Digital SLR and Mirrorless cameras can come with a hefty price tag. Because of this, you’ll probably want to ensure you’re making the most of your camera to produce the best quality travel photos. Maybe even the kind of quality you see on the National Geo Instagram feed.
To get there, you’re going to need to put in some groundwork. Post-processing can get you a long way, and it’s great to learn how to use software like Photoshop and Lightroom.
But it’s incredibly difficult to perfect photos that your camera has overexposed, blurred or made too grainy. Your camera’s automatic mode can be responsible for all of this.
Using your camera’s manual mode, on the other hand, gives you complete control, and so helps ensure the best quality of travel photos before you do anything to them. It also gives you room for creative effects.
Think: motion blur, bokeh (i.e. blurred out backgrounds), creative but subtle over or under-exposure, silhouettes, etc.
Note: The photos in this article haven’t been post-processed, so they won’t be polished to a professional level. I wanted to give an idea of the kind of things you can do using the manual mode of your camera. Usually, I would take photos through Adobe Lightroom before I post them on our travel blog or submit them to stock.
- What is Manual Mode?
- When and How to Use Manual Mode?
- Understanding Light
- The 3 Essential Manual Settings: The Exposure Triangle
- Other Useful Manual Settings
- When to Use Flash
- Getting the Best Travel Photographs from Manual Mode
- Tips on How to Keep a Steady Hand When Shooting
- Take Lots of Shots
- Learning from EXIF Data
- Get more travel tips & hacks for your favourite destinations!
What is Manual Mode?
Cameras have come a long way since the birth of digital photography. They now come with a host of features that help you take some impressive photographs while you travel.
To give an example, like many travel bloggers, I currently travel with the Canon EOS M50. I like this camera due to the fact it’s lightweight but still can take some awesome shots.
Like many most modern Mirrorless and Digital SLR cameras, the EOS M50 comes equipped with a scene mode. I can set it to Portrait, if I want soft skin tones, Night if I’m shooting in the dark, Landscape for landscape photography, Food to take closeups of my dinner. It’s incredibly easy to use, I just select the type of shot I want, point and shoot.
But I rarely use this feature or any of the advanced automatic features of my camera. The reason is that although the camera can take some amazing shots this way, it can also mess them up.
There are many ways it can do this, but one of the most common is setting the by setting the ISO far too high. I’ll explain more about this below.
So, instead, I put my camera on manual mode.
This gives me full control over my camera’s settings, which I find allows me to take better shots. Manual mode allows you to moderate how much light is coming into to your camera, the focal length of your camera lens, and many other things.
It takes some learning and I know all the features on a modern camera can seem overwhelming at first.
But bear with me – it’s not as hard as it seems. You just need to get your head around some basic fundamentals, practice using the settings, and then you can be shooting like a pro in no time.
When and How to Use Manual Mode?
Call me a purist, but I personally believe you should use manual mode as often as possible.
I have a few reasons for this. Firstly, it will give you an opportunity to practice using your camera’s settings, and we all know practice makes perfect. Secondly, the more you use these features, the more creative you can get with varying stuff. And thirdly, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing, so your camera can’t mess up shots.
However, if you really need to take a shot fast, for example when on safari or shooting sports, it’s sometimes best to stick with your camera’s automatic or Sports mode, if it has one. It does take time to compose a photo in manual mode. Although once you get practiced at it, you may find its less time than you expect.
These are the times that I absolutely recommend using manual mode:
- When shooting landscapes
- Indoors, particularly in dark rooms (I recommend a tripod in this circumstance) and when there’s a window letting in light in view
- When you want to bring out the detail of both light (highlights) and dark (shadows). e.g. sunsets, or scenes with a daylight moon
- Macro shots (i.e. extreme closeups), so long as the subject isn’t moving
- When you want unusual creative effects from your camera such as night time motion blur
Also, I won’t go into detail go into detail about these in this article, but if your camera has a manual mode, it also probably has a shutter priority and aperture priority mode. The first is useful when you’re in a situation where light levels are frequently changing (e.g. city tours), the second when the light stays roughly the same but your depth of field changes (e.g. wildlife tours). These are both simplified versions of manual mode and it’s worthwhile learning how they work.
To use manual mode simply turn the mode dial to the M setting on your Canon, Nikon or Sony (or whatever the equivalent is on your camera). Now you’re ready to go.
The amount and quality of light coming into your camera is incredibly important in photography. In fact, this might surprise you, but it’s much more important than colour.
The reason is that the human eye has more rods that measure light levels inside it than cones which measure color values. This is why black and white photography still works well today. We see shadows and we see highlights, and this helps us understand things in three dimensions, even when looking at a 2D image rendered on a flat sheet of paper.
