Travel Photography for Beginners: How to Shoot in Manual Mode

Over the last couple of years I have had a growing interest in photography, especially travel photography! When I first started taking photos on our family holidays I would set my camera to auto and start clicking away. Even though I loved seeing the beautiful photos on Instagram, I could never get mine to look the same. So, I decided to invest my time into learning how to use manual mode on my camera. Shooting in manual mode made such a difference to my travel photography, even as a beginner photographer.

At first, learning to shoot in manual mode seemed so daunting! It wasn’t until I learnt of a simple way of understanding my camera settings that it finally clicked. Yes, pun intended.

This blog post will share all the tips for beginner travel photographers. However, if you’re just looking to learn how to shoot in manual mode, then jump to this section.

Why You Should Use a Camera for Travel Photography

First of all, if you’re thinking “I prefer the easy of taking photos on my phone they turn out good anyways” then, let me convince you to start using a camera for travel photography.

These days, phones really do take great photos. They are an incredibly easy to carry and a great way to capture candid moments. We always have them with us, making them such a convenient type of camera.

But here’s the thing. Our phones are always with us. When we go to take photos with them we use them to take a quick snap with little thought about the photo and its purpose. The easy and convenience has made phone photography unintentional and uncreative.

“Even if I shoot an incredible image on my phone, I don’t enjoy the experience. When taking photos on a camera you are more involved and everything is distinctly more satisfying.”

Now, I’m not saying you should never use your phone to take travel photos; the best camera is the one you have with you. However, even if I shoot an incredible image on my phone, I don’t enjoy the experience. When taking photos on a camera you are more involved and everything is distinctly more satisfying.

If you’re a beginner to photography and have a genuine interest in the medium, do yourself a favour and don’t rely on your phone camera for capturing your travels. Give yourself the challenge of learning how to use the manual settings on your camera and get creative with your travel photography.

Here are some of the reasons for using a camera to take your travel photos:

  • Lens Selection
  • Creative Control
  • Customisable Settings
  • Better in Low Light
  • Quality of Images

Read More: 10 Tips for Adventure Photography with Kids

Why Travel Photography in Manual Mode?

Shooting in manual mode over automatic gives you significantly more control over the shot. Getting started with manual settings can be daunting. There are so many technical terms like “aperture, bokeh and ISO” that make photography sound confusing to a beginner.

If you’re a beginner photographer, ready to take your travel photography to the next level, its time to learn how to shoot in manual mode! That’s why I have created a beginners guide to travel photography.

Know Your Camera

Every camera brand and model is slightly different, so it is important that you start by getting to know your camera. So, take the time to learn about your camera and its settings, so you know what the buttons actually do.

Watch a Tutorial to Learn Your Camera Settings

If you search your camera up on YouTube, find a high-rated video that goes over all of your cameras settings. This will help you know what features your camera has and you will be able to locate them more easily.

You might be surprised to find some customisable settings that will make taking photos quicker!

Just know that some of these videos can be long! But, taking the time to understand your camera is an important step to move from a beginner photographer to amateur.

Understand Your Camera

When you invest in a camera with interchangeable lenses, its important to be aware of the different sensors.

  • Full-Frame: with a full-frame camera there are more pixels present in the image, resulting in a higher resolution and better image quality. A full-frame camera will also perform better in low light settings.
  • Crop Sensor: generally, a crop sensor camera is less expensive but still takes great photos! Personally, I use a Canon EOS 550D, which is a crop sensor camera.


When it comes to finding a lens for your camera, you need to take the type of sensor on your camera into consideration.

The first additional lens that I purchased for my camera was a 50mm lens, which can take incredible photos. But, as a newbie to photography, I didn’t realise that the lens was not designed for a crop sensor camera. So instead of my shots being at a 50mm focal length, the crop sensor on the camera ‘zooms’ in and turns it to about a 70mm.

