Shooting in manual mode can feel frustrating and overwhelming. Even if you’ve had your camera for a while. I know it took me years to get the confidence to try all the settings and I have made thousands of mistakes along the way. When I am teaching other moms how to use their cameras and trouble shoot the areas that are holding them back, these common manual mode mistakes come up again and again!

If you aren’t sure what ISO, aperture, and shutter Speed are, please read “How to Get Started with Your DSLR” before continuing with this post and then come back. I promise it will be helpful to have that knowledge first.

manual mode mistakes

Common Manual Mode Mistake #1: Aperture is too open.

While aperture is my favorite setting to play around with, you do have to be careful when trying to open your aperture wide (i.e. f1.8 or f/2.0) Remember widening your aperture not only let’s more light in, but it also makes your depth of field more shallow. This means, you can end up with images that are either overexposed (too bright) or you can have fuzzy, out of focus, shots.


Here are a couple things to think about so your aperture enhances your photo rather than ruining it:


  1. If your image is too bright- If you want a shallow depth of field, use a open aperture (f1.8 or f/2.0), but change your shutter speed faster (larger denominator) so your camera will let less light in. This will help you achieve a better exposure. If you are outside on a sunny day, a good place to start is iso 100 and shutter Speed 1/200-400. This will allow you to have your aperture open without too much light. You may need to adjust your shutter Speed slightly until you get the look you want, but you can keep the other 2 settings the same.
  2. If your image is not focused- Because a wide open aperture will cause for less of your image to be in focus, you need to be careful that everything is on the same plane or that you adjust your aperture accordingly. For instance, if you are photographing 2-3 people, one in front of the other, you need to have a greater depth of field to ensure everyone is in focus. You can do this by closing your aperture slightly (such as f/2.8). The same is true when you photograph more than one person on the same plane. A good rule of thumb is to keep your aperture at a higher number than the number of people you are photographing. For example, if there are two people in the group, f/2.0 or greater. If there are 8 people in the group, f/8.0 or greater. This will ensure focus all the way to the people on the edge of the photograph.


manual mode mistakes

Common Manual Mode Mistake #2: Not Utilizing the light source

One of the most important things to learn when using your manual settings is how to use the light source. If you are outside, the light source is likely the sun. If you are inside, the light source is hopefully a window or soft light. Either way, positioning your subject the correct way so the light hits your camera and your subject in the most appealing way possible is essential to getting a good photograph. ISO, shutter speed, and aperture will all help you be able to capture that light in your camera, but you first have to learn to use it well before you can fully understand how to best to set each manual setting.


Here are a few tips to get started:

  1. Look for your light source before you start shooting and position yourself different ways to see how the light is shining on the area you will be photographing. This will help you understand which way you want to face and where to place your subject when taking the photo. Maybe you are just out playing at a park and want to get more candid photos. Once you know where the best light is coming from and which direction you want to face, just stay on that general side as you photograph your kids playing. If this is a new concept to you, it is important to try different angles so you can really see the difference it makes. Doing this will also help you find the best light quicker and quicker at new locations.
  2. If the light is just too bright, use the shade. Shade can be a magical place for photographers. As you scope out your location, if you can’t find a lot of good areas to take photos where the light won’t be too harsh, find a few shady spots you can use.
  3. Use large windows if you are inside. Place your subject so they are facing the window. This produces a nice soft light on your subjects face. If you are able, use a lens that allows for an aperture of at least f/2.0. This way you can keep your ISO setting much lower and still bring in plenty of light indoors.


Common Manual Mode Mistake #3: Try to change settings too often

If you are just starting out, you might feel like you have to change each setting with every photo. I used to do the same thing. The truth is, if you are photographing in the same location, your settings will stay relatively the same, if not exactly the same for every photo.


My number one tip for beginner photographers:

  1. Decide what setting is most important for your photograph. If it is depth of field, aperture is your most important setting. If it is action/blur, shutter Speed is your most important setting. Set ISO according to the light. (Sign up to get my cheat sheet here). Set your priority setting. (For example, If you want a shallow depth of field or bokeh, set aperture to f/1.2-f/2.8.) Now adjust just the third setting until you get the composition you want. Now you only have to adjust one setting through your shooting unless you change locations, something changes drastically, or you want a different look for your photographs.

manual mode mistakes

Common Manual Mode Mistake #4: Feel like every image has to turn out perfectly

(The image above is blurry, there is food all over my toddlers face, and the composition is nothing special, yet this is one of my favorite photos because I can feel his joy!)

We live in an age where we are inundated with photos on all our social platforms everyday. And people usually only share their best stuff. What you don’t see are the 300 other photos at the birthday party that didn’t turn out. Not all of your photos will be amazing. And, most likely some of your favorites won’t even be that good. They will be your favorite becausebof the moment you captured, not the perfect lighting or composition. It is okay to take a lot of photos that aren’t perfect and only get a few that look great. EVERY photographer does this, whether amateur or pro.


Common Manual Mode Mistake #5: ISO is too high

ISO is an easy way to allow more light into your photograph. I think that is why so many new photographers often increase there ISO before changing any of the other settings. While this does add light even in low light situations, it doesn’t give you the best photographs. Increasing ISO adds noise or grain to your photograph which can become a problem if you want to blow your images up. Your images can lack clarity and look unfocused when ISO is set too high.


What to do instead:

  1. Keep your ISO below 1000. Many photographers will tell you you can go way above this before your photo becomes too grainy, but I have never had a need to set ISO above 1000 and find my images to be more clear when I don’t. If your lens does not allow your aperture to open wider than 3.5-5.6, you may need to increase it slightly in very low light situations.
  2. Increase your aperture (lower f-stop number) to allow for more light to enter your lens.
  3. Decrease your shutter Speed (lower denominator). In really low lit situations, try using a tripod. You can allow you rshutter to stay open a bit longer as long as your camera and your subject are not moving (unless you are trying to get intentional blur).


Common Manual Mode Mistakes #6: Forget about shutter Speed

Shutter Speed is often completely forgotten as a way to manipulate the exposure of a photograph. Just as I said ISO was overused, shutter Speed is underused. Because I am mostly a portrait photographer (although I am working towards taking more scenery shots without always having my kids be the focus) aperture is my most important setting. I like to shoot around f/1.4-2.8. This is my sweet spot. I also keep my ISO setting about the same depending on my location.( Outside, 100-200, clouds 200-400, inside 400-800.) With that in mind, I use shutter Speed to keep the exposure where I want it. If my photo is way overexposed, I still want my aperture setting to be wide open so I increase my shutterspeed to let less light in. Most of the time I ma shooting, this is the only setting I need to mess with because I have the other 2 set where I want. Shutter Speed is a great tool to help you get the composition you want.


manual mode mistakes

Common Manual Mode Mistake #7: Forget about composition

(Even something simple like moving your subject to one third of your photograph can greatly increase the interest of your photo. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just something to try to think about as you are photographing and playing with your settings.)

Beginner photographers will get so busy thinking about the settings they will forget about the image they are trying to capture. Composition is a very important piece to taking great photos. It will be what sets your photos apart from the rest. Play around with different composition techniques to find your style and what adds the most interest to your photographs.


Things to think about:

  1. Look at your whole frame when taking a photograph.
  2. Make sure you notice what is around your subject, such as a trash can in the background, or a small hair sweeping across the face. These are small things that can ruin an otherwise perfect photo.
  3. Try placing your subject to one side of your image rather than right in the middle.
  4. Look for texture and color that will balance and add a sense of dimension to your photo.
  5. Play around with the different planes of your photograph. Everything does not have to live on the same plane. You can layer your subjects to make your photograph pop and draw your viewers eyes in.

In Conclusion:

It is hard to take amazing photographs all the time. In fact, I would say the majority won’t even be mediocre even once you feel really good with your settings. However, continuous practice and thinking through these common manual mode mistakes can help you take your photography to new levels. Using the manual settings will set your images apart and help you capture creative and beautiful images you will treasure for years to come.

If you haven’t already, join “Manual Mode for Newbies.” This course walks you through each setting so you can confidently change your settings without the fear of missing your shot.

How to take better photos

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