Photo Tip Friday: Switching from Automatic to Manual

– Posted in: photo tip friday, photography tips

A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. –James Keller


I bought my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D60, six years ago. My D60 and I spent a few months on complete automatic before it dawned on me that maybe I wasn’t giving myself or my camera as much credit as we both deserved. Maybe we weren’t living up to our potential. What would happen if I actually learned my camera? What if, gulp, I turned the dial and switched over to that M?

M A N U A L   M O D E. Intimidating. Scary. Overwhelming. Maybe a little, yes. Challenging, exciting and….fun? Oh, absolutely those as well.

Over the past six years I have logged thousands upon thousands of pictures. Some of the images I’ve captured are very dear to me. A good majority aren’t worth a hoot. All of them though, were practice. Much needed practice.

It wasn’t until just two years ago when I realized some folks were willing to pay me for my time, creativity, and skill that I started using the word “professional.” Say what? You mean you want to hire me? I take your portrait and we’ll exchange some sort of payment? Um, yeah. Sure. And then slowly, slowly came a more confident, OKAY HELL YES. Because see, while I initially wanted to learn photography to better document my own beautiful children (I get to say that, right? Every mother has beautiful children.), I had no classical photography training. I was self-taught. And was that good enough? Was I good enough?

You know what I think? I think earnest interest and passion trump technicalities almost always. I ended up falling in love with my camera baby too. I fell hard. It went with me everywhere at all times. I was endeared to it. Like an extension of my own hand. Perhaps you’re in a similar way now. Head over heels for that DSLR you squint and peer into several times a day? Don’t worry, I understand that feeling completely.

These days I use a Nikon D7000, which isn’t the newest or the best of the best DSLR on the market. Would I love to have additional camera bodies, full-frame bodies in my collection? You bet. And one day I will.  Also, at present I only own three lenses: a Nikkor 18-105mm 3.5-5.6G, a Nikkor 28mm 1.8G, and a Nikkor 50 mm 1.4G. Again, are there other lenses I’m dreaming of owning ? Certainly. I will post about my wish list another day. And lastly what program do I use for editing? I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.

That’s it.

By some photographers’ collections and standards, mine are so meager and humble. But hey, we’re all at different places on our photography journeys, no? If anything hopefully you are encouraged by seeing what I have to work with, so you know you can do the best with what you currently have too.


First things first. To move forward you must be brave and adventurous and put your camera into manual mode. I see no reason to delay. Do it now!

Once you’ve turned your dial to M, jump in and begin playing with these three things:

1. ISO. ISO is a rating of your camera’s light sensitivity. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. So, you’d want to use a low ISO on a bright sunny day–like 100 to 200. But at your child’s first school performance in a darkened theater? You’d want an ISO starting at 1600 on up. Generally speaking, you want to choose the lowest ISO possible for the light in your space. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” or grain will appear in your image. But then again, sometimes grain is added purposefully as a creative effect. Personally, this is the first thing I set when I’m going to make an image. I evaluate my light situation indoors or outdoors and set the ISO.

2. Aperture. Think of your own anatomy. Your own eye pupil. When there’s a lot of light or it’s very bright–your pupil is smaller. When it’s dimmer or darker our pupils get bigger to let more light in. The aperture of your camera works the same way and is measured in f-stops. Big f-stop numbers, like f/22 are actually much smaller openings. Because so much light is being let in, more of your image will be in focus. Conversely, when you open up (that’s the term photogs use) to say, f/2.8 or 1.4, the focal point will be clear while whatever isn’t bracketed in your viewfinder will be very blurred. Personally, this is the second thing I choose when I’m going to make an image. Do I want the overall image to be in focus or just my subject? How much detail do I want in my image? How blurred do I want the foreground or background?

3. Shutter Speed. Shutter speed is time. Specifically, shutter speed is the amount of time your shutter is open to record light as an image on your camera’s sensor. Controlling shutter speed allows you to decide whether you’re focal point will be pin-point, tack sharp or softer on purpose. Shutter speed is expressed as a fraction of a second. For example 1/1000 is a very fast shutter speed vs. 1/15 which is considered slow. Faster shutter speeds produce sharper images while slower shudder speeds show more blurred movement. Personally, this is the third thing I choose when I’m going to make an image. Once ISO is set and I’ve determined what aperture works best for a particular shot, I adjust shutter speed accordingly. The easiest way to become familiar with shutter speed is to look through your viewfinder and as you move the shutter speed dial up and down, watch the meter at the bottom of your screen. Towards the negative end and your image is underexposed. Move toward the positive end and your picture will be over-exposed. The closer you get your shutter speed to read in the middle of the meter–the better lit and more balanced your image will appear.

