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Camera Basics # 18: Manual Exposure (M mode)

If you want control over both the aperture and the shutter speed, Manual exposure mode is the way to go. It might be quite a tough mode to conquer for a beginner, but also can be very convenient to achieve certain shooting intentions. In this final article in our Camera Basics series, we take a closer look at this mode and what it can be used for. (Reported by Tomoko Suzuki)

Manual exposure visual


Manual exposure mode: Allows you to set and lock in the image brightness as you desire


- You decide on the shutter speed and the aperture.
- The brightness settings remain the same once you have set them.
- This mode makes it easier to obtain the exposure that suits your shooting intent.

As we learnt in the previous 2 articles, in the Aperture-priority AE and Shutter-priority AE modes, the user sets the aperture/shutter speed manually, and the camera automatically calculates and sets the remaining settings that would provide optimum exposure. However, in Manual exposure mode, both the aperture and the shutter speed are determined by the user and reflected in the image—the camera does not automatically set any of the exposure settings.

In this sense, Manual exposure mode settings will not be affected by the overall brightness of the shooting conditions—unless, of course, you adjust them yourself. The biggest advantage of this is that if you decide to change your composition, and this results in a change in the balance of brightness between the main subject and the background, the main subject will still be shot just as bright as before you changed the composition. This property makes the Manual exposure mode very useful for scenes where there is stark brightness contrast, for portrait shots against backlighting, and also for when you want to intentionally make your image brighter (or darker).

Read: What kind of scenes are Manual Exposure most effective for?

The key to configuring settings in Manual exposure mode is to have a clear idea of your shooting intent. If you want to create a bokeh effect, decide on your aperture setting first; if you want an image that portrays action in a certain way, decide on your shutter speed first. Once you have done so, use the exposure level indicator in the viewfinder to help you determine the value to set for the other setting. If you are using an EOS M-series camera that does not have an optical viewfinder, you can display the exposure level indicator in the LCD screen and use it to help you determine the exposure to use.

As a beginner user, it is natural to feel overwhelmed or lost with all the manual settings. It helps to have a good understanding of how aperture and shutter speed relate to exposure. Once you have mastered it, you will be able to shoot quickly as you won’t have to apply exposure compensation to adjust the brightness each time you shoot.


Camera mode dial

The mode dial on your camera
To use Manual exposure mode, turn your camera mode dial to [M].


Camera mode dial

The Quick Control screen
A: Shutter speed
B: Aperture setting (f-number)

The photographer sets both the aperture and the shutter speed
The photographer sets both the aperture and the shutter speed. Set the value for either one of them first. Then, use the exposure level indicator in your viewfinder to help you set the value for the other.


Check the exposure level indicator for the correct exposure
To check for the correct exposure, make use of the exposure level indicator in the viewfinder (or display it in the LCD screen). You can adjust towards the positive (+) direction for a brighter exposure, and towards the negative (-) direction for a darker exposure. Setting the level at ‘0’ gives you the correct exposure.

Tip: Use a fixed ISO speed 
When shooting in Manual exposure mode, you are recommended to use a fixed ISO speed. Nowadays, new cameras tend to have ‘ISO Auto’ as the default ISO setting, but if you use that when you carry out manual exposure, it might just negate the effects you wanted to achieve with your manual aperture and shutter speed settings. Set ISO 100 first, and if the aperture and shutter speed settings that you have set do not perform well with that, fine-tune the ISO speed further until you find something that works well.

ISO 100 screen


Usage example #1: When your scene includes indoors and outdoors, and you want to balance the brightness

A photo shot with Manual exposure mode on the EOS 5D Mark III

EOS 5D Mark III / EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/3.5, 1/60 sec)/ ISO 640/ WB: Daylight

When you want to include both the dark indoors and a much brighter outdoor scene within the same frame, there will be a stark contrast in brightness, which is where Manual exposure mode comes in. You can fine-tune your aperture-shutter speed setting combination to ensure balanced brightness in the indoors and outdoors portions of the scene.

This also works for over-under shots. Here's a tutorial:
Capturing Both the Underwater and Terrestrial Worlds in a Single Shot


Usage example #2: To ensure sufficient brightness on a subject’s face when shooting portraits against backlight

A photo shot with Manual exposure mode on the EOS 6D

EOS 6D/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Manual exposure (f/4, 1/125 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

Shooting in backlight causes the faces of human subject to turn out dark. Use Manual exposure mode to ensure that the correct exposure is metered based on subject’s face, and you will be able to shoot at the same exposure without being affected by how bright/dark the background is in comparison.

Here's a step-by-step tutorial on how to capture dramatic portrait using backlight from a window


Usage example #3: To shoot brighter (or darker) intentionally

A photo shot with Manual exposure mode on the EOS 6D

EOS 6D/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 105mm/ Manual exposure (f/4, 1/20 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

When you shoot with Program, Shutter-priority and Aperture-priority modes, you use exposure compensation to control the brightness. But there is a limit to how much exposure compensation you can apply, although the actual range differs between camera models. For greater control over brightness when you want to intentionally capture a brighter/darker image, it is best to use Manual exposure mode. This will allow you to easily obtain the look that you had in mind.


Here are some other scenes where manual exposure mode will come in handy:
Photographing the night sky: Slow Shutter Art: Using Zoom Burst to Transform Stars in the Sky into a Meteor Shower
When using external flash units: Taking Stunning Car Photos, Magazine-style

If you have missed the rest of our Camera Basics series, or just need to recap, here's where you can access all of them:
In Focus: Camera Basics


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
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Tomoko Suzuki

Tomoko Suzuki

After graduating from the Tokyo Polytechnic University Junior College, Suzuki joined an advertisement production firm. She has also worked as an assistant to photographers including Kirito Yanase, and specializes in commercial shoots for apparels and cosmetic products. She now works as a studio photographer for an apparel manufacturer.