So, before introducing you to the manual mode settings, it’s important to analyze the quality of the light entering the camera. You can do this using two tools: the light meter and the histogram.
Using Your Camera’s Light Meter
The light meter is usually a horizontal bar with numbers from negative to positive (on the Canon EOS M50: -3 to +3), representing what’s called exposure stops. 0 means normal exposure. Anything below this is underexposed and anything above is overexposed. Each stop either doubles or halves the amount of light let into the camera, depending on which way along the scale you go.
This is determined based on the metering setting you have on your camera. Your camera will be set up by default to use some kind of averaging, with more consideration paid to the object in focus.
To find the light meter on a Canon camera, keep pressing the INFO button until you see it on screen. On Sony do the same with the DISP button. On the Nikon, you should see the meter light meter when you press the shutter button halfway.
The light meter should be the first thing you look at when you want to determine the exposure of your photograph. Of course, you’ll have composed the shot already, so you’ll have an idea of the photo will look via the onscreen view or viewfinder. But the thing is, even if you’re using a digital viewfinder, you can’t always trust it in terms of levels.
The light meter helps ensure the shot is properly exposed. You might also choose to creatively overexpose or underexpose. If you do this, you probably won’t find yourself going above +1 exposure or below -1 exposure. Unless you really want a washed out or burned out effect.
Using Your Camera’s Histogram
The light meter tells you the average exposure of your composition. But it’s also a good idea to study the range of exposure levels. You can use the histogram for this.
This displays graphically all the light levels in your scene. The values on the far left represent the shadows, on the far right the highlights and in the centre the mid-tones (often referred to as blacks and whites).
Ideally, a perfectly exposed picture will be a smooth curve peaking in the centre with very low values on the left and right. If you want to creatively underexpose or overexpose your image, you can shift this curve over to the left or right a little.
But watch out for spikes on the histogram, particularly if they’re at the far left or far right of your graph. This means there’s an unnatural amount of black or white in your image. Spikes in the centre of the image might be more normal if you’re taking say a picture of a blue canvas in an art museum, but they’re less likely to occur in photos of landscapes or organic things.
You should find the histogram on your Canon or Nikon camera by flicking through the live displays using the INFO button. On the Sony, you may have to enable this in the Menu (look for something like ‘display monitor on finder’), and then you can navigate to it using the DISP button.
On some cameras, you can find color displays as well that show the amount of red, green in blue.
The 3 Essential Manual Settings: The Exposure Triangle
Now you understand how to measure the light coming into your camera, you’re ready to start using manual mode to control this light.
There are three basic settings that you’ll need to learn to use for this: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
Understanding Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is the manual setting I use the most. This determines how long the camera’s shutter remains open to the light. This could be anything from 30-seconds and up to thousandths of a second.
The rule is simple: the longer the shutter remains open, the more light will enter the camera and hence the higher the exposure.
If you’re camped out at the top of the mountain and want to get a photo of the Milky Way or Northern Lights, then you’ll need to use a long shutter speed and a tripod. Perhaps 1-second, perhaps 10-seconds. You’ll need to experiment a little until you get the right value.
On the contrary, if you’re out in the desert in the bright burning sun, you’ll want an extremely short shutter speed to avoid washed out skies.
If the subject is moving fast, you’ll need a short shutter speed to capture them in time. Alternatively, I could have used a longer shutter speed and a high f-stop to motion blur this slightly.
There are many creative ways you can use shutter speed. One of the obvious ones is to create silhouettes. To create a sunset silhouette, use a short shutter speed and point the camera at the sun. The foreground will then turn out extremely dark and you’ll see spikes on the left side of your histogram. In this case, these spikes are okay.
Another use could be to capture motion blur. Perhaps you want to show the movement of someone dancing, create one of those cool shots with streamlined car lights, or give running water a softer look. You can do this with a longer shutter speed but be careful not to overexpose.
A Sony, Canon or Nikon camera will typically have the dial set to modify shutter speed by default. Simply turn the main dial to change the shutter speed. If you end up modifying aperture, press the up arrow on Canon or the down arrow on Sony. This shouldn’t happen on Nikon.
Note, some cameras might have two dials, meaning you don’t need to press a button to flick between adjusting shutter speed and aperture.
Oh, and one more thing, if you have to choose between overexposing and underexposing, then underexpose. You can do a lot more with underexposed photos during editing.
Although I use shutter speed more, the aperture setting is my favorite out of the three in the exposure triangle. This is because it has within the power to create the most beautiful photographs.
Technically, aperture isn’t a feature of the camera but of the lens. However, you still control it from the camera settings.
