutter speed of 1/8000 (one eight-thousandth of a second).
This photo was taken at shutter speed 1/60 (one 60th of a second). As a result of the slow shutter speed, this photo has motion blur:
Aperture – The Third Leg of the Exposure Triangle
Your camera has an opening inside that allows light to pass through to the camera sensor. The f/stop
The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.
The more closed the camera’s aperture is, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.
The most important points to remember about aperture are:
A lower f/stop number creates a blurrier background.
For more information on aperture check out this post on what aperture to use. It provides two questions to help you decide, and a great tip for getting more of your photo in focus without changing your aperture setting.
The photo below was taken at f/1.8. I love how those cute toes stand out with the blurry background created by using a low f/stop number.
As mentioned above, aperture is the camera setting responsible for producing blurry backgrounds. But there are other factors that come into play in capturing blurry backgrounds. If you’d like to know how to achieve a blurry background in your photos without changing your aperture setting be sure to check out this post.
How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Step 2
The next step in learning how to use your DSLR is switching to manual mode.
When you shoot in auto mode your camera decides how to balance the three elements of the exposure triangle based on the scene you are photographing and the light available.
When you shoot in manual mode you get to choose the best settings for the lighting you are in and for the effect you want to achieve.
In auto mode, your camera makes its best guess, but it can’t see the scene you are trying to photograph. Only you can see that.
Many people ask if it’s okay to use a semi-automatic camera mode.
I think it’s best to learn full manual mode first. Then you will better understand how each of your camera settings affects your image and be able to use the semi-auto camera modes in the right situation for best results.
Manual mode is the only camera mode that gives you 100% creative control over your images.
As I mentioned at the outset of this article, every camera utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or image.
But What is Exposure?
Exposure is the amount of light captured when you take a photograph. If too little light is captured, the image will be “underexposed” (too dark). If too much light is captured, the image will be “overexposed” (too bright).
When you shoot in manual mode, the goal is the balance your ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture so you have a good or “correct” exposure – not too dark and not too bright.
How each leg of the exposure triangle effects exposure
A higher ISO setting makes your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. So a higher ISO setting raises (brightens) your exposure. A lower ISO setting lowers (darkens) your exposure.
A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor, creating a brighter exposure. A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor, creating a darker exposure.
ISO affects EXPOSURE and NOISE
SHUTTER SPEED affects EXPOSURE and FREEZES MOTION or causes MOTION BLUR
APERTURE affects EXPOSURE and BACKGROUND BLUR
When shooting in manual mode the goal is to balance each leg of the exposure triangle until you achieve proper exposure.
This can be done using any combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed. There’s no such thing as a “wrong” set of camera settings. Each situation, each set of lighting conditions and different creative effects can call for a different combination of settings.
Instructions on choosing your camera settings are below.
How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Step 3
After you switch to manual mode there are some camera settings you’ll need to change for best results.
•Switch your camera to single point focus. This setting allows you to choose your focal point and decide what part of the image you want in focus. You’ll be able to toggle through your camera focus points to create the best composition.
•Switch to spot metering mode. There are several metering mode options, but I recommend spot metering in most situations as the most precise way to take a meter reading.
What’s a Meter Reading?
The goal of shooting in manual mode is to balance your ISO, shutter speed and aperture so that your camera meter is at 0, or close to 0. Each camera is different, but most cameras have a “ticker” inside the viewfinder that looks like this:
If you are spot metering on a Nikon camera, your active focal point (the point that’s highlighted as you look through your viewfinder and toggle through your focal points) takes your meter reading. If you are spot metering on a Canon camera, your center focal point takes your meter reading.
How to Take a Meter Reading
Place your focal point (center or active, depending on your camera) over your subject and depress your shutter button halfway. This will give you a meter reading. Check the light meter inside your camera and note where the ticker falls on the meter.
Next, adjust your camera settings – your ISO, aperture and shutter speed until your in-camera meter is at 0. This will give you proper exposure.
I recommend the following procedure for choosing your camera settings:
1. Decide on your ISO setting.
If you are shooting in low light, such as indoors, start with a higher ISO setting, perhaps 800 or 1000. If you are shooting in bright light, such as outdoors, start with a lower ISO setting such as 200.
2. Choose Your f/stop setting.
F/4.0 is a good starting point.
3. Choose Your Shutter Speed Setting.
Dial in your shutter speed to a minimum of 1/125 to avoid motion blur.
4. Adjust your camera settings – your ISO, aperture and shutter speed until your in-camera meter is at zero.
This will give you proper exposure. Remember, there is no “right” set of camera settings to achieve proper exposure.
If your photo is too dark (below 0 on your in-camera meter), you could do any of the following to let in more light:
Raise your ISO Setting
Lower your f/stop setting
Lower your shutter speed (but not below 1/125)
If your photo is too bright (above 0 on your in-camera meter), you could do any of the following to let in less light:
Lower your ISO setting
Raise your f/stop setting
Raise your shutter speed
Once you achieve proper exposure you can toggle your camera’s focal point to change your composition if desired before taking a photo.
How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Next Steps
Thus far, I’ve described the basics of shooting in manual mode. I recommend mastering this skill before moving on to more advanced skills.
If the photography terms you’ve learned here still feel intimidating or confusing, I recommend downloading my free photography cheat sheet + quick start guide.
This guide provides you with a quick exercise to help you understand how your camera settings work together by trying them out.
Here’s the truth: you can’t learn photography by reading about it. The learning is in the DOING and this will help you learn by trying out what you’ve read about on this page. You can download it here:
Once you master shooting in manual mode, I recommend moving on to more advanced concepts. These include:
How to get sharp focus in your photos.
How to set a custom white balance for accurate color in your photos.
Learn about how to see, find and harness the Types of Light in Photography.
Learn How To Take a Silhouette Photo.
Get your photos organized and printed in a Lightroom photo book.
Try taking your own family photo with a DIY photo shoot.
Check out this series of “How To Capture and Edit” Tutorials:
Please be sure to pin this page to your photography board on Pinterest and check back often as I update it with new tutorials and tips!