*Sometimes shutter speed is the second thing I choose, and aperture the third. It really depends on the priority of what I want from the photo. How important is movement vs. focus vs. detail in this particular picture? Here’s where your creativity comes in. What kind of image do you want to make? 

The most challenging task of course is putting all three together simultaneously. Adjusting them until they’re functioning harmoniously. Until you really absorb the job of each and how one influences the other, it can be frustrating. Will you believe me when I say eventually WITH PRACTICE ISO, aperture, and shutter speed become second nature, intuitive to you? They do.

In the meantime, looky at this. I have a little gift to give! For you, I made this handy dandy cheat sheet:

 photo Collages3_zps22d82b2d.jpg


Here are some examples to demonstrate ISO, aperture, and shutter speed working together:

I had to bump up the ISO up high because this bed was actually farther from the light coming in from the window than I would have liked and because of the close up I needed to get those “catch-lights” in her eyes. f/2.8 to blur the background. ISO 1250, f/2.8, 1/80 sec photo DSC_0877_zps351eac07.jpg


Taken outdoors on an overcast day. I wanted the background nice and blurred out with my three subjects in focus. ISO 200, f/1.8, 1/320 sec
 photo DSC_5618_zpsbf0b8849.jpg
Needed a fast shutter speed because wild child running. ISO 125, f/1.4, 1/500 sec
 photo DSC_6228-2_zpsb71f881f.jpg


Again, went with a fast shutter speed because she was a movin’ and a shakin’. ISO 125, f/1.4, 1/640 sec
 photo DSC_6827-2_zps76360882.jpg


Normally for window light I use an ISO 400 to 640, but the space was pretty dim. The camera was on a stool on the other side of the room  and it just wasn’t reading us well. So I raised the ISO a bit more to keep my aperture more open. I’m okay with a little grain sometimes. ISO 1000, f/2.2, 1/80 sec photo DSC_8899_zps0bdd5b1c.jpg


 You are going to rock this manual thing. You’re going to have fun. I know it! Make the switch now and gradually you’ll find yourself with less desire to revert to AUTO because you’ll experience firsthand how you and your camera really are capable of making better images. Please come back and let me know how it goes! Or if you have a question, leave it in the comments and you might see it answered on the next Photo Tip Friday. Go out this weekend and do some happy shooting.

 photo 6DA469A94323D01E3296CAEB39195D46_zpsd324941e.png


I'm a mom of five, wife to one, life-long Louisvillian. Six years ago I put down the key to my middle school classroom and picked up a camera instead. Now a pro photographer, writer and activist, I blog to share with you those passions and to spread good feelings through the words and pictures you find here.

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29 Comments… add one

January 10, 2014, 8:55 am

I so wish I had this cheat sheet when I first flicked the dial to M – this is fabulous, Sarah!

I don’t own any extra lenses yet, or a professional editing software. I don’t even have a tripod yet. Also on my wish list is a laptop upgrade so I can edit photos better. This is the year of photography for me, so I look forward to your weekly tips!
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Sarah January 10, 2014, 1:39 pm

I bet you’ll own more lenses before you know it. Especially after you get further into your through the lens project :) :) :) And thanks for the encouragement!

Andrea January 10, 2014, 11:30 am

Sarah, this is so interesting and helpful. I love it, and I love how you showed us how you did your own photos.
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Sarah January 10, 2014, 1:37 pm

Yay Andrea! Glad to hear it. I think using examples is the way to go.

Carolyn Y January 10, 2014, 1:39 pm

Thank you! This is great. I pinned it and know I’ll be back again (and again and again and again)!
The cheat sheet is awesome, and your explanations clear.
I made a goal to get off of auto this year!
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 10:56 pm

Thanks Carolyn! Yes, get off auto. You’ll (eventually) love it and be glad you did.

