DSLR Manual Mode for Beginners

Manual Mode for Beginners

I’m back with some more photography talk! This is a long one but a GOOD one (twss?) so grab a warm drink and tucker in for some learning.

Food photography is by far my favorite part about food blogging, but when first starting out, it can also be the MOST frustrating part. I’ve been getting a big influx of photography questions lately and one of my biggest pieces of advice is always to LEARN MANUAL MODE on your DSLR camera. Seriously, it will change your life. That’s what we’re here to talk about today.

I’ve had a DSLR for 3 years and had very little photography experience before that. I’m still learning new things daily but I like to think that I’ve really mastered the basics of manual mode, especially when it comes to food photography. The way that I shoot doesn’t necessarily work for everyone (I’ll explain that more later) but I know a lot of easy adjustments to make manual mode work for you.

This post focuses primarily on the exposure triangle and how to manipulate light to produce beautiful images with the look that you want.

why manual mode

Shooting in manual mode quite simply gives you more control over your environment and the light that is let into your camera. If your subject is moving really fast, you can adjust the shutter speed so that you are able to freeze their motion in place. Or maybe you want there to be some blur in the photo to show the movement of the subject (for example, the flow of a waterfall).  There are many reasons why you would want to manipulate the lighting in a photo and manual mode allows you to do that.

Let’s look at an example of manual mode vs the auto settings on my DSLR camera. The picture on the left was taken using the auto settings on my camera and the picture on the right was taken using my manual settings.

auto v manual stitch

exposure triangle

There are 3 main settings that you will adjust in order to take great photos in manual mode: 1) shutter speed 2) aperture and 3) ISO.  Learning to manipulate these settings in relation to each other will result in beautiful and unique photos even under harsh lighting circumstances.

Let’s break all of these down.

manual mode camera

shutter speed

This is simply the speed at which your camera takes the picture. The faster the trigger fires, the less light that is able to get into the photo and vice versa. The number, for example 1/100, means that your camera is taking the photo at a rate of 1/100th of a second.

There are a few things to consider when choosing a shutter speed:

a) Light. A lower shutter speed means that MORE light is being let into the camera so your picture will have better lighting. A higher shutter speed means that the photo is being taken faster, the shutter isn’t open as long, and less light is getting in which results in a darker photo.

b) Motion. Is your subject moving? If you’re shooting still objects such as food, motion isn’t something that you will have to worry about much at all. However, if you’re shooting your kids playing outside, you’re going to need a shutter speed that is much faster and that can freeze the motion (this would be something like 1/400+).
Sometimes I shoot “action” shots with my food photography such as pouring syrup over pancakes. In this instances, I would bump up my shutter speed just a bit to maybe 1/250 in order to capture the slight motion of the syrup.

c) Shaking. If you have shaky hands (even just a little bit), that could show in your photos. I suggest just experimenting with this to learn how your hands are with a camera in them. I must have very steady hands because I shoot with a lower shutter speed than most and rarely notice shake in my photos. I know others, however, that will only shoot food photography using a tripod because their hands are a bit too shaky. If shake is a problem for you, you can either go with a higher shutter speed so that the picture is being taken fast enough not to capture the shaking of your hand OR you can use a tripod and a remote so that there is little to no shaking.

In the below example, a shutter speed of 1/80 really provides motion to the photo to emphasize that the chocolate chips are falling. 1/500, however, freezes the chocolate chips in place. It’s obvious that they’re falling but there’s less motion in the photo. NOTE that when I adjusted the shutter speed for these photos, I also adjusted the ISO and aperture in order to keep the light in the photo generally the same.
shutter speed

PS- this amazing muffin recipe is courtesy of Beth over at Eat Within Your Means. HERE is the base recipe for the muffins and this YUMMY vegan, gluten free Chocolate Hazelnut recipe will be coming soon (I was doing a little recipe testing for her).

Lower shutter speeds= more light, more motion blurry, higher risk of a shaky photo
Higher shutter speeds= less light, less motion blur, lower risk of a shaky photo


The aperture, also referred to as the “f number”, pertains to the depth of field and how wide open your lens is when it is letting light into the camera. Quite simply, this is the thing that affects how much of your photo is in focus and how much is blurred.

Aperture is also the setting on your camera that gives that pretty bokeh affect that is so popular in photos these days.


