Photography 101: A First Steps Guide to Manual Mode

Dear Mr A,

You’ve been telling me for weeks now, even months (but who’s counting apart from me! ūüėČ ) that you’d like to learn how to use a¬†camera to take better picture. You know it starts with learning to shoot in manual mode but seems a bit reluctant to take further steps. Since I know you read my blog, and since we’re going away for the week-end, I thought I should use this opportunity to give you, your first lesson!

So let’s go for it!!


Photography 101 - Learn more on
The first step to switch from the Automatic Mode to the Manual Mode is to understand the 3 main camera settings :

  • the ISO
  • the Aperture
  • the Shutter Speed

These are the setting that allow you to take sharp images which are perfectly exposed. In our next sessions, we’ll talk about white balance, composition and other stuffs, but you must master the Exposure triangle first. Since we’ll be away this week end, this post should come very handy!!


I – The ISO

As you know, the ISO (International Standards Organization) determines the sensitivity to light of the camera sensor.


On a bright sunny day, you should use the lowest ISO setting possible i.e. 100 on the Pentax you are shooting with, to limit the sensor sensibility to light.

When partially clouded, you should probably increase this slightly.

When shooting indoor, like in castles, you will most likely need to increase the ISO setting to maybe 800 to 1600.

And when trying to shoot at night, go up to the maximum.

Please see below the little summary I created for you!

ISO explained - Learn more on

Now remember that the issue with going up with the ISO is that it create noise on the picture (Those little random dots showing above).

Noise isn’t always a problem, it depends of the picture and how you want to use it. Noise also depends of the camera you are using, with the Pentax noise starts at 800 ISO and is already pretty bad at 1600 ISO. With my Nikon, it doesn’t really show up at 1600 ISO. Yes if you master the Triangle Exposure, I will let you buy a fancy camera where you won’t have to worry as much about noise!!


II – The Aperture

The Aperture refers to the opening of a lens’s diaphragm. This one usually feels a bit tricky because it looks like it works backward: A large Aperture is represented by a small number when a small Aperture is represented by a large number. Don’t worry if you don’t remember right away, it will come.

The Aperture defines the Depth of Field of the image and the Depth of Field is the range of distance that appears acceptably sharp.

Aperture explained - Learn more on

As you can see from the above, if you are selecting a small number (a large Aperture), only the subject you’ve focused on (the little flower) will be sharp and the other objects that are at different distances (the castle and the mountain in the background) will be blurry.¬†If you are selecting a large number (a small Aperture), most objects, no matter the distance, will be sharp.

In other words:

The lower the f/stop Рthe larger the opening in the lens Рthe more light hits the sensor Рthe less depth of field Рthe blurrier the background.

The higher the f/stop Рthe smaller the opening in the lens Рthe less light hits the sensor Рthe greater the depth of field Рthe sharper the background.


What you need to know is how to chose the right Aperture so lets see some examples:

We are outside a castle and you want to take a picture showing the whole castle in its setting. But there are some bushes in front of you and you want to blur those. In this case what you would do is choose a small number like f2.8 or f 5.6 (a large Aperture) and focus on the castle which will be the only thing to appear sharp. If there is a town or some ugly buildings in the distant background of the castle, the will also be blurred. Good job!!

We are now inside the castle, in a beautifully furnished room. Some piece of furniture are in the foreground, others in the background and you would like¬†all of them to appear sharp on the picture. In this case, you would want¬†to select a large number like f16 (a small Aperture). I’m not saying you will be able to, especially since castles are often dimly lit, but that is your goal.

Aperture is super fun to work with but selecting a small or large Aperture isn’t the only thing to impact the Depth of Field so we’ll need to go into this in more depth (punt intended!). For now, you should test¬†various settings and see how it goes.


II РThe Shutter Speed

The 3rd and last setting you will get to play with in Manual Mode is the Shutter Speed which represents how long the shutter stays open. Obviously, the longer, the more light hits the camera sensor.

Shutter Speed is used to blur mouvement or freeze it:

With a long exposure, like several seconds, you can ghost people, blur waterfalls or take pictures of the stars. A long exposure is what we used when we painted with light in Arles. You can also use long exposure to shoot in poorly lit conditions.