Tracy Babin January 10, 2014, 2:02 pm

This is SO inspiring to hear from one of the photographers that I follow and look up to that you’re self-taught and started in much the same place I did. I started on a D40 when my loving hubby decided that a point a shoot just wasn’t cutting it for a passion that burned so deeply within me. That was 5 years ago.

I’d switched to manual about 3.5 years ago, and was actually doing quite well learning it on my own. So I recently decided to upgrade to a D7000. However, the controls were SO different, that I lost a bit of a my confidence and have gone back to manual for certain situations because I can’t figure out where to find stuff on this model. LOL

Do you have any tips for making the “upgrade transition”? And perhaps a future blog about organizing your photo files and such?

LOVE following you, both professionally and personally. Keep inspiring us. :)


Tracy Babin January 10, 2014, 2:04 pm

^^^^^^ CORRECTION ^^^^^^

Switched to manual about 1.5 years ago. UGH. Fingers can’t keep up with my brain. lol

Sarah January 11, 2014, 10:58 pm

Hahaha. Glad to hear you’re already on manual. I will definitely keep those ideas in mind for future posts. I’m seriously looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned! The learning is constant, no?

Alma January 10, 2014, 2:08 pm

This is so perfect! I will be referring to this post as photography bible. Thanks for the short cuts and keeping it user friendly and simple. I will be pinning and bookmarking this. I want to feel more comfortable using my camera because I rely on it so much for my shop.
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:09 pm

Haha. photography bible! that’s a very good reason to improve. Sales boosted! but know that you already take really lovely pics.

Jennifer January 10, 2014, 3:08 pm

Love this advice. It is so good. I also love to hear your process. I think I go backward from you, sort of. I usually decide on aperture, then shutter speed, and then make my ISO fit, sometimes switched with shutter speed. Or maybe it is kind of all made together at this point.
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:00 pm

The three do get jumbled together. If I need a faster shutter but want a certain aperture, that’s when I go back to playing with the ISO too. They’re so intertwined!

Angie Kinghorn
January 10, 2014, 4:31 pm

Sarah, this is perfect! Thank you so much! I switched my camera to manual yesterday and spent about 300 frames on water bottles and my dog. I’ll definitely be looking at this post again and again!
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:00 pm

Yay! And hey, don’t know water bottles and your dog. A start is a start. Good for you.

Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:01 pm

Yay! And hey, don’t knock water bottles and your dog. A start is a start. Good for you.

January 10, 2014, 8:15 pm

This is really helpful. I have a tendency to think more in terms of light when I switch up shutter speed, and not movement. And I was going to ask you about our next prompt, movement, so yay!

Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:08 pm

Yep, shutter speed helps capture movement. So do you want blurred motion (slow shutter speed) or sharp, frozen moments (fast shutter speed)? It really depends on the look and feel you’re going for with a particular pic. Hope this helped for the prompt!

Katie E
January 10, 2014, 8:18 pm

So so helpful! I’m trying to get to know my camera better this year, so I’m just going to use this as a guide :)
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:02 pm

I’m glad you found it helpful Katie!

Kim January 11, 2014, 2:03 am

This is awesome, Sarah!
As you know, I do not have my DSLR yet – but you have made me feel like maybe I could get the hang of the Manual thing. What a great reference!
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:05 pm

Oh Kim, you’ll be great at it! When you get that DSLR jump right in.

Shaun Hoobler January 11, 2014, 9:44 am

Adorable pictures. Those photos are why I prefer my DSLR camera than my smartphone.
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:04 pm

Smartphones are great. They’ll never beat a DSLR, in my opinion. And thank you!

Amanda Jillian
January 11, 2014, 10:03 pm

I love these photos, and using manual with my DSLR feels weird and unnatural I’m still learning it. However when I used 35mm manual SLR it’s second nature.
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Sarah January 11, 2014, 11:03 pm

It’s such a process. Takes awhile to get to a certain comfortable feeling.

Elaine A.
January 13, 2014, 4:56 am

You’ve made it look easy, both in your photos and with this post. SO many will benefit from this information. You know I adore your photography and it’s so wonderful for you to share your knowledge! xo

Galit Breen
January 13, 2014, 12:43 pm

This is amazing, Sarah! Thank you so much for all the (helpful) tips! Your gift for photography = perfection. You sharing it = generous!
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Jessica January 15, 2014, 12:02 am

I love this cheat sheet! These are gorgeous shots and I look forward to seeing more of this series!

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