A wide aperture (which is a lower f number such as f/1.8) means that your photo will have a shallow depth of field meaning that the background/ foreground will be out of focus. With a wide aperture, more light is able to get into the lens which results in a brighter photo. A small aperture (which is a higher f number such as f/ 14) means that your photo will have a wider depth of field meaning that more of the background will be in focus and it also results in a darker photo.

The below photos demonstrate what apertures look like at f1.4 all the way through f14.

aperture stitchPlease note that while I was changing the aperture, I was simultaneously changing the other settings in order to keep the lighting roughly the same in each photo. Had I ONLY adjusted the aperture, the photos would have gotten darker and darker and at f14, it would have been nearly a black photo.

These 2 photos were taken with the same ISO and shutter speed and the only difference being the aperture. Look what a difference just a few f stops make:

aperture example

High aperture= lower f number, shallow depth of field, background out of focus, more light
Low aperture= higher f number, wider depth of field, background more in focus, less light


The ISO is the level of sensitivity your camera has to available light. A low ISO has a lower sensitivity to the light and vice versa.

2 very basic things to know about ISO:
a) raising your ISO means that your pictures will have more light in them
b) raising your ISO ALSO means that you will have more grain in your photo.

iso grain-2Here is the difference that ISO will make:

ISO stitch

Adjusting your ISO is a quick and easy way to take photos in low light situations. It’s my first go to setting when I need to bump up the light in my photos. However, my limit for food photos is ~800 before there begins to be too much grain for my liking.

Low ISO= lower sensitivity to light, darker photos, less grain
High ISO= higher sensitivity to light, brighter photos, more grain

my settings

All of that being said, these are the setting that I most commonly use to shoot food photography: 1/80, f2.8, ISO 200

Shutter Speed: My shutter speed typically hovers around 1/80. If it’s a dark day and I need extra light, I’ll go as low as 1/50 (people have told me that I’m crazy for going that low without a tripod but it works for me). If I’m doing a pour picture with motion, I’ll bump it up in the 1/200 range.
Aperture: My aperture varies depending on the food, the lighting, and my mood. I like pictures with rather shallow depths of field which is why almost all of my photos are taken in the <4.0 range. The only time I go above that is when I have something in the background (a product label for example) that I want to be more in focus in which case I’ll bump my aperture up to about a 7.
ISO: If I can get my iso as low as 100, I do it. That rarely happens though. I would say that on an average day, my iso hovers around the 200 range but if it’s a particularly cloudy day, I’ll go as high as 800 but no higher or else there will be too much grain in the picture for my liking.

learn more

The information here is really only a starting point. When I was learning food photography, there were 2 blogs that were SUPER helpful to me:

  1. Minimalist Baker. Dana used to have an ebook which I bought and found SO super helpful in improving my food photography. She has since replaced the ebook with her Food Photography School. I bought that as well and refer back to it quite often. This food photography program is a wonderful extension to everything that I have gone over here.
    I LOVE her style and definitely wouldn’t be the photographer I am now without her guidance. I HIGHLY recommend her Food Photography School.
  2. Click it Up a Notch. Courtney’s blog is ALL about helping people improve their photography. I have found her posts SO so helpful and often refer back to her blog. She has a ton of great (FREE!) resources and I highly recommend poking around her blog for a while. Her ebook, the Unexpected Everyday, is great for beginners wanting to learn more about everyday photography including food photography, pictures of your kids, and really whatever. This is a great resource for learning more about manual mode and simply figuring out how to use your camera properly.
    Click it Up a Notch
    She also has a great ebook called The Styled Photographer which is all about helping you find your unique photography style. I’ve struggled with this for a long time (and still do a bit, honestly). Her ebook is so great for those looking to take the next step in their photography! I highly recommend it!


No matter how many times it was all broken down for me, it still took me a long time to really grasp all of this. I think that’s natural so don’t get frustrated. My best advice is to practice. Then practice a bit more and then when you’re done, keep practicing. I’m 3 years into food photography and I definitely still feel as if I’m learning new things about my camera and ways to use it.

One thing that helped me a LOT was to constantly switch back and forth between automatic and manual mode. I’d start in auto, take a picture, and see where I was. I would look at the settings that the camera provided in auto and then make adjustments based on what the photo needed (shallower depth of field, more light, etc). This helped me immensely for about 6 months before I got comfortable making the adjustments on my own.

I also suggest starting with one thing at a time. For about the first year of owning my first DSLR camera, I didn’t touch the ISO at all. Trying to fiddle with all three of these settings at once was just too much for me so I ignored it. When practicing, pick one aspect of the exposure triangle and just fiddle with that one setting to really learn how it affects your photos.

One final recommendation is to make yourself a simple cheat sheet to keep with you when you shoot. Something simple to remind you what each setting does. Remember:

Lower shutter speeds= more light, more motion blurry, higher risk of a shaky photo
Higher shutter speeds= less light, less motion blur, lower risk of a shaky photo

High aperture= lower f number, shallow depth of field, background out of focus, more light
Low aperture= higher f number, wider depth of field, background more in focus, less light

Low ISO= lower sensitivity to light, darker photos, less grain
High ISO= higher sensitivity to light, brighter photos, more grain

I hope that this was helpful!! I plan to do a few more posts similar to this one in the near future including an updated post with more “Food Photography Tip and Tricks for Beginners“.

Please feel free to email me at ANY time if you ever have a question. I LOVE talking photography and would be happy to help! I also offer photography lessons via Skype if you ever just want to have a one on one conversation about photography.

***Some of the links above are affiliate links meaning that if you end up buying one of the products, I’ll make a teensy profit at no extra cost to you. Don’t worry though, I’ll put the money to good use like buying a 100mm macro lens :)

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99 comments on “DSLR Manual Mode for Beginners”

  1. Yep totes pinning this for later! Thank you – this is the bomb! I am buying a new camera this summer aaahahhhh!! I am so excited!

  2. Just pinned as well…..such a great tutorial! Thank you so much!

    • Thanks Anne! Let me know if you have any questions!

      • I have not clearly understood what you mean by grains.
        I have understood that less ISO means less grain and More ISO means more grain. But what is grain?

        • Basically “grain” means that the quality of the photograph is decreased.

        • Grain also known a ‘noise’ is when you see unclear image with lot of haziness…the picture will not be sharp…Higher ISO setting means more such ‘noise’ or grains in your image than getting a sharp picture…This happens especially when you are shooting in low light with higher ISO setting

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  4. Great tutorial! I so need to go to manual and this makes so much sense. Thanks!

  5. So helpful, thanks!

  6. These are such great tips, thank you! I just pinned this and will definitely shoot for my next post with this up next to me!

    xx Kelly
    Sparkles and Shoes

  7. Great tips, thank you! I really want to spend some more time getting to know my DSLR!

  8. What a great post! I am only 10 months in to photography so I appreciate how you broke everything down. Sometimes you need to have a concept explained several different ways before grasping it. The point you made about changing the aperture and ISO when you adjust shutter speed makes perfect sense. I agree 100% that Dana’s Food Photography School is worth every penny. I watched a lot of the videos in one sitting, and the next day I took photos of a sweet potato fries recipe. I kept in mind her food styling and color wheel tips. The pin for that post is getting more repins than any other recipe, which is really boosting my traffic!

  9. Wow, What a wonderful post Brita!. Thanks indeed!

  10. This is great advise thank you so much B. Britnel!!

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  12. Oh my goodness! I have been looking for something just like this. I am so happy to have come across this post and your blog! This was insanely helpful, thank you so much for this! I’m looking forward to applying these tips into learning more about my DLSR camera and food photography. Much appreciated, again, thanks so much!

  13. You know that. I lost my mind by many advices but unclear at all. But your post were really helpful for me. Thanks, B.Britnel <3

  14. Brit…thank you so much! You struck a chord with me. I’ beginning to change my eating habits, working at it actually! And I’m also learning about photography and venturing out to “sell” my services for portrait photos. I’ll be 66 in a couple of weeks and spent most of my life as a single parent working for a major newspaper in advertising sales. For the first time in my life, I think I’ve finally hit on something I truly enjoy and have the time to explore! Your info here was just what I needed to get the triangle straight! Thank you so very much!

  15. Hi Britnell,
    I loved the way of explanation about the Exposure triangle, with example photos,
    As a beginner to photography, I ‘m planning to buy a Canon EOS 1200D, I would appreciate if you can tell me that whats the range of aperture for this camera, i tried to Google it, but i couldn’t find a right answer.

    • Hello! Aperture is actually determined by the lens that you use and not the camera. So, the lens that I most often use (and what I used for most ofthe photos in this post) is a 50mm 1.4. The 1.4 is the aperture distinction of that particular lens. The aperture is typically pretty clearly labeled on the outside of each lens. Let me know if I can help further!

  16. Brita thanks so much for this tutorial. It’s so helpful for beginners like me. I really appreciate your time in putting this together. I’m still learning about my camera and manual mode and I know it’ll take practice and time but I hope I’ll get there :)

    • I hope you find it helpful, Amy! I’ve been enjoying photography SO much over the past few years. Manual mode can be seriously frustrating for quite a while BUT once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature and you’ll be so pleased with the photos you’ll be able to capture.

      • Can u move the metering mode on manual because mine want it stays at the right hand side and I can’t figure out how to move it .If it moves.Please help me I hv just forgot what button to push to move the metering to mk the picture darker or lighter and hv been under alot of stress

  17. Thanks! This was soooo helpful and to the point!

  18. Thank you! I got a DSLR camera in 2012, and I use it, but haven’t really taken the time to understand how to use it beyond the auto mode. I recently started a blog, though, and am wanting to get more serious with my photography. This was really helpful! I can’t wait to play around with this information soon!

    • SO glad that you found it helpful! If you ever have specific questions, please feel free to shoot me an email. I can talk photography all day long. And, when you first start out shooting in manual mode, it can be super frustrating at times

  19. This is THE most helpful post I’ve read on DSLR cameras for beginners. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to put these techniques to practice :)

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  21. It would have been far less confusing had you left ISO adjustments completely out. I’ve been shooting for over 40 years, and normally shoot with ans ISO of 50 to 100. In reality, all ISO refers to is the quality of available light. It is more important to understand the relationship between the aperture and shutter speed and how they work to balance the ultimate exposure than it is to have to work in the ISO rating too. In the days of film, one could manipulate the f/stop and shutter speed, compensate with processing (black and white only) to get stunning results. Unfortunately, color is a little less forgiving. But, I digress…
    Learn to balance the f/stop and shutter speed to get your shots. It will save time, effort, confusion and frustration. I promise it will…

    • Thanks for the comment, Stephen! I’ve only been using my dslr regularly for about the past 6 years so you have a lot of years on me! For me, working with food photography, I often need my f stop to be in a very specific range to get the specific depth of field that I want. And there’s a limit to how low I can bump the shutter speed down without my hands getting too shaky (I hate shooting with a tripod if I can avoid it). So, adjusting my ISO helps me a TON. ironically, I found iso to be the absolute easiest thing to learn and understand on my camera

  22. I’m super beginner with camera, even though I’ve got my camera 5 years ago. Then recently I found this post, and now I’m trying to adjust my camera settings whenever I take a photo, and every time before I went out for taking photo, I always read this post.
    Your explanation was so easy to understand and helpful, thank you so much for this post, and I’ll try to get used to set the best manual mode for a better picture. :-)

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  25. I’ve just started blogging about my food and am so excited to use this information. Thanks for sharing!!!

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  27. These are some amazing tips! Sometimes, the best way to also improve as a photographer is to be inspired by other people’s work. Some photographers I look to for inspiration are: Max Rive, Mark Gray, and Antony Spencer. Here is a really cool link including those guys, and some more, for those who are eager to be inspired:http://www.adoramapix.com/blog/2016/11/22/top-10-landscape-photographers-to-follow-on-instagram/#.WFYrp6IrIRE

  28. Hi Brita,
    I am from India and i Just bought my new DSLR camera Canon 80D.
    And while surfing the internet, found your post on Food photography.
    Believe me, i had surfed and gone through more than 100 posts and links tillnow until i found yours,
    and yes, it is really beautifully written and easily explained with real time camera shots.
    Thanks a ton for this post.
    Kindly let me know where i can find more such useful articles posted by you…
    Keep up the Great work and Happy New Year 2017.

  29. Thank Youfor the post. This was so helpful :)

  30. It was nice to read this. Thx, but i think u skip the most important thing. What is: never shoots photos in jpeg! Only raw (crw), and you can edit your photos adjustments is photosop, lightroom etc.

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  32. Just keep your DSLR in some sort of auto mode, always. Manual is for beginners, or the Woobye’s, for those from the stone age. I know, I’ve been there, don it, got the T-shirt. I worked with SLR’s for more than 40 years now. Right from the time there was no automtic prgram. Practica TL1000 and so. Just Google
    With modern DSLR’s there is no reason to take pictures in manual mode. You just have to know how your camera works.
    I have never seen a picture that i could’nt not make in an automatic program. Seen a lot of pictures that you can’t make in manual, so wath’s the point of trying it

    • I’d have to very respectfully disagree with you :) I have thousands of examples of amazing shots that my camera would have NEVER even come close to capturing in auto mode. My camera doesn’t “auto” know when kids are running or if I want to freeze their motion OR do the opposite. My auto mode can’t take photos at a wedding at night (without the photos looking like an amateur took them). Auto mode can’t give me a super shallow depth of field when my photo requires it (and vice versa). There’s so much that auto mode fails me on. I think if all you’re taking photos of is your kid sitting completely still, maybe a landscape, or a flower, then yes, auto mode will do you just fine.

  33. This is the only photography post I’ve been able to read and understand! THANK YOU! ???????? Printing and carrying with me everywhere!

    • yay! SO glad that you found it helpful :D

      • Dear Brita,
        I have been into photography for many years, and I understand a lot about the technical aspects of photography. I just wanted to say that you have done a great service to the many people here who are trying to learn their craft. You have such a sweet and genuine way of treating your followers coupled with quite a bit of first hand knowledge. Furthermore, your enthusiasm is highly contagious. I was delighted to come across your site. You really brightened my day and I ‘m sure the same might be said for your other readers.
        We all continue to learn as we solve our photgraphic problems. You make it fun for everyone and I applaud what you are doing. You really are a joy!

  34. I recently got my first DSLR, and I have a lot to learn. This is the best tutorial I’ve read yet. Thank you for breaking everything down so well. I will definitely be referring to this post again and again!

  35. WOW! What an AWESOME artical! I learned so much. Been using a DSLR camera since September 2016 and spent hundreds of dollars and time trying to master the three elements of manual photography. This helps so much. This is my second time reading the article and uave been practicing. I understand so much clearer now. Ill be sure and check out your recommeded readings and tutorials. God Bless You and Thanks!

  36. WOW! thank you so much for this information. I have been combing pinterest for help, and I finally stumbled upon this info! VERY HELPFUL! Thanks again!

  37. You simply explained almost all of it ,it was so much comprehensible !thank you so much!

  38. Wow this article was so helpful, I really needed some small tips for photography which I didn’t understand but now i do, thank you so much for sharing it with us, please do more your article are so understandable love them. Bye!

  39. Wow this article was so helpful, I really needed some small tips for photography which I didn’t understand but now i do, thank you so much for sharing it with us, please do more of your articles they are so understandable love them. Bye!

  40. The light exposure frequency can be controlled in a DSLR manual mode. However, you have to be careful to estimate the expected speed of the object. This would make your picture look a whole lot pro. Great article

  41. Thank you! This post is super helpful. Easy to follow and spells it out so nicely. I like the reference to the exposure triangle. I totally agree with you on adjusting the ISO. Back in the film days, you had a roll of film with a specific ISO which you were not going to change mid-roll, so these older guys are right, you had to make it work with Fstop and shutterspeed. Since we have more options now, why not take advantage?! My question is, are you using daylight, or artificial light and how does that affect your settings?

    • Hi Robin! I pretty much exclusively use natural light. I do have some artificial lights that I use VERY rarely but I’m just not good at using them to create a pretty look. The biggest effect in your settings I think between the 2 would be in your white balance. You’re going to want to adjust that depending on what kind of lights you’re using.

  42. I recently got my first DSLR, and I have a lot to learn. This is the best tutorial I’ve read yet. Thank you for breaking everything down so well.

  43. Thank you for breaking everything down so well.

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  45. Hi Brita, thank you so much for this well written, clear and easy to understand advice. This makes it so much more easier to follow the manual basics. At last, a written piece of info I can get clarification from and get my head around. It’s helpful, clear and in a nutshell ????Thanks again. I will be carrying this with me as I’m learning.