It determines how much light is let through the lens. This is done through opening and closing the lens aperture.
You measure this in what’s called an f-stop. A low f-stop (e.g. f/1.8) will let a lot of light into the camera. This is incredibly useful for indoor photography and is why people invest in expensive lenses with very low f-stops.
A high f-stop (e.g. f/22) will let less light in to the camera. Because f-stop doesn’t affect motion blur, you might want to do this if you want to use a longer shutter speed to get a soft flowing water effect. This is called ‘stopping down’.
F-stop also controls depth of field. Lower f-stops mean blurred out backgrounds while higher f-stops will help keep everything in focus.
This applies only when the focus is on a nearby object or one that appears to be nearby due to zoom. As the focal object gets further away, you get to a point where you’re ‘shooting to infinity’. This means everything is in focus, including things like stars. This is perfect for astrophotography.
This is an example of shooting to infinity (f-stop 8.0). Notice how everything, including the front posts and background are in focus.
As a general guide, if you want photos of flowers with blurred out backgrounds, make the f-stop as low as possible. You may also want to use lower f-stops when shooting indoors and at night, as it lets more light in the camera.
An f-stop of 3.5 to 4 is good for food photography. 8 is a great general f-stop for outdoor photography and when you want to shoot to infinity (as you would in landscape photography).
To change f-stop, click the up arrow on a Canon or down arrow on a Sony and then turn the dial. On a Nikon you will need to hold down the aperture button on the top of the camera.
Out of the three components of the exposure triangle, ISO is often the most attractive. However, it’s also the one that’s most likely to ruin your shots, so be careful with it.
ISO measures the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. A higher ISO means a brighter shot. More modern cameras have seen astounding increases in ISO, which can make a dark room appear light.
But ISO also comes with a caveat: noise.
ISO noise occurs particularly in dark rooms on high ISO settings. The higher the ISO, the more noticeable this noise is.
So, ISO should be used as a compensation tool. A last resort if there are no other ways to get the necessary light into a camera without blurring the photo (noise is easier to edit out than blur).
If you need to photograph a moving subject in darker conditions, ISO might be your only option. But if the object isn’t moving, consider setting up a tripod and using shutter speed instead.
In bright light you can comfortably keep your ISO at 100, although you might want to reduce this to 200 when the light goes down or when photographing moving subjects in shade.
Indoors, during the day, 400 is usually a manageable ISO, and the noise introduced can usually be removed during post-processing. In darker rooms you might want to increase the ISO to 800.
I personally try to avoid going higher than that if I wanted to publish a photo on stock, although some situations make it necessary. For more general purposes, I wouldn’t advise going above 3200. Although, cameras with full-frame sensor sizes (e.g. Canon 5D Mk2) can handle higher ISOs.
Arguably, you could use ISO to achieve a film-grain effect. However, I would recommend instead doing this during post-processing. You can keep hold of the original this way for later use.
On my Canon EOS M50, I assigned ISO to the M-Fn button, so I can change it just by clicking that and turning the dial. Refer to your camera manual to find out if there are any shortcut buttons on your camera so that you can learn how to set your ISO quickly as the procedure varies from camera to camera.
Cameras also have an ISO auto feature, although try to set a maximum for this so your camera doesn’t overcompensate. Also, remember when you change locations, also change your ISO. It’s easy to forget.
Other Useful Manual Settings
Modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have a plethora of manual functions. It would take a book to explain all of them. But I’ll explain some of the basics. There’s not enough room to go through the details on how to do this for each camera, but your camera manual should cover the details.
White balance basically affects the colour temperature at which your camera takes photos. This affects how far the hue of your photograph leans towards either the warm colours (reds, yellows, oranges, etc.) or cold colours (greens, blues, violets, etc.) of the spectrum. This affects the mood of the photograph.
Photographers are divided into two schools of thought about this. One believes that you should set the white-balance before you begin shooting based on your location, the time of day etc. The other believes that you should simply set white balance to auto and then adjust it as necessary during post-processing.
I personally lean towards the latter.
Even with the power of manual mode, you’ll often find situations where you want to bring out details in both the darks and the lights. An example is if you’re in Japan, looking into a dark temple, but you also want to capture the sky in the background.
If you’re pushed for time, the best thing to do is underexpose with a high shutter speed and then edit later.
But if you have time to set up a tripod then your best option might be exposure bracketing and HDR. The idea behind this is your camera takes multiple photos. Typically, this is three with one at normal exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed.
Your camera can do this automatically in close succession. You simply need to set it up (quite quick to do on my Canon EOS M50) then point and hold down the shutter button.
