Master Your DSLR Camera: Manual Shooting Modes

When you are handed a DSLR camera, how likely is it that you would take a picture using one of the variations of automatic mode? Do you want to master the shooting modes of your DSLR camera? Well if you don’t own one yourself, it’s predictable that you’d set it to auto—how should you know, right? 

However, if you do own a DSLR camera and you’ve never explored the manual shooting modes, you’re definitely not using it to its potential and you might as well stick to your phone’s camera application.

Mastering The Shooting Modes of Your DSLR Camera

DSLR cameras already have built-in settings or auto modes for portraits, landscapes, sports, macro, etc. These settings can be helpful, especially for beginners in photography, because you can focus more on your composition. However, some of these camera settings will just not work for certain situations and it won’t work for those who want to take professional-quality photos.

The built-in settings in your camera simply turn your camera like a computer that automatically makes calculations based on the algorithm or the setting that was designed for a specific (auto) mode. 

For example, some settings automatically fire your camera’s flash whenever the camera thinks that your subject lacks exposure or whenever it seems necessary. Some DSLR settings allow the camera to decide which object in your frame is the main focus. As a consequence, your ideal subject is sometimes not the main focal point of your photo.  

Some disadvantages of using your DSLR camera’s built-in settings or auto mode include:

  • The interpretation of the scene in your head will not reflect on your photo.
  • You won’t step out of your comfort zone and learn to become a professional photographer.
  • You have no control of your camera’s exposure.

To get the most out of your photos, you’ll need to master your DSLR camera and its four shooting modes: manual mode, aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, and program mode. You can find these on the dial on top of your camera, usually labeled as “M, A, S, P” on a Nikon or “M, Av, Tv, P” on a Canon. You’ll also find the different auto modes on this dial.

Now before you dive into the manual shooting modes, you’ll need to have a good understanding of the exposure triangle first.

What Is The Exposure Triangle?

The exposure triangle comprises the three fundamental elements that work together to determine the exposure and overall quality of a photograph. These elements are the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. 

This is called the exposure triangle for the reason that if you manipulate one element, at least one other should be changed as well. You must learn how to balance these three to achieve what is expected and to do that, you should familiarize yourself with each:

ISO and ISO setting

The acronym ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization.” This refers to how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the value, the more sensitive; the lower the value, the less sensitive. This means that if you’re shooting in a dimly-lit environment, you would have to raise your ISO. 

However, you have to be mindful of the digital noise that comes with increasing your ISO value. For example, images in a high ISO setting will show a lot of grain, also known as digital noise. 

In traditional film photography, ISO (or ASA) is measured in numbers. You have probably seen films that have numbers 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. The lower the number, the less sensitive to light your camera will be. As a result, the grain (digital noise) in your photo will appear finer. Thus, try to keep this as low as possible.

There are some DSLR cameras where you will lose control over the setting of your ISO if you choose to turn the setting in auto-mode. Ideally, the accepted normal or standard ISO is 100. This will give you little to no noise grain, allowing your photo to appear crisp.

There are some DSLR where you will lose control over your ISO setting if you choose to turn the setting in auto-mode. Ideally, the accepted normal or standard ISO is 100. This will give you little to no noise grain, allowing your photo to appear crisp.


This refers to the amount of light that enters your camera’s sensors. The aperture is measured by numerical f-stop (f/) values which are usually 1.4, 1.8, 2.0., 2.8, 3.6, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22. When you increase the value of the f-stop, the aperture or amount of light that enters the camera decreases. 

A smaller aperture value also results in wider depth of field or in other words, part of your photo will be in deeper focus. To keep it simple, just remember: increasing the f-stop value will decrease the aperture (light) and deepen the focus.

Another example is that the lower the f-stop, the less depth of field, which results in a blurrier background. On the other hand, the higher the f-stop, the greater the depth of the field. As a result, your background is sharper.

Your aperture also affects the shutter speed of your DSLR. If you are using a low f-stop, your shutter speed is faster because it does not need to stay open for a longer time as more light is entering the lens. 

Using a high f-stop means that your shutter speed needs to be slower because it has to stay open longer because less light is entering your lens.

