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Shooting in manual


Over the next seven class days, students will learn about shooting in manual and have conversations about why manual shooting mode is useful.  They will learn how to access a photo’s metadata to see what settings were used in taking the photo.  Then, they will practice taking photos in manual through a variety of structured in-class activities, including a photo scavenger hunt.


  • Students will learn about taking photographs in manual shooting mode.
  • Students will be able to access the metadata of photographs and learn how to determine what settings were used on a camera.
  • Students will practice shooting in manual mode in a variety of in-class activities.
  • Students will analyze the photos that they have taken using manual mode and discuss positives and negatives of each photo.
  • Students will experiment with manual shooting mode by trying to imitate existing photos.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.6 Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.



Seven 45-minute classes


Class set: Scavenger hunt details

Photos for Follow the Leader activity

Metadata photo examples

DSLR cameras

Manual activities ideas

Lesson step-by-step

Day 1

1. Building background — 10 minutes

Reflect on the past couple of weeks’ lessons about exposure aspects. Ask students to share about their experiences: what was the easiest part about learning those skills?  What was the most challenging?  What questions do students still have about these techniques?

-Discuss: If a setting is too dark, what are some options for lightening it?  What are the benefits and pitfalls of those different options?

-In a photo that is very “busy,” what options does a photographer have for making the subject stand out more?

2. Discussion — 5 minutes

Discuss: in manual mode, the camera does not adjust anything automatically.  That means the photographer is responsible for adjusting flash, ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed, and exposure.

3. Practice — 5 minutes

Pass out digital cameras or have students get their own cameras out.  Keeping the camera on the “auto” setting, tell students to point their cameras at a location and press the shutter halfway down.  At this point in time, the viewfinder should show the settings for aperture, exposure, and shutter speed that the camera has decided to automatically use (flash, ISO, and white balance generally need to be adjusted in different places).

4. Practice — 5 minutes

Then, allow students to switch to manual mode and try to figure out how the settings get adjusted in manual.  (Depending on the brand/model of camera, these are adjusted in different places)

5. Guided instruction — 20 minutes

Give students guidance and specific settings to take photos of, even as they wander around the classroom.  Instruct students to adjust photos (using manual exposure for different combinations), then ask for reactions about how that changes the photo. For instance:

  • Long shutter speed, Increased exposure
  • Long shutter speed, Decreased exposure
  • Short shutter, Low aperture, Low ISO
  • Short shutter, Low aperture, Low ISO (then add Increased exposure)
  • (Try these with different white balance settings, too.)

Day 2:

1. Building background — 5 Minutes

Discuss: When you take a photo, what data do you think gets stored in a photo? (Students will probably say things like the pixels of light, the colors, the images, etc)  Explain to students that in addition to all of the visual data that gets stored in a photo, a photo’s file also includes metadata, which contains much more!  Metadata automatically stores the camera & settings with which a photo is taken, but it is also a great place to store the photographer’s name and any identifying data or a complete photo caption.

2. Introducing metadata —10 minutes

Open a photo in a photo editing program such as Photoshop (you can use one of the sample photos given in this folder), then open the metadata for the photo by clicking on File and then File Info.  Ask students what information they can identify about this photo by looking at the metadata.  (They should be able to identify the camera mode, the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, metering, and whether or not a flash was used)  Ask them to evaluate WHY a photographer chose the settings he/she did.  For instance, if the camera used Shutter Priority mode, why do you think the photographer wanted to control shutter speed in this photo?  What other effects could the photographer have achieved by changing some of these settings?

3. Guided instruction — 5 minutes

Also show students where they can include a photographer’s name, a caption, etc. (this can be found on the Description tab in the metadata).

4. Practice — 15 minutes

If you have enough computers, assign each student (or have students work in pairs) a specific photo from this lesson. Have them identify what settings the photographer used for that specific photo and write a paragraph about why the photographer might have chosen those settings.  Students can also consider if the photographer could have or should have used different settings to achieve different results.

5.  Share & discuss — 10 minutes

What did you find? What surprised students? Students can turn their paragraphs in for a completion grade before leaving class.

Day 3

1. Individual practice — 45 minutes

For today, look at the manual activities in the document titled “Manual Activities & Ideas.”  Based on your students’ level of knowledge and/or the skills you would like to see them practice, give students time to practice taking photos in manual by picking on activity (or several of them) to complete during class today.

Days 4 and 5

1. Instructions — 5 minutes

Give students instructions and details for the scavenger hunt.  Rules: all photos must be taken in Manual setting, don’t interrupt classes, and take the best photos you can using the settings that are required.  You can also set rules, such as: no one in the group can be seen in any photos, etc.

List of photos to take:

  1. Portrait of a student that uses a fill flash
  2. Portrait that includes very dark elements and a bright light source (for instance, a dark hallway AND a window)
  3. A properly exposed photo in a dark area of a building without a flash
  4. Photo that shows a very small depth of field
  5. A properly exposed photo in bright sunlight.
  6. Take a photo that maximizes the use of a long shutter speed
  7. Take a photo with a very quick shutter speed to isolate movement

2. Individual practice —remainder of the two days

Students have the rest of the time to work on taking the best photos that they can.

Day 6

1. Presentation preparation — 10 minutes

Give students time to print out photos OR save them to a central digital location (where all students in the class can access).

2. Presentations — 25 minutes

Ask student groups to stand and share the photos that they found.  For each photo, students need to explain the settings used and the rationale behind those choices.

3. Voting — 10 minutes

Allow students in class to vote for their favorite photo in each category.  If you prefer, you can assign silly prizes to the winners of each category, and/or the group that earns the most overall votes can “win” an overall prize.

Day 7

1. Prior to today’s class

Take 5-7 photos in a variety of easily-accessible areas in the school.  Use your own manual mode and take photos using a variety of settings.  Print out copies of these photos OR put them all into a Word document and print on a color printer (especially one that prints pretty reliably, color-wise)

2. Instructions —5 minutes

 Split the class into groups of 3-4 students and give each group one DSLR camera and the sample photos that you have already taken and printed.  Explain that students will have the next 30 minutes to take photos that are as close to the sample photos as possible.  Students will need to experiment with the manual photo settings to try to mimic those photos.  (Important rule: All photos MUST be taken using the Manual Mode)

3. Guided activity — 30 minutes

Give students time to take photos.

4. Wrap up — 10 minutes

Upload photos to a central location so the teacher can evaluate. Assign prizes for the most exact reproductions, if you prefer.


Manual photography is an extremely complicated concept, one that many professional photographers take years to master.  Watch students carefully in the beginning days of this lesson, and feel free to adjust the lesson for any students who seem to be struggling.  Rather than continuing to flounder in manual mode, some students may see greater success taking photos in Aperture Priority or Shutter Speed Priority mode, because these settings allow students the ability to practice on concentrated skills rather than trying to manipulate all settings at once.

Another option for struggling students is to reduce the number of photos required.  Give students fewer photos to mimic or take, and help students plan ahead of time how they might control the settings to achieve the desired results.  Giving struggling students guidance and feedback before they even begin to take the photos may help them see success and avoid frustration.