Learn Your Camera’s Limitations

Since I have a crop sensor, I know that my camera doesn’t perform well in low lighting. Knowing your cameras limitations will help you get better pictures faster and easier.

Set Up Your Camera

Once you have a good understanding of your camera gear, its time to get your camera set up.

Most cameras have the option to shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW is great for beginner travel photographers who are learning to shoot in manual mode. It produces higher quality images and the ability to correct any problems when editing with a program like Adobe Lightroom.

While shooting in RAW will take up more space on your memory card, it provides more creative control over the final image. You will need to change the format to JPG before sending to your phone and sharing online.

The Best Lighting for Travel Photography

The best times for travel photography is during the daylight hours as there is more light available, making it easier to set your settings. It is the most difficult to shoot during dusk, dawn and after the sun goes down as there isn’t much light. A place with lots of shadows also makes challenging lighting for photography.

Golden hour, the hour after sunrise and before sunset is generally considered the best time for photography. This time of the day gives a softer lighting and a dreamy feel to your photos.

However, I don’t limit myself to only taking photos during golden hour as it rarely fits into our schedule, especially when travelling with a kid.

Read More: How to Take Incredible Travel Photos in Bright Sunlight

As a beginner photographer you may need to learn to deal with difficult lighting situations, especially when travelling. Here are some tips:

  1. Locate where your source of light is coming from: This could be from the sun, artificial lighting or light from a reflective surface such as water or white wall.
  2. Use the Light to Highlight Your Subject: If there is a person in your photo, make sure the light highlights them, rather than causing shadows on their face.
  3. Make the Lighting as Consistent as Possible: Reducing shadows and taking all your photos in the same type of lighting will make it easier to edit your images.

Composition & Framing

Composition and framing is important for drawing the eye to the photograph. Beginners who use the correct composition and framing in their photography will be able to create compelling photos that tell their travel story.

Rule of Thirds

The ‘rule of thirds’ is basically where you split up your image into 9 even squares. This is basically a way to find what is naturally pleasing to the eye. Some cameras even have this feature built into their display settings.

The idea is that you place the subject and points of interest along the lines and squares. So for instance you would place the horizon along a horizontal line on the image.

Straight Horizon

A straight horizon is one of the simplest and easiest parts of photography to implement. It is especially important when taking photos over the ocean! Try getting the horizon relatively straight when taking the photo, but it can easily be fixed in post processing.

Correct Cropping

Be aware of what is in your photo, but also of what is out of your photo! When framing up your shot, make sure your not cutting anything out of the frame that is important like body parts or the top of a building.

You should also make sure that you crop distractions out of your photo! Keep an eye out for things like signs, bins or sticks that might distract the eye from what you are actually taking a photo of.

Leading Lines

Use leading lines to naturally draw your eye to something on the photo. For example, this could be a fence line, a series of shapes or a pathway leading to a building.

Natural Framing

Check to see if you can use something in the scene to create a natural frame for your shot. This could be looking out a window, a branch of a tree or a large sign. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Add Foreground

Adding something in the foreground of an image is a great way to give it some more depth. I love using nearby flowers or greenery that are out of focus in the shot to add a creative spin to the final image.

Consider Instagram

If you are taking photos that you want to share on a social media platform like Instagram, make sure you consider the aspects of a post. For instance, vertical photos work best on Instagram.

Just keep in mind that the size is slightly smaller than your cameras vertical image. You don’t want to accidentally have to cut off someone’s feet or the top of a building when you go to share your photo!

When taking a photo for Instagram, shoot further away. You can always crop in closer when editing!

Find the Best Angle

Finding the best angle goes hand in hand with composition and framing. When trying to get your composition and framing right, you will need to move around to find the best spot and angle for your shot.

Move around with your feet until you are happy with your shot. Move forwards, backwards or walk to a completely different spot.

Changing up the angle can help you to take the photo from a different perspective. Consider taking your photo from kneeling on the ground. Sit on someone’s shoulders to get the shot from a higher angle.

