Exposure 101 – Shooting in Manual Mode

All too often I hear clients mention how they purchased a fancy new DSLR, but are less than impressed with the results. When asked what mode they shoot in -9 times out of 10- the response is typically “auto.” In this mode, the camera will make every decision for you. I understand that sometimes you may just need to get the shot quickly, but so much of your cameras awesome potential is being wasted in full automatic. You’re probably also ending up with harsh shadows from on camera flash when shooting indoors.

The set of images below were taken at 6:00pm under overcast skies. Both are SOOC, straight out of camera, and have only been converted from RAW to JPG. I had Adrian sit on the sidewalk with his back to our community lake, made silly noises, and shot with my camera set manually. The second image was taken about 20 seconds after the first in full automatic. He did shift slightly, -just try keeping a three year old still!- however lighting conditions and facing direction remained the same. While the photographer in me would make very subtle tweaks to the left image, I’m still much more satisfied with the result achieved on the left versus the right. Although lets be honest, I love anything and everything with that little face on it ♥

The three main things you should familiarize yourself with are ISO, Shutter Speeds, and Aperture. I always start by setting my ISO based on the lighting conditions. Next comes the aperture, and lastly my shutter speed. In about 30 seconds I can achieve the first image on the left and cut down drastically in post processing. Since most of my readers live in a fast-paced world of business meetings and soccer games, I though you might appreciate a “cliffs notes” of sorts on the three:
If this is the first time you’ve heard of any of these, don’t panic! Just get out there and start messing around with one at a time. Most DSLR’s give you the option of shooting in semi automatic modes like Aperture Priority, or Shutter Speed Priority. Take the time to explore each setting and how it affects the other two. For example, the more open I have my aperture during a sunny session, the faster I will need to set my shutter speed. The great thing about digital photography is that there’s no need to worry about making mistakes or “wasting film.” Every shot, good or bad, can serve as a learning experience. I hope you’ve found this post useful, as I’d love to get more of my readers exploring their cameras, and capturing everyday moments in a way they can be proud of. Don’t get stuck in the convenience of auto, and let your pictures shine to their true potential!


If you have any questions you’d like answered on the blog, feel free to comment below or email me at thaymmie@acottophotography.com You might just see your question answered and explained in the next learning blog!


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December 16, 2012 - 9:47 pm

How to photograph your Christmas tree – South Florida Photographer » A. Cotto Photography - […] Shutter Speed   (Click HERE if you’re wondering what all that […]

January 16, 2013 - 9:36 pm

Aby - Thanks for simplifying this! Very helpful. I hope to move out of auto in 2013.

January 24, 2013 - 11:48 pm

A. Cotto Photography - Aby- I hope you do, because you’ll never go back!

February 19, 2013 - 12:11 am

Christina Droira - This is great! super helpful:)

February 19, 2013 - 12:34 am


March 28, 2013 - 4:24 pm

Susannah Boos - Love this! I’m wanting to get out of the bad habit of shooting in auto so much, this will be great to keep with me as a quick reference to make manual less “intimidating”!