Manley took an early interest in photography as a Boy Scout, capturing images of the red stone formations of Verde Valley. He attended Arizona State College (now Northern Arizona University) at Flagstaff. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy. After his discharge, he moved to Tucson, where he went to work for Western Ways Photography. In 1953, he and two partners, photographers Naurice Koonce and Mickey Prim, formed Ray Manley Commercial Photography.
Manley had great persistence as a photographer. Manley's favorite place to photograph was Monument Valley. He asked a Navajo girl there to call him when it snowed because he wanted to photograph it. She did, more than once, but by the time he could get there, the snow had melted. He kept persisting, finally pleading that she should call him when the snow "gets up to your knees". One morning she called and told Manley the snow was up to her knees. He arrived in time and took some excellent pictures for Arizona Highways magazine.
Another time, Manley was photographing the Roman Forum. Manley noticed an apartment building nearby, selected a second-story window from which he could get a good photograph and went into the building. He knocked on the door of an apartment and a woman who spoke only Italian opened it, saw his camera and started to close the door. Manley stuck his foot in the doorway and pushed a handful of cash through the opening. Despite language difficulties, an agreement was reached and Manley remained at the window of the apartment for more than an hour until the light was right.
Manley traveled to many spots around the world that he wanted to photograph and the images he captured graced the pages of such publications as Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Popular Science, National Geographic and his own books.
The books included The World in Focus, World Travels, Indian Lands and - in partnership with Steve Getzwiller - The Fine Art of Navajo Weaving.
He also published several books on the places and crafts of the Navajo and Hopi.
In the 1980s, Manley and his wife launched a new business, Ray Manley Tours, escorting groups to such locales as the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Europe, New Zealand, China and Antarctica.
Manley suffered a stroke in 1997 and was paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak.