Why You Should Learn to Shoot in Manual

By Kate Riley June 1, 2012

This post is directed at you bloggers/non-bloggers/budding wannabe photographers/non-wannabe photographers just people who just want to learn how to take better pictures with your DSLR camera or people who own a DSLR camera but don’t know how to use it.  Raise your hand if that’s you. 

Well guess what, that last one was me two years ago too!  I had owned a Nikon DSLR camera for a few years but didn’t know how to use it other than setting it on the automatic functions (seen below) and I lived in the automatic zone pretty happily for several years.  

automatic modes nikon


Then I became one of those ‘I just want to learn how to change the settings myself’  people because I wanted to be better at taking interior shots or project images for my personal life and also for the blog.  I read my manual and there was that one fateful day switched my camera to “M” – it was there I applied what I learned and taught myself a few things about shooting better interior photos and it’s true, there was a “lightbulb moment” and I’ve been shooting in manual mode ever since.   

Good news!  Even better than your wordy manual, there is an easily digestible and understandable source of information about shooting in manual mode that anyone can absorb and understand, whether you own a Canon or Nikon.  Do you want that “lightbulb moment” too?  Do you want to push your photography to the next level?  Do you want to finally learn to shoot in manual mode?   Yes?  Yes?  Amen! 

If you’re familiar with The Lettered Cottage then you know Kevin and Josh have launched Shoot Fly Shoot, an online tutorial site dedicated to breaking down the concepts of shooting in manual mode into digestible videos per topic (aperture, ISO, shutter speed, lenses, etc).  Together in their everyday voices, they coach you through the basics from how  to change the aperture, how  to adjust the shutter speed, and how  to set the ISO, etc.  If you spend the time to watch them do it, you can do it too, promise!

Want to take better interior shots?  Learn why you need to dial up the numerical aperture setting for greater depth of field, and why using a tripod allows you to dial down the shutter speed to better capture interiors. 

centsational girl tufted sofa


Here’s Kevin changing the aperture and shutter speed for you – coaching viewers on the better settings for shooting interiors.

kevin how to shoot interiors


Want to shoot landscape or outdoor scenes?   Learn how to quickly change the shutter speed to capture outdoor settings in filtered sunlight. 

grapes in bin outdoors cg


Love the look of bokeh or shallow depth of field?    If you learn how to change the aperture setting then you also control depth of field (or how crisp or how blurry your background will be).  Just yesterday I took my camera out into the garden and captured some hydrangeas in bloom and because I know how to dial down the aperture setting on my 50 mm lens to 2.0 – I can capture them with very shallow depth of field and focus only on the main bloom with the background intentionally blown out and blurry.  

hydrangea shallow depth of field


Want to learn how to shoot quick action?  Amazing moments happen in an instant and if you don’t catch them, they’re gone. This picture of my kid at our annual Easter egg hunt totally cracks me up – it’s like a scene from Braveheart – just look at the intensity of her expression in pursuit of sugar.  I would never have caught this image if I hadn’t known to set my shutter speed at 1/1000.  Priceless!

kid at easter egg hunt


Want to learn how to take better portraits? I shot this image last year of my two daughters in filtered light and I was able to capture the moment so well because I’ve learned how to quickly adjust the shutter speed.

two daughters


Kevin and Josh will walk you through how to change your aperture, your shutter speed, and your ISO in the videos based on the setting your trying to shoot, and they also tackle topics from exposure to metering to equipment. 

And if you love styling like I do, there’s even a video on that topic too. 

tea at desk image


Here’s Josh, walking you through how to change the manual settings on your camera to take a well composed perfectly lit image of your vignette or project.

josh product shots


I’m not the type to sell you anything I don’t believe in but I really do love this course and these videos and I think the site is really so smart.  I especially love how all the videos coach you through the process of getting to know what you need to know about aperture, ISO and shutter speed, and I guarantee you’ll finally learn how to use your DSLR camera in manual mode which will lead to a lifetime of better photography.  

Look for this image in the sidebar to sign up! 

shoot fly shoot button


* some images courtesy of Shoot Fly Shoot, proud to be an affiliate.

Are you ready to finally learn how to use your DSLR camera?   Today’s the day!




  1. I need a better camera, but have been afraid to get one because I would have no idea of how to use it. These classes would help tremendously!
    Sidenote: Can you tell me the name/brand of the small sofa in that picture above? I have been looking for a tufted style forever :)

  2. Very excited by this. Literally just this morning, I was sitting in bed, drinking my coffee, and staring at the manual for our Nikon DSLR (which we’ve had for about 4 years now and haven’t ONCE switched off of the automatic setting!!!) trying to figure out how to use the manual setting. It’s all a bit overwhelming so I’m hopeful this new site will help me figure it all out. Here’s to better photos! Thanks for this!

  3. You got me sold! I like the idea of a video version tutorial, that way I can go at my own pace and watch it on my iPad while I am shooting for it to make more sense. Thanks Kate!

  4. Oh, thank you, thank you! My husband was sweet enough to buy me a DSLR for my birthday in April and I’ve been intensely overwhelmed at the thought of trying to figure all of this out on my own. Headed over to check it out!

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I had my camera outside yesterday trying to change different settings and figure out what they meant…I recently decided to try and grow my blog and I know I’d have more success if I could get my pictures looking better.

    By the way, your daughters are gorgeous!

  6. Learn how to shoot on manual – that is, what aperture, shutter speed and ISO are, and how they all work together, and then learn how aperture or shutter priority work and pick one of those to use primarily. Hardly any professional photographer shoots on manual the majority of the time (I am one and on a daily basis my camera stays on aperture priority). You need to learn the functions to understand how your camera works, but you don’t need to constantly be changing both aperture and shutter speed. Concentrating on just one and allowing your camera to set the other to get your exposure correct is fine, just don’t forget about your ISO!

    • Great tip Kate, yes learning the priority settings is so important, love to work with those too!

  7. That picture of your daughter on Easter is truly priceless! Love the Braveheart commentary too! I’ve got my first DSLR for Christmas this past year and I forced myself to shoot in manual mode from day 1. I’ve spent many hours looking for all the info I can store in my brain on the subject and I’ve been happily learning as I go. I’ve been thinking about checking that site out – I can use all the help I can get!

  8. I’ve been eyeing their site for a few days after seeing that they’ll be running a session at Haven (which I am totally going to try to take!). I love how down-to-earth they are! The only thing holding me back from looking into their online workshops is that I noticed they use a Canon, and I have a Nikon. I am a true rookie at this camera setting stuff…I worry that I won’t be able to “translate” their Canon settings to my Nikon…all those buttons, numbers, letters, etc. are confusing to me. :s

  9. Oh my gracious that pic of your daughter is hilarious! I almost fell out laughing! Love it! I have been shooting in manual for about a year now, and my pics have definitely improved, but I still struggle with those action shots!

  10. I am a “Aperture Priority” girl myself. For me it gives me the most flexibility with the least frustration. I did take a photography class at my local community college and learned so many wonderful things I never knew… and so I *CAN* shoot in M but I don’t often choose to.

    A great exercise is to shoot in Black and white exclusively for a while, and it really does force you to look solely at your composition and not rely on color to carry your photo. I think I learned more from that assignment than any other.

    I agree with you.. If you have a fancy camera with the bells and whistles, it is a good idea to learn how to use them, but it also doesn’t take a decent composition and following some of the basic photography rules (rules of thirds, not cutting off arms/legs etc) to get a good photo. Just shooting in manual isn’t enough!

    Great post!

  11. Wow – I was just thinking last night after a concert that I really needed to learn how to use my Nikon D40 better and this appears.

  12. Wow – I was just thinking last night after a concert that I needed to learn more about by Nikon D40. When I first got this camera and went to a “beginning” class, they were throwing those words out like noise, aperture, and such and I had no idea. I needed a beginning beginners class. 5 years later I still leave it on auto. Must learn to do manual.

  13. I don’t have an DSLR yet but I’ve owned a Canon Powershot SX 30 IS for about a year since I heard that was the perfect transition before going to a DSLR. The problem is, I have yet to read through the 190+ page manual although my other half printed each page and put them in a nice pink notebook in sheet protectors LOL. I’m working on it but that manual scares me. Great post.

  14. OMG!!! Love the Braveheart face – that alone is worth the time it takes to learn how to use a DSLR on manual.
    I took the Shoot Fly Shoot course the first day it went live and I got my A-ha! moment in the metering section. It all came together for me after that. It clicked :) Now it is all about practice makes perfect. I can’t wait to meet Kevin and Josh and sit in on their session at Haven.

    My best- Diane

  15. I will definitely keep this in mind to help me accomplish one of my goals for 2012 – improve my photography skills! We have a Pentax and I really need some help learning how to use it outside of auto!

    Just to note, the class is $69 for 3+ hours of videos and access to the videos/info forever. They have a video series to learn how to use Photoshop Elements, too, and that is $49 for 4+ hours of videos. Might have to check that one out, too!

  16. Sorry this is off topic for the photography post but I have just discovered your blog and would like to read it from the beginning. The problem is that none of your photos appear in those older posts. There is a black triangle with an exclamation point where the photo goes…am I missing something?


    • Hi CB, that’s a problem with a bunch of photos from summer 2009 (and before) – I’m slowly repairing them. If you start in Sept of 2009 there are no problems!

  17. Your photos are gorgeous! Some day when I get the time, I plan to head out into the country and snap some epic barns shots with my daughter’s DSLR camera. I will definitely plan to check this website out before I head out. In the meantime, I am going to send a link to this post to my daughter, since she was just wondering about manuel settings for shallow depth of field, etc.

  18. Hi Kate, are these courses worth the price? Do we get a discount if purchased through you?

    • Hi YC, I haven’t been issue a discount code, so sorry, but I love the conversational approach of teaching, much easier to relate to and learn from than words on a page.
      Worth the time and $$ if you want to learn!

  19. Kate–I am SO happy that you pointed Shoot Fly Shoot out on your blog. I am taking the course now and I am telling you that I will never switch my Rebel away from M again! The tutorial is easy to understand, and the fact that you have the videos forever to go back to refresh yourself (rather than a class where you might not remember something the teacher said) is awesome!

    In on unrelated note, I love your upholstered headboard post and I go back to it every time I make a headboard!


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