After this, you’ll need to take the photos and stitch them together using HDR software like Lightroom or Aurora HDR. This analyses the three photos to create a more detailed photo containing all the details in the shadows and highlights. The results are often stunning.
Many modern mobile phones also have this feature, but you’ll get better results with a high-end camera and pro software.
Trey Ratcliff is a pro photographer who’s famous for his HDR photography.
Technically, going manual with your camera will also mean using the manual focus feature of your camera lens. This means that you not only control the zoom of the lens (assuming you’re not using a fixed-zoom prime lens), but also what the lens focuses on.
I prefer not to do this, as it can be quite fiddly. However, you occasionally come across times where this is necessary.
An example is when you need to focus on something through a fence or mosquito net. It’s likely then that your camera will want to focus on the foreground.
My camera has a nice feature that zooms the screen into what you’re focusing on.
When to Use Flash
If you’re into travel photography, you probably won’t be using flash that often. Flash photography is often banned in museums, scares wildlife, and can actually make photographs look quite flat when it fills in all the shadows.
I don’t personally like using flashes to provide light in dark places. More often than not, it’s better to set up a tripod or increase the exposure in some way. I’d even recommend ISO over flash, as this at least preserves the shadows.
There is a technique called a fill flash, which is useful in bright light. Here the flash isn’t used as the main light source, but instead to fill in harsh shadows. If you decide to do this, experiment with different power levels of your flash (if possible) to achieve the best effect.
Getting the Best Travel Photographs from Manual Mode
A Workflow for Manual Mode
It helps to have a list of what to remember when taking photos. It might seem a little complex at first (although I hope a little less after reading this). But trust me, once you get into the swing of it, it becomes like second nature.
This list should help take awesome photos:
When setting out or when changing location:
- Check white balance or set it to auto.
- Check ISO mode is appropriate for time of day.
- Make sure exposure bracketing is turned off (or on if you intend to use it).
- Make sure flash is set to off.
- Decide on best composition for shot (rule of thirds, golden spiral, etc.)
- Set up tripod if possible.
- While referring to light meter and histogram:
- Set ISO based as low as possible based on lighting conditions.
- Set F-stop/aperture based on desired depth of field. Do you want a low f-stop for a blurry background or a high one to shoot to infinity?
- Set shutter speed based on exposure requirements. Do you want to overexpose or underexpose for creative effect? Do you want any motion blur effects?
- Think a little more about requirements for shot. Perhaps test shot and refine F-stop and shutter speed as necessary.
- Take photograph or preferably several photographs on continuous mode.
Tips on How to Keep a Steady Hand When Shooting
I keep saying that it’s good to use a tripod. Less handshake means you can handle higher exposures, which means more room for creative shots.
But, in reality, I know from personal experience this isn’t always easy when travelling. It takes time to set up a tripod and it can also make camera manoeuvrability difficult in some circumstances.
If a tripod isn’t possible, there are some alternatives. A Gorillapod can make a great alternative to a tripod. These, you can set up anywhere: hanging off tree branches, on chairs. You can also hold them for extra stability.
But I personally prefer a pistol grip. This is like a tripod, you screw it in to the bottom of the camera, and then you hold on much as you would a video camera. I find this gives me better stability than holding a camera the traditional way. You can pick these up quite cheap on Amazon.
You can also use the camera strap to provide stability. A trick I learned a long time ago is to wrap the camera strap around your elbow, so the tension provides extra stability. Holding your breath while shooting is another great technique to reduce shake.
Take Lots of Shots
But the advice I’ve always found most helpful is to take a lot of photos while you travel. I keep my camera on continuous shooting nowadays and can fill up hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos in a single day of travelling. It takes a while to go through them all, but amongst the hundreds I tend to find some amazing shots.
Experiment also taking photos from different angles and using different techniques. For example, there’s a technique called burst shooting where you zoom while holding down the continuous shooting button on your camera. You can do the same while panning your camera from left to right, and you might actually come across a winning shot.
Learning from EXIF Data
Finally, I think it’s a great idea to learn from other photographs. Unless the photographer or some software has removed them, cameras store the settings used to take a photo in the file itself.
This is called EXIF data and tells you things like the ISO, f-stop, shutter speed, lens, zoom level, white balance and more. If you ever wonder how a photographer achieved a technique, then the EXIF data can give you a lot of inside information.
So, you can go away and reproduce those conditions using your camera’s manual mode.
Chris Behrsin is a travel writer, fiction writer, freelance copywriter, stock photographer and a co-author of the Being a Nomad travel blog. He’s travelled to over 30 countries, enjoys playing the piano when he has access to one, as well as photography, reading, digital painting, writing and, of course, travelling.