Manual Mode Workflow {Free Beginner Photography Class}

So week one of manual mode, you learned to adjust the dials and play around. Week two week dove right into the technicality of stops. This week I’m going to walk you through a typical manual mode workflow. This whole post will be a do-while-reading assignment. So grab your cameras and find something in your reading space that it is photo worth. Ready, set, go!

Manual Mode Workflow

Alright, you’ve got your camera. You’ve switched it into manual mode and you’ve found something interesting. Let’s start exercising our manual mode workflow muscles.

Set White Balance

Glance around your lighting situation and access whether you want to change white balance. I’m shooting outside in open shade and so I set white balance for shade.

Set your white balance and move on to ISO.

Set your ISO

The spot I’m in has a good bit of dappled shade, but is overall pretty bright.  I set ISO at 160.

You’re taking a guess here but you should be close to spot on. Back in the old days when film had the ISO rating rather than a sensor, a photographer would pick out their film based on where they were shooting. Outside in bright daylight: grab a roll of ISO 50 or 100 or 200. Varied conditions, some outside some inside: ISO 400. Inside a building: ISO 800. Pretty dark: We’d push process our ISO 400 or 800 to 1600 or 3200 or fork over the big bucks for a roll of film with that ISO rating.

So what are your lighting conditions? Pick your ISO and lets move on.

Choosing what to Change Next

Now comes a decision: is aperture more important to your composition or shutter speed?

My goal is to capture my daughter playing while blurring out the background. To blur the background I know I need a wide aperture. She’s also moving pretty fast so I know a wider aperture will allow for a faster shutter speed.  I’ve decided aperture is my most important setting.

If you have a fast subject and want to blur motion or freeze motion, pick shutter speed first.

Set Your Most Important Setting

I’m going to set my aperture at f/2.5 which is pretty wide open but not so wide that my fast moving subject will move too much after I lock focus. You might want your aperture at f/22 to capture the glory a full landscape scene. Or you might be setting it around f/5.6 to capture a family of 4 in good focus but still apply background blur.

You might be setting your shutter speed at 1/125 of a second or above to freeze motion or slower than 1/60 to capture motion occurring.

Now that you’ve picked what’s most important to your composition, set it.

Set your Least Important Setting

Now change your least important setting for your desired composition. My shutter speed landed at 1/160 of a second zeroed out on the exposure value/bias scale.

Take your First Shot


In film days, we didn’t take more than two shots and we couldn’t look to check and see if we got it right on an LCD screen. I’ll talk a little about one of the processes that helped us get it right the first time in the next lesson.

However, in these digital days we have the freedom to check and make sure we got it right. Use that freedom! Look down at your LCD and check out that image. Would you like it to be brighter? Darker? Aperture wider or more closed down? Does your shutter speed need to be faster? Do you need to change the ISO so that you can have a faster shutter speed or more closed down aperture?

Adjust your settings if you didn’t love your first image and try again.  I was pretty happy with this shot.  I had spot metered (focused on the upper left eye) and I loved the interplay of contrast in both the mud and light skin and her shadowed eye.  So I didn’t try again 🙂

The Benefit of Manual Mode

By now you’re thinking, “Gee, this is a lot of work just to take two pictures. Why shouldn’t I just stick it in one of the Auto Modes and let the camera do the work?”

The benefit of shooting in manual mode is that you become the one to evaluate what you need to do to create your image. You’re also able to change settings to get a brighter or darker exposure for your desired outcome as well as adapt to new lighting situations relatively quickly compared to setting exposure compensation in Program mode.

If we stick the camera on Auto then we don’t get to change according to our scene. The camera meters everything for zero and assumes everything is okay, picks a mid aperture, picks a mid shutter speed, or pops up the flash and just takes a picture.

When you begin to shoot in manual, you’re moving from a documentarian to an artist who is evaluating a scene and actively choosing what portion will draw the viewers eye.

Can some of that be done in Aperture, Shutter, or Program Mode? Sure! And there are definitely seasons where I switch over to aperture or Program. But the challenge of manual mode is that I’m responsible for creating the outcome that I desire. It makes me think and respond to changing conditions.

Your Assignment

Go out there and begin mastering your Manual Mode Workflow.

  • Pick three or four scenes and start creating art. You should be ready to approach a calm mid-speed preschooler (but maybe not a lighting fast crawler/toddler) after two weeks of practice with changing your settings in manual.
  • Pick at least one or two challenging scenes that are either brighter than most (snow, portraits on a beach, white on white) or darker than most (photographing a stage lit recital, capturing something at night). These will challenge you to not always set your exposure value as zero.  You’ll learn which lighting situation you’ll want to move toward +1 or -1 in exposure value.
  • Upload your final images with a description of what you did AFTER you checked your LCD readout of your first image. (you may need to take notes in the field) What did you change? Why? This is the most important part of the whole assignment. It’s designed to get you thinking about the whys of what you did to make this an image that you liked.