Shutter speed

This refers to how long it takes for light to reach your camera’s sensors, also referred to as exposure time. The shutter speed is measured by fractions of a second, like 1/500. The higher this value is, the faster the exposure– in other words, the faster the camera clicks and takes the picture. With this, you can freeze subjects in motion like a car or a person running.

For example, if you are taking a photo of a moving object, you will get different effects by using different shutter speeds. When your shutter speed is fast, your image sensor is exposed to light at a shorter time. Therefore, it will be easier for you to capture a photo of a moving object without blur.

The blur is either caused by the camera or the subject. When the blur is caused by the camera movement, e.g., camera shake, it is referred to as a camera blur. The blur that is caused by a subject movement is called motion blur or subject blur.

Now that you have a bit of a background of the three elements, you’ll be able to grasp the manual shooting modes much easier. 

What Are The Four Manual Shooting Modes?

Stepping out of the auto mode comfort zone will do a great deal at improving your photos, especially when you know which manual shooting mode to use. It might be a bit confusing in the beginning, but it will be like second nature once you get the hang of it. 

As you read on, you’ll probably notice that there aren’t any mentions of the ISO setting. Although it is a part of the exposure triangle, it’s not necessary to change this often unless there is a dramatic change in lighting. You can set this to auto and just play around with the other two elements.

Manual mode (M)

Setting your camera to manual mode gives you total control of its settings. You can manually set the aperture and shutter speed to any value you desire to be able to take the best possible photo in extreme lighting conditions or if you prefer an underexposed photo in some situations. Using this mode is fairly easy if you understand the exposure triangle and its elements.

By mastering the manual mode, you can deal with any lighting situations that the auto-mode cannot handle. A classic example would be shooting a subject with a very bright background making your issue underexposed and hard to see.

With manual mode, you can manually adjust your DSLR setting so that your subject is properly exposed.

Using the manual mode while shooting will give you consistent exposures throughout your shoot.

Aperture priority mode (A or Av)

In aperture priority mode, you can manually set the f-stop value or the aperture. This setting is useful during instances when you want to control the depth of field or focus of the subject, leaving it to the camera to automatically adjust the shutter speed and expose your image as good as possible. 

Increasing the f-stop value will increase the depth of field (subject is less focused); lowering the f-stop value will decrease the depth of field (subject is isolated from the background). The aperture priority mode works best in normal circumstances wherein a still or motionless subject is involved. With this setting, there is little to no risk of producing an underexposed or overexposed image. 

Shutter priority mode (S or Tv)

This shooting mode will let you choose the camera’s shutter speed while it automatically adjusts the aperture. The aperture changes according to the amount of light that goes through the lens, which also implies that you have no control over the depth of field whatsoever. 

The shutter priority mode is only recommended for shooting subjects in motion– vividly capture a fast-moving animal or intentionally ‘blur’ out a flowing river. However, take note that there is a higher risk of getting an underexposed or overexposed photo when using this mode. For example, if you were to set your camera at a low shutter speed in a very well-lit environment, the image will be overexposed and blown out.

Shutter-release modes

The name of the shutter-release modes varies from the DSLR camera you are using. But this typically means what happens to the behavior of your shutter when you press the shutter button. Below is a list of the most common shutter-release modes.

  • Single-shot mode
  • Continuous or burst mode
  • Exposure delay mode
  • Self-timer mode
  • Remote-control mode
  • Time-lapse or interval timer shooting
  • Mirror-lock up
  • Quiet mode

Program mode (P) 

In program mode, you have control over both shutter speed and aperture. This is a good choice for point and shoots photography because you no longer need to switch between aperture priority mode and shutter priority mode. 

If you manually set the shutter speed, the camera will automatically adjust the aperture and vice versa. You are also in control of other settings such as ISO, white balance, and flash so it’s kind of like a semi-automatic mode–great for beginners!

It’s easier to experiment and master your DSLR camera once you have an idea of a photo’s significant elements and how you can manipulate these using the various shooting modes. Not only will you get better quality photos, you will also learn to use your DSLR camera like a professional photographer

Now is your chance to exercise your creativity more often rather than just clicking the shutter button endlessly. Try it for yourself and you’ll never want to go back to automatic mode again!

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