Take photos from multiple angles and perspectives and see what turns out to be your favourite!

Travel Photography in Manual: The Only 3 Settings You Need

When it comes to travel photography in manual there are only 3 settings that beginners need. These are: Aperture, ISO & Shutter Speed.

Together, these make up something called the ‘Exposure Triangle’. Basically, each of these settings are used to balance the amount of light coming into the camera for a properly exposed image.

When you shoot on Auto mode, your camera doesn’t know how to balance these settings the way you want.

Using Manual Mode you have control over these settings to shoot the image, without unwanted blurriness or the wrong exposure!


Aperture controls how much light enters your lens and how much of the scene is in focus.

When we talk about aperture we are referring to the F-stop number. It is often written as “F” followed by a number. So it usually looks like F3.5, but some cameras may not have the “F”.

  • The lower the number aperture, the more light let into your lens
  • The higher the number aperture, the less light will be let into your lens

Aperture is also the setting that helps you create the depth of field that you want. The depth of field refers to what is in focus on the image. This setting can be used to create a blurry background on a photo, which is called bokeh.

  • A lower number (F1.4 – F5.6) will create a greater bokeh effect where the background of your subject is out of focus.
  • If you are shooting a landscape photo, where you want everything in focus, you will need to use a higher number (F10 – F22)

At first, learning to use aperture can seem overwhelming, especially when you have to consider ISO and Shutter Speed too.

Aperture explained Manual Photography for beginner's

Aperture Priority: For Beginner Travel Photographers

Cameras have a semi-manual setting called aperture priority, which is great for beginners to learn the setting without having to worry about the others.

When using aperture priority, you shutter speed and ISO will be automatically set. This way you can just focus on the depth of field you want.

Using aperture priority is a great first step for a beginner travel photographer to start using manual settings on a camera.

The setting for aperture priority will either be called A or Av on your camera.


The next camera setting to learn about is ISO! ISO has to do with your camera’s sensitivity to light and noise.

Simply put the darker the setting, the higher the number. If your setting is brighter, use a lower number.

Using a higher ISO number will increase the amount of light in your photo, but also the amount of noise in your photo. An increase of noise in your photo lowers the quality of the image, so generally you want to keep your ISO as low as possible!

My camera doesn’t handle noise very well so I try to keep my ISO at 100 unless I need to increase it for light.

  • On sunny days 100 ISO works great as there is a lot of light.
  • For overcast, shaded or filtered light you might need to bump your ISO up to 200-400.
  • For indoor or darker settings you might need to increase your ISO to 800+

As a beginner to travel photography you may be tempted to set your ISO to auto instead of adjusting it manually. But learning to adjust the ISO manually will give you a better understanding of how it effects exposure.

ISO explained manual photography for beginner's

Shutter Speed

Now that we have covered ISO and aperture, let’s talk about shutter speed. The shutter speed controls how long your camera is exposed to light.

  • A short shutter speed will make your photo crisp, but will let in less light.
  • A long shutter speed will increase the blur on the photo (eg. water, moving car), but will let in more light.

The trick is knowing what type of shutter speed to use, in connection with aperture, for a particular photo. These two settings work together to control how much light is let into the lens.

So how do you know what shutter speed to use for a photo?

  • Moving Object: To capture fast moving objects such as animals or vehicles while keeping them crisp, you will need to use a very fast shutter speed! You may need to go as high as 1/4000.
  • Most of my photos: For a lot of my photos I keep my shutter speed at 1/160 as the lowest, since I have a lot of movement in the image (you know… kids!)
  • Waterfall Photos: For a waterfall shot slow your shutter speed way down, to at least 1 second. This will give the water a silky look!
  • Night Time: For night time photography a longer shutter speed will allow you to capture things you cannot see, like light trails. This may be as long as 10 seconds.

TIP: When using a long shutter speed use a tripod! This will stop blur from occurring where you don’t want it

manual photography for beginners

Light Meter

Once you have an understanding for the 3 main settings on your camera, you can use them to correctly expose your photo.

