Basics of Shooting in Manual Mode

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

As I’ve written here before, the number one question I get during PhotoWalks and workshops is about obtaining proper exposure. So in recent weeks I’ve written several posts that included exposure tips. Today I want to tackle manual model.

I like to think that manual mode is for shooters who would rather drive a car with a stick shift than one with an automatic transmission. Purists and YouTube experts may claim that manual exposure mode is the only one you should ever use but I typically only use Manual in the studio when shooting with electronic flash or when working under extremely low lighting. That’s because there are some lighting situations that confuse even the most sophisticated automatic exposure system. Anyway, here’s my two cents:


Obtaining the best exposure is simply about correctly setting the right combination of lens aperture and shutter speed. You can set the exposure manually or let the camera do it using the many modes that modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer.

For 90% of the photographs you’ll make, these automatic modes do a fantastic job in producing correct exposure but its those last 10% that’ll kill you, so sometimes you have to shift into manual. Manual exposure can be helpful with high contrast situations or with strong backlight but also can help when trying to achieve a specific mood.

Manual exposure requires either using a hand-held light meter or the one that’s built into the camera. As I mentioned when talking about IR capture on Monday, here’s how I use my camera’s in-camera meter like a handheld one: I look through the viewfinder in Program mode to see the suggested exposure, then transfer the shutter speed and aperture to the camera now set in manual mode. Then I’ll often bracket taking the time to check the histogram from time to time. A histogram is a graphic representation of the distribution of exposure data in an image file and you can read more about using histograms on my Old Blog.

Most cameras also offer a Bulb, another manual mode where the shutter stays open as long as the shutter release is pressed. This allows you to make really long exposures for subjects such as holiday lights, fireworks or special effects such as images of carnivals and amusement parks.  For long exposures like this it’s a good idea to use a sturdy tripod and you can further reduce the risk of camera shake by tripping the shutter with a cable or remote release

How I made this shot: I photographed Erin Valakari in my home studio using a Panasonic Lumix GH4 and Lumix G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (at 45mm) with an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/11 and ISO 200. At camera right was a Paul C. Buff DigiBee DB800 with a Plume Ltd hexagonal Wafer soft box attached. Another DigiBee DB800 with 18-inch Omni reflector with Diffusion Sock and a Alien Bee B800 was at camera left, slightly behind Erin. Background was the hand painted Carbonite muslin from Silverlake Photo.



If you’re interested in learning how I shoot portraits and use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio and on location, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere which is available new from for $22.44 and $13.79 used, as I write this. Interested in learning how to shoot better portraits and want hands-on training, check out my 1-on-1 workshops.