    • Thank you so much! That really means a lot. I struggled SO much to wrap my head around all of this when I was first learning to navigate my camera so I’m happy that I’ve been able to help so many people

  46. Thank you for sharing this information. I just started taking my camera serious and wow! So overwhelming and frustrating when you see beautiful photgraphy and attempt to get half the quality. This post is so valuable to me. You wrote it in a form that starters like myself can actually follow and understand. Thank you thank you! : )

    • SO glad that you found it helpful. I remember ALL too well how frustrating it is at first but trust me that with practice, it becomes second nature in no time.

    • Yeah it’s funny, you see all those beautiful photos on Pinterest and think “well I could do that”. But then you get a camera and… ack, it’s a bit harder than you thought. They make it look so easy! Trust me, I went through that entire process. You’ve just gotta keep at it and practice, and also make sure to do some reading about how certain effects are achieved and things like that.

  47. Thank you.. it was really helpfull.. May God bless you..

  48. Thank you so much! This was super helpful and really explained a lot for me. This helped me to actually understand more of what the camera is doing than just how the settings affect my photos.

  49. thanks for the easy to use instructions- great lesson

  50. Great Post Brita!

  51. Thank you so much for this post.
    It’s becoming one of my favorite photography staples.
    So much well written information that I can
    actually put it to use.
    Thank You, Thank You

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  54. Finally found explanation of the triangle. Yaaaz!

  55. Loved thisx
    I enjoyed how you broke it down
    Im just starting and struggle to get it into my head
    Thankyou for your excepional skills in explaining clearly

  56. It was so incredibly kind of you to write this how-to guide with a DSLR. I’m just starting out blogging, so I basically have no idea what I’m doing. But I do know where I want to go! This camera tutorial is going to be so helpful to me. Thank you!

  57. I have also decided to buy one :)

  58. I love to learn new things and also love to try out new things with my camera. When I was a beginner I never tried to do anything manually I was more into the automatic things. I never used the ISO because I didn’t know the things properly but trust me you will get to know and discover a lot once you start practicing.

  59. Thank you for your breakdown. I’ve been struggling with this for a while now 😁

  60. Thank you for sharing your photography tips! Super easy to understand and super helpful. I’m only a few month in with my DSLR and I’m tryin to learn as much as I can. My dream is to be a photographer one day…but we shall see. Your photos are beautiful by the way! 

  61. Thank you so much for this!!  I’ve been looking for an article just like this the picture visuals helped immensely-awesome photography btw!

  62. How can I get in touch with you should I wish to talk with you? I hope you find my email below and get in touch soon to begin correspondence and to perhaps discuss a potential interview :)

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  64. Omg this was such a big help I’ve had my camera for 2 years and I’ve only been using the cameras regular settings I never went to Manuel, ISO, or Aperture. But one day I just so happen to say to myself uhmmm I wonder what M does and I looked into it and I really want to learn it. I would rather use those 3 functions above than use the cameras regular functions. I’ve spent almost 5 years from camera to camera using the regular settings and struggled with the way my pictures coming out. I have a Instagram account for my pictures could you take a look and tell me your opinion? @theebonyjournal it would mean a lot to me. All the pictures on my Instagram are from using the regular camera settings 😩

  65. I’ve read so many articles on this that my head was spinning, I just couldn’t fully grasp the concept. Your explanation of the exposure triangle was EXACTLY what I needed, I feel like I have a much better understanding of this. Well written article, thank you!

  66. Is there anyway I could get your fantastic article “DSLR MANUAL MODE FOR BEGINNERS”, in a reading format minus the ads?

    Anacortes, WA

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  68. Well, a beginner photographer is not afraid to work at high ISO values, especially because the devices have these values without image noise and even can give a special note to a photo. to work in P, AV only with minimal adjustments and use creativity. But learn the device..

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  70. Thanks you for sharing…very helpful for me as beginner….maybe u can share a bit about focus point selection n manual focus…tq

  71. Best blog I’ve come across that breaks it all down with pictures and simple words. I’m now excited that I have a starting point! Thank YOU!

  72. Manual mode made crystal clear.

  73. This is the most comprehensive explanation I have read so far. Thanks for sharing.