To check if your image is properly exposed you can refer to the light meter on your camera screen. A properly exposed image will be 0 on the meter.

Tip: In a situation where you cannot get the exposure right because there is mixed lighting, it is better to have your image slightly underexposed. This is because you can recover details from an underexposed image better than one that is overexposed.

However, as a beginner to travel photography I recommend aiming to properly exposed your photos with a 0 on the light meter, using manual settings.

Here is a little trick that I only picked up recently… even though it is so obvious. Use the light meter in your lens or on the camera screen to check if your photo is properly exposed before making the shot.

On my camera, if it needs adjustments I can use the little scroll wheel near the shutter button to adjust the shutter speed without going into my settings. This has saved me SO much time!

light meter explained manual photography for beginner's

Other Tips for Beginner Travel Photographers:

White Balance: The white balance refers to the temperature of your photo, it determines if it’s more blue or yellow in tone.

I keep my white balance set to auto, since when I’m travelling the setting is generally the same. But there are options such as daylight, shade, cloudy and other conditions that may be used in tricky situations.

Focusing: I have my camera set to Auto Focus. For most modern cameras, the automatic focusing is great! When taking photos while travelling, setting your focus to automatic works best unless you have extra time to manual adjust the focus.

Post Processing: When it comes to editing your photo after you have taken it, Adobe Lightroom is the best program to use. While you need to pay for the desktop version, the mobile version is free. It is great for getting started!

However, if you are serious about travel photography there are plenty of free YouTube tutorials on how to use Lightroom for beginners.


Practice, practice practice! When I was a beginner to travel photography, using manual settings was so daunting. Now, the photos I take today are much better than the ones I took 3 years ago. They still aren’t even close to what I want to be able to capture, but in 3 years time they will be better than today!


  • Carol Colborn
    September 8, 2020 at 10:04 pm

    I got your chest sheet and it’s helping me get started. Love your simple explanations!

  • Michelle
    September 7, 2020 at 10:28 pm

    These are such great tips. I remember when I first put my camera in manual mode. It was a little scary at first but once you get the hang of it, you love it!

    • Megan
      September 21, 2020 at 8:27 pm

      Exactly!! I haven’t taken my camera out for a while now so writing the post was a great refresher for our upcoming trip haha!

  • Sage Scott
    September 7, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    I’m working harder and harder to shoot in full manual mode, but it can be so tricky. This is a really easy-to-follow guide (and I downloaded the cheat sheet)!

    • Megan
      September 7, 2020 at 1:35 pm

      Always shooting in manual is definitely tricky.. and sometimes more time consuming haha! But once you work out how to do it for yourself its so good! (I occasionally switch the camera to auto when I need to take a photo quickly)

  • Valerie
    September 7, 2020 at 3:31 am

    I took one course on level 1 photography last year so I’m familiar with these concepts. I’m always trying to improve but sometimes forget some of the basics. Thanks for the post! Think I’ll get that cheat sheet 🙂

    • Megan
      September 7, 2020 at 1:33 pm

      yes! sometimes its hard to keep track of the basics of photography! the cheat sheet is great for saving to your phone and checking up on things when your out taking photos. Hope it helps!

  • Stephanie
    September 5, 2020 at 3:05 am

    THIS HAS BEEN SO HELPFUL! I’m so terrible at taking photos, I think I’ve gotten better over the years, but I’m still pretty bad LOL. So much of this makes sense to me, and as you said is easy to do – especially the rule of thirds. I’m looking at my phone as we speak to see if it has a setting to do the nine boxes automatically. Thank you so much!

    • Megan
      September 7, 2020 at 1:32 pm

      Oh it makes me so happy that you found this guide easy to follow! There is nothing worse than over complicating photography… once you understand a few key concepts and settings it comes together pretty easily! (and don’t worry… I’m continually learning too!)


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