With a short exposure, like 1/250 or even 1/5000, you can take the picture of fast moving objects like a cyclist passing by and still have a sharp image. You can also use a short exposure, on a super bright sunny day, to shot with a large Aperture.

Shutter Speed explained - Learn more on

The issue with the Shutter Speed is that below a certain number, the camera will record your handshake. You therefore need to use a tripod to take a sharp image. And now you know, why you’ve been carrying around the tripod!! ūüėČ

I’ve noticed you have quite a steady hand so, with the current lens you’re using on the Pentax and it’s focal length (I know I haven’t told you about this yet and that will be in the next lesson) you can try shooting as low as 1/30 when in poorly lit conditions. But since that’s pretty slow, you should aim at reducing handshake as much as possible. Lean again a wall, or better put the camera against the wall, stop breathing, detach your face from the viewer once you’ve composed your picture and before pressing the shutter.

A better choice of Shutter Speed would be 1/50 and anything from 1/100 up, is good. This is based on the lens focal length you are using. It would be different if you were using the 200mn zoom you bought me for Christmas.

The Exposure Triangle & the Exposure Meter

Now that you understand the influence of the 3 camera settings which compose the Exposure Triangle, the question is:

How do you know you chose the right settings?

And the answer is:

With the Exposure Meter, of course!!

The Exposure Meter looks like this:

Exposure Meter

You can see it in the viewer and on the screen of the camera (useful when using the tripod). The Exposure Meter display shows the result of the measurement taken by the light meter of the sensor.

The Exposure Meter therefore tells you if your image is going to be underexposed (minus figures on the left), overexposed (positive figures on the right) or rightly exposed (on the middle mark).

You need to juggle the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed to  find the perfect Exposure and the way it works is that when you increase 1 of those by 1 stop, you need to decrease one of the other by 1 stop as well.

We’ll go into more details of what a stop is and what 1/3 of stops are later. For now, just turn the camera¬†dials¬†until the Exposure Meter arrow is centered!


You will soon realize that there are circumstance when you just can’t do what you want to do:

You are back inside the castle in this beautifully furnished room. The light in the room is dimly lit. You set your ISO at¬†800¬†and choose¬†to shoot with an aperture of f16 to have everything sharp on the image. Unfortunately, you realize it means you should have a Shutter speed of 2s to get¬†an appropriately exposed picture. But you know now, that this would require the use of a tripod which you don’t have. You try to increase your ISO to 1600, but it’s still not enough to have a ‘reasonable’ shutter speed. The only thing you can therefore do is go for a larger Aperture. Probably around f8 with a Shutter Speed of 1/30. It’s still going to be a good picture if you focus on the right piece of furniture in the room!!

You are now outside on a hike on a bright sunny day. There is a beautiful waterfall you want to take a picture of. You set your ISO at 100 and you know you need to have a Shutter Speed at around 1s to blur the movement of the water. You’ve put the camera on the tripod but soon realize that your image is going to be totally overexposed with an Aperture of f5.6. You try to choose a smaller Aperture like f16 even if you didn’t want a deep Depth of Field but it’s still not good. Sorry, there isn’t anything you can do, except go buy a filter and come back!!

These were just examples to show that you can’t always do what you want to do and that’s ok.¬†We’ll find other exemples this week end, I’m sure!!

My last worlds on the Exposure Meter are as follow:

  • Don’t always trust it. The Exposure Meter gives you a reference. There a re circumstances where it’s wrong! So look at your image on the camera.
  • If you don’t have a choice, take the underexposed pictures, anyway. I can work some magic with Lightroom!
  • If you have doubts, take 3 pictures at different exposures. I can also use them in Lightroom…




That’s all for now. I hope you’ll find this useful. Do not hesitate to ask questions!! I will always be¬†available for you ūüėČ

As mentionner above, we’ll later¬†need to talk about white balance, go into more depth on how the stops work, what influences the Depth of Field and we’ll also need to discuss¬†the different metering modes, the different auto focus modes, what bracketing is as well as panning (I know you will love that!) and just try various fun things… But you must first master the¬†above, so, now, it’s time to go out and shoot!



Miss Coco






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